"The World of Maya Deren" by ZsanettVarga
Zsanett Varga is an MA student at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include gender and film studies with special focus on experimental and independent American cinema. Email:
1. An Introduction to the World of Maya Deren
Deren was not only a filmmaker but also a film theorist, and her extensive writings provide an in-depth view on how she developed her projects, which resulted in the creation of new narrative styles. These new narratives are of importance not only because they were developed uniquely, but also because Deren applied them to create visuals in her films that conveyed stories in utter opposition to the mainstream narrative. Her fundamental technique was to use a succession of individual pictures/paintings to create a moving picture. The manipulation of each of these individual images created a new effect, which was the overarching theme in her works. This was needed because, according to her theory, which differentiated between images and photographs, “realism is the term for graphic image which precisely simulates some real object,” therefore, “a photograph must be differentiated from it as a form of reality itself.” Furthermore, Deren emphasized the importance of this approach, as she believed that films should reflect upon the realities of individuals. In order to be able to convey reality in a truthful manner, the process has to start with a single image, because it is through that that we start “recognizing reality, and our attendant knowledge and attitudes are brought into play” and the reference of a particular image becomes meaningful (Deren 1960, 154).
These approaches can be seen in the first three experimental short films of Deren’s; her most famous and influential experimental short film, called Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and two other significant films, At Land (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1947). These three films are her first and most influential films and also have thematic continuity. Firstly, Meshes is set in a California home and depicts the nightmares of a woman (played by Deren) during an afternoon nap. As in all of Deren’s films, the truthful representation of the individual is the goal. She achieves that in this film by meshing the dream sequences together in such a way that the film questions the viewer’s perspective on vision and self-image. Then, At Land continues where Meshes left off, at the sea. The individual remains in the focus, but in this film the setting is not the domestic sphere, but on a larger, social scale. Through the juxtaposition of scenes, the film critiques social rituals. And, finally, Ritual in Transfigured Time, similarly to At Land, explores the individual’s situation within a suppressive society. In this short, Deren creates the context of social interaction as ritual, and the subject is explored through the performance thereof. These short films create a narrative that serves as a basis for later generations of independent filmmakers in America. The elements that made Deren’s films unique also made her a significant precursor of independent American filmmaking.
In An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946), Deren’s book about her own theory on film, she talks about the function of film and various methods through which a picture can be developed. Furthermore, she describes the new methods she developed that made her works fall in the category of experimental film. One of her main interests was to manipulate the concepts of time and space and use them to create a unique narrative. This is one of the main innovations that made her one of the most prominent experimental filmmakers in the United States.
By the time experimental filmmaking became a significant genre, Hollywood dominated the film industry. Therefore, in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the main goals of experimental filmmakers – including Deren – was to develop both technical and narrative innovations with which they would be able to differentiate themselves and their works from mainstream Hollywood films. Deren’s innovative approach to film resulted in the creation of several short experimental films that went against the mainstream narrative forms. With the new technological innovations of developing films, she focused on the representation of women. In her short films she depicted many types of women, which contrasted the stereotypical, objectified female characters in mainstream Hollywood films.
Deren’s other significant theoretical writing about film is Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality (1960), a text concentrating on the filmmaking process itself. In this essay, she explains how films can be analyzed within the framework of photography and paintings and refers to films as “animated paintings”. This approach provided a basis for applying innovative and unique techniques in her films that not only made her works stand out from the mainstream narrative forms of the era but also introduced completely new narrative forms in film. Caterina Neiman’s An Introduction to the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947 (1980) provides a detailed insight into the process of how Deren developed her theories about films and how she applied these in her own works. A similarly insightful paper that builds a further understanding of the development of Deren’s work, with an emphasis on staying scientifically accurate while creating art, is the An Exchange of Letters between Maya Deren and Gregory Bateson (1980). Moreover, Maria Pramaggiore describes in Performance and Persona in the U.S. Avant-Garde: The Case of Maya Deren (1997) the way in which Deren was one of the pioneers of alternative filmmaking in the United States; she used film as “performative art”. Theresa L. Geller further emphasizes the way Deren differentiated her work from Hollywood in The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and its Critical Reception in the History of Avant-Garde (2006) and in Each Film Was Built as a Chamber and Became a Corridor (2009), and gives a deeper analysis of Deren’s experimental films through a feminist perspective.
