Saturday Night Spotlight #10: Maya Deren

The work of Russian-American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961) is small in quantity, but fascinating in terms of quality. Her short films, made over the course of fifteen years (between 1943 and 1958), focus more on images than on traditional narrative structure. Symbolism can be read into those images, but it seems to me that Deren was much more interested in being experimental and trying new things than in making sense. She was very much a member of the intellectual spheres in New York, studying journalism at Syracuse University, then earning a bachelor’s degree in literature from New York University and a master’s degree in English literature from Smith College, all at a time when it was not a guarantee that women would get a college education. Deren was part of a wide circle of artists, ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Katherine Dunham to Kenneth Anger. American avant-garde film owes a lot to Deren for being one of its most talented female voices. Unlike previous posts, in which I only included still photographs of films, here I will be using YouTube clips because the films are not feature-length and these short films need to be seen in order for you to even slightly comprehend what I’m talking about. Otherwise you may be confused by the mentions of dreams, knives and chess games.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – Co-directed with Alexander Hammid, Deren’s most famous film is a staple of undergraduate and graduate students’ classes for a good reason. It is a fascinating exploration of identity, sexuality, violence and the border between reality and fantasy. We are never quite sure where the dream ends and real life begins for Deren’s unnamed character. (By the way, her look strikes me as unique. Hollywood actresses definitely did not wear their hair like she did.) What does the key signify? The knife? The man in the film (played by Hammid, who was married to Deren at the time)? The great thing about Deren’s films is that they are open to interpretation. There is no one “right” answer, despite what some critics might try to tell you. The only thing we can know for certain is that Deren put those images together in a particular way; in addition to all her functions as director, screenwriter and “star,” she was also the film’s editor.

At Land (1944) – Again Deren explores the possibility of multiple selves existing all at once. Disparate settings blend into one another; a beach scene suddenly turns into a nightclub or casino, which is simultaneously indoors and also a jungle. You just have to watch the film to see it because it’s the kind of thing that can’t be explained logically. Besides Deren and Alexander Hammid, the film’s cast also includes composer John Cage, writer Parker Tyler and a photographer named Hella Heyman, who served as the film’s co-cinematographer with Alexander Hammid and who married Hammid after he and Deren divorced in 1947. The film also features a surreal seaside chess match that predates Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) by thirteen years.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) – Again Deren plays with notions of temporality and repetition. Freeze-frames are utilized and the incorporation of modern dance enhances the sense of artistic expression, all shot by cinematographer Hella Heyman. Famous writers Anaïs Nin and a young Gore Vidal make appearances in the film, while the two dancers who play the film’s leads are Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook. Three years earlier the Trinidad-born Christiani played the title character in the musical number “Ice Cold Katie” in Thank Your Lucky Stars, performing alongside Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best.

Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951) – A collection of dancers drift around in dreamlike motions as Deren’s handheld camerawork captures their movements. Besides writing, producing and directing the scenario, Deren was one of the choreographers too, so her level of involvement goes beyond simply having the idea. The swaying, whirling figures that populate this six-minute world float as if they really were sleepwalking.

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