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Maya Deren’s Magical Labyrinths

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Maya Deren’s Magical Labyrinths

Maya Deren’s passion for movement was so great that her friends remarked she could have been a dancer. Instead, she channeled her creative energy into making films, with an eye to how the medium could arrest, slow down, and free movement, heightening the audience’s perception of not only motion but also time.

Deren, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1917, came to New York at age five. After studying literature at New York University and Smith College, she turned to cinema, just as the city’s cinephile culture was heating up. She would collaborate with expatriate filmmakers and become friends with film legends Amos Vogel and Jonas Mekas. Mekas, who founded Anthology Film Archives, was responsible, along with Stan Brakhage and others, for including Deren’s works in the cinematic canon known as the Essential Cinema series.

Among Deren’s works, 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon remains the most singular, seamlessly blending her interest in choreography with her appreciation of film editing. Shot in collaboration with Czech filmmaker Alexander Sasha Hammid, the 14-minute film can be described as a complex dream about female desire and Freudian death drive. Deren rejected the critics’ characterization of her work as surrealist, but she reveled in splicing disjointed images and locations. In Meshes of the Afternoon, a black-clad figure that walks down a garden path boasts a mirror for a face, and a key that Deren spits out is transformed into a knife. As may happen in a dream, sets change abruptly—from a street to a living room to a seascape.

The fluid, contradictory logic of dreams was a recurring theme for Deren, who was fascinated by the notion that a ritual, be it a simple domestic chore, an elaborate dance, or a Haitian voodoo ceremony, may stretch our sense of time, evoking a more ample, mythological understanding of it. As in mythology, different time frames overlap in Meshes of the Afternoon, so that Deren, who acts in the film, may be seen both sleeping in a chair, and simultaneously watching herself from above, in an out-of-body experience. She may slash her lover’s face, only to see it break into shards, as if he were a mirror shattering to reveal an alternate layer of reality. As in the films of David Lynch, the labyrinthine pathways that Deren constructs aren’t so much about the meaning of a single image, but rather about meshing of images and symbols, through rhythmic repetitions, to a revelatory crescendo.

Equally labyrinthine is 1944’s At Land, which starts out on the beach and alternates with Deren’s crawling on top of an elegant banquet table, guests chattering on both sides—wordlessly since the film is silent. A man plays chess at the table’s head. The chess piece becomes a leitmotif as Deren transverses multiple realities, with the piece reemerging: in one scene, it’s seen bobbing in the ocean; in another it’s used by two women, one blonde and one brunette, playing chess at the seaside. The film ends with Deren stealing the piece and running away, as if she were escaping from a wicked mind game, in which she’s a pawn being acted upon by unpredictable forces, as much as an action hero navigating parallel universes.

Where Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land weaved disjointed yet effortlessly flowing narratives, Deren’s subsequent experimental films explored movement in isolation, first loosening, and eventually abandoning any sense of plot. In A Study in Choreography for Cinema, from 1945, Deren shot dancer Talley Beatty in a choreographed sequence. Similarly to Andrés Kertész’s photographs of his brother leaping, or Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies, Deren delights in capturing a body’s exquisite cadences in time. She gives motion a more elaborate treatment in 1946’s Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which dancer Rita Christiani is first seen weaving yarn with Deren in an apartment, but soon embarks on a journey that takes her to a social soiree, during which the guests’ movements grow increasingly rhythmic and choreographed, until they become a captivating ballet. It’s the kind of psychically charged, energized space that Samuel Beckett envisioned when writing for television, hoping to harness the camera’s agility.

Meditation on Violence, from 1948, is, in a way, the culmination of Deren’s experiments. Brakhage described the film as Deren’s most intimate, espying sensuality in Deren’s moving in sync with dancer Chao-Li Chi, who, trained in martial arts rather than dance, is shot partly in an empty studio and partly outdoors. In the studio, Chi’s lithe, compact body is followed by multiple shadows as he begins to move slowly and dance-like, executing a choreographed sequence that builds to a more jagged martial-arts demonstration. Using the principle of yin and yang, Deren captures the fluid progression from dancing to fighting, and shows sensuality and aggression in both. She also rewinds the sequence halfway, so that the film loops. The reversed motion proves Deren’s point that a body is in a constant state of becoming, and that film is uniquely poised to show not only what things or images are, but in a more Zen way, how they flow into and complement each other. And while some critics saw Meditation on Violence as overly philosophical, it is as intensely watchable, and felt, as any of her earlier films.

Anthology Film Archives will screen Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, and Ritual in Transfigured Time on July 22 at 4:15 p.m.