Maya Deren Biography

Originally written in 1975
By Claude Mathews
Patricia Peel
James Whittle

Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure.  I am not ashamed of it; for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well.  …I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating images into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother-tongue; which I understood, and thought in, but, like a mute, had never spoken….  [Maya Deren]

Credits

Director / Cinematographer / Editor – Maya Deren  (Alexander Hammid assisted his wife by instructing her in the use of the camera and also filming a few scenes in which she acted.  Otherwise, she was assisted by Hella Heyman.

Music – Teiji Ito

Length – 12 minutes

Cast – Maya Deren plays the dreaming woman.  Alexander Hammid plays the man.

Maya Deren

Born:  Russian, 1917.
Died:  New York, 1961

Maya Deren’s father was a psychiatrist who immigrated into the United States in 1927.  Maya received her B.A. from New York University and her M.A. from Smith College, both degrees in literature.  Her other interests included dance and Haitian voodoo.

Maya’s Importance as a Filmmaker

Maya Deren is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Undeground Film.”  One of her most important accomplishments was to upgrade the state of the avant-garde film in the United States.  At the time she began making films, 16mm was considered inferior to the standard 35mm film.  It was used only as an educational or documentary medium.  Her activism towards legitimizing the use of 16mm as an artistic medium is still felt through its ubiquitous use of the medium for most avant-garde work today.  This same anachronistic approach and philosophy is alive today in the efforts of Stan Brakhage, who is legitimizing the use of 8mm as an important artistic medium.  Maya Deren considered her “amateur” status as a filmmaker to be an asset:

The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring.  But that very word – from the Latin “amateur” or “lover” means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity.

Maya did much to advance film as an art.

At the time that Deren began there were no channels of distribution, let alone exhibition, for new avant-garde work.  In 1945, having completed three films, she sent out leaflets to colleges, universities, art schools and museums around the country, advertising her work.  She began renting her films, using her home as a distribution base.  Often she would accompany her showings with a lecture.  The following year Deren set up what is credited as the first showings in a public theatre in the U.S. of privately made 16mm film.  These two Provincetown Playhouse screenings of her work even prompted reviews in major publications, including one by James Agee in The Nation.  Thus she paved the way for Frank Stauffacher’s avant-garde “Art in Cinema” series which began in 1947 at the San Francisco Museum of Art and for Amos Vogel’s “Cinema 16” begun the same year, followed up three years later by his distribution center of the same name which finally provided a professional rental outlet for avant-garde work.

But Deren did not stop with showing and promoting her work.  She had, in 1946, shared the distinction with the Whitney brothers of receiving the first Guggenheim Fellowships ever awarded for creative filmmaking; she had attempted a renewal of her grant the following year but was unsuccessful.  In 1954, based on her years of experience with the difficulties of obtaining grants and raising money in order to pursue independent filmmaking, she established the Creative Film Foundation which continued until two years after her death.  Among those awarded grants that first year were Shirley Clarke and Stan Brakhage.  As a writer, Deren spoke frequently and at length about her own work, but also about the art of the independent film in general.  Very much of a dogmatist and polemicist, Deren rigidly maintained her ideas about the art of the personal film, persuading many to her camp.

She had begun her career at a time when there was negligible interest in film as an art form in this country and she provided through her active dedication an example, a hope to others for the possibilities of independent filmmaking….

[Film Library Quarterly, Winter, 1971 / 1972, p. 31]

Program Notes by Maya Deren

MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON

by Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied
California, 1943
Running Time:  12 minutes (24 fps)

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual.  It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons.  Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.

The incident might occur to anyone.  A girl, on her way to the house of another person, finds a flower on the road and carries it with her.  She arrives at the house, (glimpsing, for a brief second, a figure disappearing around the curve of the nearby road), tries the door and finds it locked.  She takes out her own key, which slips from her hand and falls down the outdoor stairs so that she is forced to run after it and climb the stairs again before finally entering the house.  She makes a tour of the rooms in search of the person who is supposed to be there, but, although the still-turning phonograph, the receiver off the hook of the telephone, and other objects indicate that someone has just been there, the house is empty and she settles herself by the window to wait.  Waiting, she falls asleep and in her dreams the experience  she has just had begins to repeat itself, but always in a strange and different manner.  Now it is a tall woman in black, with a mirror face, who disappears around the curve of the road.  She carries the flower which the girl has found, and although she walks slowly, the girl, running after her, can never catch her.  The objects which the girl had noticed in the room are now in changed places.  She watches herself come to the house three times so that finally there are three of her, and herself sleeping in the chair as well.  And from then on the event which was originally so simple becomes increasingly emotional and complex.  It is culminated by a double-ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.

