2 x Maya Deren

I. Experimental Films (1943-1959)

Films
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943-59, in collaboration with Alexander Hammid, music by Teiji Ito, 14 min.)
At Land (1944, silent, 15 min.)
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945, silent, 4 min.)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-6, silent, 15 min.)
Meditation on Violence (1948, music arranged by Maya Deren, 12 min.)
The Very Eye of Night (1952-59, choreographic collaboration by Anthony Tudor, music by Teiji Ito, 15 min.)

DVD
USA 2003

Distributed by Mystic Fire Video Aspect ratio Academy 1.33:1 Extras Excerpt from Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren’s  Orginal Footage from 1950, assembled posthumously by Cherel and Teiji Ito, 1977. Private Life of a Cat (1945), previously unreleased short by Alexander Hammid Picture Gallery, Notes and quotes, Biography.

NOTE 1: Sheldon Rochlin, founder of Mystic Fire (USA) previously released Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti, VHS,1987 by Teiji and Cherel Ito, and Experimental Films  VHS, which contain Maya Deren’s six completed films, 1987. His video copies are made from prints of the films.

NOTE 2: Pip Chodorov of Re:Voir (Paris) distributes video copies (refuses to make DVD for aesthetic/technical reasons) from the original negatives with permission of Tavio Ito entitled: Experimental Films  VHS, 2001 (Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time), and  The Dance Films. VHS (Choreography for Camera, Ritual and Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence, The Very Eye of Night), 2001. He also distributes Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti, 2001 by Teiji and Cherel Ito.

 

Maya Deren made “dance” films – to be more precise, rituals predicated on dance and movement. We can say they are examples of “choreocinema”, an excellent designation given to her films by New York Times dance critic John Martin upon their release. A central concern of Maya Deren was to liberate dance from the stage, and provide it with “cinematic form”. Deren claimed that the artist/magician, like the scientist, uses the creative process to make the invisible visible, using tools to manifest “something new”. For Deren, the tools of the filmmaker were the camera – for the capture of images, and editing – for assemblage of the temporal and spatial form of film. She called dramatic films – “horizontal” or linear, and films which plunged into the symbolic matrix – “vertical” or poetic.

The release of the DVD Maya Deren: Experimental Films by Mystic Fire Video contains her six completed films digitalized from copies of her prints. Special features not previously released include a film made by Alexander Hammid: The Private Life of a Cat, made on Morton Street in New York where Deren and Hammid shared an apartment during the 1940’s. It is a cute film about their two cats, preparing for the birth of a litter of kittens, the delivery, and early moments with their parents.

During the 1940s and 1950’s Maya Deren worked in the poetic idiom and has been credited for launching the postwar American avantgarde film wave. Based on artistic intentions in carefully planned films, there is much to consider when approaching her work.


Meshes of the Afternoon, according to Deren, is a film about “a dream that becomes reality”. It is shot partially in slow motion to allow a sense of temporal duration. Repetitive elements are woven in the editorial process creating a spiral-formed mystery that bears a resemblance to dramatic logic. Yet, she stressed that the emphasis in Meshes is not in the progression of events. The appearance, dislocation, distortion, disappearance or reappearance of the central repetitive elements -- the key, bread, knife, phonograph, telephone, ‘dream girls’,  ‘man’ and ‘mirror figure’ -- serve as book marks in several dream ‘sequences’.

Different readings of the film, according to Deren, come from feelings awoken by the manipulation of objects in Meshes of the Afternoon. Yet, she disliked labels and when the film was called “surrealist” and “Freudian”, she added music composed by husband Teiji Ito (1957). Deren visualized Meshes in fact as the personal dream space of a chess game conceived by Paul Valéry, with checkmate at 22 moves.

The film structurally produces cadence for the movement of interior experiences through the dislocation, distortion and alignment of these repetitive elements. Meshes can be seen as the embodiment of a state of perpetual illusion. Each time repetitive objects are dislocated; such as when the telephone is off its cradle, or the record starts playing on the phonograph, the film shifts its contents, producing a new order.

The camera also distorts perceptions of surface reality, as in the rocking staircase sequence and the arm stretching towards the phonograph. There is also the glorious "four stride sequence" where the feet of the somnambulist or ‘dream girl’, as Deren calls her in the shooting script, take strides on "beach...grass...pavement...rug", covering several landscapes, edited as a continuous flow of movement.

