Sunday, March 18, 2018

Meshes of the Afternoon

The Auteurs

By Jonathon Saia

Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren, 1943) – Directors: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Writer: Maya Deren. Stars: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. B&W, 14 minutes.

My purpose is neither to instruct or entertain, but to be that experience which is poetry.” – Maya Deren

Maya Deren – ethnographer, photographer, film theorist, and Mother of the American Avant-Garde Film Movement – is possibly the most revered “amateur” filmmaker of all time. Like Cassavetes, Deren was committed to making the films she wanted to make regardless of any outside forces. While not the inventor of experimental or the avant-garde in film (those labels had been in vogue 20 years prior in Soviet and European film and even in America), what Deren did was elevate the amateur to artist and celebrated the art of making a film with one goal: the exploration and journey of the work and the discovery of the medium, uninterested in financial or fame related goals.

In typical auteur tradition, Deren was her own writer. Making only silent films, she created elaborate Chinese style scrolls in three parallel columned “screenplays”: one containing the action, another the camera moves and technical details, and storyboards on the third; cataloguing additional ideas on 3x5 index cards that she carried around with her. She was her own producer; funding her films at first with photography work; later with the monies from her lectures. She was her own cinematographer, except for the scenes she were in, of course; those duties taken over by then husband and collaborator Alexander Hammid and Hella Heyman. She was her own editor; assisted by close friend and future editor Miriam Arsham. She was her own exhibitor; screening her films for influential people like critic James Agee on her living room wall and booking them in various film societies throughout the US, Canada, and Cuba. 

She was her own occasional star, featured prominently in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1946), while using the favors of friends (including composer John Cage, artist and chess champion Marcel Duchamp, and legendary author Anaïs Nin) and lovers (Hammid was an established filmmaker in his own right and served as her mentor; her third husband, Teiji Ito, composed the scores) to fulfill any roles or jobs she herself could not do. 

Highly educated and an accomplished dabbler in many art forms, including Journalism, Poetry, Photography, and Dance, Maya Deren, while acknowledging the place of the other arts within filmmaking, sought to create something that only cinema could create. 

The idea of “completion” did not interest her; to Maya Deren, films were never finished, just abandoned. In some cases, this was literal: she quit production on Witch’s Cradle (begun in 1943), Medusa (begun in 1949), Ensemble for Somnambulists (begun in 1951, a precursor in form and content to the completed The Very Eye of Night, 1958), Season of Strangers (begun in 1959), and other projects about Egyptian culture and the circus for a variety of reasons, mostly financial and/or artistic frustration. She most famously abandoned her ethnographic film project on Voudoun culture in Haiti; in 1985, Ito and his new wife edited Deren’s footage to complete the documentary, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

In some cases, this abandonment was metaphorical or tongue-in-cheek: she called her first showcase, “Three Abandoned Films,” featuring Meshes of the Afternoon (her first and arguably her most accessible and “complete” film), At Land, and A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1946). Deren also thrived on the circuitous and circular nature of film. In Meditation on Violence (1949), the film plays forwards then backwards; in the unfinished Witch’s Cradle, one of the actors has the words “The End is the Beginning is the End” written on her forehead in a circle. 

Unlike Cassavetes or Chaplin or even von Stroheim, Deren’s focus was not performance nor an emotional truth that “rest upon the capacity of the actor to simulate an emotion,” deriving it instead “from the sum total of the visual image.” 

Nor was it story. Her films were fluid, like poetry, and thought movies should be “an exploration of the medium of film rather than the fulfillment of a perceived goal.”

Nor was it technical perfection. “Cameras do not make films; filmmakers make films...the most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both.” She eschewed tripods and fancy lens and thought that trying to compete with large Hollywood films “without access to their specialized resources ends only in a disastrously amateur result.”

Nor was it even being a “professional,” an idea she found anathema to artistic freedom. “The only critical requirement is the determination to make a film.”

For Maya Deren, what made cinema its own art form and not an amalgam of other disciplines was the ability to manipulate the elements of Time and Space through film speeds and creative montage; the ways in which Rhythm and Movement can create a singular experience for an audience.

Films [as opposed to still photographs] are concerned with the way in which the moment passes and becomes the next one. This metamorphosis cannot be composed within a frame, but only through frames, from one frame to the next. Such movement concerns itself not with details of space, but with details of movement in time.” 

In her lectures and op-eds, she encouraged budding filmmakers not to study photography, but music and dance instead. These elements were prominent in her life and her filmmaking and the key to her aesthetic. Ironically, the original versions of her earliest films – MeshesAt LandChoreography, and The Private Life of a Cat (1947) – contained no music or sound of any kind. Partially this was functional; Deren did not own a camera that allowed for sync sound. But she decided against adding music intentionally so as not to distract the audience from “the enormous vocabulary of the film medium itself”; namely the way it can “move”. Her later films – Meditation on Violence and The Very Eye of Night – incorporated Haitian drums (inspired by, recorded, and performed by Deren during one of the many trips to Haiti that consumed her later life and career) and an Oriental score, respectively; the latter written by her soon-to-be third husband, Ito. [Deren later commissioned Ito to write official scores for Meshes and Violence].

Even more than the idea of Rhythm or Music Through Rhythm in her films is the element of Dance. She studied with, toured, and served as the secretary for the Katherine Dunham Company before meeting second-husband-filmmaker Hammid and switching her artistic focus from poetry and dance to filmmaking; a medium through which she felt she could “make the world dance.”

Most explicitly, Dance is prevalent in her films Choreography (where she collaborated with Talley Beatty, a contemporary during her days with Dunham), Ritual (featuring Rita Christiani, another Dunham contact, with choreography by Broadway dancer, Frank Westbrook), and The Very Eye of Night (a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and famed dancer/ choreographer Antony Tudor). But all of her films explore the movement of the body and its relation to the movement of the camera as her main storytelling technique, particularly the way in which film specifically and singularly can move someone through various moments in Time and Space. 

In Choreography, through editing and the position of the body through multiple frames, a dancer’s developé moves him from the woods to a living room to a museum, making “neighbors of distant places”; in At Land, a woman (played by Deren) crawls atop a tree trunk which becomes a dining room table which becomes a bush; in Ritual, the characters move from one disparate location to the other with the turn of a corner; in Violence, a jump takes the viewer from one nondescript interior to a nondescript exterior, while a turn brings us back again as the film plays out in reverse; and in her most experimental film, The Very Eye of Night, Deren uses dance not to transport us to various locations, but to create a completely new location, void of horizons.

Her first foray in exploring the role of movement to combine a variety of locations into one appears 10 minutes and 15 seconds into her first and most famous film, Meshes of the Afternoon, but unlike her other works, it is not the film’s raison d’être nor even crucial to its style; though for Deren this brief 10-second sequence is what inspired the rest of her career and for which she is the most proud in the film because it was an idea in form and content that was completely new and completely hers. 

According to Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon objective was to make “a symbolic statement of the vast psychological distances that lie between people who may be in close physical proximity”; from the beginning, the idea of Space takes center stage. Deren fought the notion that it had any kind of Freudian symbolism or a feminine agenda or was in anyway autobiographical, despite the fact it featured a married couple played by her and her husband (in their own home, no less). Deren was so adamant in counteracting the presumption of meaning the film had inherited through the years she eventually had a score commissioned for it to “underscore and illuminate the original intent of the film.” Deren summed this up years later as an intention “to create mythological experience,” apparently forgetting or ignoring her original objective. How the score does that or achieves anything specific other than mood (the only thing a score can really do….) is as open to as many interpretations as the images. 

Despite her consistent protestations, it seems that if Deren and Hammid’s intention was not to comment on Freudian psychology, gender dynamics, and psychosexual turmoil, this is one of the greatest subconscious accidents on film. 

