Maya Deren 1917–1961
Russian-born American filmmaker, dancer, essayist, and film critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Deren's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
An important figure in American avant-garde filmmaking of the 1940s, Deren created the trend towards and the marketplace for avant-garde films in the United States. She wrote extensively about her own work and film theory in general. In 1959 she wrote an article defining what she considered truly independent films: films made by one person. In the article, she praises amateur filmmakers and what they stand for: "[That] very word—from the Latin 'amateur'—'lover' means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity." Her profound respect for independent films inspired her own work and she became involved in promoting the work of others. To this end, she established the Creative Film Foundation in 1954 to give financial aid to filmmakers.
Deren was born to liberal, Russian-Jewish parents in Kiev in 1917. Her father was a psychiatrist, and Deren's exposure to this discipline shaped her intellectual outlook. In New York in the mid- to late 1930s she was a part of the Trotskyist youth movement and had strong Marxist beliefs. She had an early marriage to a member of the movement which ended in divorce. In 1941 she became the assistant to choreographer Katherine Dunham and travelled with Dunham's dance tour Cabin in the Sky. The experience with the dance company helped shape Deren's vision and throughout her career she displayed a fascination with the form and movement of dance. After ending the tour in Los Angeles she met and married the filmmaker Alexander Hammid, and she became interested in the medium of film herself. Hammid is credited with teaching Deren the technical aspects of filmmaking and collaborated with her on her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), in which Deren starred. The couple later divorced. Deren made three more films before sharing the first Guggenheim Fellowship awarded for creative filmmaking. The film she proposed was about Haitian dance and in 1947 she traveled to Haiti to begin filming. When she arrived, however, she found that the dance itself could not be captured without putting it in the context of the Voudoun culture. She immersed herself in this culture and even experienced the ultimate expression of Voudoun, possession by a voodoo god. The end result of her time in Haiti was a book, Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953), rather than a film. She made two more films when she returned from Haiti and left several works in progress. Deren died suddenly in 1961 at the age of 44 from a brain hemorrhage. During her life she worked to make the avant-garde accessible in this country by finding venues to show her work. She promoted her films at college campuses and museums and managed to find an audience for her work. In 1946 she rented the Provincetown Playhouse to show her films. It was the first time that a public theater screened privately produced 16mm films. It was this self-promotion and leadership that set Deren apart from other filmmakers of the avant-garde.
Deren had a very specific vision of her filmic technique. She always visualized and mapped out her films in advance, which enabled her to create films on shoestring budgets. Deren's early films were surrealistic and fantastic, constructed to portray a dream rather than tell a traditional story. In At Land (1945), Deren used editing techniques to create a continuous, impossible landscape out of several different locations. Drawing on her experience with Katherine Dunham's dance company, Deren used dance as the structural dynamic in A Study in Choreography for Camera (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). Deren also displayed an effective use of freeze-framing in Ritual in Transfigured Time. In her last two films, Meditation on Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1955), she abandoned her somewhat narrative style, unstructured as it was, in favor of a purely physical expression in free form.
Deren's work is widely considered difficult and obscure, and the reaction to her films is sometimes negative. Reviewers often point out the social dimension to Deren's work. Although some argue that it is autobiographical, most agree her films are not focused inward; instead they open up her world to the viewer. Reviewers discuss the importance of ritual and myth to Deren and many assert that she uses dance as a ritual expression of myth. The Very Eye of Night is often cited as Deren's weakest film; some critics complain that it is more formal than her earlier films. However, Meshes of the Afternoon is considered one of the finest independent films to evoke the surrealist tradition. Several critics refer to Deren as the "Mother of the Underground Film" and credit her with legitimizing the use of 16mm film as an artistic medium.
Meshes of the Afternoon (film) 1943
A Study in Choreography for Camera (film) 1944
At Land (film) 1945
An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (essay) 1946
Ritual in Transfigured Time (film) 1946
Meditation on Violence (film) 1948
Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (nonfiction) 1953
The Very Eye of Night (film) 1955
Divine Horsemen [edited by Cherel and Teiji Ito after Deren's death] (film) c. 1982
Witch's Cradle [produced posthumously] (film) c. 1988
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SOURCE: A review of Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti, in The Village Voice, Vol. XV, No. 50, December 10, 1970, pp. 6, 16.
[In the following review, Heifetz praises Deren's Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti as a careful and intelligent portrayal of its subject.]
