Maya Deren Deren, Maya (Vol. 16) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maya Deren 1908–1961

Russian-born American filmmaker, dancer, film critic, and actress.

An important figure in American avant-garde filmmaking of the forties, Deren created the trend and the marketplace for avant-garde films. 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 this article, she praises amateur film-makers 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 to give financial aid to filmmakers.

Deren's early films were surrealistic and fantastic, constructed to portray a dream rather than tell a story. Abandoning this somewhat narrative style, unstructured as it was, in favor of purely physical expression in free form, she made films such as Meditation on Violence. Her work is difficult and obscure and the reaction to her films is sometimes negative.

Deren has been called the "Mother of Underground Film." She was a leader in certain areas; for instance, she legitimatized the use of 16mm film as an artistic medium. 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. A large crowd gathered for the showing, prompting police to investigate. When asked if the crowd was planning a demonstration, one participant answered, "No, it's a revolution in filmmaking."

James Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Meshes of the Afternoon" and "At Land" can be roughly classified as "dream" films and also approach, as Parker Tyler has said, "a type of personal expression in cinema analogous to the lyric poem."… There are many satisfactions of mood and implication and image in the movies, of kinds which are the unique property of the movie camera, and which are hardly even hinted in studio productions. Yet I cannot feel that there is anything really original about them—that they do anything important, for instance, which was not done, and done to an ill-deserved death, by some of the European avant-gardists, and especially by the surrealists of the 1920's. At worst, in fact, they are solemnly, arrogantly, distressingly pretentious and arty. Nevertheless, I think they are to be seen, and that there is a good deal in them to be liked, enjoyed, and respected. I don't at all agree with Miss Deren that "reality," in its conventional camera sense, cannot be turned into a work of art without being turned also into a fantasia of the unconscious; but if you have to believe that in order to try to do it—which I doubt—then I am glad that she does. For I certainly believe that it is worth doing; and I know of nobody else in films, just now, who is paying any more attention to that great universe of movie possibility than to make safely conducted little tours of the border villages. (p. 270)

James Agee, "Films: 'Meshes of the Afternoon' and 'At Land'," in The Nation (copyright 1946 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 162, No. 9, March 2, 1946, pp. 269-70.

Manny Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Miss Deren's] movies, which she once called "Abandoned Films" and now calls "Films in the Classicist Tradition," are Freudian-toned, lesbianish, freezing, arty, eclectic, conventional and safe. Utilizing real environments and people, they show people who look mesmerized or often ghostly moving through situations that have been contrived to have some Freudian meaning. You are always conscious of a mechanical-mindedness because of the pretense and self-consciousness of the acting, the labored arrangement of objects and people, and Miss Deren's fascination for trick effects with acting, composing and camera. The bleakness of these brief films comes out in the hard, stolid treatment of subject matter. Whether she is filming a perfect stretch of Long Island beach or a mugging esthete, her touch is totally lacking in sensuousness, humor and love, and she seems to petrify the subject until it takes on the character of a museum piece. The lack of sparkle is largely due to a dead eye for photography—she has no feeling for light and dark and is as unable to spot a cliché as a Tin Pan Alley hack….

"At Land," which is fairly typical of the substance of her movies, starts at a lonely postcard-pretty beach where the waves operate in reverse and leave in their receding wash a dead girl in a sarong (Miss Deren)—all of which may be meant to symbolize a birth fantasy. (p. 555)

This opening stretch of "At Land" gives an...

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Maya Deren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is the privilege of an individual to say, privately, of a work of art: "I don't like it"; but it is the public responsibility of a professional critic to indicate why it isn't art. Mr. Farber [see excerpt above] has reviewed my films in a piece remarkable for its substitution of emotionally charged invective for considered analysis. Since the former is by far the most economical form of expression, he is able to imply in one sentence more than I can answer in one page. The issue here is that of responsible criticism. My objection is not that Mr. Farber does not like the films and/or me, but that he does not explain or justify his appraisal of them. Instead, he creates a "review" out of extraneous information, misleading half-truths, snidely derogatory personal references and a Farberian version of Freudianism.

