“ZOMBIE REALISM” THE EXPERMENTAL FILMS OF MAYA DEREN – 27/10/2015

 

The Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art inaugurated its 2015 autumn program with an event dedicated to the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917, Kiev-1961, New York). A screening of the selected short films, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943-59), At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-6), Meditation on Violence (1948), and The Very Eye of Night (1952-59), was followed by a discussion on the works.

Maya Deren – whose original name was Eleanora Derenkovskaïa – emigrated from Kiev with her family to New York in 1922. After studying English and engaging in socialist activities, she worked as an assistant for the dancer Katherine Dunham. She began her filmmaking activity in the 1940’s and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946. Deren was also a film theorist and a lecturer, and supported independent experimental filmmaking throughout her life. Her work left an indelible trace in the 1940s and 1950s, and is now considered a major figure in the history of experimental cinema.

Deren shot her first and most famous film, Meshes of the afternoon, in collaboration with her husband Alexander Hammid. The protagonist of the film – played by Deren herself- explores her dangerous double identity in a dreamlike state. Deren had declared that her intention was “to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than to record the incident accurately [1]. In At land, a female character – also played by the filmmaker – emerges from the sea, participating in a troubling mix of social and leisure activities, linked together through complex editing methods.

Deren - At Land

Maya Deren, At Land, 1944. Film Still.

Her following works – A Study in Choreography, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and Meditation on Violence – focus on the body in motion. The Very Eye of the Night, shot in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School in New York, pushed this experimental theme to new limits, featuring a group of dancers moving with a weightless grace in a multidimensional dark space.

Deren - Very Eye of the Night

Maya Deren, The Very Eye of Night, 1952-59. Film Still.

After the screening, the discussion revolved around two main points: the influence of surrealism and the complex treatment of time and space. The recurring image of the eye, the constant references to dreamlike states as well as the treatment of unusual situations evoke surrealist works, notably Luis Buñuel’s landmark film An Andalusian Dog (1929). The complex treatment of time and space in Deren’s films challenges traditional and linear narrative forms. The action can simultaneously take place in different spaces (At Land) or in a space out of time (A Study in Choreography, The Very Eye of the Night). In any case, the treatment of time and space is deeply linked to metamorphosis. For instance, in Ritual in Transfigured Time, a freeze frame shot merges the dancers’ bodies with statues, thus creating a new mutant image out of a preceding one.

This selection of short films gave us an overview of Maya Deren’s main themes and visual aesthetic. Her work confirms the pre-eminence of the image as powerful and hypnotic; images emerge and leave a lasting impression on the viewer. It is in that sense that Deren compared her work to poetry and declared: “I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even if only the aura of my films”[2].

Audrey Kadjar

Notes:

[1] Maya Deren quoted on MoMA.org: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/89283

[2] Maya Deren quoted in the documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Martina Kudlacek, 2002.

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