We begin with a woman’s arms entering from above. The arm is clearly fake, that of a mannequin. It places a large, fake flower on the concrete, and disappears. The shadow of a woman’s arm enters frame, followed by the real arm, and picks up the flower. A large shadow of her body is projected on to the wall. We follow her feet as she walks up the stairs to her apartment. 

The Woman knocks on a door. No one answers. She checks to see if it is locked. It is. (Though it seems as if the door were actually unlocked and Deren as Actress was faking this; mistake?)

Clutching the large flower in front of her, the Woman takes her own key out of her purse. Why knock before entering your own home? Perhaps this is a statement about how one does not feel at home in their own home. One further, made in 1943, perhaps this is a statement about how a woman could feel like a guest in her own home when her husband paid all of the bills; while both man and wife worked in the Deren/Hammid household, many women of the period did not and were at the mercy of their husbands’ means. 

She drops the key and it bounces in slow motion down the stairs, perhaps as accentuation to the theme of displacement. The Woman collects her key, puts it in the lock, opens the door, and enters. 

She surveys the apartment. It is empty and disheveled. In the kitchen, a knife falls out of a loaf of bread; in the stairwell, a phone sits off the hook. She climbs the stairs to find an open window and a record playing. She turns it off and goes back downstairs. 

She sits in an arm chair, covered in flowered upholstery, and places the flower in her lap before running her hand, slowly, sensually up her side and grazing her breast. This is the first indication that the large flower, covering her vagina, will be a stand in for her sex and more broadly for her person. The flower – her sex, herself – is for now hers. Safe and sound.

The Woman, known here forward as Deren #1, falls asleep in the chair. We are now entering her dream. 

We pull back to see a large figure cloaked in black walking down the path where we began. It appears to be a nun or the Grim Reaper. The Figure is now carrying the flower. It turns back to reveal it has a large mirror for its face. A woman, Deren #2 – evidenced by the same silhouette and shoes – runs after it. 

She gives up and climbs the same outside steps Deren #1 did. Only this time we finally see her face. Up until now (04:08), we have seen only pieces of a woman: her arms, her hands, her feet, her shadow; she is not whole, only pieces. Now, she takes full form. But only in dream. 

Deren #2 enters the house. We find some things have been rearranged. The knife, which was first at the kitchen table – the stereotypical center of a woman’s life and the nucleus of the home – now finds itself at the bottom of the stairs, supplanting the position of the phone. We sense that at first what may have been a symbol for a lack of communication between two people (an off-the-hook phone) at the entry to the seclusion of the home’s second story (the insularity of a marriage), now has taken on an ominous tone: privacy as danger. Marriage as danger.

Deren #2 runs up the stairs, only this time in slow motion. Instead of finding a record playing (the beautiful music of a harmonious relationship), the record player has disappeared. In its place, we find the phone (again off-the-hook) and the knife: both in the bed, bringing the lack of communication and the danger not only to “the house,” the marriage, but to the marriage bed. This is the first time the knife can be read as a phallic symbol. 

Deren #2 hangs up the phone and runs back down the stairs, again in slow motion, only this time she is completely discombobulated. She falls backwards and the frame spins. Deren and Hammid are erasing the horizon and skewing the audience’s perspective of equilibrium; something Deren brought to completion in The Very Eye of Night

Back downstairs, Deren #2 spots Deren #1 asleep in the chair. The record player now next to her sleeping body. She has found harmony in sleep; isolation. Deren #2 removes the needle and glances out the nearby window where she spots The Figure again walking down the same pathway, carrying the same flower, chased by the same woman: Deren #3. Deren #3 turns up the same outside stairs to approach the home. 

Deren #2 pulls a key out of her mouth as Deren #3 pushes open the door. 

This cycle, The Figure is now inside the house. It ascends the stairs as Deren #3 struggles even more to climb the stairs after it. Once she reaches the top, she sees that The Figure has placed the flower, the symbol of her sex, prominently on the bed. It looks back at her and disappears. Deren #3 then moves up and down the stairs in a series of jump cuts with a panic stricken look upon her face, perhaps a reaction to the sexual congress that presumes will come. 

