Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

A thirteen-minute experimental film made in Los Angeles by Maya Deren (née Eleanora Derenkowsky) and Alexander Hammid. The film is an unusual hybrid of surrealism, Freudian symbol, and art photography—as if Martha Graham and Luis Bunuel had collaborated on a project with an accomplished photographer who’d just been given her first movie camera. Actually, Deren had really just purchased a 16mm Bolex camera, and she and Hammid shot the film together. There is no plot, naturally, for the images and sequences recur, sometimes with variations, as do the symbolic set-pieces. The woman sees a tall, hooded figure with a mirror instead of a face and she follows it out of her house and along a summer street. She enters a room, sees the figure carry a large flower up some stairs and drop it on the bed. Or she is at home asleep in a chair. The figure is walking away as she watches it—and herself following—from the window. She takes a key from her mouth. She finds a butcher knife and carries it around. She is asleep. She is running. She enters a room where she sees two more doubles of herself sitting at a table. In turn each one picks up the key and it disappears and reappears back on the table, until one of the duplicate woman turns her hand over to reveal a darkened hand (blood?) holding the key, which turns into the knife. The man arrives carrying the big flower and they go to the bedroom where he strokes her, and she breaks the mirror of his face. Mirror fragments on the beach. Waves. The man is coming up the street, enters, and sees the woman dead in her chair. The whole piece has a muted, anxious lyricism; Deren is dressed in the stylish garb of an early-1940s bohemian and has piles of curly hair and an intelligent and sensual face. Hammid looks like a handsome revolutionary sailor from an Eisenstein movie. “Serious” droning music was added some years later, composed by Deren’s next husband, Teiji Ito. There’s no way of explaining the film—like most surrealist pieces it gets its life from the tension between images, rather than from any explicable narrative or coherent pattern of symbolic meaning.

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