The makers of this film have been primarily concerned with the use of the cinematic technique in such a way as to create a world:  to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than to accurately record the incident.

This film, although it incorporates the cinematic principles which are developed more fully in AT LAND, is still based on strong literary – dramatic lines as a core, and rests heavily upon the symbolic value of objects and situations.  It is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual, and reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience.  The very first sequence of the film concerns the incident, but the girl falls asleep  and the dream consists of the manipulation of the elements of the incident.  Everything which happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence – the knife, the key, the repetition of stairs, the figure disappearing around the curve of the road.  Part of the achievement of this film consists in the manner in which cinematic techniques are employed to give a malevolent vitality to inanimate objects.  The film is culminated by a double – ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.

[Film Culture No. 39, Winter, 1965]

A Statement of Principles by Maya Deren

  • My films are for everyone.
  • I include myself, for I believe that I am a part of, not apart from humanity; that nothing I may feel, think, perceive, experience, despise, desire, or despair of is really unknowable to any other man.
  • I speak of man as a principle, not in the singular nor in the plural.
  • I reject the accountant mentality which could dismember such a complete miracle in order to apply to it the simple arithmetic of statistics – which would reduce this principle to parts, to power pluralities and status singularities, as if man were an animal or a machine whose meaning was either a function of his size and number – or as if he were a collector’s item prized for its singular rarity.
  • I reject also that inversion of democracy which is detachment, that detachment which is expressed in the formula of equal but separate opinions – the vicious snobbery which tolerates and even welcomes the distinctions and divisions of differences, the superficial equality which stalemates and arrests the discovery and development of unity.
  • I believe that, in every man, there is an area which speaks and hears in the poetic idiom … something in him which can still sing in the desert when the throat is almost too dry for speaking.
  • To insist on this capacity in all men, to address my films to this – that, to me, is the true democracy…
  • I feel that no man has a right to deny this in himself; nor any other man to accept such self debasement in another, under this guise of democratic privilege.
  • My films might be called metaphysical, referring to their thematic content.  It has required millenniums of torturous evolution for nature to produce the intricate miracle which is man’s mind.  It is this which distinguishes him from all other living creatures, for he not only reacts to matter but can mediate upon its meaning.  This metaphysical action of the mind has as much reality and importance as the material and physical activities of his body.  My films are concerned with meanings – ideas and concepts – not with matter.
  • My films might be called poetic, referring to the attitude towards these meanings.  If philosophy is concerned with understanding the meaning of reality, then poetry – and art in general – is a celebration, a singing of values and meanings.  I refer also to the structure of the films – a logic of ideas and qualities, rather than causes and events.
  • My films might be called choreographic, referring to the design and stylization of movement which confers ritual dimension upon functional motion – just as simple speech is made into song when affirmation of intensification on a higher level is intended.
  • My films might be called experimental, referring to the use of the medium itself.  In these films, the camera is not an observant, recording eye in the customary fashion.  The full dynamics and expressive potentials of the total medium are ardently dedicated to creating the most accurate metaphor for the meaning.
  • In setting out to communicate principles, rather than to relay particulars, and in creating a metaphor which is true to the idea rather than to the history of experience of any one of several individuals, I am addressing myself not to any particular group but to a special area and definite faculty in every or any man – to that part of him which creates myths, invents divinities, and ponders, for no practical purpose whatsoever, on the nature of things.
  • But man has many aspects – he is a many-faceted being – not a monotonous one-dimensional creature.  He has many possibilities, many truths.  The question is not, or should not be, whether he is tough or tender, and the question is only which truth is important at any given time.
  • This afternoon, in the supermarket, the important truth was the practical one; in the subway the important truth was, perhaps, toughness; while later, with the children, it was tenderness.
  • Tonight the important truth is the poetic one.
  • This is an area in which few men spend much time and in which no man can spend all his time.  But it is this, which is the area of art, which makes us human and without which we are, at best, intelligent beasts.
  • I am not greedy.  I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days.
  • I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.
  • And what more could I possibly ask, as an artist, than that your most precious visions, however rare, assume, sometimes, the forms of my images.

