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.