To these interpretations, Laura Mulvey’s classic Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) provides a pivotal, critical point. John Fox’s The Other Side of the Gaze: Ethnographic Allegory in the Early Films of Maya Deren (2008) takes Mulvey’s idea of the “gaze” in Hollywood movies and, as the title suggests, counter examines them in Deren’s films. Additionally, Lewis Jacobs in Experimental Cinema in America (Part Two: The Postwar Revival) (1948) provides a short, contemporary overview of post Second World War American experimental cinema and includes a comparative analysis of Deren’s works. Wendy Haslem’s Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema (2002) gives an equally short, but very detailed summary of Deren’s life and work. Likewise, Ramsay Burt’s Katherine Dunham and Maya Deren on Ritual, Modernity, and the African Diaspora (2010) concentrates on how Deren was influenced by Dunham not only through dance while she worked for the Dunham’s Dance Company but also by Dunham’s anthropological research, which had a great impact on Deren’s works. Lila Moore’s Ritual in Transfigured Time – A Film by Maya Deren (1991) concentrates on this particular short to exemplify how Deren used dance and ritual to bridge cultural concepts by applying a new way of narration with using ritualistic dance as a modern performance.
By the 1920s, filmmaking had reached the necessary level of technology and infrastructure for independent filmmaking to emerge. This was also the period of avant-garde movements in the arts, both in Europe and the United States, which greatly influenced this new wave of filmmaking. The aim of avant-garde artists, to go against the norms of society with their art, was shared by experimental filmmakers. They sought to go against the standardized narrative forms and create their own worlds on film, or ― in Deren’s words ― “to create [an] experience” (1946, 4).
Deren writes in her essay that even though filmmaking techniques developed greatly in the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood “interrupted” this progress “by the intrusions of theatrical traditions into the film medium” (1960, 152). Therefore, for her, there were two main functions of experimental film: firstly, the function of preserving the image-like property and manipulating it in a conscious way so that the film is built up piece by piece, giving important and specific meaning to each and every image; secondly, the use of this technique to form new forms of cinematic narrative. In her book, she emphasizes that the two concepts, film and image, are not to be confused, but each has to be understood in its own right, and only then may they be used to create new narrative forms (1946, 3-5).
As the basic concept behind avant-garde and experimental filmmakers was to do away with standardized ways of filmmaking, experimental artists opposed mainstream films by constructing films with new narrative forms. These new forms of telling stories were accomplished through technological innovations. For instance, Deren created montage sequences, applied jump-cuts, altered the speed of the projected picture to create suspense, and used camera settings to change or even completely refute the standardized narratives’ concepts of time and space.
Another way in which Deren differed from Hollywood filmmakers was how she presented her protagonists―mostly played by herself. Her female characters were not objectified at all for visual pleasure, despite the fact that this was the way of creating mostly stereotyped characters for women in mainstream films. In Laura Mulvey’s words, “[t]he magic of the Hollywood style at its best […] arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (1975, 8). But not for Deren.
Besides technical innovations, Deren developed and introduced a new way of marketing for experimental films. According to Maria Pramaggiore, this strategy “was designed to encourage non-commercial filmmaking among artists”. This is how Deren created a new path for independent filmmakers who did (and still do) not want to work within the boundaries of Hollywood studios. Pramaggiore elaborates on this strategy and explains that Deren developed an entirely new way of financing her films by screening and promoting them at universities and museums (1997, 25).
Deren’s personality as well as her background also contributed to the way she established herself within the realm of filmmaking. She was born in Kiev in 1917, but her family immigrated to the United States in 1922 because of the increase of anti-Semitism. Although she was very young at this time, many acquaintances of hers noted that her “otherness” and “Russian-like” personality was often immensely apparent. It is suggested that Deren was not only aware of these perceptions of her by others but also used them in the creation of her public persona, which was formed to promote and finance her films (Pramaggiore 1997, 21-22). Because she played the female lead in most of her films, she was able to materialize these perceptions in her films as a way through which she criticized how mainstream studio films represented women (Geller 2009, 83).
2. Deren’s Films
2. 1. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
This was the most successful of Deren’s films, as it contributed immensely to the post second World War-era American experimental filmmaking movement by the application of “unusual features of the mise-en-scene” and used a unique “cinematography and techniques of montage editing” (Hopson 2012, 2). These innovations resulted in a narrative form that focuses on symbolic meanings and the representation of the individual. This experimental short film was “produced in an environment of wartime volatility”, which the film reflects on with rich symbolism (Haslem 2002). According to Hopson, experimental filmmakers of the time were “rejecting the industrial mode of film production and conventions of mainstream cinema, in favor of independent, film- based artistic practices” (2013, 6).
In this short film, which depicts the main character’s dreams she has during an afternoon nap, Deren creates a visual that reflects the “doubled self” of the dreamer. The duality of the self in this film poses questions about the self by emphasizing the “power of (self-) images, and the integrity of the individual (Pramaggiore 1997, 27). Deren notes in her notebook that she saw the medium of film as two-dimensional, but “adding the dimension of time […] made it metamorphic” (1947, 23). Furthermore, symbols are used together with the manipulation of time and space (achieved through various shots) so the function of the film can be fulfilled by creating a new reality. Within this new “relativistic universe,” the individual is the image in the focus and with the adding of “continuous elements” she tries to find her way in an “apparently incoherent” world (Deren 1946, 32).