This “Statement of Principles” was originally included within a pamphlet issued at “personal” exhibitions of Maya Deren’s films.

[Film Culture, No. 22 / 23, 1961]

Meshes of the Afternoon as Visual Poetry

“Meshes of the Afternoon” can be examined on a simplistic narrative level in which a description of the actual details and events of the film are noted.  It can also be examined on a complex metaphysical level which explores its symbolism and imagery.  These two aspects of “Meshes,” the superficial images and the meaning behind those images, link the film directly to poetry.

All poems have some kind of narrative, some manner of progressing the content of the poem from beginning to end.  Woven into this sequential narration are the allusions, symbols and images of the poem which give it meaning and beauty.  In reading a poem for the first time a reader may not grasp the meaning of a large part of it.  Most of what comes across is the narrative.  After re-reading and studying the poem, much of the hidden symbolism is revealed for what it’s worth.  Sometimes the meaning of a certain point might be ambiguous.  This ambiguity, as far as a good poet is concerned, is used to bring deeper, more personal meaning to the work.  Ambiguity permits the reader to project their own meaning into the poem, elevating it to art.

In “Meshes of the Afternoon” the poetic words are the frames.  These frames flow into each other to form the narrative, just as the words of poetry do.  When a poem is read, the words are taken into the mind and become images.  A film directly transmits images to the mind.  “Meshes” can be seen, as Deren says in the program notes to the film, as a simple narrative.  The woman comes home, the man is not there and she proceeds to fall asleep and dream.  We see the dream take place as a manipulation of the things the woman experienced as she came to the house.  These are the superficial details, the narrative of the story.  It is the initial reading of the poem.  There is much more than that, however.  There is a meaning which lurks behind the objects as they are manipulated within the dream.  The meaning is found within the viewers themselves.  Cocteau said about “Blood of a Poet:”

…if each of you find your own personal meaning in this film, then I will have achieved my ambition.  [Cocteau, Jean.  Two Screenplays (Baltimore:  Pelican Books, 1969)]

Maya Deren wishes the same with “Meshes of the Afternoon.”  She addresses herself to that part of you

which creates myths, invents divinities, and ponders for no practical purpose whatsoever, on the nature of things.  [Deren, Maya.  “A Statement of Principles,” Film Culture, 22 / 23 (1961), pp. 161 – 163]

“Meshes of the Afternoon” is a poetic film; it elicits meaning through its images.  Many questions are raised.  What is the woman dreaming?  Does it have any realistic meaning?  Do the still-turning phonograph and the receiver of the hook simply mean that someone has just left the house?  Sexual connotations are sprinkled through the film.  Why is the woman’s action of moving her hand over her breast before falling asleep repeated by the man later?  Does the hooded figure represent Death as it would for Bergman?  These and a number of other questions are asked by the film.  To answer them would be to understand one’s own dreams.

Levels of Consciousness

“Meshes of the Afternoon” is Maya Deren’s first film.  Made in conjunction with her husband, Alexander Hammid, it is historically significant due to Deren’s iconoclastic use of 16mm film, a film grade that was considered to be inferior at the time.  For this achievement alone Maya became known as the “Mother of the Underground Film.”  Maya is also recognized for her near propagandistic ideology of acceptance and appreciation of the avant-garde, which she filmically fired and ardently proselytized.

