I was recently discussing avant-garde films with my friend Paul Taberham at University of Kent. He is doing research on avant-garde cinema, including the patience of spectators. I will be writing more on the subject later on but since I promised Paul a piece on Maya Deren, that is what I will post today. It is not an original piece, but a translated version of a post I wrote for my Swedish film blog back in 2008. It has been amended and updated:
A woman is lying on a beach with the waves rolling back and forth. She looks at the sea gulls and then begins climbing a dead tree. Suddenly she is on a long dining table, around which well-dressed people sit, smoking, talking and laughing. She crawls along the table, but nobody takes any notice of her. At the other end of the table a man is playing chess, but when the woman reaches the chess board the pieces start moving around by themselves until one of them falls off the board and down through the dead tree and into the water. The woman follows it. Somewhat later she is in a house where the furniture is covered with white sheets. She walks around, opening one door after another, and suddenly she is no longer in the house but on a rock. She slides down and walks around on a beach filled with stones. She picks up a stone and then another until she reaches the shoreline, where two women dressed in black are playing chess. At the end the woman runs away from everything, possibly terrified, while images we have already seen are shown again.
That, sort of, is the "plot" of Maya Deren's silent short At Land (1944), an important milestone in avant-garde cinema. Deren said that films functions on two levels, the horizontal, which is the narrative level, the story, the characters, and a vertical level, which is the poetic level, moods, tone, rhythm. She was much more interested in the vertical level, and she is, in many ways, one of the most important names within the art form she was working in.
Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1917 as Elenora Derenkowsky. Partly due to the anti-Semitism in her home country the family moved to the US in 1922. There they changed their family name to (the less overtly Jewish) Deren. Her first name she herself changed from Elenora to Maya in the 1940s. (Maya is a Buddhist term meaning that reality is an illusion. It also means mother in Sanskrit.) Between 1930 and 1933 she studied in Geneva, Switzerland, and when she came back to the US she studied, among other things, English literature. By this stage she had been interested in dancing and joined forces with Catherine Dunham, choreographer and dancer. Together they toured America. Deren also met her next husband, Alexander Hammid (born Hackenschmied), and they married in 1942. This is when Deren began making films, perhaps because her husband was a filmmaker, and they worked together.
Their first film was Meshes in the Afternoon (1943). A woman returns home on a sunny day and sits down in an armchair by the window. She falls asleep and soon is dreaming strange dreams. She pulls keys out of her mouth, she runs on staircases that swings from side to side, knives appears out of nowhere and a mysterious creature dressed in black appears, with a mirror instead of a face. Everything is happening several times, although we small changes each time, and she is confronted by her own double. The film, as Deren's own later work such as At Land, problematized the self, and concepts of time and space. Hammid and Deren moved beyond conventional logic and continuity and they criticised bourgeois conventions and the "invisiblicing" of women. This was done with stylish and ambitious camera work.
Deren was very prolific. She wrote, photographed, filmed, danced, sew and initiated the Creative Film Foundation. The aim of the foundation was to support and promote art films. In her circles moved Arthur Miller, Sara Kathryn Arledge, Dylan Thomas, Shirley Clarke, John Cage and Stan Brakhage. She also did screenings of her own films, at the home of critics like James Agee and Manny Farber, and at Provincetown Playhouse. This was a very successful endeavour and led to the creation of Cinema 16, a film society which showed experimental films, as well as documentaries, and which had about 7000 members at most. (Agee was not overwhelmed by the films, but he thought that there was no one that was "paying any more attention to that great universe of movie possibilities" than Deren.)
In the late 1940s Deren had become interested in Haiti, especially the Vodou culture and ritual dancing, and this occupied a large part of her final years before she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1961, only 44 years old. In an evocative gesture worthy of her life and career her then husband, composer Teiji Ito, spread her ashes over Mount Fuji in Japan.
Besides making art, Deren was also writing and thinking about it, and its rules and obligations. She was of the opinion that film was a medium of its own and that it should use its opportunities to break open time and space. In a film a person can open a door and move from one room to a completely different space or time, and this way of going against the restrictions of reality was central in Deren's work. In her unfinished dance film A Study in Choreography (1945) a man is dancing in the woods, then through a cut he is suddenly in a studio, only to be dancing at a museum next, among statues and busts, before he is back in the woods again. Another example is the very beautiful The Very Eye of Night (1958) where students from the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School have been filmed and then the negative has been superimposed over the star-clad sky, making it look like they are dancing on the Milky Way.
It is natural enough to make the connection to surrealism, but Deren did not like that connection. Surrealism for her was something narcissistic and narrow-minded. She advocated an active and all-encompassing art, where the artist and each individual were part of a larger whole. She wrote: "He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning." Deren was an active socialist, a Trotskyist, and her thoughts on the individuals place in a larger collective ties in with her socialist ideas. But she was critical of the situation in the Soviet Union, which she called a "feudal industrialism". She felt that an artist had a responsibility to act ethically, and that aesthetics and ethics are intertwined. When you express yourself aesthetically you are also making an ethical statement, or should do so at least. It is the artist's responsibility to be aware of the larger world, its problems and conflicts, and deal with this in their art. For Deren this was a moral imperative.
In 1960 Deren wrote an essay called Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, which can been read as her cinematic manifesto. It ends with the following words:
"If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instruments as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the casual logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earthbound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of the filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural modes, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province."
The quote from Deren about the "dynamic whole" is from her essay An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film. The quote from Agee is from a review in The Nation in 1946 and is reprinted in Agee on Film.
The Maya Deren archives are at Boston University.
Here writings on cinema and art are collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film.