This short film is a combination of “cuts, cut- in shots and framing techniques”, alongside the use of slow motion. The concept of time and space is destroyed by the extension of the movements’ duration, through which the moment itself becomes a crucial part of the narrative and creates a sense of tension and suspense (Hopson 2011, 5). Moreover, Haslem notes that, though rhythm is “a defining element of all of Deren’s films”, in Meshes she employs an “innovative style of cutting on action,” which provides the basis for her experimental narrative (2002, 2).
Pramaggiore also emphasizes the importance of symbolism in Meshes, and adds that, combined with repetition, these are used to “displace narrative” (1997, 28). Moreover, Hopson suggests that repetition is equally important because “[w]ith every repeated cycle […], the narrative develops” (2013, 7). The already mentioned manipulation of time and space plays a major role in the narrative of this film (and many other experimental shorts of Deren’s). Here, the concept is applied together with Deren’s theory of the role of pictures in such a way that these “undermine vision as sense which offers access to the truth of the individual” (Pramaggiore 1997, 28). Deren also wrote extensively about her ideas about the roles’ of individual images in her essay, Cinematography. In this she states that
The photographic medium is, as a matter of fact, so amorphous that it is not merely unobtrusive but virtually transparent, and so becomes, more than any other medium, susceptible of servitude to any and all the others (1960, 150).
She goes into further detail and emphasizes the importance of treating the individual picture as the smallest unit of any film because this is what enables the filmmaker to manipulate various concepts. Though the images are treated separately, the manipulation of each is done with a focus on the whole. Deren described this as the “arithmetical whole, which is the sum of its parts” (1960, 12).
In Meshes the individual is represented based on this concept. In the focus is the individual body, the problems of which are depicted and investigated throughout the dream sequences. In these sequences, for instance, of the stairs, the knife, the key or the figure of Deren herself, “the narrative develops and accentuates the uncanny feeling of a foreboding, lingering presence” (Hopson 2012, 3) and also, creates a “cyclic narrative” (Haslem 2002, 2).
All the objects that appear throughout the film have symbolic implications and the repetitions further emphasize these. This is achieved through “the editing and cinematographic techniques of framing, isolations, […] and cross cutting” (Hopson 2012, 4). The application of slow motion adds to the visual representation of these; according to Pramaggiore, this contributes to the contradictory way the subjects and the objects in the film are presented. The use of slow motion creates a dream-like world. Even though the application of repetition together with slow motion convey the confused state of the dreamer, these make it difficult for the viewer to follow the events (1997, 29).
As Deren played the female lead role in this short, the visual depictions of the protagonist are of importance and “not without gender implications” (Pramaggiore 1997, 28). What made Deren’s works stand out was her own way of looking at things and also how people saw her. Though many of Deren’s acquaintances described her as, though ethnically different − for instance, Anaïs Nin, the famous American author, described her as “the Ukrainian Gypsy” −, they still associated the term “naturalness” with her appearance (Pramaggiore 1997, 21). The way Deren presented herself to audiences was of great significance in Meshes (and in her other films as well, in which she played the lead role) because this concept was used against the way Hollywood presented women in mainstream films. Geller suggests that these radical, non-mainstream representations and themes that Deren used in her films “drew critical fire because [they] did it so in ways that were explicitly gendered” (2006, 141).
According to Mulvey’s definition, alternative cinema is “a space […] which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film” (1975, 2). Meshes addresses both the political and the aesthetic by examining Deren’s own position as a filmmaker “addressing the gendered self”. The film exemplifies a feminist view by “atomizing the psychoanalytic processes ascribed to Woman” (Geller 2006, 141-142). The camera angles and cuts are designed, as opposed to mainstream films, so that “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” does not happen (Mulvey 1975, 3).
Schatz notes Meshes as the best-known experimental film of the 1940s, and classifies it as the “first psychodrama” in American cinema (1999, 450). Tyler defined psychodrama as a “precise sign of the search for a new, operative identity by no means confined to the individuals” (1963, 150). Neiman suggests that Deren had an extensive knowledge about social sciences; she especially “learned much about psychiatric theory” from her father, who was a physician and psychologist (1980, 12). The individual was constantly in the focus of Deren’s films, and in this experimental short she creates a personal context with her camera through which the individual is observed. Hopson explains that the psychodrama typically challenged the conventional narrative of mainstream films in order to explore themes that were ignored by them (2013, 12). Deren, as a female filmmaker in the 1940s, created a “feminist and psychoanalytic framework” within which she explored the subjects of her films, through which she offered a “personal vision of the self” (Geller 2006, 142).