Although he is skilled enough to make both a "corpse" and a "birth-fantasy" out of the same image, he has not grasped the primary fact that Freudianism is a method of interpretation and is not a quality of the person or object interpreted. The films cannot be "Freudian-toned," as he called them. Only an analyst can be Freudian, as Mr. Farber has chosen to be, in defiance of my printed program notes which specify that the objects and events are not intended as symbols "to be interpreted according to some exterior system of psychology" but are "images whose value and meaning are defined and confined by their actual...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Image in the Snow] is a combination of poetry, music and cinematography which envisions the march through life, through the city streets, and finally through a cemetery, of a young man in search of spiritual understanding and peace. Miss Deren's photography, Mr. [William] Maas's poetry, and Mr. [Ben] Weber's music complement each other so closely and are so completely interwoven as to produce a single work of art in which no one element is dominant. In combination with Miss Deren's simple, yet daring and frequently unorthodox photographic techniques, this collaboration produces a startling mobile fresco in three dimensions, which engrosses the attention despite the fact that no conventional story apparatus is present….

[In Meshes of the Afternoon, A Study in Choreography for Camera, At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and Meditation on Violence] the photographer, largely without the aid of music or sound of any kind, has been preoccupied with choreographic problems in relation to photography, and each of these short films is a kind of dance. There is no question of simply taking motion pictures of dancers in action. The picture itself, in various remarkable ways, becomes part of the choreography, whether by camera movement, contrasts of blacks and whites, timing, rhythmic film sequences, repetitions, or whatever means the producer has found the camera to be capable of.

Miss Deren always seeks integration, even total identification, between subject and picturization, so that, in the end product, one does not and could not exist without the other. There is a vitality in this fusion of arts that may represent the real and the ultimate function of the motion picture as an artistic medium. Miss Deren has gone farther in the exploration of its possibilities, and from sounder esthetic premises, than anyone else I know.

Mephisto, "Mephisto's Musings," in Musical America (all rights reserved), Vol. 73, No. 7, May, 1953, p. 9.∗

Maya Deren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My films might be called metaphysical, referring to their thematic content. It has required milleniums of torturous evolution for nature to produce the intricate miracle which is man's mind. It is this which distinguishes him from all other living creatures, for he not only reacts to matter but can meditate upon its meaning. This metaphysical action of the mind has as much reality and importance as the material and physical activities of his body. My films are concerned with meanings—ideas and concepts—not with matter.

My films might be called poetic, referring to the attitude towards these meanings. If philosophy is concerned with understanding the meaning of reality, then poetry—and art in general—is a celebration, a singing of values and meanings. I refer also to the structure of the films—a logic of ideas and qualities, rather than of causes and events.

My films might be called choreographic, referring to the design and stylization of movement which confers ritual dimension upon functional motion—just as simple speech is made into song when affirmation of intensification on a higher level is intended.

My films might be called experimental, referring to the use of the medium itself. In these films, the camera is not an observant, recording eye in the customary fashion. The full dynamics and expressive potentials of the total medium are ardently dedicated to creating the most accurate metaphor for the meaning.

In setting out to communicate principles, rather than to relay particulars, and in creating a metaphor which is true to the idea rather than to the history of experience of any one of several individuals, I am addressing myself not to any particular group but to a special area and definite faculty in every or any man—to that part of him which creates myths, invents divinities, and ponders, for no practical purpose whatsoever, on the nature of things. (pp. 162-63)

Maya Deren, "A Statement of Principles," in Film Culture (copyright 1961 by Film Culture), No. 22, Summer, 1961, pp. 161-63.

