Underground film-maker Maya Deren still casts a spell
by Gordon Campbell
Artists who pour the same intensity into their private lives as they do into their work are always ripe for canonisation, and Ernest Hemingway would be the classic, almost cartoon example. Yet the life and work of Maya Deren – a pioneering figure in experimental film and a priestess of Haitian vodou to boot, is now virtually unknown outside of academic film circles and feminist studies courses. That’s a loss. Deren made her classic short film Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943, (when she was only 26 years old) and the film is still interesting to watch, and not merely because of her own beautiful screen presence.
Meshes influenced a whole generation of film-makers. The US director Stan Brakhage once cited Deren’s importance to avant-garde film culture with the simple tribute:“ She is the mother of us all.” (As I’ll explain later, the David Lynch film Lost Highway can be read as a homage to Deren and to the views on non-linear narrative she expressed in her 1946 essay ““An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film.”)
Deren was born in Kiev in 1917, and died in New York in 1961 at the age of 44, from a brain haemorrhage caused by extreme malnutrition related to her almost daily use of amphetamines. In between came the short films, three marriages, and the immersion in vodou that culminated in her 1953 book Divine Horsemen:The Living Gods of Haiti. The first paragraph of her preface to Divine Horsemen will still ring a few bells with any artist trying to survive outside the system :
In September 1947 I disembarked in Haiti for an eight month stay, with eighteen motley pieces of luggage: seven of these consisted of 16-millimetre motion-picture equipment (three cameras, tripods, raw film stock etc,) of which three were related to sound recording for a film, and three contained equipment for still photography, Among my papers I carried a certificate of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for “creative work in the field of motion pictures” (as distinguished from documentary film projects) which was reward for the stubborn effort that had been involved in creating, producing and successfully distributing four previous films with purely private and limited means, and in the face of a cinema tradition completely dominated by the commercial film industry on one hand, and by documentary film on the other. …I recite all these facts because they are evidence of a concrete, defined film project undertaken by one who was acknowledged as a resolute, and even stubbornly wilful, individual.
Stubborn is right. What Deren had in mind was a film in which Haitian dance would be combined with a variety of non-Haitian elements, and without reference to its role in vodou ritual. Footage for this planned film got shot, and fragments have been released posthumously as the film Divine Horsemen. Yet her work in Haiti had changed course dramatically. Four years and three trips to Haiti later, Deren ended up with a text about the nature of vodou, and with a sense of humility about the heightened reality she’d come to experience :
I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity: I end by recording as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognise its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations.
In her work in Haiti she’d tried, she says, not to pry and to stare – and “was rewarded by a sense of human bond” which she did not fully understand until she had returned to the United States. As she put it:
In modern industrial culture, artists constitute in fact, an “ethnic group” subject to the full “native” treatment. We too are exhibited as touristic curiosities on Monday, extolled as culture on Tuesday, denounced as immoral and unsanitary on Wednesday, re-instated for scientific study Thursday, feted for some obscurely stylish reason Friday, forgotten Saturday, revisited as picturesque, Sunday. We too are misrepresented by professional appreciators and subjected to spiritual imperialism, our most sacred efforts are plagiarised for yard goods, our histories are traced, our psyches analysed and when everyone has taken his pleasure of us in his own fashion, we are driven from our native haunts, our modest dwellings are condemned, and replaced by a chromium skyscraper….
As Deren once said, she made films on the same kind of money that Hollywood usually spent on lipstick. True, the 14 minute long Meshes of the Afternoon can easily seem like a historical curiosity, and/or as a supreme exercise in self-indulgence. What Deren’s films run up against – in common with many other experimental films – is the brick wall of our addiction to linear narrative. We’re so accustomed to films following a narrative arc from A to D (with agreed stop-off points at B and C) that anything else tends to be rejected as self-indulgent nonsense. If it is lucky, a transgressive film might get called “ surreal” – the B-minus default adjective for anything experimental that can’t be written off entirely.
In the case of Meshes of the Afternoon, a narrative arc exists, but it is almost circular. The style owes a lot to German Expressionism and to Surrealism which (back in the 1930s in particular) were the natural refuge for experimental artists seeking to put distance between themselves and the grubby world of Hollywood commerce. As a result, the acting tends to be mannered and the lighting non-naturalistic, while a heavy mist of Freudian psycho-sexual symbolism commonly hangs over the proceedings. Meshes of the Afternoon survives all of that, regardless. Deren threw viewers a lifeline in an essay in Film Culture published four years after her death: “Everything that happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence – the knife, the key, the repetition of the stairs, the figure disappearing around a curve in the road.” From then on, you’re on your own.
As for plot…in Meshes, the woman asleep in the chair dreams a sequence punctuated by a series of domestic objects imbued with portents of the violence to which she is eventually subjected – by a man who assumes much the same posture as the hooded figure with the reflective face that she sees in the dream, and fruitlessly chases after. Like many of Deren’s films, it is best approached as a kind of dance piece captured on film. Hers is a ritualised version of reality, conveyed almost entirely through gesture, repetition and embellishment.
That’s not being offered as an excuse, or as a plea bargain. In her 1946 film Ritual in Transfigured Time, Deren portrays social interaction (during the party scene in particular) as a disorienting dance of people being passed from one pair of grasping hands to another. Dance was always central to her personal and creative life. So was the frustration she felt in trying to use ritual movements (and beliefs) to control the stuff of existence, without having any reliable power to do so.
That seems obvious enough today. Yet in her diary in 1947, Deren was engaged in a lively personal debate with Gregory Bateson and his then-fashionable ideas from game theory, and its potential to deliver a deterministic science of social behaviour that still left some room for the operations of chance. That vision attracted and repelled Deren, who spent a lot of time and creative energy in the mid 1940s trying to resolve its implications. As she explained in her “Anagram” essay, the creative process in film and society at large has always involved a dialogue between structure and novelty, mediated by time – which for her is the element that subverts any tidy theory of behaviour, or film. “ Slow motion, “ she once wrote, “ is the microscope of time,” and that lens should ultimately be engaged in self revelation, or nothing “The fourth dimension,” she added in full priestess mode, “is you.”
In response to Bateson and Co, she proposed in the “Anagram” essay a solution available to anyone faced with the basic creative challenge of “compressing into a linear organization an idea which was stimulating precisely because it extended into two or three different, but not contradictory directions at once….” Her solution was to treat film as an anagram that would not generate teleologically determined outcomes – but would treat narrative as something that could be read in any direction, whether that be “horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or even in reverse.” Rather than your typical Hollywood roller coaster ride of linear cause and effect, Deren was going to bat for a film experience that had more in common with feedback loops. Or certain forms of ritual.
Down the years, this approach has continued to interest the likes of David Lynch – especially in Lost Highway, which made a meal out of characters in different forms, presented in time-hopping twists, identity swaps and reversals. To a lesser extent, Mulholland Drive toyed with the same devices. On the other hand, Terrence Malick placed his subject matter in Tree of Life on a temporal plane so vast as to blow apart the normal Hollywood conventions of narrative cause and effect. The dots between Deren and Lynch have been connected in this 2002 essay :
Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to Meshes of the Afternoon in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters and in the incorporation of the “psychogenic fugue”, the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.
Today, these kind of artistic concerns – Deren once described film structure as presenting a moral choice. as well as an artistic one – seem to belong to a distant, quaintly passionate era. She came by it honestly. As a young woman, Deren studied journalism, political science and literature when she first came to New York, and in 1939 she completed an M.A. literature thesis on “The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry.” Crucially, Deren then earned her living as an assistant for Kathleen Dunham, the great dancer, choreographer and anthropologist who – like Deren – later got initiated as a mambo, or vodou priestess. Dunham had written her own M.A. thesis on Haitian dance, and Deren edited the manuscript. In 1941, she became Dunham’s personal secretary and embarked on an unconventional lifestyle with her troupe :
Deren found inspiration and nomadic adventure with the innovative Katherine Dunham Dance Company, touring and performing across the US. It was in Los Angeles in 1941 that Deren met Alexander Hammid, a Czechoslovakian filmmaker working in Hollywood. In collaboration with Hammid [whom she later married] Deren produced her first and most remarkable experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon….)