Lastly, what makes Meshes a prominent piece of American experimental cinema is the way Deren uses her technical innovations to create a unique narrative form. Some of these techniques include, according to Jacobs, “cutting the camera angels” (1948, 279), to Pramaggiore “us[ing] […] spatial and temporal triples” (1997, 28) and to Deren herself, consciously manipulating speed, which is “designed to create an effect” (1946, 20).
2. 2. At Land (1944)
Deren’s second film is a juxtaposition of scenes united by “montage editing” (Pramaggiore 1997, 30). This short film has elements similar to Meshes, such as the relationship between the subject (the protagonist) and the object. In this case the exploration of the relationship between the two is not connected to the domestic sphere, but it is rather a journey that ends at the sea where the protagonist finds her redemption and escape.
Kudlacek’s documentary includes an audio recording of Deren talking about this film. She emphasizes the importance of the depiction of “time quality” which, according to her, is different for men and women, as the strength of a man can be seen in a sense of immediacy. Opposed to this, a woman has a distinctive “time quality” which results in having a sense of time and seeing “things in stages of becoming” with a stress on metamorphosis as one becomes another (2003). In her essay, Deren puts it this way
the protagonist, instead of undertaking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will and confronts her with volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy. (1960, 165)
Furthermore, it is clear from Kudlacek’s documentary that for Deren the most significant thing to show in this film is that the series of actions carried the most relevance and not individual scenes. In Deren’s words, “what is happening, that is important in my films, not what is at any moment” (Kudlacek, 2003). However, it is worth noting that this statement of hers contradicts − to some extent − some of her own theories about the role of individual images in film. Deren thought of a motion picture as a collection of individual pictures, each of which has a significance and meaning on its own. In the process of making her films, she considered the relationship between these individual pictures, because, according to her, this is what is needed when creating any new form. Moreover, what adds to the uniqueness of this film is that, before she used these individual images with an established relationship between them, she arranged these in such an order that they would add to the new way of narration. In her words, “in creating a new form, the elements must be selected according to their ability to function in the new ‘un-natural’ context” (1946, 23).
Deren intended the film as “almost a mythological statement in a sense that folktales are mythological archetypal statements” (Kudlacek, 2003). At the same time, the focus on the individual does not shift as this short
presents a relativistic universe […] in which the problem of the individual, as the sole continuous element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century. (Deren 1960, 166)
This short starts out on an isolated beach where the waves of the sea are reversed. As all Deren’s films are teeming with symbolism, this alteration was applied in order to “create time and space relationships which can be accomplished by a meaningful manipulation of the sequence of film image” (Deren 1960, 167). The scene on the beach continues only, at the end of the film, with two women playing chess, and both players are the human counterparts of the pieces (Kudlacek, 2003). Throughout the film Deren’s body provides a connection between the rapidly cut scenes, and it also contributes the “illusion of continuity” simultaneously providing the idea of deformation because it “distorts spatial and temporal relations that normally govern human bodies” (Pramaggiore 1997, 32). The chess game itself could be understood as a symbolic representation of society and the social roles ascribed to individuals. When she turns up back on the beach at the end, and watches the chess game, the scene ends with her running away from the two women after she had taken the white queen from them. According to Pramaggiore, this scene symbolically depicts the relations within society and it implies a connectedness between individuals, as the pieces are only allowed their moves in relation to others. Therefore, Deren taking the chess piece and leaving with one of them could be interpreted as the celebration of “the escape from oppressive social, sexual, and aesthetic rules” (Pramaggiore 1997, 31). Neiman notes that the idea of identifying games with art, mainly chess, is frequent in Deren’s works in the 1940s, when she was making her first experimental films. Marcel Duchamp was a “mentor” to her in these times, and the implied analogies she used in the “construction of [her] art” were greatly influenced by him (1980, 7).
Geller suggests that At Land could also be understood, given the time period, hence the circumstances that were brought about by the Second World War, as an “immediate creative response to the historical situation of women in the United States at the time” (2009, 84). Deren emphasized the importance of contemporary art, that uses thematic elements that are interpreted within a given art work, “especially when the elements are drawn from reality,” because then “the audience is certain to approach the work as if it were altogether a natural phenomenon” (1946, 24). So in this experimental short, in order to convey these complex ideas through symbolic representation, contiguous shots are used “through the technique of beginning a movement in one place and concluding it in another” the result of which is the destruction of real time and space creating
a cinematic time-space which enable[s] unrelated persons, places, and objects to be related and brought into a harmony of new meaning and form much in the same form as a poem might achieve its effects through diverse associations or allegory. (Jacobs 1948, 279)
The visuals and techniques (for instance, the frequent use of slow motion, and reversed shots) applied here, starting at the beginning of the film with the scene at the sea, aims “to convey the sense that the whole film takes place underwater” (Fox 2008, 7). The movements of the characters throughout the film, − especially Deren’s, who appears to be the connecting element between the scenes −, are resembling this underwater-like state symbolizing the individual “in a suddenly and actually relativistic world,” of a post war society “and her inability to cope with its fluidity or to achieve a stable, adjusted relationship to its elements” (Deren 1946, 27).