Maya’s espoused concern was to present the character’s internal universe by recreating the “intimate, immediate forms of … art, where the problems might be experienced and perhaps resolved in miniature.”  [Thursby, Floyd.  The Velvet Darkness]  Her feeling was that the individual needed to discover a certain integrity within himself which was impossible to obtain by merely searching external, obvious reality.  She saw “cinema, with its capacity to manipulate time and space…” as a medium eminently appropriate for such expression.  [Deren, Maya.  “Cinematography:  The Creative Use of Reality.”  Cinema as an Art Form.  New York:  Arno, 1972]

It is important to note several key elements of “Meshes” and her films in general.  From the idea of the individual self-examination depicted in “Meshes,” one can see the roots of Deren’s concept of “personal cinema.”  In her program notes to “Meshes” she writes,

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual.  It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons.  Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.  [Deren, Maya.  “Program Notes.”  Film Culture.  39 (Winter, 1965) p. 1]

Thus one must assume that the film is composed of various levels of the subconscious of the main character.  This idea is further supported by distinct divisions that clearly separate the gradual descent through further levels of the subconscious.

The action up to the point where the woman falls asleep in the chair is the first segment of the film.  Objects appear for the first time which are elevated to symbolic images later in the film.  The black suited individual becomes a hooded figure, much akin to Bergman’s Death figure in “The Seventh Seal” or Fritz Lang’s “Destiny.”  The sequence of the woman entering the house is repeated several times with variations.  The knife and key are introduced as functional objects that later become symbolic.  The flower, possibly intended in the Freudian sense as symbolically female, recurs in later sequences.  In general, the action of this first sequence is repeated each time a representative  of the protagonist is introduced.

Another important aspect of the film is Maya’s manipulation of time and space using movement, rhythm and choreography.  The first sequence takes place at a slow, deliberate pace.  The key falls in slow motion, the pan of the room is deliberately reassuring and the phonograph and telephone seem to indicate the recent presence of someone, presumably the object of the woman’s visit.  Subsequently the viewer is falsely persuaded to associate the scene with reality although the mannikin hand and falling knife seem to suggestion more that just what the eye is seeing.

Some scenes play against this purposely slow moving beginning.  Swish pans spliced together with cuts, choreographed ascension of the stairs, floating, and actual popping in and out of existence convey the total immersion into the unreal world of the subconscious.

The final segment returns to the motion and rhythm of the first segment, the stylized movements conveying changing time and space.  The viewer perceives that reality has sublimated the surreal as the male counterpart resteps the movements of the female and her representatives.  Of course the final scene of the seaweed covered woman shatters this conviction, Maya firmly plants this film in the realm of the surreal.

Maya also purposely plays with the ambiguity of the film.  “The film is culminated by a double – ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.”  [Ibid.]

Indeed, a certain ambiguity pervades the film, and foils the viewer who tries to go from reality to unreality.  One must agree to being manipulated by the film to appreciate its intentions.  After all, the film is merely a representation of the “feelings which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than an accurate record of the incident.”  [Ibid.]

Another important aspect of the film is it’s poetic stylization.  The film is as symbolic as any poem.  Deren’s intention is to give the viewer plenty of material for personal introspection.  The film is not a definitive statement on a physical experience.  It is a personal account of an event with unique possibilities for each viewer.  Of course the images suggest meaning, but there are limitless possible interpretations of what might be happening in this film.

The soundtrack by Teiji Ito, along with the paced cutting and rhythmic movement further develop the poetic sensibility of the film.  Deren felt that movement was central to the meaning of film – many of her later films dealt with the subject extensively.  Deren manipulates the poetic and choreographed movements of the film, creating a new geography for the film’s basic unreality.  Deren was not portraying reality, but the unreal geography supporting reality.

The soundtrack and movement usually contrast each other, providing the counterpoint needed to support the unreality of the film.  Occasional junctions and juxtapositions create impressive poetic elements.

The suicide sequence is a masterful example of Deren’s use of images to create allegories.  First, the three representatives draw lots to determine which self will perform the fatal act on the sleeping figure.  They draw the key until it comes up knife.  The shots that follow climax the film’s rhythmic interchanges.  As the girl with the knife rises, there is a close-up of her foot as she begins striding.  Her sandalled foot first steps on the seashore, followed by a step on grass, and a third step on a concrete sidewalk.  The final step is on the rug of the room. 

Maya provided her own understanding of this sequence:

What I meant when I planned that four stride sequence was that you have to come a long way – from the very beginning of time – to kill yourself, like the first life emerging from the primeval waters.  Those four strides, in my intention, span all time.  [Deren, Maya.  Letter of April 19, 1955.  Film Culture.  39 (Winter, 1965) p. 30]

The action of the knife entering the mouth completes the poetic stanza and summons the return to the original tempo of the final section.

