Maya Deren, born Eleanora Derenkowsky on April 29, 1917 in Kiev, Ukraine, has been referred to as "the high priestess of experimental cinema." (1) Even though she was a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer, she is still considered a pioneer not only in experimental filmmaking, but also a voice for the feminist film community.
In 1922, the Derenkowsky family fled the threat of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, arriving in New York where they changed their name to "Deren." The family, though, was frequently unhappy and at odds. As an adolescent, Maya was sent to Geneva to attend The League of Nations International School while Maya's mother, Marie Deren, studied languages in Paris and her father, Solomon Deren, practiced psychiatry in New York City.
After attending school in Geneva, Deren studied journalism and political science and became active in student politics at Syracuse University. She then transferred to New York University where she was awarded her undergraduate degree in 1936. She continued her education at Smith College where she completed a Masters Degree in English Literature and symbolist poetry in 1939.
After college, Deren began working as an assistant to the famous dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Deren found inspiration and nomadic adventure with the innovative Katherine Dunham Dance Company, touring and performing across the U.S. It was in Los Angeles, in 1941, that Deren met Alexander Hammid, a Czechoslovakian filmmaker working in Hollywood. This meeting with him would forever change her life and her career forever. (2)
Two years after meeting Hammid, Deren returned to New York, married Hammid, transferred her primary focus from dance to film and changed her name to Maya. Her new name was particularly apt for a burgeoning filmmaker. Her name was chosen because of her strong Buddhists beliefs. To Buddhists, the name Maya means "illusion." (3)
1943 was unquestionably a year of transformation and security for Deren. In collaboration with Hammid, Deren produced her first and most remarkable experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon.
Meshes of the Afternoon was produced in an environment of wartime volatility and this is reflected symbolically throughout its entirety. The title card suggesting that the film was 'made in Hollywood' is ironic, Deren sets her film within a Los Angeles setting, but it is the nightmare element of the dream factory that interests her most. The film establishes an atmosphere saturated in paranoia and distrust between lovers who turn into killers with the presence of a mysterious but fascinating hooded figure.
Deren and Hammid invested their film with an acute sense of restlessness and alienation. Meshes of the Afternoon reflects this uncanny estrangement in the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of its central character (played by Deren) and in its cyclic narrative, a structure that seems condemned to repetition. The hooded figure, with the reflective face, adds yet another dimension, reflecting back the identity of those who look into her eyes.
Meshes of the Afternoon was shot as a silent film; there is no dialog and no communication between characters. For example, a record player plays silently and the record revolves and the needle is engaged in the groove, but there is no indication of the sound that it makes. However, Deren had Teiji Ito create a soundtrack to accompany the silent film which tends to make Meshes appear like a music video before its time. (4) The drumbeat is synchronized to movement and to the cut. When Deren takes one of her many short journeys along the path or up stairs, the sound of her steps is overlaid by Ito's drumbeat metonymically standing in for and amplifying her movement. Inspired by Eisenstein's notion of rhythmic montage3, the editing and movement are accentuated by the rhythm of the soundtrack.
Rhythm is a defining element of all of Deren's films, and especially in Meshes. (Nichols) This steady tempo arises from the play of repetition and variation which is integral to the narrative of the film. Meshes deploy an innovative style of cutting on action where the protagonist steps over such distinct terrains such as the beach, soil, grass and concrete. The rhythmic drumbeat and the repeated movement highlight her deliberate progress across these discontinuous spaces. As the central, consistent element, Ito's soundtrack enables Deren's sequential and spatial experimentation.
Rhythm also impacts significantly on the viewer. The rhythm of the sound, movement and editing conspire to produce the effect of a trance film. Meshes of the Afternoon's dream-like, illogical narrative trajectory, fluid movement and ambient soundtrack invite a type of contemplative, perhaps even transcendental, involvement for the spectator.
While Meshes engages the viewer, it also presents a vision in crisis. The film is constructed from a myriad of optical matches and mismatches. The use of extreme angles to imply one character looking down on the dreamer, a type of spider's point-of-view, foreshadows the dreamer's death. Seen in reverse it could translate as the dreamer's 'out of body' experience. Occasionally Deren's point-of-view proves to be feeble (the reverse shot from the sleeping Deren is impossible.) The fourth replica of Deren's character wears bulging goggles that can do nothing to enhance her vision.
The film sets up a nightmare vision. Meshes is a projection of the dreamer's desires and fears. Deren's point-of-view transforms into tunnel vision with her perspective funneled through a cylinder rounding out the edges of the frame. This nightmarish vision is intensified with the use of an obscure horizontal wipe, with a semi-opaque filter, mystifying the image and implying the beginning of the nightmare. In Deren's nightmare progress is difficult, speed is varied and the emphasis on circularity results in an unnerving repetition. The hooded figure is perpetually out of range; all attempts to capture her prove futile. In domestic space, activity has been suspended. The phone is off the hook, the record player is playing, and the knife has begun to slice through the bread. Deren writes, "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." (6)
Deren's magical editing style (with objects transforming without warning) is also inclined towards the fascination with the instability of objects, uncanny visions and confusion surrounding the intentions of the male characters. The film is one of many made during the 1940s which asks: is the hero intending to kiss the heroine or to kill her?
Deren's second experimental film, At Land (1944), reinforces her interest in the juxtaposition of antiquated spaces and introduces a critique of social rituals. This film begins by reversing the natural rhythm with images of waves breaking and descending back into the sea.
Starring again, Deren is seen climbing up a dead tree trunk on the beach, magically emerging onto a table where a formal dinner party is in progress. This 'civilized' world ignores Deren as she crawls along their dinner table. By depicting herself as invisible to the diners, Deren highlights the myopia of the guests. The dinner sequence ends with an enchanted chess game. A pawn falls from the table and descends back into the dead wood on the beach which falls over the rocks and into the water. It is then washed away over the waterfalls. Chasing the pawn, Deren is restored to her original scenery.
It has been suggested that Deren was trying to show the individual's struggle to maintain personal identity in the film, as if from the start she saw the universe opposing our learning who we are and what we are doing here, and the film shows us this from a symbolic birth from the sea through her relentless odyssey on land-to her return to the sea at the end of the film. In its 15 minute running time, At Land actually depicts an entire lifetime. (Sitney)
At Land is perhaps her most rigorous and complex work. It is entirely silent (like Meshes) and has a remarkable, fractured narrative connected by story fragments that have a perfect, dreamlike logic. Few filmmakers have come closer to creating images and actions that have such emotional intensity and intellectual suggestiveness.
Another of Deren's experimental films, A Study in Choreography for the Camera, was filmed in 1945. Deren's 16mm Bolex camera becomes a performer equal in significance to the star of this film. (Talley Beattey) In the opening sequence, Deren's camera rotates more than 360 degrees, scanning past the figure in movement. In this film Deren articulates the potential for transcendence through dance and ritual. The movement of the dancer does not always motivate the camera, so Deren's visual expression remains free- floating. The spaces linked in this film range from the interior of a museum to the forest and courtyard. Deren writes, "The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbors of distant places." As Beattey spins, he appears to develop more than one face, forming an illusion of a totem pole.