At Land was not only a juxtaposition of various scenes but also, of famous artists of the time. Deren wrote and directed the film. Her camerawoman was Hella Hamon who was a still photographer and cinematographer. Though there are three women in the focus, only two of them are credited. One of them is Deren herself, the other actress is Galka Scheyer who was a German-American painter, and founder of the Blue Four art group, whose efforts in promoting the BF group widened the influence of European modernism in the United States (Weiss 1986, 11-14). Alexander Hammid, with whom Deren made her very first film is also credited and Parker Tyler, the famous American author and film critique as well, with whom she later worked together for the Creative Film Foundation (Kudlacek, 2003).
In this short, the elements applied by Deren all contributed to the significance of this experimental film because of the way she conveyed social criticism through the film by juxtaposing themes, elements and scenes together. Similarly to Meshes, At Land continues on with the individual in the focus and here the gendered representation is achieved through the manipulation of time. In order to create a narrative that is dominated by these juxtaposed elements, Deren accredits more emphasis to the individual images that make up the film.
2. 3. Ritual in Transfigured Time (1947)
In Deren’s third short, there is a continuation of themes from the first two films in terms of further developing techniques and structure with the focus on the individual “self, and society”. What is different in Ritual however, is the added element of ritual that is emphasized through dance, dance-like gestures and movements. “The ritual use of film technology is directly linked by Deren to the analysis of ritual forms in society”. The symbolic presentation of the relationship between subject and object prevails from Deren’s previous works with an innovative use of technology that “intervenes, transforms and depersonalizes” the context of the film (Fox 2008, 9). Pamaggiore also emphasizes the importance of the “dance-like quality of the gestures” as these provide fluidity in the narrative (1997, 33). Haslem argues in this same direction by saying that the “expressive and fluid” movements are what transform the ritual into a performance (2002, 4).
The concept of manipulation of time and space is applied in this film with such techniques as freezing or reprinting frames. Deren explained these concepts, as
the effect of freezing the figure in mid-action; the frozen frame becomes a moment of suspended animation which, […] may constitute a comment on stillness and movement as the opposition of life and death. (1960, 160)
Though Frank Westbrook is credited for the choreography in this film, it is only through these techniques that the narrative of the film can convey the struggle of the individual with making their peace with death. Rita Christiani, the other lead dancer besides Westbrook in the film, recalls the “collaborative” process of coming up with the choreography for the film, and notes, in Kudlacek’s documentary, that Deren emphasized the “sort of abyss in death” that she wanted to capture with the camera, and the running scene in the film is meant to represent the “outrunning” of death. Furthermore, the running itself could be seen as a “ritual in death and time” (Kudlacek, 2003).
The idea behind using dance scenes in this film was that, with the use of editing, the manipulation of time and space is possible and with the help of choreography, a performance emerges on the screen that “would be impossible to perform live” (Burt 2010, 6). The camera movements also added to this effect, as Deren recorded her footage with the idea of metamorphosis in mind, “implying uninterrupted continuity of time in spatial dimension” (Deren 1946, 50). The movements of the dancers were recorded with fixed camera, but it was stopped and started randomly during the recording, which had the effect of unreal jumps in the final film (Kudlacek 2003). Deren argued that such techniques like this resulted in a visual and narrative form that differentiated experimental films from Hollywood movies (1946, 51).
Deren’s interest in dance and ritual started when she got acquainted with Katherine Dunham, the American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist. In 1936, Deren started working for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company after she had earned her degree (Haslem 2002). Though Deren worked at the Company as a personal assistant to Dunham at first (Burt 2010, 1; Fox 2008, 5; Moore 1991, 4), this acquaintance later resulted in the creation of this experimental short, and Deren’s work with Dunham greatly influenced the choreography used in this film. However, Deren had never “acknowledged a debt to Katherine Dunham” (Neiman 1980, 5). Neither in this short film, nor in any other films of Deren’s that deal with rituals and use dance as a way of narration, had Dunham in the credits. Dunham did note that she was “annoyed” because Deren had “had the advantage of all [her] correspondence” and she also voiced her resentment about the fact that Deren “didn’t relate to [her] as she should have” (Kudlacek, 2003).
Though Deren did not credit Dunham, as someone who had influenced her works, the acquaintances that Dunham referred to, are evident in this film, as the lead dancers were former students of the Catherine Dunham Dance Company. During the period of the early 1940s, as Burt notes, ritual was understood as primitive and as something that “had no relevance for modern educated people” (2010, 11). Deren’s aim was − in this Ritual and her later research on Haitian vodoun − to concentrate on the movements of the particular performances, rituals and their moments, in order to conceptualize the “dualistic ways of the embodied experience” (Burt 2010, 2).