Maya Deren's profound, loving study of the Voodoo religion is a very rare kind of book. In it, as in Alexandra David-Neel's books on Tibetan Buddhism, a famous system of practice and belief about the deep psyche and its relation to ultimate reality is portrayed from the inside by a highly intelligent, carefully honest and passionate observer. The Chelsea House edition is a...
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SOURCE: "Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac: Activists of the Avant-Garde," in Film Library Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 29-38.
[In the following essay, Cornwell asserts that Deren is important to filmmaking for both her work as a female director and for her role as a film activist.]
In "The Woman as Film-Director," Harry Alan Potamkin writes:
I have been asked a number of times, "Can a woman become a film-director?" My answer takes two forms. First, I make the obvious retort that women are in demand as players, as scenario writers, and as film editors. Then I go on to say how few women have ever created films...
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SOURCE: "The Mother of the American Avant-Garde Film," in The New York Times, May 2, 1976, pp. 13, 22.
[In the following essay, Starr discusses how Deren's films influenced a generation of avant-garde filmmakers.]
The gospel of the low-budget, personal, experimental film was first preached in this country by an explosive, dedicated young woman named Maya Deren. From the early 1940's until her death in 1961, Miss Deren both invoked and exemplified the American avant-garde movement, virtually by herself—as filmmaker, distributor, lecturer, theorist, and promoter, all in one fiery personality. In the 15 years since her death, hundreds of new experimental filmmakers have...
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SOURCE: "The Maya Mystique," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 20, May 15, 1978, p. 50.
[In the following essay, Hoberman explains how Deren was an innovator in filmmaking for her generation.]
Seventeen years after her death, Maya Deren's films (at the Film Forum, May 11 through 14) continue to provoke a violently mixed response. A pioneer working in a virtual vacuum, she invented the two genres—psychodrama and dance-film—that most characterize American personal cinema from World War II through the late 1950s. So many of Deren's devices have grown shopworn in other hands that it takes an active imagination to recognize just how innovative her work really was....
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SOURCE: A review of Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti, in American Anthropologist, Vol. 84, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 979-80.
[In the following review, Ehrenreich discusses the film Divine Horsemen, based on Deren's book by the same name. He asserts that the film has a limited usefulness for a general audience, but provides a thrilling visual document of Haiti for the informed viewer.]
Divine Horsemen preserves and makes available to a wider audience some of the intriguing and valuable firm footage shot by the American filmmaker/anthropologist Maya Deren between 1947 and 1951 in Haiti. Cherel and Teiji Ito have edited the film and sound...
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SOURCE: A review of The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, in Wide Angle, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 131-33.
[In the following review, Rabinovitz discusses The Legend of Maya Deren as a biography which presents the relationship of a female artist to a male-dominated system.]
The Legend of Maya Deren is the first book on the most frequently mentioned woman filmmaker of the postwar avant-garde cinema. Maya Deren (1917–1961) made short, modernist films that initially addressed an individual woman's subjective experiences but which later expanded to celebrations of myth and ritual. Unable to secure continued financial...
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SOURCE: "The Spacialization and Recuperation of Disorder," in Afterimage, Vol. 15, No. 3, October, 1987, pp. 12-3.
[In the following excerpt, Renov discusses Deren's film and writing as "most clearly evok[ing] as well as theoriz[ing] the heterotopic effects that have been attributed to the film noir, primarily through their elaboration of the horizontal and vertical axes of meaning potential to cinema."]
The work and writing of Maya Deren most clearly evoke as well as theorize the heterotopic effects that have been attributed to the film noir, primarily through their elaboration of the horizontal and vertical axes of meaning potential to cinema. During a...
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SOURCE: A review of Meshes of the Afternoon, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 653, June, 1988, pp. 186-87.
[In the following review, Kuhn praises Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon for revealing "a memorable inner world of stunning imagery and powerful emotion."]
A sunny, steep-walled lane, a large, delicate flower in full bloom, a woman's sandalled feet, sharp shadows, a cloaked figure glimpsed disappearing around a comer, steps to a house door. Within, a series of everyday objects—mirror, armchair, knife. The scene is set, the stage empty: what will happen? The enigmatic opening of Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren's first film—made in...
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SOURCE: "Maya Deren 9 Times a Life," in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 653, June, 1988, pp. 183-85.
[In the following essay, O'Pray presents an overview of Deren's life and career and discusses the legacy of Deren's work.]
