Female Director Spotlight: The Surrealist Female Gaze of Maya Deren

Lost in thought, a woman pulls a key out of her mouth. As she holds it in her hand, it transforms into a knife. She enters another room using the key, where two women, who look exactly like her, scrutinize the situation and carefully take a seat. She comes up to the table and places the knife in the middle. The knife turns back into a key. The women raise their heads in surprise.

As Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon progresses, we realize that the key plays a big role in the main character’s state of mind. It’s an image that has spread itself throughout visual arts in multitudes. Whether it be the weird key to the Dead Man’s Chest from Pirates of the Caribbean or the thin triangle shaft to the blue box in Mulholland Drive, it often illustrates the threshold between unknowingness and realization, a state of mystery — entrancing, very evocative, yet also hazy. In that, it mirrors some of Maya Deren’s most present sensibilities as a storyteller.

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Eleonora Derenkowska was born in Kiev in 1917 and moved along with her family to Syracuse, New York in 1922, due to the rise of anti-semitic hate crimes in the Ukraine. There, she studied journalism and political science and was close to socialist and other left-wing political movements. In 1942, she met her second husband, Alexandr Hammid, a Czech-born photographer and cameraman, who would become one of her main collaborators in her early filmmaking career. Meshes of the Afternoon, which was her cinematic debut, can doubtlessly be conceived as a landmark in the canon of American avant-garde cinema. Removed from ordinary conceptions of time and space, the film takes us into its dreamlike and elusive grasp. With Hammid, who co-directed and edited the film, Deren uses techniques such as slow-motion and superimposition, in combination with highly innovative ideas of shooting and editing footage.

She stars as the lead, as in her other early films, moving around a house and exploring her surroundings until an encounter with a cloaked, unreachable presence completely disorientates her. Deren is a great, expressive actor, but what makes her self-insertion particularly poignant, is that it boosts her artistic identity into more intimate highs. Despite their immense abstractions, these are deeply personal films about inward emotional landscapes. She knows best how to interact with them, connecting her positions as writer/director and actor into an uber-presence and blurs the border between artist and art.

The theme of self that inhabits Meshes from beginning to end, is continued in At Land (1944), which is similar in terms of how the main character is trying to navigate a surreal dreamscape but is different in its perspective. She is lost in the world of At Land and tries to progress, while in Meshes, the world completely revolves around her, trapping her. These two films are in direct conversation with one another, as well as with Ritual In Transfigured Time (1946), which has similar stylistic threads, but also major differences from the first two.

Deren only stars in the film briefly, and even though it seems reductive to immediately interpret racially-charged text into a film with a black lead, there are enough lighthanded nods at such a text. This is not the sole reason why the film is one of Deren’s best, but it certainly adds to a pile of reasons to explore it. Dance is a focus and Deren and her cinematographer Hella Heyman manage to capture it in stunning imagery that still feels fresh and is injected with a rare, concentrated cinematic energy.

She masters combining visual narrative with movement here, after having a test run in the film A Study In Choreography for Camera, which she released a year earlier. It focuses on a dancer, who swirls, twists and moves his body through different scenarios. In this short, Deren shows off how well she can navigate bodies in space, just by blocking, shooting and editing. A seamless dance takes place in a forest, then a house, then a museum and finally— after a leap through the air — on top of a cliff. The movement and its visceral power are never interrupted and one image melds into the next. It’s something Deren always was interested in. Almost all of her films show a virtuoso control over spaces and the understanding of how gorgeous and baffling spatially manipulated compositions can be, how exciting a rotating camera in combination with a ventilator can be. With dance, she takes the elegance of those brilliant moments to a new level and creates organic wholes. Centering on a beautiful rendition of traditional Chinese boxing (with and without sword), Meditation on Violence (1949) does a similar trick, but in a more agile and kinetic manner. The sheer sense for momentum here creates an electrifying stream of images, particularly because the sword seems to be in permanent flirtation to smash the camera in half.

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She continued to focus on dance and the capturing of tradition in her late filmmaking efforts. Fascinated with Voudou, she visited Haiti to record both sound and video footage, strongly identifying with concepts such as a transcendence from the ego.

Her good friend Teiji Ito, who retroactively scored most of her films, edited and produced a posthumous documentary named Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti out of her footage after her death in 1961 at the age of 44. Ito took further charge of her legacy, also releasing some of her music she recorded in Haiti. Her early death was a result of health issues and regressive drug prescriptions. Her ashes were scattered at Mount Fuji in Japan.

Deren was one of the most remarkable and opinionated filmmakers of her time, often criticizing Hollywood and its heavily capitalist structures and rejecting the idea of an art industry that has to fuse into an industrial complex. She was a fierce proponent of the independent film and believed that cinema was intended to be an experience, an “anagram”, which combined several artistic forms of expression into a whole. She cherished the often looked-down at notion of amateur filmmaking, giving it credit as a much freer, liberating form of artistic expression than commercial film. She said of amateur films, “That very word — from the Latin amator, ‘lover’ — means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity” (from Movie Makers Annuial, 1959).

Her cinematic gaze was unapologetically female, emotional and liberated, even when the limited press attention she received began to focus on her appearance and artistic persona, fetishizing her looks rather than admiring her ideas. As she moved on to capture dance and tradition, her work became less explicitly personal, but her presence is still there, behind the camera.

Through all of her other work, from Witch’s Cradle (1944), an unfinished film that works as a trip into gradually more abstract and occult imagery, to her co-directed documentary The Private Life of a Cat from the same year, which observes a cat family in a strangely coherent narrative arc, to her later dance projects, such as The Very Eye of the Night (1958), which shows dancers floating in front of a starry background, she kept her tender, energetic and introspective gaze. Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Barbara Hammer, David Lynch, Spike Jonze, and more proudly wear her influence. Deren was a woman who didn’t care about what an industry wanted her to be or to represent. She created the image she wanted and incidentally innovated filmmaking. Her vision remains as fresh as it was during her lifetime and her legacy is one that stretches from Kate Bush to Neil Gaiman to weirdly specific commercials about women trying to make their way through surrealist scenarios, until they are liberated by the product they advertise. She would have hated those, but sometimes legacy goes beyond control.

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