In this film Deren further develops the idea of destruction, which in her previous projects concentrated on time and space, and the individual subject. Here, she “de-personalize[s]” her art, which is of importance in the narrative (Neiman 1980, 10). This short film, as the title suggests, deals with the forms of ritual in such a way that it bridges cultures and individuals. That is, Deren wanted to “build a fugue of cultures”, as she referred to it in her letters to Gregory Bateson. Bateson, an English anthropologist and social scientist, consulted Deren on how to create her later films on cultures without “violat[ing] the meaning of […] culture-images by failing to use them truly” (Deren, Bateson 1980, 17).
Although left unacknowledged, Dunham not only influenced Deren through dance, as it can be seen in the choreography used in this film, but also, Dunham’s work as an anthropologist greatly affected Deren’s later works and research interests. It was during that time, when Deren worked at Dunham’s Company, that she “discovered ritual” from an anthropologist point of view, and started to explore a “distinctly modern approach to spirituality that presents an alternative to the idea of disembodied transcendence which r[a]n through the European philosophical tradition” (Burt 2010, 2). According to Moore, Deren’s interest in dance and ritual had started long before she made films and her aim was to research the relationships between “various forms of dance and religious and ritualistic acts” (1991, 4). Ritual was the first film from Deren that based on these concepts, used the choreographed dance sequences as the means to convey rituals in a modern context. In Moore’s words “the aspect of dance and ritual is particularly evident in Ritual, where [Deren] utilized modern dance, and dancers who perform in the context of a ritualistic act” (1991, 4).
One of the most important aspects − besides the individual’s reaction and understanding of death, as the running scene suggests − that this short film focuses on, is the rich symbolism through which it “explores the individual persona in the context of quotidian rituals of social interaction and the mythic dimension in the masculine aesthetic tradition” (Pramaggiore 1997, 32-33). These aesthetic principles that are present in all of Deren’s films were in a way an “interrogation of, and resistance to, the gender arrangements that shaped her life as a woman and an artist” (Geller 2009, 84). Fox suggests that in this film, the individual is still in the focus but not in the same way as in Deren’s previous works as the element of “socially located subjectivity” is added to the theme of Ritual (2008, 10).
The film starts out with three women − Anaïs Nin, Rita Christiani, and Deren herself − inside of a home, “occupying a particular social position”. The editing that was used by Deren “enables the distinct bodies” to occupy the same space. The way this is visually accomplished is through the application of “slow motion and freeze-frames” (Pramaggiore 1997, 33). During the dance scene, when the three women are outside dancing with Westbrook, and each other, the freeze-frames are applied to create a statue-like image of the individuals, symbolizing their entrenched positions in society. Moreover, Pramaggiore suggests that the cuts used to show movements, started by Christiani being finished by Deren, imply that these women “inhabit the same space and time”, that is, all women’s positions in a patriarchal society are the same (1997, 34).
The perspective that Deren has on these social matters, and the way she depicts them is in opposition to how mainstream movies of the time dealt with the subject. Ritual is the “dread of rejection and the contrasting freedom of expression” expressed through the ritualistic performances with the three women in the focus (Haslem 2002, 4). This short ends with Deren plunging into the sea, which suggests the attempted escape from the social constraints. Then the last scene of the film depicts Christiani floating in the water, shot beautifully in negative, as a result of which her black dress becomes white, and the scene appears on screen as if it was “free of gravity’s restrictions”, suggesting that the individual is freed from all the restrictions and rules (Pramaggiore 1997, 33).
The element applied by Deren that contributed to the significance of this experimental short film − similarly to the previous two shorts −, is the creation of a new a narrative form that resulted in the film becoming a performative art form. In Ritual a fluid narrative is achieved with dance-like gestures, and through the freezing or reprinting the frames. The individual remains in the focus, who participates in social situations that are depicted as a ritual. This becomes a performance through the movements which provides the basis for the criticism of the prevalent constraints of society with an emphasis on women. With ritual being the main theme of the film, Deren was also able to bridge cultures through changing modern society’s views on these practices that were regarded as primitive.