Another important poetic device of the film is the use of a mirror for the face of Death.  Much like Cocteau’s mirror in “Blood of a Poet,” it separates life from death.  Paradoxically, when one searches for the face of Death one sees only one’s reflection.  Continuing this parallel with Cocteau is the use of water or the ocean behind the mirror.  Once shattered it reveals endless shoreline.  A rather striking parallel with the experiences Cocteau’s poet encounters behind the looking glass.

Many critics were disturbed by what they saw as an overbearing use of sexual symbols throughout the film.  Manny Farber saw the film as “Freudian-toned lesbianism.”  [Farber, Manny.  “Maya Deren’s Film.”  New Republic, 115 (1946), p. 555.]  Maya became quite indignant with such shallow criticism.  Once cannot deny that there are moments of auto-eroticism and sexual innuendo in the film.   The flower and knife are widely accepted by Freudians as symbols for the female and male genitalia.  This is exploited in the film, but it is not predominant.  It is presumable that the man and woman enter the bedroom to make love.  However, the lover is revealed to be Death disguised.  If this is to be taken as personally as the rest of the film, one cannot help wondering what issues might have been going on between her and her husband.

The film is striking from it’s personal tone and its rhythmic and poetic pulse.  To fully appreciate how this works to create an impressive and critically successful film, one must realize that it was filmed, edited and completed in two weeks.  Maya had the help of her husband but he was unable to remain with the project throughout its completion.  Consequently the burden wholly fell on her shoulders.  The end result became a landmark in the history of American cinema.

Maya’s Accomplishment

“Meshes of the Afternoon” has a quality that allows it to be viewed repeatedly.  This is a rare quality, making the film resemble more a note-laden work of jazz music.  Ralph J. Gleason, the west coast jazz critic suggested that music is the most successful art form, reaching a level of poetic communication and sensual acceptance while not requiring any serious interpretation.  The aural compositions can be appreciated totally on the level of their beauty.  Music critics concentrate not on the interpretation of notes but on the overall effect of their combinations.  One cannot deny that highly symbolic  interpretations are possible, however unnecessary.  Perhaps that is why music is the most popular art form.  Its images are so accessible that they elicit response and appreciation on the most primary and sensual level.  No a priori premise of intellectual status is needed.  All that is required is uninhibited sensual absorption.

“Meshes of the Afternoon” satisfies this purely sensual characteristic much the same as avant-garde jazz.  The movement, rhythm, editing and choreography of the film supports even deeper levels of understanding of symbol and imagery, on both visual and aural levels.

One probes technique to appreciate the nature and abilities of the artist.  Herein lies the possibility for psychoanalytic interpretation. However, pat Freudian analysis of the film does a great disservice to Maya’s achievement.   The choice of images reveals certain implications about the artist.  The film is, as intended, a personal film.  The viewer is afforded an autobiographical view of Maya’s psyche.  Maya’s expertise at weaving the narrative, music and movement throughout the film moves the film beyond simple convention. 

Dream consciousness is not easy to convey.  This film succeeds where others may meekly communicate a dream state.  “Meshes of the Afternoon” realistically creates unreality.  The dream sequence is most convincing.  Events unfold orderly but poetically, which makes this an aesthetically pleasing experience.

It seems that Maya Deren’s first film should have served as a cornerstone of cinematic poetry.  However, it is difficult to prove that point by offering example s of the poetic films that followed this landmark production.  One mus place this film on a pedestal.  It stands unsurpassed.  High praise, but deserved.

The most pointed irony concerns the circumstances of her death.  At the turn of the decade she was living on a pittance from the Creative Film Foundation in return for her energetic work as its secretary (it was a one-person operation, with nominal officers) and on her husband Teiji Ito;s income as an enlisted private in the army.  Just before his discharge, the death of a relative raised hopes of an inheritance for Ito.  After a disappointing meeting concerning this inheritance, Maya Deren came down with a terrific headache which led to a paralyzing seizure the next day.  Within a week she has suffered her third cerebral hemorrhage and died after three days in a coma.  Not long after that the elusive inheritance came through.  [P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 40.]

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