(Let’s pass silently over the fact that I haven’t posted anything new for more than a month.)
The experimental films made by Ukrainian-American Maya Deren in the 1940s and 1950s are incredibly influential, whether most people know it or not. Once you’ve seen them you’ll notice reflections of them all over the place, in everything from art photography to pop videos. Her work has also definitely had a huge effect on me, particularly 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon, whose haunting imagery– and imagery of haunting– is done an injustice when it’s described as merely surreal or dreamlike, even though it is surreal and dreamlike among many other things. It’s actually as if time has been turned inside out like a glove, but when it turns right side out again it’s a different glove, belonging to someone or something else entirely. It’s particularly fitting that reflections or decontextualised fragments of her most famous film turn up so often in popular culure, given the way that Deren dwells upon imagery of reflection and fragmentation in Meshes of the Afternoon.
Her obvious interest in ritual, repetition, nonlinear time and the perils of inner journeys has found its way into some of my own work too; these subjects can all be seen obliquely in Deren’s Meshes and much more directly in her collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, Witch’s Cradle (also embedded here). In the late 1940s she took a more documentarian interest in the practice and ritual of Haitian vodoun.
Although resident in Los Angeles, Deren resolutely resisted Hollywood and was proud to be involved in every aspect of her own films. She made them, she said, “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” She also gave the great advice that independent or artistic film makers shouldn’t try to ape Hollywood but instead “use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.” Deren paved the way for many of the independent American makers who created personal artistic statements in film (and later, video) rather than following a formula, but sadly Deren’s career wasn’t as long as it should have been. She died in 1961 at the age of 44, most likely because of prescription drug abuse.
Below you can watch Meshes of the Afternoon (with a soundtrack commissioned in 2012 by the late, lamented Bird’s Eye View Festival for film making by women) and Witch’s Cradle.
PS: There’s a Tumblr called Fuck yeah, Maya Deren! Of course there is.