3. Maya Deren’s Legacy
As an experimental and independent filmmaker and film theorist in the 1940s and 1950s Maya Deren created such works that have not only affected later generations of filmmakers but also, paved the way for artists in the world of independent filmmaking. However, Neiman strongly emphasizes that Deren’s contribution to the experimental filmmaking movement transcends far beyond her films and theoretical writings, as
[s]he inaugurated experimental filmmaking as a viable profession in America – its channels of distribution, lecture circuit, workshops – composing a network existing entirely outside that of the commercial industry. (1980, 15)
In order for Deren to be able to avoid the “institutional limitations that controlled filmmaking in the 1940s American cinema” she showed her films – starting with Meshes – in theaters and universities and she held lectures so she could secure funds for her projects (Haslem 2002, 6). Pramaggiore calls this way of Deren distributing her films the creation and application of “developed exhibition channels”, which is an approach, that led to the “complete restructuring of non-theatrical distribution in the United States” (1997, 24). In 1946 Deren rented out the Provincetown Playhouse and screened her experimental shorts there and according to Amos Vogel, that was the first time that films had ever been shown at Provincetown. This gave an idea to Vogel who had long been working on a similar project, as he wanted to establish an avant-garde cinema club (or “cine-club”, as he called it) but he lacked the necessary funds (Kudlacek 2003). After he had heard of Deren’s Provincetown events, in 1947 he founded Cinema 16 which was “one of the most successful and influential film societies in American history” (MacDonald 1984, 19). Cinema 16, six months after it had started out, became a “membership film society and remained that way until the very end” (MacDonald 1984, 22). Deren’s efforts in establishing a new way through which independent filmmakers could bloom without having had to be subjected to restriction posed by the mainstream studio system did not stop at, what Pramaggiore calls, the “self-financed method” of film production. Furthermore, she notes that Deren developed her marketing strategy in such a way that it was “designed to encourage noncommercial filmmaking among artists” which she achieved through helping to develop a new perspective on film art while promoting her work at universities and museums (Pramaggiore 1997, 25). Geller also notes the importance of Deren’s success as an independent filmmaker as she states that through “bringing her work boldly into the field of public art” was how she “legitimized herself as an artist” (2009, 85).
Deren not only inspired the formation of a successful film society but she, herself established a foundation with the aim of rewarding and encouraging independent filmmakers (Haslem 2002, 5). In order to have a place for filmmakers through which they can promote their own films, Deren founded the Creative Film Foundation in the late 1950s, to provide artists with recognition, publicity, public acceptance and money. She created a board of directors of well known people (the president was Joseph Campbell, with vice president Alexander Hammid, Pulitzer Prize winner poet James Merrill was the treasurer, with Deren as assistant treasurer and secretary, and Parker Tyler was the assistant secretary) and the goal was to provide a showcase for films that were not produced in Hollywood (Kudlacek 2003). It is revealed in an invitation letter written by Deren in 1961 to Adolfas Mekas, how significant the foundation really became that she had established. In this letter she asked him and his brother, Jonas (with whom they made experimental shorts together) to present the Creative Film Foundation’s award in that year and Deren added in her letter, that
In the past the awards have been presented, on behalf of the Directors of the Foundation, by Tennessee Williams, Lotte Lenya, Salvador Dali and other renowned persons whose presence served to bring such creative efforts to the attention of the public. (Lounsbury, CFF Archive)
The aim of Deren was not only to be financially free from the mainstream studios, but also to go against the narrative forms applied in Hollywood films. One of the most salient ways she achieved this in her films is that she never used dialogues in her experimental films, but remained at the format of the silent film, arguing that
the sound film interrupted the development of film form on the commercial level by providing a more finished substitute, so the “animated painting” is already being accepted as a form of film art in the few areas […] where experiments in film form can still find an audience. (Deren 1960, 152)
Moreover, it can be said that Deren’s subversive application of film as performative art entrenched her in the history of American filmmaking, or in Pramaggiore’s words, that Deren “has been designated experimental film’s most prominent practitioner” in the United States (1997, 25). What adds to the significance of the technological innovations that resulted in a new and unique narrative in her films is the “interventions [that] signify a transgression of the implicit gender boundaries between the public and the private”. Which implies that Deren, as an independent female filmmaker in the 1940s and 1950s, through her various projects worked not only on “mak[ing] space for women artist” so they more easily could be accepted in “the public imagination” but did it so in a way that an access to the public discourse was also provided with “versions of community in opposition to the patriarchal” structure of society (Geller 2009, 87).
This mentality of going against the traditional gender roles set out by society is conveyed in her films through atypical gender representations. The female leads in her films were not created for the screen as objects of the gaze. This was another way for Deren to criticize the Hollywood studio system, by creating a “personal cinema [that] exemplifies the feminist anthem ‘the personal is political’” and through this approach positioning her films “against cinema’s typical theme of the masculine subject’s Oedipal narrative, with wom[e]n as the object (and outcome) of desire” (Geller 2006, 142). However, not all critics are in favor of this opinion. “Highly influential feminist writer” Laura Mulvey for instance, “ignored Deren entirely in [her] search for pioneering feminist filmmakers” in the 1970s, when she published her famous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Nichols 2001, 13). Despite this negligence, in her own quest of experimental filmmaking with Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), the influence of Deren can be clearly seen in Mulvey’s film, as Meshes’ “technical layout, its circular narrative, and the use of intensive symbolism” is adapted in it (Cristian 2008, 86). Furthermore, Cheu notes that Mulvey was “highly influenced by her passionate attachment to the works of Maya Deren”. And even though she failed to recognize Deren’s achievements as a feminist filmmaker she praised Meshes “as a touchstone for avant-garde cinema” (Cheu 2008, 71).