This ‘dream girl’ is both pursued by and pursues a dream/force that she perceives as intriguing and dangerous. The dream/seduction of the ‘mirror figure’ and ‘man’ suggests entrapment. (Alexander Hammid, co-maker of the film, is both the mirror figure and the man). The man’s fondling of the dream girl arouses desire, and in another reshuffling of content, becomes a dangerous presence to be repelled. When he approaches her in another reshuffling, the dream girl sees a sharp, shiny knife. Later she appropriates it, and defends herself by shattering the illusion of this eminent danger in order to awaken from her dream. She flees to the sea (the theme is repeated in Ritual and Transfigured Time), however, seaweed wrapped around her body suggests another entrapment. Deren later claimed she had wanted to move beyond the story space to another dimension behind the filmic milieu but could not.

At Land is an exercise used to approximate relative relationships, blending nature with urban landscape, using a physical chess game. There is a feminine order of logic to the game. The protagonist is in search of one of the coveted pieces, a pawn, acquired by crawling the entire length of a formal dinner party table, following its circuitous route through water, to a beach side chess game in progress with two women, oblivious to the rules.

The original shooting script focuses on numerous examples of relative relationships such as natural and urban environments, space and constraint, absence and presence, and regulation and anarchy. In the relativistic universe of At Land, the protagonist scales sand dunes, rocks and dinner tables, allowing for motion in three-dimensional landscapes against her own frame of reference. Deren attributed the success of the film to the subtlety of the techniques in which the individual is forced to cope with a changing universe.  The symbols, as in Meshes, are simple and in this film instead of undergoing dislocation, they are juxtaposed with one another to give a sense of measured motion, a poetic core. The cinematic terrain inhabited by an individual who does not understand the dimensions of the new universes - a dinner party, several men on a pathway, a man lying under a sheet in a cabin and the beachside chess players - traverses space through motion. Her diminution and enlargement is designed, as in Meshes, to create emotion

In her next film, she focused on the cinematic convergence of space. A Study in Choreography for the Camera is the film in which Deren achieved an epistemological break from dance films that only ‘recorded’ movement. The new form was called “choreocinema”. This form was a unique contribution to the advancement of experimental and ethnographic film. In fact, Deren called Ritual and Transfigured Time and The Very Eye of Night  “choreographies for camera”.

A Study in Choreography for Camera is the ultimate expression of the liberation of the dancer from the confines of the stage. The connection of movement so that the dancer moves through space and is able to complete his movements in a continuous choreography was achieved through Deren’s camerawork and editing. One important recurrent technique that one finds in Deren’s work is how the camera establishes a position out of view and picks up movement where it left off. As the dancer moves, his tempo is synchronized with the turning camera. A wide-angle lens allows the dancer, Talley Beatty, the opportunity to cover distance within a short period. Camera speed alternates between extreme slow motion and extreme acceleration and is used to achieve sustained movement or duration. Parts of the body are traces from one frame to another and cut into different environments to provide a continuity of movement. “The idealized leap” of the dancer is achieved with different horizontal planes in descent through camera speed and editing.

Ritual in Transfigured Time is a rite of passage where “a widow becomes a bride”. Ritual archetypes juxtaposed with images of modernity and frozen matter - freeze frames, statues, bodies – are ‘spiritualized’ through movement, similarly how symbolist poetry (one of Deren’s poetic influences) ‘spiritualized language’. With this film, she began to solidify a connection between art and ethnography. The film was made before she went to Haiti in 1947 to make a film on Haitian dance. She called Ritual in Transfigured Time a rite of passage - a metamorphic journey from one part of life to another.

The journey begins with the initiator of the ritual (Maya), moving back and forth in a room, smiling and talking to someone who is not there. The entrance of the widow (Rita Christiani) is described as ”sleep-walking”. She approaches a ball of wool, (set to a metronome for winding). The weaving constitutes a basic feminine rite where the initiate is woven into a new form. The woman at the doorway (Anaïs Nin) is responsible for her initiation—’the initiator’. The widow then enters a party and meets her future husband. Deren used slow motion to film “the moments between: the standing and the sitting, the seeing and the greeting, the coming and the going.” Following the cocktail party is a ritual dance. (In the shooting script and outtakes, this was called "The Lascivious Folk Ballet” set in Central Park, a May-pole dance with Talley Beatty and Rita Christiani, included in Martina Kudlácek’s In the Mirror of Maya Deren).