1. Maya Deren had a rich, eventful life, cut tragically short when she died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of forty-four in 1961. A legendary figure of the American avant-grade cinema, which she was so instrumental in founding and nurturing, she was also active in dance, literature, anthropology, photography and politics. Astonishingly, her reputation as a filmmaker rests on a mere six completed short films, only five of which have been...
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SOURCE: A review of Witch's Cradle, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55. No. 653, June, 1988, p. 187.
[In the following review, O'Pray asserts that editing was so important to Maya Deren's work that a film of hers that is put together by someone else, in this case Witch's Cradle, is "automatically less interesting."]
As Maya Deren remarked, Witch's Cradle "was inspired by the architectural structure and paintings and objects" of the Surrealist Exhibition at the "Art of This Century" gallery in New York in 1942. The film was never completed and seems to have been made between the Hammid-influenced Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land in...
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SOURCE: A review of Ritual in Transfigured Time, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 654, July, 1988, pp. 217-18.
[In the following review, Dusinberre discusses the place of individual and collective identity in Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time.]
Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time merits special attention for a number of reasons. First, it synthesises all the major elements found in Deren's other films: psychodramatic condensation/displacement of time and space, the recourse to myth, and the use of dance as ritual expression of that myth. In addition, it represents the last of her truly 'accomplished' films (her subsequent work never quite...
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SOURCE: A review of The Very Eye of Night, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 654, July, 1988, p. 219.
[In the following review, Kuhn asserts that Deren's The Very Eye of Night has "a more formal, abstract—even a more modernist—quality than any of Deren's other films."]
The Very Eye of Night is the last of Maya Deren's six completed films. Ten years separate it from her penultimate work, Meditation on Violence, and Deren herself announced that this would be her final film (fateful words—she was to die just three years afterwards). It is in consequence often treated as an after-thought: the film has received little critical...
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SOURCE: "Out-takes from Maya Deren's Study in Choreography for Camera," in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 654, July, 1988, p. 217.
[In the following review, O'Pray asserts that the out-takes from Deren's A Study in Choreography for the Camera should be shown with the completed film to show how the film was edited and constructed.]
An assembly of out-takes, running about eight times the length, from Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera. In one way, with their repetition, the out-takes seem to foreshadow the minimalism and serial structures of what came to be called structural film-making as practised by Michael Snow, Peter Gidal and...
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SOURCE: A review of A Study in Choreography for Camera, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 654, July, 1988, pp. 218-19.
[In the following review, O'Pray praises Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera as being an innovative and unsurpassed film on movement.]
With the exception of perhaps the early single-lake 'primitive' films of the Lumières, Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera was probably the simplest film, at least thematically if not formally, to have been made at the time, 1945. Nothing in the 1920s German avant-garde work of Richter, Ruttmann, et al., prepares us for its formal purity and rigour. It is also as far removed...
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SOURCE: A review of Meditation on Violence, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 654, July, 1988, pp. 216-17.
[In the following review, Rees discusses how the changes in film style in Deren's Meditation on Violence match the changes in the film's action.]
Against a blank studio wall, a half-naked Chinese boxer performs in two traditional modes. To a solo flute, balletically flowing movements (Wu-tang) are captured by similarly fluid camerawork. This turns into a more erratic and jagged movement (Shaolin), reflected in the abrupt editing for the boxer's jabs and kicks. A drum is added to the flute, the music and action quicken, until the boxer makes a...
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SOURCE: A review of The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 2, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Winter, 1989–90, pp. 56-8.
[In the following review, Wees asserts that The Legend of Maya Deren "is not only for fans of Maya Deren, but for everyone interested in the development of the avant-garde film movement in North America."]
With photographs, letters, interviews, articles by and about Maya Deren, and unpublished documents of many sorts, including sketches and scripts for her films—all held together by the clear and intelligent commentary of Catrina Neiman—the second installment of The Legend of Maya...
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SOURCE: "Continuum or Break? Divine Horsemen and the Films of Maya Deren," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 86-97.
[In the following essay, Smetak explores how Deren's Divine Horsemen fits in with the aesthetic set forth by her films.]
In 1947 Maya Deren, a New York based film-maker, received the first Guggenheim Fellowship awarded for creative work in the field of motion pictures. The result of this, however, was not a film but a book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Deren's original intention had been to go to Haiti to film indigenous dance. She had, as she says in the preface to the book, "deliberately...
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