As Deren #2 before her, #3 approaches #1. This time, the record player is gone and has been replaced with the knife. Now even being alone, even her dreams, is dangerous. Deren #3 looks out the window to begin yet another cycle of The Figure with the flower being chased by a woman: Deren #4. 

Deren #3 pulls the key out of her mouth and the key becomes the knife. #4 enters with the knife to find #2 and #3 seated at the breakfast table. She places the knife on the table, and it changes back into the key. If we are drawing the conclusion that the knife is a phallic symbol and the knife has been changed back into a key, we may draw the (Freudian) conclusion that the lock on the door, the guard to the home, could also be a vagina substitute. Sex can be as painless as turning the lock of a door for which you have the key. Or as obtrusive as being stabbed.

Deren #2 and Deren #3 both reach for the key in the center of the table; it remains a key. Deren #4 reaches for her key and it turns back into a knife. The doppelgängers seem to have been drawing lots to see whom would have to kill Deren #1. If the various versions of Deren and their intensifying interactions with The Figure and the knife are an indication of her mental states and her feelings toward marriage, it makes the most sense that Deren #4 – the woman who entered with the knife, the most dangerous – would have to be the one to kill the most naive and least formed (evidenced by the audience never seeing her face and only catching her in pieces, fragments, like the shards of a broken mirror) of them. Besides the psychosexual reading of the film, Meshes could also be an exploration of a woman discovering her strength and the need to kill the weaker versions of herself to survive within a man’s world.     

Deren #4, now wearing goggles (an aid to help her see the world and herself more clearly?), stands and turns to #1. As she stands, the room becomes a field of tall grass; the aforementioned first example of the beginning of Deren’s style (10:15). Deren #4 takes five steps, each changing, from sand, to mud, to grass, to concrete, and back to carpet, where she approaches to kill Deren #1.

But before she does, Deren #1 awakens to see it is not a doppelgänger bent over to stab her, but her husband coming up from a kiss to wake her, further solidifying the knife as phallus, as man, as danger, as death. 

The Man (played by Hammid) helps her up. Now holding the flower, her flower, he places the receiver back on the phone and leads her up to bed; his attempt to communicate. He lays the flower on the pillow as The Figure had; on the bedside table, his face appears in a mirror, telling the viewer that he is the shadowy figure; the reflection of the shimmer in a knife; and the reflection you see of yourself in a spouse.

The Woman lies down on the bed as instructed. The Man comes down to stroke her. Suddenly, the flower becomes the knife. She picks it up and throws it at his face (flower power, girl power?) and his face shatters like a mirror. Within the mirror, his shattered face, is an ocean. We cut to the shards falling into the sea, washed away in the tide. Man has been defeated by Woman. Sex has been postponed. 

But in, as Deren called it, “the double ending,” the message is reversed. And muddied. 

Back on the door step, The Man is now reentering the house; outside the door lies the flower. He does not pick it up. He puts his key in the lock and opens the door to discover broken glass and his wife’s dead body, throat slashed, wrapped in seaweed.

Could this be a continuation of The Woman’s dream cycle? Was she never awoken by The Man? Or could this be the beginning of The Man’s dream cycle? An unseen, unexplored series of how he sees the marriage and his place within?

True to its title and the ambiguity of the avant-garde, Meshes of the Afternoon explores both definitions of the word. As a noun, “an interlaced structure,” the viewer gets a complex portrait of the many versions of Deren: absent, confused, curious, and violent; as a verb, “to lock together or be engaged with another gearwheel,” Deren and Hammid exploring the fears of marriage and losing your identity in another. The film’s most famous image, Deren hands on glass with the reflection of the outside world framing her, looking out toward a path untaken at another version of herself chasing an illusive figure, could be seen (and has) as the defining image of a Woman Trapped in Domesticity.