Three modern archetypes of the Norns or the Moirae (the Greek goddess Fate) and the husband are shown in freeze frames to evoke their mythic origin. As the husband reaches out to catch the bride in  ”The Impossible Pursuit”, she flees in fear towards Pt. Jefferson, completing her metamorphosis where she plunges into the bottom of the sea, echoing the final moments of Meshes.  As she plunges (shown in negative film), we recall the entrance to the cocktail party where she is to meet her potential husband, dressed in a black bridal gown and white cross. Thus "the widow becomes a bride", floating in a white bridal gown. The conception prefigures the use of negative in The Very Eye of Night.

When Deren completed Meditation on Violence, she had just returned from her first trip to Haiti, partially financed by a Guggenheim fellowship. She intended to study the elements of ritual in the dance-oriented ceremonies of Haitian Voudoun (Creole spelling employed by Deren). Meditation on Violence is part of that voyage and explores the Wu Tang (contemplative, interior) and Shaolin (forceful, exterior) elements of Chinese boxing in ritual dance. Correspondingly, the spirit religion of Voudoun has a nurturing agricultural aspect (Rada) emanating from Africa and a malevolent aspect (Petro) practiced by Africans brought to Haiti as slaves. In Divine Horsemen (1953), Deren’s study of Voudoun written from the perspective of an artist, she reveals that a Petro rite sparked the road to Haitian independence. During the Shaolin segments of Meditation on Violence, Haitian ceremonial drums can be heard as the boxing ritual becomes agitated. The martial artist leaps into the air thrusting a sword directly towards the camera. This movement is captured in freeze frame – symbolizing a clear break and at the same time a dynamic interrelationship between the two forms. The film speed reverses and becomes Wu Tang. The ritual represents the principle of eternity – illustrated by continuous movement. The metaphor is consistent with Deren’s conceptual “anagram”, where ideas intersect and form a greater whole, discussed in her treatise An Anagram of Ideas on Art Form and Film (1946).

Just as the break in Meditation on Violence, Deren made a break in the construction of her films at this point. The closing shots in negative film of the descending bride in Ritual in Transfigured Time foreshadow a new dimension in Deren’s filmmaking. The Chinese warrior in Meditation on Violence is twinned, mirrored, and stands at the crossroads between the visible and invisible, the port of entry and mouth of the Haitian Voudoun gods. Deren’s work turns to represent the descent into the abyss of Haitian Voudoun – to the watery heavens where the loa (deity), such as Erzulie, goddess of Love, Agwé, the sea god and Ghéde, god of the underworld reside. (18.000 feet of the Haitian footage shot in the 1950’s embraced unique techniques of choreocinema that evolved from Deren’s early dance films.)

The transition to the dark abyss is fully achieved in The Very Eye of Night, edited entirely as negative film. In choreographic work, relationships are established between Uranus, the father of heaven and Urania, his muse, Noctambulo, “the deep sky diver”; the satellites, Ariel, Ambriel, Oberon and Titania, and Geminia, the twins created to represent the “archetypal self”. The exploration of physical space by the somnambulist was a continuation of the trajectory first created in Meshes. It was a pas de deux between the dancers and the camera as in her previous choreographic work. Each somnambulist or sleepwalker of the cinema is twinned, journeying to the heavens, the abyss, and inward towards the self. Released from horizontal and vertical orbits and gravitational fields, the movement of the dancers and camera becomes “fourth dimensional”.

A Study in Choreography For Camera was Maya Deren’s first film using dance as a creative medium within film art, and The Very Eye of Night her last “choreography of space”. Maya Deren forwarded an art form that lent itself to the creative potential of the film camera. Each film was a unique contribution to cinematic language that she considered the voice of the 20th century. Maya Deren: Experimental Films brings the experience to the digital realm.


II. In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Im Spiegel der Maya Deren
Austria
/ Czech Republic / Switzerland / Germany 2002

Director Martina Kudlácek Screenplay Martina Kudlácek Cinematography Wolfgang Lehner Editor Henry Hills Music John Zorn With Miriam Arsham, Stan Brakhage, Chao-li Chi, Rita Christiani, Jean-Leon Destine, Katherine Dunham Production company Dschoint Ventschr AG (Zürich)/TAG/TRAUM Filmproduktion (Köln) Runtime 104 minutes.

DVD
USA 2003

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films (region 1) Extras  English subtitles.

 

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Deren shot over 20,000 feet of film in Haiti only to later discover that it was impossible to edit the material without disturbing the ritual integrity of Voudoun ceremony. In her previous films, she recreated the ritual process, obliterating the individual as a personality, instead showing a person as part of the collective consciousness. The films form a continuum and assemble fragments of time and space into a dynamic whole – a synergy of art and ethnography.

