Thursday, September 17, 2009

In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Maya Deren is a legendary figure in avant-garde cinema, a true visionary who completed just six short films in her brief life, but whose reputation has endured on the strength of this small but utterly original oeuvre. Martina Kudlácek's documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren is an attempt to grapple with this tremendous legacy, to trace Deren's eventful, complicated life, to explore the ideas and preoccupations at the heart of her cinema, to gather the testimonies of those who knew her, who were affected by her incandescent passion and energy. All of this comes across beautifully in Kudlácek's film, which is a true ode to its subject, a poetic assemblage of reminiscences, fragments of film, excerpts from Deren's finished works, and audio recordings of her voice, delivering lectures on filmmaking, voodoo, art and philosophy.

Deren's work as a filmmaker began with Meshes of the Afternoon, made in 1943 with the help of her then-husband, the experimental filmmaker Alexander Hammid. This epochal film, nearly on its own, is responsible for Deren's legacy: it is a trancelike psychodrama, steeped in the logic of dreams and nightmares, populated with doubles and mirrors and an eerie sense of danger and sensuality intertwined. Kudlácek's film touches on the making of this short, but her focus is not necessarily on the details and intricacies of the filmmaking process — this documentary gives little sense of Deren at work, only momentary glimpses of her process behind the camera. It is not a behind-the-scenes documentary, nor is it a comprehensive biography, though it veers closer to the latter. Kudlácek seems chiefly concerned with getting as close as possible to a vision of who Deren was, what her creative philosophy was like, what she thought about and imagined when she was creating her visionary works. The film follows the arc of Deren's life, tracing her biography, often filling in details with onscreen texts that describe pivotal events — childhood background, marriages, divorces, moves, publications. But these are facts, only, and the interviewees who Kudlácek includes in the film, all of whom knew Deren very well, rarely talk about the facts of her life. Instead, they discourse on her personality, on what made her special and what made her films special, on her ideas, on her mystical and spiritual qualities.

It is fitting that a poetic, evasive figure like Deren should be treated to such a poetic, evasive biography, one that establishes certain basic facts but is much more concerned with the ephemeral and the sublime. Kudlácek's own voice never enters the film; she never offers her own commentary but allows everyone else to speak, to offer their own individual commentaries on who Deren was and what she represented. The voices here range from Hammid to future IMAX filmmaker and personal friend Graeme Ferguson to fellow avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas to Film as a Subversive Art author Amos Vogel to the performers who appeared in Deren's dance films to the Haitian friends she made on her many visits to that country, working on a film she never completed. These people offer many contrasting visions of Deren: personal reminiscences, admiration for her commitment and craft as a filmmaker, and in many cases expressions of her supposed mystical and even magical power. Brakhage tells a story about the diminutive Deren, possessed by a Haitian god during a ritual, actually throwing a refrigerator across a room, and the Haitian painter André Pierre tells about a time when Deren disappeared from a boat only to reappear floating way out in the ocean, singing.

All of this, like everything else in the film, is presented without comment, as one more indication of the legends and stories that have accumulated around this extraordinary figure. There is a certain amount of pretension in Deren, in her mysticism and her speeches about filmmaking. Sometimes in her filmmaking as well: Brakhage laments that her final film, The Very Eye of Night, was misunderstood by practically everyone, but the film itself is tiresome and inscrutable, consisting entirely of negative-image dancers superimposed upon a field of stars. As with most of Deren's work, there's an elaborate intellectual justification for everything here — something about myth and the movement of "celestial bodies" — but unlike in her earlier work the film itself is largely inaccessible without the benefit of this context. Whatever meaning Deren intended for the dreamlike Meshes and At Land, or the rigidly choreographed earlier dance films like Ritual in Transfigured Time and Meditation on Violence, the films themselves have a sensual and visceral quality that goes beyond mere conceptual games.

Thus, when Deren's voiceover is heard describing her films in lectures, speaking over images from her own films, it is undeniable that the images possess a power and beauty that cannot be captured in words, not even the words of the filmmaker herself, whose explanations for her every choice fall short of the ineffable quality that made her films truly great. Kudlácek's film is fascinating for providing a glimpse into Deren's thinking, into her creative process, but ultimately all these words can only be a glimpse, dwarfed by the mysterious power of the films themselves. In the Mirror of Maya Deren also proves valuable for its insight into Deren's collaborative process, for the way she would draw in multi-talented people to work with her. Although she worked entirely outside of the conventional Hollywood system of her time, she was also distinct from most of her contemporaries in the avant-garde, including Brakhage and Mekas, who tended to be solitary figures making personal films on their own, with just a single camera and their own two hands. At one point, Brakhage himself is shown at work on the film Water for Maya, his tribute to Deren, and it's a very different working method from Deren's expansive, collaborative ventures: Brakhage sits alone, holding a filmstrip up to the light, carefully dabbing paint onto the strip.

