The Mother of American Avant-Garde
written by J.A.Bohr
American Avant-Garde is not a commonly heard phrase. Sometimes it is called the Independent American Cinema, the American Underground, or the Experimental American Cinema. Whatever the name used, few filmmakers are remembered as belonging to this category although the "tradition has existed in the United States since the 1920s with a series of assumptions that differ markedly from those of the commercial American cinema."1 There are three critical attitudes thought about American Avant-Garde films; 1) They are "the narcissistic visual scribblings of the lunatic fringe whose work is ultimately irrelevant to the development of serious film art"2, 2) they are the testing grounds for experimental approaches absorbed into mainstream commercial film-making once refined and mastered, 3) these films are "the only significant and serious works of film art in America"3. These attitudes contradict themselves, making them quite irrelevant on their own, much like many films they attempt to enlighten.
The earliest American Avant-Garde films were explorations into pure visual form, as these filmmakers went out of their way to avoid Hollywood's look and feel (or lack-there-of). Ralph Steiner's H2O (1929) is an example of such a film. Composed entirely of footage of light reflected off moving water, this film is stunning visually. Yet it is highly non-narrative, in human-social conceptions. The best films portraying pure form are stated to come from Europe. German filmmakers, like Richter and Ruttmann, are usually named first when discussing films of pure visual form.
Despite the lack of commercial interest, America had its experimental and Avant-Garde filmmakers. "This cinema is highly personal and individual...Like poetry, it has no commercial aspirations; and it is necessarily revolutionary in structure, or visual technique, or intellectual attitude, or all three."4 Considered one of the most important American Avant-Garde filmmakers was Maya Deren. Over 50 years after the completion of her first film, "several contemporary music groups have recently incorporated images from Meshes (of the Afternoon) in their music videos and CD covers."5 It would be difficult to claim that Maya Deren's films are purely irrelevant if people wish to connect themselves or their work with her visions. Shot composure and editing techniques used by Maya to capture her visions are seen used today, although it would be hazardous to claim that she is the only influential filmmaker at this time using such methods. But before examining Maya Deren's work too intensely, it is best to learn who Eleanora (Maya) Deren(kowsky) was first.
(1917 - 1961)
Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowsky on April 29, 1917, in Kiev, Ukraine to Marie Fiedler and Solomon David Derenkowsky. In 1922 the whole family emigrated to the United States. "In 1928(,) Dr. Derenkowsky and his wife became naturalised citizens and shortened their last name to Deren. Despite her American citizenship, Eleanora Deren identified herself culturally as a Russian throughout her life."6
She went to the League of Nations' International School from 1930-1933, in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1932 she saw Gandhi speak at a lecture sponsored by the Women's League for Peace. She then studied journalism and political science at the Syracuse University in New York. "During her years at Syracuse, Deren became actively involved in the socialist movement: she (met) her (first) husband Gregory Bardacke at a protest against racial discrimination, she served as secretary and recruiter for the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), and helped organise anti-war strikes."7 She divorced Bardacke in 1937. Deren finished her master's degree in English Literature in 1939.
In the early Forties, Eleanora Deren moved to Los Angeles. In 1941 she began "working as a secretary for Katherine Dunham, anthropologist/Broadway dancer/choreographer, on the cross-country tour of the musical Cabin in the Sky. Dunham, who studied cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago, incorporated her interest in African dance traditions into her theatre work. No doubt Dunham influenced Deren, who became interested in dance, psychology and the Haitian religion (Voudoun)".8 Eleanora changed her name to Maya (meaning illusion in Hindu) during the Forties, and married her second husband, Alexander Hackenschmied (who is also known as Sasha Hammid). It is at this time of her life that Maya Deren becomes a filmmaker and visual poet.
"Maya Deren's work as a filmmaker, distributor and advocate for the art form is justly considered a milestone in the history of cinema."9 Maya only finished six short films during her short life (listed above), leaving two major film projects unfinished (The Witch's Cradles (1944) and the Divine Horsemen (1953)). Through the use of carefully composed scenes and elaborate editing, Maya tried to "defy the continuity of space and time, erase the line between dream and reality, and turn the entire vision of the film into the streaming consciousness of the filmmaker."10
Sasha Hammid, Maya's second husband, was a photographer. It was Sasha who taught Maya how to film. Together they filmed both Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944). Soon after At Land, Maya divorced for a second time. Highly influenced by Dunham, Maya explored the relationships between ritual and dance in societies in her films, with A Study in Choreography for the Camera: Pas de Deux (1945) devoted purely to creating a dance which cannot exist within the time and space she works with, and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) portraying an intriguing social waltz, while creating a statement about ritual in modern society. She then spent years in Haiti studying, photographing and filming local religious practices. She released her studies in a book, Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti. This book is considered a primary resource book on the subject of Voudoun, or Voodoo. She never completed editing the film footage she captured there. Soon after Haiti she married her third and last husband, Teiji Ito. She then worked on Meditation of Violence (1948). Her last completed film is a cosmic ballet called The Very Eye of Nights (1955). In 1959, Maya and Teiji Ito added music, composed by Teiji, to her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon.
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