Friday, July 18, 2008

Looking Out, Looking In

Maya Deren was one of the pioneering American avant garde filmmakers. She made short experimental films that felt like nightmares dealing with critical emotional experiences. Born Eleanora Derenkowsky, her parents anglicized their last name to Deren when they moved to New York in the 1922 due to threatening anti-Semitism and later in 1943 she changed her first name to Maya that in Buddhists means illusion.

Her films were never able to get into cinemas due to Hollywood’s Monopoly over them and instead she exhibited her films from her own living room. In the 50s Deren toured North America exhibiting her films. An exhibition at the Provincetown Playhouse entitled `Three Abandoned Films - A showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A study in Choreography for the Camera` sold out and inspired Amos Vogel’s formation of Cinema 16. Some of her followers included Manny Farber, Le Corbusier, Marcel Duchamp and David Lynch.

Her filmography includes Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation on Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1952-55).

Meshes of the Afternoon was directed by Deren and her husband of the time Alexander Hammid. The sound was later added by Maya Derens third husband Teiji Ito. Influenced by the European Surrealist Luis Buñuel's and Salvador Dalí Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930). She filled her films with objects and physical facts that were infused with profound psychological meaning. The use of symbolism and poetic psychodrama pleased her father who was a psychologist. The principal character in this film is as well played by Maya Deren who is sulkily beautiful as she wanders throughout her house.

The film begins with a series of events including Maya Deren picking up a flower, dropping a key, seeing bread and a knife on a cutting board, putting on a record, seeing a mirror and a phone being off the hook and then sitting on a chair. The chair looks out onto the path she took to get into her house. There is a close up of her eyelids closing and then it looks like the camera pulls back into her pupil for a tunnel shot of her watching herself outside the window. There is fear, poetry and rhythm as we see the early events repeat themselves and the objects return in different contexts in what we can interpret as a dream sequence. The film meditates on the characters paranoid fears, restlessness and alienation. This trance film contrast fluid camera movement with shaky movements and experiments with rhythm and editing.

In the 50s she was awarded a grant from the Guggenheim to travel to Haiti to research voodoo. Due to malnutrition and a developed drug dependencies she died in 1961. Her last remaining project was a documentary Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti that was only completed by her old husband Teiji Ito.

Maya Deren: Experimental Films DVD (Mystic Fire Video, 26.98$)

No comments: