Maya Deren: Experimental Films

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My guess is that when you saw the title of my entry, you immediately pulled up google to see who or what a Maya Deren is. Let me save you the trouble. Maya Deren was an experimental and surreal filmmaker during the forties. But she is more than that. First off she was the first famous experimental female director, she was the first person to receive a Guggenheim grant for film and she was incredibly unique in everything she did. I watched her collection of experimental films that were packaged and collected together on a hard to find DVD and I was blown away by her abilities.

I will highlight two of the seven short films that she produced. The first one I will highlight is called Meshes of an Afternoon. If you have heard of Deren, it is probably because you have heard of this film. The film feels like, on the surface at least, a lost masterpiece in Salvador Dali’s body of work. The setting clearly has a Spanish influence as well as the music, Deren is dressed much like I would think Gala would be dressed at this time, and iconic images that show up in Dali’s paintings are present here as well, like winding staircases and elongated figures. But Deren is able to take the ideas that Dali popularized and twist them into a way that is uniquely hers. She brings a sense of horror to the piece that I don’t think Dali was ever able to achieve effectively. (The slicing of the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou is gross, not horrific) She does this by creating a sense of other worldliness, like a knife being taken out of a loaf bread seemingly by itself or black curtains blowing in an imaginary wind. Of course the most “horrific” image has got to be the figures cloaked in a body length cloth but with mirrors for faces. It is not necessarily the figures themselves, but Deren’s reactions to them. Each time she sees one, the setting becomes surreal and our sense of confusion is intensified. These figures are the manifestation of her worst fears. Her fear of dying. This eerie figure is transformed into a man (who was played by her husband at the time) and she dreams that he is trying to kill her. The images of a key, a flower, a knife and a mirror morph and change meaning as the short goes on. Every sequence is punctuated by dissonant sounds made by drums, guitar, and a woodwind of some sort. These sounds lend to the other worldliness of the picture. It took me a couple of viewings of the short in order to get a good grasp of what I think Deren means. But I will not spoil this adventure for you, dear reader. I only ask that you take about a half hour out of your day and watch this short on youtube twice. You will not be disappointed, especially if you like to be challenged by the images you see.

Most of her shorts are pretty short with no hidden message so it is hard for me to say anything meaningful about them. So instead of talking about each short, I will talk about one that is representative of these later shorts Deren did. Deren was interested in movement and dance. In the Very Eye of Night, she takes a troupe of ballet dancers places them against a background of rotating stars. Each dancer represents a celestial being, and they all interact with each other through their bodies. But there is something off about these dancers. They are reproduced against this star background in photographic negative. Everything that was dark is now light and vice versa. This gives the image a surreal feel and keeps the viewer at a distance. Each image is punctuated by a beautiful score that keeps in time with the dancers’ movements. This is the short I would show anyone who has doubts about avant-garde movements.

I hope I didn’t disgrace Maya Deren’s memory by attempting to talk about her films. I am pretty inexperienced in talking about experimental cinema, but I feel like it needs to have more of a light shed on it. Experimental cinema has a stigma that plagues anyone who has sat through a student film. But it is so much more than that. Experimental cinema can create real emotions, atmospheres and thoughts just like traditional narrative cinema can. It just may take a little bit more active engagement with it.

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2 thoughts on “Maya Deren: Experimental Films

  1. Great piece. Will check out some of her work. Is any of it on Youtube or Vimeo in full? I have to say I think the eyeball slice in Un Chien Andalou is horrific rather than gross (or I should say horrific and gross). An interesting distinction to ponder though.

  2. From what I can tell, all of her shorts are available on youtube. Thanks for the comment. I think that because the eye slicing scene was put in there with no context, it loses some of the horrific tones that would be present if we knew who the girl was or at least what she is feeling (other than pain that her eye is being sliced.) of course I haven’t seen that movie in a while so I might be wrong about my ideas. I am a little reluctant to see it again though…

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