Maya Deren: seven films that guarantee her legend

On the centenary of her birth, we chart the career of American avant-garde legend and pioneering female filmmaker, Maya Deren.

Georgia Korossi
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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Maya Deren (1917–61) once wrote: “In film I can make the world dance.” And that’s exactly what she did.

Born in Kiev 100 years ago, Deren is one of the most influential figures in American avant-garde cinema. She is most commonly associated with her debut film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), but she was also a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer.

Deren was only five years-old when, together with her parents, she arrived in the USA in 1922, having fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine. Following her studies in journalism and political science at Syracuse University and NYU in 1936, she went on to pursue a masters degree in English literature from Smith College. When her films began to appear in the 1940s, it was still incredibly rare for women to become filmmakers. Despite her short life (Deren died at the age of 44 in New York), she left behind a small but hugely important body of work, with several landmark avant-garde short films, two books and many writings in the Village Voice and other publications.

Most of Deren’s films are available on YouTube, albeit in most cases with added music by her admirers. This alone proves that her films still resonate with contemporary audiences today. Her work is also constantly featured in international exhibitions, whenever there’s a focus on kinetic and graphic experiments with film.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

It was amid the turmoil of the Second World War that Deren collaborated with Czech cinematographer Alexander Hammid to make her surreal 14-minute debut, in which Deren herself appears as the enigmatic woman in the window. The two got married, and, while Hammid was working in Hollywood, he taught Deren the mechanics of filmmaking to help realise her vision. The result is a remarkable achievement that presents the nightmarish narrative of two lovers in a dreamlike and poetic psychodrama. An excellent self-promoter, Deren’s follow-up films were to be pioneering in the way they combined ethnography and choreography. The term “choreocinema” was coined by New York Times dance critic John Martin to describe the way Deren linked dance and film. 

At Land (1944)

Deren’s thematic preoccupation with the human body, its movement and the process of filmmaking, begins to take shape in her second film, which draws some of its power from jump-cuts and the juxtaposition of spaces. Shot by the sea in Amagansett, Long Island, it features Deren herself again, as a woman washed up on the shore. She climbs up a dead tree, then is suddenly crawling on a dinner table, unnoticed by the party guests. Deren cuts from the seashore to the dinner party and back again to the seashore. At Land is an inimitable study of social rituals and the human body’s place in nature.

A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

Following her first two films, Deren fully realised her vision of the human body in motion and its relation to the medium of film with the editing patterns of A Study in Choreography for Camera. Dancer Talley Beatty moves freely from a living room to the forest to a museum space, with careful choreographed movements, while Deren’s camera complements his performance by overcoming the confines of space.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

By her fourth film, Deren’s work on body movements was enveloped in the study of form as ritual. Again concentrating on social dynamics and the art of greeting, the camera in Ritual in Transfigured Time follows Rita Christiani entering a room where Deren unwinds wool from a loom. Christiani later enters a party and her movement becomes a fluid performance, at times transported by the dread of rejection or the contrasting freedom of expression in social circles.

Meditation on Violence (1948)

Meditation on Violence (1948)

According to Stan Brakhage, Meditation on Violence is Deren’s most personal film. She doesn’t appear in it, but, as Brakhage notes: “She is the camera, she’s moving, she’s breathing in relation to this dancer.” The dancer is Chao-Li Chi, whom Deren films both indoors and outdoors, and then reverses his movements in the editing. The resulting form has no form: it’s a shape that’s in motion and in constant change – according to Deren, the “ultimate form”. It continues the interplay between the filmmaker and raw movement. The movement in Meditation on Violence is balanced, seen both forwards and backwards.

The Very Eye of Night (1952-55)

The Very Eye of Night (1952-55)

Deren began filming The Very Eye of Night in 1952, premiered it in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1955, but didn’t screen it in New York until 1959 because of a financial conflict with the producer. She collaborated with one of the world’s great choreographers, Antony Tudor, who brought a young crew of ballet dancers from the Metropolitan Opera for the film. For Deren, it was a scientific and astrological film with the most beautiful abstract ballet performance, which touches on the themes of gravity and natural history. The Very Eye of Night was Deren’s last completed film.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1977)

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1977)

Between 1947 and 1954, Deren visited Haiti three times for a passionate study of Haitian culture and voodoo ritual, shooting more than 18,000 feet of original footage on her Bolex camera. Following her death, this outstanding ethnographic material was reconstructed by Deren’s second husband, composer Teiji Ito, and later his widow, Cherel, who edited it into the documentary Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

According to Deren: “Art is based on the notion that you will really celebrate an idea or a principle. You must think, you must plan, you must put yourself completely in the state of devotion and that simply gives into the first thing that come to your head.”

Deren would be criticised for her participation in voodoo rituals, yet her accumulated Haitian footage represents a groundbreaking ethnographic view on the art, dance and sacred ceremonies of the island’s culture. The project is the culmination of her passionate study of the body in motion.

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