Had Californian sunlight ever looked as suggestive or sinister before the sharply etched dream world of Meshes of the Afternoon? Certainly, it soon would, in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and many later films noirs. That affiliation was first proposed by J. Hoberman in the 1970s. But Meshes has been invoked as seminal by many traditions over eight decades. For years, this 14-minute film was claimed as a founding inspiration of a distinctively American form of highly personal poetic psychodrama, typified by Stan Brakhage, who hailed Deren as “the mother of us all”.
Deren’s hands-on promotion of her work became a model for the co-operative movement of the 1960s. Rising interest in women’s cinema would later refocus attention on her pioneering role. Today, she is the only woman among seven experimental filmmakers featured on the front page of the New York Filmmakers Co-op website, while the haunting image of her at a window must be one of the most widely reproduced stills from any avant-garde film. And rising interest in women’s film after the 1970s would focus attention on her aesthetic of ‘vertical cinema’, creating an emotional and intellectual density within rather than between images, as Barbara Hammer has described it.
Both Deren and her co-director Alexander Hammid (originally Hackenschmied) were immigrants from Eastern Europe. She came from a Jewish family background in Ukraine, heavily involved in psychiatry, and he from experimental photography and film in Czechoslovakia. Deren would indignantly reject suggestions of influence from two earlier European avant-garde landmarks, Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1928) and Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un poète, 1930). But for all its cool originality, the eerie game of repeated symbols that its maker-protagonists play out in their West Hollywood home and garden – with a flower, key and knife linking Deren’s divided self and a sinister mirror-faced figure – has undoubtedly extended the legacy of those earlier works.
Meshes has never reached the top 100 before in the S&S poll (despite some interesting previous backers, such as Derek Jarman in 1992). So this year’s result must reflect some significant shifts in taste – most obviously the recognition of female creativity apparent in the poll leaders, but perhaps also a renewed interest in the phantasmagoric, as explored by Deren’s most consistent fans among contemporary filmmakers, the David Lynch of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., and Jordan Peele.