In true “amateur” fashion, Meshes of the Afternoon was a literal home movie, shot in Deren and Hammid’s home, by them, featuring them. It took two weeks and cost $260. 

Deren saw Meshes as an outlier in her career. And there are some, like Deren protégé Stan Brakhage, who see Meshes as more Hammid’s film than Deren’s. Even Deren would agree with this.Meshes for Deren was heavily indebted to Hammid’s technical skill and know how of the “vocabulary”: “It is because of him that an O sounds like an O instead of an A, that the sibilants hiss when they should, that the word emerges in a single whole and does not stutter.” In fact, when George Eastman House reached out to her in 1955 for copies of her films for a retrospective, she wrote a long impassioned letter that instead of focusing the attention on Meshes, she would prefer it if they focused on Ritual and Choreography; films that she thought more fairly represented her talent and vision as a filmmaker. However much of the film may not be “hers,” Meshes does show the beginnings of Deren’s fascination with using filmmaking as a “vertical” medium, thwarting the limitations of traditional forms of presenting a “story” like a filmed play with the edges of the frame no more than a new proscenium. 


In all, Maya Deren’s “completed” oeuvre totals a mere 76 minutes, yet she has inspired the likes of David Lynch, Jonas Mekes, Kenneth Anger, and most especially Barbara Hammer.

In 1947, Deren won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Amateur Filmmaking. That same year, Deren also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first for any filmmaker. She used her grant to travel to Haiti and study Voudoun rituals, specifically “possession” and the role of dance within the ceremonies. Over the next eight years, she traveled to Haiti four times, spending roughly two years in total. In 1953, temporarily “abandoning” her plans for an ethnography, she released the book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, consulting famed ethnographers/ historians Margaret Mead and Joseph Campbell for the project, and recorded two albums of Voudoun music. Strapped for cash and denied extensions on her grant since no film had materialized, Deren raised capital by continuing to lecture and write about film theory and by using the advances from her book.

There are some who believe that Deren’s inability to finish her Haitian film, as well as a number of other projects through this latter period of her life, is because she was cursed by dealing in Voudou, of which she had become a priestess. Some also believed this contributed to her death in 1961 at the very early age of 44; however, the more plausible cause was a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a lifetime of malnutrition and a propensity for speed.

Her ashes were scattered across Mt. Fuji. Her then husband, Teriji Ito thought “this was the perfect resting place for a woman energized in life by ritual, dance, Voudou, music, poetry, writing, and of course, experimental film.”

Deren disliked the label of “experimental” filmmaker and found “avant-garde,” “poetic,” or even “choreographic” too limiting. She liked to think of her films as “metaphysical, mythological experiences...concerned with meanings – ideas and concepts – not with matter….exploring the inner experiences of a human being.”

It is possible that people may take exception to the basic premise of my work. They may feel it is the function of the photographer, or of any artist, to reproduce life as we see it. My opinion is that there is no particular value in duplicating something which already exists...I am bored frankly and I believe most persons are with repetitions and reiterations. And I am immensely grateful when someone creates, out of his talent and effort, something which I never could have experienced except through his creation of it.”
- Maya Deren


Sources include the books Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren (ed. 2005) and Maya Deren: Incomplete Control by Sarah Keller (2015). While the documentary film In the Mirror of Maya Deren by Martina Kudlacek (2002) is extremely slow and made for the super fan, it interviews a lot of the people crucial to her life and career so is a great resource if your interest is piqued. I would also recommend the short film, Maya Deren’s Sink (2011) by Barbara Hammer, a filmmaker I will be covering later in the year. 

As is the nature of experimental films, interpretation is myriad; therefore, the above is mine, based in part on the opinions of scholars and on my own reading of the material. I’m sure Maya would disagree. Do you? Let’s discuss. Feel free to leave comments below.

Visit my website at and check out my “experimental” films. I’m cool with the label. 

No comments:

Post a Comment