Hammid taught Deren the technical skills she needed as a film-maker, and according to some film historians – including Brakhage – Hammid should be regarded as the actual director of Meshes of the Afternoon, even if the film’s subject matter and form came largely from Deren’s ideas. Meshes was shot in the house that Hammid and Deren were renting in Los Angeles. More than once, lack of money forced the couple into making a film set out of where they happened to live.
After they moved to New York for instance, they made a 22 minute film together called The Private Life of A Cat, which is an account (with a fairly graphic birth scene) of the habits of the cats that shared their apartment. When Hammid’s marriage to Deren hit the rocks in the late 1940s, he hooked up with Hella Heyman, who had shot Deren’s short films At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time, which also features the composer John Cage. For her part, Deren eventually married Teiji Ito, who was 17 years younger. All these titles ( including the Divine Horsemen footage from Haiti) are now in the public domain, and available on Youtube.
While almost finishing this story and still fumbling with the links between dance, gesture and film technique in Deren’s work, I came across an extended analysis by Erin Brannigan that treats Deren’s background in dance as being a key influence.
At the start of her article, Brannigan quotes Deren writing about her preference for ritualised, incantatory elements, and for treating actors as mere objects in space :
The ritualistic form… creates fear, for example, by creating an imaginative, often mythological experience which, by containing its own logic within itself, has no reference to any specific time or place, and is forever valid for all time and place… Above all, the ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat de-personalized element in a dramatic whole…
As Brannigan says, dance provided Deren with a framework that enabled her to resist mainstream cinema’s reliance on literary models :
She opposes the dominance of a ‘literary approach’ to filmmaking, suggesting that the art form would be better off had it pursued the silent film form… a point given weight when one considers the absence of scores and dialogue in her films… Her meandering and often dream-like plot structures are the clearest proof of her rejection of cause and effect linearity…Her disregard for traditional film credits and of her own role as a performer are further evidence of Deren’s resistance to the hierarchical structures that dominate film production.
Deren drew a contrast (in her contribution to a 1953 symposium on “Poetry and the Film”) between “horizontal” film structure affiliated with drama – “one circumstance – one action – leading to another”, and indicated how this had (unfortunately) come to dominate the dramatic business of characterisation in film. That wasn’t the kind of film that she wanted to make :
Alternatively, “vertical” film structure, or “poetic structure”…probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or with what it means….
As Brannigan points out, elements of this approach predate the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s famous taxonomies of film imagery. To Deleuze, the classically linear “movement-image” of the pre-war film industry was to be distinguished from the “time-image” introduced by the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism, where past, present and future could be blurred, or could even coexist on film – thus outstripping our “sensory-motor capacities” and pushing back the boundaries of the imaginary. Oh, to be in Paris or New York in those times, when people could still get excited and inspired by such ideas, before post-modernism set up its fatal tent and ruined everything.
As I said earlier, Deren’s life and work remain virtually unknown today beyond feminist and film studies courses in academia. The closest thing to a full documentary account of her life and work is 2002’s In The Mirror of Maya Deren written and directed by Martina Kudlácek
This doco includes contributions by Stan Brakhage and by Rita Christiani, the Afro-Caribbean main dancer in Ritual in Transfigured Time.
Deren’s later life took a tragic downward spiral marked by drug use and despair about her career. Unfortunately, her much-anticipated 1958 film The Very Eye of Night was badly received, and with reason. It proved to be a kitschy collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School based on her ruminations about the starry constellations and their connections with her inner self. Deren’s brand of experimentalism had simply reached a dead end. Here are links to two of Deren’s earlier, better silent films. The soundtracks added later are distractions, so best to turn the sound down, or off.