In contrast, Deren worked with crews; never traditional crews, in the usual sense, but free-floating ensembles where people would come and go, doing whatever needed to be done on the set. Her first film was made in collaboration with Hammid as co-director and co-star, and on subsequent films she would often include choreographers and musicians as key collaborators, their contributions as integral to the finished work as her own. It's telling that she viewed her dance films, especially, as interactions between the dancer's body and the camera, two equal partners creating a unified motion together. This is especially apparent in the way these films frequently play fluidly with a sense of space and time, cutting together shots so that a dancer may start a motion in one place and complete it somewhere altogether different, bridging space and time with the arc of a leg.

Kudlácek's film is especially good when dealing like this with the formal qualities of Deren's cinema, the way she would use her editing to transcend a limiting, realistic view of the world. That's perhaps why, as Mekas describes it, she was contemptuous of his improvisational, naturalistic method of shooting, preferring art that is planned out, that has a definitive form and meaning. Kudlácek herself subtly undermines her subject here, though. Right as Mekas is talking about the value of improvisation and random footage, and Deren's dim view of such spontaneity, Kudlácek inserts some of her own footage, of an Anthology Film Archives employee accidentally stepping into a shot and then ducking back out abruptly. It's as though the documentarian is silently making her own position known, gently underlining Mekas' point with this quirky little moment.

Perhaps it's also because of Kudlácek's sympathies for improvisation and accident that the film's best moments consist of archival footage that Deren never assembled into a finished work. Kudlácek samples generously from Deren's hours of Haitian footage, and there's a joyous energy and unpredictability to this material that belies Deren's own ethos — who knows what the Haitian film would have been like had she actually ever made it, but her footage from her trips there has a spontaneity and raw beauty unlike anything in her more lyrical established oeuvre. The same is true of a phenomenal outtake from Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which Deren herself throatily sings a folk ballad while dancers twirl about, their bodies thrusting together in openly sexual ways, smiling and laughing with the same unselfconscious openness seen on the faces of the voodoo dancers. In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a valuable, fascinating documentary, cutting to the heart of one of avant-garde cinema's most beguiling and interesting figures.


Sam Juliano said...

i have not seen this documentary, but after reading what is one of the truly great essays ever posted here at CCC (no patronage intended, just honesty) I can only say 'shame on me,' especially since this is one avante-garde film maker (the forerunner an daguably still the best) whose films transfixed me from the moment I first laid eyes on them. MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON is the masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever in any genre, and RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME pushes close. I own and have viewed the Deren DVD set in its entirety. I can add some subsidiary observations here, but to be frank, you've broached the essence.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Deren really was amazing, and her first two films especially are true masterpieces for me. This is an essential complement to the fantastic Mystic Fire DVD set, especially since Zeitgeist's DVD also includes, besides the documentary, some vital additional materials: Brakhage's lovely handpainted Water For Maya, and Deren's own uncompleted Witch's Cradle (starring Marcel Duchamp!!!) and the fragmentary Ensemble for Somnambulists, which looks like outtakes from her final film The Very Eye of Night.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Ed. I will definitely be ordering the Zeitgeist this week to sit next to my Mystic Fire set. From what you passionately say here and imply in the review, this is a no-brainer.

Krauthammer said...

I'm pretty entry-level when it comes to experimental films, but Meshes of the Afternoon really blew me away, it's a real experience. I also wouldn't mind saying it has one of the greatest scores of all time.

Ed Howard said...

Totally agreed about Meshes, Krauthammer, which is really a revelatory experience. It's truly meant to be seen totally silent, though; the Teiji Ito score, however good it is, was composed much later when Deren started going out with him. The film was originally always totally silent, and I think that's the way it's best, when the mysterious quality of its images is allowed to exist without accompaniment.

Marilyn said...

Mystic Fire produces the most interesting stuff. I'm a fan of Deren, though I haven't seen this (plan to). At Land is a wonderful film as well, and a great companion piece to Meshes. Her feminine images are great in both, and her relation to anima and animus are maybe the best pure engagements on film.

Marilyn said...

If you are interested, my review of the two films:

DavidEhrenstein said...

One of my most fascinating film viewing experiences was seeing Meshes of the Afternoon in the house in whcih it was shot -- which is on King's Road Drive just above Sunset blvd.

She was quite a character. She wanted to be a dancer but her legs were too short and her body too squat. So she became Maya Deren.

Doug Bonner said...

A great piece of writing on a difficult topic, Ed. I really got a lot out of the documentary when I went to a screening a few years ago. It was also illuminating because one of my cinematography teachers in film school had casually mentioned that he worked with Deren: in some of the behind-the-scenes footage, I finally saw my teacher as a young pup having fun with a camera. What a kick.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Marilyn, I remember you being another admirer of Deren, your piece on her first two films is definitely a good one.

David, you can definitely see her love of dance in her films; she may not have had the build to be a pro but she was obviously very graceful and had a real sense of movement, even in her editing.

Doug, great story about this doc and your professor -- always interesting to get behind-the-scenes peeks like the footage of Deren included here.