The prevalent influence of Deren, in a more contemporary setting could be seen in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Teixeira argues that there are two important concepts through which it can be seen how Lost Highway was influenced by Meshes of the Afternoon. The first concept is the narration applied in the films because even though Lynch’s movie was not produced “as an experimental artifact,” the film still “seems to narrate its story in ways that do not differ substantially from the way Maya Deren constructed narration” in Meshes (Teixeira 2009, 10). Besides similarities in the narratives, as the second concept, there is a substantial overlap of thematic elements, for instance, there are frequent gaps in the narrative, there is a specific atmosphere which adds not only to the unique visuals of the films but also makes it difficult for the viewer to follow the logical connections between events in the plot (Teixeira 2009, 18). Sheen, on one hand, also emphasizes the “striking resemblance” between the two films’ narratives that are applied to be explored “via abstract, open, and visually experimental passages”. But on the other hand, she calls attention to the fact that although the resemblance is undeniably there, it is a fact that the two films were created in entirely different settings. She asserts that while Deren’s films were “self-conscious avant-garde” short films with utter independence from commercial filmmaking, “Lynch’s films nest their experimentalism in more traditional Hollywood narrative conventions”, but adds that this is exactly the element in Lynch’s work that provides the possibility of reading his work as “ironic or parodic” (Sheen 2004, 71).
In 2011, the British Film Institute organized an event called Maya Deren: 50 Years On where such experimental filmmakers’ works were screened that explicitly stated that Deren had an enormous impact on their works. This event, which included screenings of Deren’s films as well, brought together three filmmakers who have been inspired by Deren. Daria Martin’s Harpstrings and Lava (2007), Jayne Parker’s I Dish (1982), and Sarah Pucill’s Cast (2000) were among the films that the experimental filmmakers selected to screen at this symposium, which was dedicated to the legacy of Maya Deren. Furthermore, in the same year, an interview, conducted by Broomfield, with Jo Ann Kaplan was posted on the Institute’s website. In this interview Kaplan pays tribute to Deren. Kaplan worked together with Deren on Meshes, and she states that she was immensely influenced by the experience as a filmmaker. In the documentary she made, Invocation: Maya Deren (1987) (which was narrated by Helen Mirren), Kaplan depicts a very detailed image of the process of how Deren worked on her theories and simultaneously applied them in her works. In the interview Kaplan acknowledges Deren’s influence on her work The Story of I (1997), and explains how she used various techniques, such as doubling images and using split screen, that were applied by Deren in Meshes (Broomfield, 2011).
Just to sample a few American experimental filmmakers who were influenced by Deren’s works: Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich. In 2010, they took part in the Museum of Modern Art’s tribute to Deren. This included the screenings of six films from Deren and the selection from the filmmakers of their films that they felt most expressed Deren’s influence on their works. Schneemann, a visual artist and director, screened her short films Meat Joy (1964), and Fuses (1967). The latter won a Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Selection prize in 1968 (Haug, 1998). Hammer, an experimental filmmaker showed Pools (1982) and Bent Time (1983), two of her films in which rituals are applied in the narrative similarly to the way Deren used them in her works, and Friedrich showed her short, Sink or Swim (1990). During this event, organized by the MoMA, the above mentioned three filmmakers joined series curator Sally Berger for a discussion of Deren’s influence on their work (Anderson, 2010).
As a sign of international recognition, in 1947 Deren won the Grand Prix Internationale Prize for avant-garde film with Meshes of the Afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival. In the same year she was awarded the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which was the very first time that a motion picture artist had received the grant (Kudlacek 2003). In 1986, as a recognition of her significance in American experimental filmmaking, the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award “to act as an incentive and reward for the work of contemporary independent film and video makers” (Haslem 2002, 6).
As not only a filmmaker but also, a film theorist, photographer and choreographer, Deren extensively wrote about her theories and ideas. She applied these innovative elements in her works while dismissing all the ‘norms’ that mainstream films, produced in Hollywood conveyed. She was completely free from any form of Hollywood studio influence, which was made possible by her creating the self-financed model for distributing her short films. This way of making films, that the theories she wrote about, she also applied them in her works, and that throughout her career she was able to stay independent, gave way and inspiration for generations of American experimental and independent filmmakers. What made Deren’s works unique are all the concepts she had created and then applied in her works. These include, for instance, the concept of time and space and the manipulation thereof. Deren created all these new and innovative methods to invent new narrative ways in order to be able to visualize reality, which, according to her, lies in the unit of a photograph. With the analysis of and emphasis on this unit, was it possible for her to find the meaning behind these pictures so that they could be conveyed on the screen.
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