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Mythos Community Library - Isle of Erato. All articles displayed in Non-Fiction are copyrighted by the author.

Maya Deren,
The Mother of American Avant-Garde

written by J.A.Bohr

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Maya Deren's life was cut short in 1961, when she died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 44. Although many cite the tragedy of her short life, she lives on through her films. As she writes in 1959, "I am not greedy; I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image - even only the aura of my films. And what more could I possibly ask as an artist than that your most precious visions, however rare, assume, sometimes, the forms of my images."11

Meshes of the Afternoon


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) signalled nothing less than the birth of American Avant-Garde film-making and permanently endowed Deren's legacy."12 Meshes is a film which tries to look at a series of events from the interior experiences of a person. As Maya writes in the program notes, "It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience."13

The story, according to Maya, is quite simple. A girl is going to another person's house. On the way she finds a flower on the ground (the flower's almost mystical origin will be ignored in this paper). She picks the flowers up and walks to the stairway below the house. She sees the shadow of a person turn the corner just beyond where she stands. She rises the stairs. She finds the front door locked, so she uses the key in her possession to unlock the door and enter. She then searches through the house, trying to find the person she came to see. On the stairs she finds a knife and a phone off the hook. She climbs the stair to the second story. In the bedroom on the second floor she finds an untidy bed and a phonograph spinning. It seems obvious that someone was in the house a short time before the girl arrives. She goes back downstairs, where she sits in front of a large window and falls asleep. The images she has just seen and experienced now begin to circle in her dream-state.

In this dream sequence she meets three of herself, as she is seen sleeping still on the chair. Maya and Sasha had "been primarily concerned with the use of cinematic technique in such a way as to create a world: to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences rather than to accurately record the incident...The very first sequence of the film concerns the incident, but the girl falls asleep and the dream consists of the manipulation of the elements of the incident. Everything which happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence - the knife, the key, the repetition of stairs, the figure disappearing around the curve of the road."14 Maya and Sasha attack objective reality. Objects metamorphosize into each other (through the use of editing), simple actions become impossible (like climbing up a stairway), and in the end it is difficult to actually know if the girl has awaked (and killed herself) or if she is just lost in a dream to awaken after the film ends to wipe the sweat from her brow.

The scene composure is stunning. Each shot is a moving photograph, carefully designed and executed. Compared to her later films, Maya Deren's work with Sasha Hammid is some of the most breathtaking sequences seen in American cinema. Both will also work together on her second finished film At Land.

At Land


This film is clearly the most political film from Maya Deren. Creating a rather mythological journey into the modern world, Maya tries to show a fragmented universe through the eyes of a woman trying to explore her own identity. At Land is truly the longest and most complex film she will try to do during her life. Climbing the corporate ladder is cut between Maya climbing driftwood and rocks, big business is compared to a chess game and the conference room is contrasted with a jungle. This film is filled with outstanding visual moments, but the whole of the story is hard to grasp after only a few viewings. This is most definitely one of her films which leaves an aura, and is full of images which are easily recalled, yet easily remain illusive. At Land has cameos from writer Parker Tyler, and composer John Cage.

A Study in Choreography for the Camera: Pas de Deux


"The space of the field, the ritual temple and the theatre stage have been, historically, a place within which dancers moved, creating, in terms of their own capacities and human limitations, the physical patterns of emotions and ideas. In this film through an exploration of cinematic techniques, space is itself a dynamic participant in the choreography. This is, in a sense, a duet between space and a dancer - a duet in which the camera is not merely an observant sensitive eye, but is itself creatively responsible for the performance."15 Choreography is a fascinating 2 minute silent film portraying a dance performed by Talley Beatty which cannot actually exist as seen.

In an interview in 1977, Talley stated, "She had reversed all the jumps. So when you see me jumping up and down, I'm really jumping down and down. There's a jump that goes from an interior to a landscape - that was done in reverse. I had to get up on a second-story mezzanine and jump from this second story down into a couch and try to hold it so it would look like I was working my muscles in reverse, like I was preparing (to jump). I don't know how that was done. It wasn't easy to do...We did a series in what used to be the Egyptian Court at the Met...That was on marble, and my feet perspired...You know that turn, that devilish turn with the head? It was really hard, because you have to close in so much on the camera. I was quite close to this pedestal that the statue was on. And I was used to getting leverage with my arm in the turn...I had to make this turn without my arms for what she needed...I just felt that I could have done better..."16

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