How Maya Deren became the symbol and champion of American experimental film

The hectic distortions and special effects created by Hammid give the film its mind-blowing intensity, while Deren’s presence gives it its allure and personality. (For the purposes of the film’s credits, Deren took the name Maya, and kept it, on and off screen.) She certainly didn’t invent experimental cinema, nor bring it to the United States. United, but, with this silent short, Deren became the genre Orson Welles, realizing his own original ideas through successful collaboration with an experienced cinematographer (as Welles did with Gregg Toland) and showcasing those ideas through star power on screen. She became the name of avant-garde cinema by becoming its face: a still image of her, at a window of “Meshes”, is, to this day, the first emblematic image of American experimental cinema, the synecdoche at single image for the entire cinema. Category. Yet unlike Welles, who made his film fame when he was hired by a studio that later released his film, and when critics recognized his originality, Deren created “Meshes” in the absence of executives. institutional, organizational, even intellectual – which she took it upon herself to build as well.

In 1943, Hammid was hired by the Federal Office of War Information in New York to make documentaries, Durant writes, that supported the war effort. The couple moved from California to Greenwich Village, renting a fifth-floor walk-up apartment at 61 Morton Street (where Deren lived for the rest of his life). Deren was quickly introduced to high artistic circles through her work as a portrait photographer for magazines such as vogue and vanity lounge. She made a movie with Marcel Duchamp (which she never finished) and, in the summer of 1944, she made another spooky fantasy film, “At Land”. Where “Meshes” ends with Deren as a bloodied corpse, “At Land” begins with his body washed up on a beach – alive, in fact. Deren pulls herself up onto a large piece of driftwood and, peering over its edge, finds herself in a banquet hall, at a long dinner table, where she crawls on the tablecloth between the cheerful, unfazed guests. The film also contains elements of erotic fantasy, such as when she walks with a man who turns out to be four different men (including Hammid and the composer John Cage), she follows Hammid to a shack and instead finds another man in a bed, and – back on the beach – she comes across two women playing chess and happily pats a player’s head. In “At Land”, Deren acts more visibly, with a new athletic choreographic element. Her performance is full of connotations from other performers: her modest oblique gazes evoke Katharine Hepburn; and, when she zealously pursues her physical tasks, she brings to mind Bette Davis. (While filming on the beach in Amagansett, Deren bumped into Anaïs Nin, and they quickly became friends.)

Deren, whose coterie had grown to include many members of downtown’s artistic beau monde, became a major socialite in bohemian circles, turning the couple’s apartment into a center for parties and gatherings, and her relationships have proven to be galvanic. Durant quotes Nin’s diary of the strength Deren wielded among the village culturati: “We are subject to his will, to his strong personality, but at the same time we don’t entirely trust or love him. We recognize his talent. We speak of rebellion, of constraint, of tyranny, but we bow before our projects, we make sacrifices. Nin cites “the power of her personality” and notes “her determined voice, the assertiveness and sensuality of her peasant body, her dancing, her percussion; everything haunted us. We spent a lot of time talking about her. In a frenzy of creation and organization, Deren seemingly ordered the world around him, at least for one crucial moment, to fit into a template of his own design.

With no existing theater for the types of films she made, she held private home screenings and eventually a downtown art gallery. In April 1945 she made another film, ‘A Study in Choreography for Camera’, featuring the dancer Talley Beatty, also a Dunham alumnus, and it attracted attention in the dance world. “Strangers and vague acquaintances stopped her on the street to ask how they could see her films,” Durant wrote. Later that year, she sought to distribute her films, contacting museums and universities, writing a sales pamphlet titled “Film as an Independent Art Form” and taking out a print advertisement in a sophisticated literature and literature magazine. named art See.

Love at first sight in this primordial soup of Deren’s avant-garde celebrity came on February 18, 1946. She had rented the Provincetown Playhouse, a West Village theater, for a screening of her films that evening and, like the Durant details, she promoted the hell out of him. She edited a brochure with blurbs from notables (including Nin) and a short essay by her, lined the village with handmade flyers, and issued personal invitations to leading critics. “The party sold out in minutes, leaving hundreds of people on the streets teeming with frustration,” Durant wrote. “Deren’s films were, for weeks, the talking point of the Village, even those who were turned down had an opinion on what was seen that night.”

Among the audience at the Provincetown Playhouse was a twenty-four-year-old Austrian Jewish immigrant named Amos Vogel, who said the event made him recognize “a new kind of talent” in film, “an individual expressing a very deep inner need”. The following year, Vogel and his wife, Marcia, founded a film company called Cinema 16, which launched its screenings at the same cinema and, in the 1950s and early 1960s, was New York’s favorite hangout. York for non-Hollywood, independent, experimental and international films. (Vogel was also one of the founders of the New York Film Festival, which was launched in 1963.)

Deren’s accomplishments in the field of experimental cinema were integrated into the larger phenomenon of World War II as a particularly powerful real-time engine for artistic transformation in the United States, from Abstract Expressionism conquering the galleries of art to the rise of bebop in jazz clubs. Abstraction, complexity and vehemence came to the fore during the war and just after its end, a time when realities were so appalling they were almost unrepresentable, when much of the worst was still unknown but looming. in presentiments, fantasies, hints, and rumors, and when, in a short and terrifying time, the Holocaust became known and nuclear war became a reality.

In 1945, Deren shot another silent short, “Ritual in Transfigured Time”, the last of her films, as Durant notes, in which she appeared. (She finished it after the premiere of the 1946 screenings at the Provincetown Playhouse; it premiered June 1, 1946, and she showed it throughout the year, to heartwarming success.) The film centers on dancer Rita Christiani, a former member of Dunham’s dance company, whom Deren, in his script plan, considered, for film purposes, to be “the same person” as herself. The film begins with Deren carrying a skein of yarn and, with forced cheerfulness, recruiting Christiani for his winding (as Nin looms in the background). Deren’s performance is archaic, hectic, more contrived than stylized – her efforts to perform are overdone and flat, as if trying and failing to recover.

However, “Ritual” contains a nearly four-minute sequence of ingeniously crafted and thrilling stylization, which I consider to be the most compelling scene she has ever filmed – and it is the one in which she does not appear. It’s a party scene, shot in his own apartment, featuring the literati and celebrities around him (including Howard Moss, then poetry editor of the new yorker); it is also Deren’s modern film adaptation of Antoine Watteau’s painting.French actorsfrom about 1720, which she had seen at the Met. The scene, featuring around 30 people and centering on Christiani’s efforts to connect with the other guests, is filmed in slow motion; the framings underscore the deep layering of revelers’ comings and goings, and Deren evokes their cold conviviality with finely insightful and precisely imaginative staging. (She told them, “When you greet each other, greet with your palm up.”) As Durant observes, “In Deren’s editing, shots and gestures are repeated in rhythm, elevating the casual movements in the realm of choreography.

James V. Hayes