Deren, Maya: Innovative Filmmaker (Meshes of the Afternoon)

As film directors, women have tended to participate more actively outside mainstream cinema–not always by choice.

Since the 1930s, there has been a periodic call for a women’s counter-cinema that would rewrite the patriarchal properties of Hollywood’s language. Whether overtly feminist or not, women directors have shown the need to rupture Hollywood’s typically closed, homogeneous forms of representation.

The interventions of Mary Ellen Bute’s abstract films of the 1930s, Maya Deren’s avant-garde work of the 1940s, and Shirley Clarke’s realistic films of the 1950s and 1960s have been particularly important to the new American indies.

Meshes of the Afternoon

Laura Mulvey has called Maya Deren (1917-1961) the mother of the American avant-garde, crediting Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) with inaugurating the American experimental film. With a new paradigm for underground cinema, this film launched Deren’s career as a filmmaker with strong interests in myth and ethnography. Deren stressed the poetic, dream-like quality of film, its ability through framing and editing to displace a “normal” sense of time and place and to express the tension between interiority and exteriority.

The narrative of this short (only 14 minutes) experimental film is circular and repeats several motifs, including a flower on a long driveway, a key falling, a door unlocked, a knife in a loaf of bread, a mysterious figure with a mirror for a face, a phone off the hook and an ocean.

Through creative editing, distinct camera angles, and slow motion, the surrealist film depicts a world with an alternate reality.

The goal of Maya Deren’s and husband Alexander Hammid was to create a personal avant-garde film, like the French surrealist films of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930).

Deren and Hammid wrote, directed and performed in the film; he the role of the man, and she of the woman.

Deren is usually credited as its principal artistic creator, undermining Hammid’s contribution, which reportedly put strain on their marriage.

A woman sees someone on the street, while walking back to her home.  At her room, she falls sleeps on a chair, and dreams about her trying to chase a mysterious figure.

She re-enters her house and sees numerous various objects–a key, a knife, a flower, a telephone and a phonograph.

The woman follows the hooded figure to her bedroom, where he hides a knife under a pillow.

She sees multiple instances of herself, bits of her dream she has experienced. The woman tries to kill her sleeping body with a knife but is awakened by a man.

The man leads her to the bedroom and she realizes that everything she saw in the dream actually happened.  The man’s posture is similar to that of the hooded figure.  She attempts to injure him and fails.

In the end, the man walks into the house and sees a broken mirror dropped onto wet ground. He then sees the woman in the chair, who’s now dead

The original print had no score, but music was added in 1959 by Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito.

Shot in black and white, Meshes of the Afternoon uses innovative techniques to evoke women’s conflicting impulses of fear of men and erotic desire.

Deren may have been the first woman to point out that Hollywood movies are big on budget, but small on artistry. “I made my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick,” she once observed.  The film’s budget is estimated to be about $300.

As Lauren Rabinowitz pointed out, Deren led the radical formalist movement as an oppositional force with a new set of economic and aesthetic standards that rebelled against a patriarchal society in which women were denied a voice.

Critical Status

In 1990, Meshes of the Afternoon was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover; paperback).