Rudolf Arnheim

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Maya Deren] insisted that the true magic of the photograph in motion is more than a reshuffling of raw material, more than a masquerade. And she, who could be energetic to the point of violence when she fought for her ideas, had the sensitive fingers and eyes of a surgeon, when it came to shaping her photographic visions without hurting the tissues of the physical surface.

What does she show us? What was she after? She was one of the artists and thinkers who speak of the great paradox of our time; who say that, although our civilization has come closest to penetrating the secrets of inorganic and organic matter, we are less familiar with the world of tangible things than any human tribe has ever been. And, thus, in Maya Deren's films, the familiar world captures us by its pervasive strangeness. The white hands press against a window pane that is not there. The human body drifts through weightless space. Geographic distances give way to new visible connections. There is no practical plot to these films. When two faces look at each other, two minds call on each other. When an actor or dancer walks across the screen, he travels the path of his life's journey. The staircase turns in symbolic space, and a seated woman winds the thread of a hank of wool fatefully.

Do these pictures show us more than the alienation of the familiar? Are they simply the ghosts of a world that has died on us? I would not undertake to make the happenings in these films explicit through words. Nor do I believe that they were verbally explicit in Maya's own thoughts, articulate though she was. What we can assert is that the sequences of her images are logical. They are neither arbitrary nor absurd. They follow the letter of a law we never studied on paper; but, guided by our eyes, our minds conform willingly. (pp. 85-6)

Rudolf Arnheim, "To Maya Deren," in Film Culture (copyright 1962 by Film Culture), No. 24, Spring, 1962 (and reprinted in Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney, Praeger Publishers, 1970, pp. 84-6).

Tony Rayns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Chinese martial arts clearly offered [Maya Deren] exactly what she was looking for, not just in their balletic grace but also in their implicit union of philosophical and physical essences. Accordingly, Meditation on Violence shows a martial arts performance in virtual isolation, and is shot and edited in a way that 'expresses' the film-maker's reading of the performer's actions. It is apparently structured as a cycle: the half-naked performer is first seen practising so-called 'Wu-Tang' movements (a 'soft', interiorised style of boxing), then abruptly switching to 'Shao-Lin' movements (which are 'harder', less physically harmonious and more aggressive), and then escalating into 'Shao-Lin' swordplay. For the latter sequence only, the performer appears in exotic robes and is seen in the open air; the swordplay climaxes with a series of slow-motion leaps and a protracted freeze-frame. The film then retraces its steps through the cycle, ending as it began. (Although only the most hawk-eyed viewer would spot it, the movements in the second half of the film are in fact shown in reverse motion.)… Deren's intention that the film be perceived as a single continuous movement is partially realised through her skill in cutting always on a physical motion, creating elisions rather than jumps. But her grander metaphysical pretensions in the project … are muffled and largely obscure in the actual film …, partly because of Deren's own reluctance to admit the limitations of her effects. What does emerge is a sense of the critical relationship between theory and practice, evident in the contrast between the graceful 'Wu-Tang' sequences and the relatively graceless 'out-going' movements in the 'Shao-Lin' sequences. And the fact that the film is both unequal to Deren's ambitions and misleading as a 'study' of the martial arts does not ultimately diminish its interest—which is that few, if any, other directors were thinking of film form in comparable terms in 1948. Deren's significance as a theorist continues to outweigh her shortcomings as a film-maker.

Tony Rayns, "Short Films: 'Meditation on Violence'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1976), Vol. 43, No. 505, February, 1976, p. 40.

Thomas Mayer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Meshes of the Afternoon marks the revival of independent film in America after the experiments of the 1920's and early 1930's died out during the Depression. A modest, simple film of less than 20-minutes in length, it combines elements which arise in several of Deren's later films: elements such as the use of ritualistic figures, a rich combination of interiors and exteriors, and a fluid use of the camera—including the intelligent use of subjective camera angles before they became the rage in the late 1940's in Hollywood filmmaking. (p. 8)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a fascinating and monumental short film which never fails to astound those who see it for the first time. Even today the...

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