The Haitian footage illustrates faithful representation of the ceremonies. This dedication influenced her subsequent films. This shift in style was disturbing for Deren acolytes including filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas. Deren’s first four films were considered innovative but her later work was “too formal”. Should we be content with a brief period of images Deren created between 1943 and 1946?

For research on the documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Martina Kudlácek - as others before her – went to Boston, where Deren’s papers are housed (Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections) and New York, where her films are stored (Anthology Film Archives). Several shots in In the Mirror of Maya Deren show Kudlácek’s lingering fingers on the primary source material in these archives.

One day she saw an ad at Anthology Film Archives in New York for someone – preferably a filmmaker – to put the films of Maya Deren in order, some of which were still in Deren’s coffee cans. Kudlácek was meticulous about the task. She even discovered a missing student film Deren had directed in Toronto in the 1950’s: Ensemble for Somnambulists: the blueprint for The Very Eye of Night. The rare footage was screened at the “Academy of Media Arts,” Cologne in a special program at the 2002 ”Feminale”, where In the Mirror of Maya Deren had its world premiere. Unique footage of Deren on a dolly shooting dancers of The Very Eye of Night with the Antony Tudor Ballet covered in black body paint is a rare treat also featured in the documentary.

Kudlácek assembles the pieces of Deren’s biography brilliantly, interviewing artists such as dancer Rita Christiana, the “bride” in Ritual in Transfigured Time, editor Miriam Arsham, Chao-Li Chi who performed in Meditation on Violence (1948), choreographer Katherine Dunham who did field studies in Haiti on ritual dance and apprenticed Deren within her repertoire, and Jean-Léon Destiné who taught at Dunham’s dance studios in New York.

Like so many devotees of Deren, to represent Voudoun, a labyrinth of sacred knowledge, challenged Kudlácek. She followed Deren’s footsteps to Haiti to interview Voudoun devotees such as the artist André Pierre, who remembered Deren, and filmed a ceremony to Erzulie Dantor in a hounfor (temple). Later, back in New York City, shots of the annual Halloween parade with goblins, and creatures of the dead serve as a facile comparison to the Voudoun loa ”Ghéde” with an emphasis on performance and masquerade. Yet Ghéde always enjoys a good laugh and the footage is striking.

Filmmakers and scholars alike have juxtaposed clips from the Haitian footage (excerpts shown In the Mirror of Maya Deren) with the films of Maya Deren, comparing intricate principles such as cross-gender possession with the dream-states in Meshes of the Afternoon or “sleepwalking” with possession, a concept Deren uses to describe mythical archetypes in The Very Eye of Night. Kudlácek’s documentary does not do this. In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a major improvement from the put downs about Deren’s ethnographic work in Haiti made by the late Joseph Campbell and the late Stan Brakhage in Jo Ann Kaplan’s documentary Invocation Maya Deren (UK, 1987). Kudlácek interviews Brakhage who was working on an homage film Water for Maya at the time, but who still believes that Deren’s involvement in Voudoun interfered with her art. Also interviewed is Jonas Mekas who indirectly referred to Maya Deren’s work among others as a ”conspiracy of homosexuals” – this then she was still alive. He is now curator of Anthology Film Archives where one of the screening halls is called The Maya Deren Theater and even calls her films ”the Holy Grail”.

Maya Deren’s life has been turned into a legend since her early death in 1961. An ambitious four-volume ‘docu-biography’ (after a decade of Deren’s neglect) begun in the mid- 1970’s by Catrina Neiman, Millicent Hodson, Francine Bailey and Ve Ve Clark, receiving the cryptic title: The Legend of Maya Deren. Anthology Film Archives and their now defunct periodical Film Culture backed the project. Up until today only two volumes have been released and the others still await publication funds. Based on interviews with Deren’s colleagues, and documentary material from the Boston Archives, the final volumes were intended to treat Deren’s work in Voudoun and to include testimonies from her colleagues after her death.

Martina Kudlácek’s film is therefore timely. It rectifies discrepancies in previous personal testimony from contemporaries and creates a compelling and credible documentary in almost every sense. In the Mirror of Maya Deren demonstrates how Deren’s immersion into the principles of Voudoun deepened her understanding of dance in reverence to deity and broadened her artistic repertoire. It moreover provides a holistic insight into the many aspects of her work.

 

Moira Sullivan, Ph.D Stockholm University, author of An Anagram of the Ideas of Filmmaker Maya Deren (1997), contributor to the anthology Maya Deren and the Avantgarde, ed. Bill Nichols, 2001.