Continuing my series exploring YouTube with Ask a Mortician and Obsolete Oddity, I will now focus on Maya Deren, since many of her films can be found there. This isn’t so much of a review, or a foray into film criticism, symbology, theory or meaning (there is plenty of that out there if you wish to seek it), but rather a personal exploration of a late great filmmaker. Born in 1917, Maya Deren was a Ukranian-American filmographer best known for her film and choreography work in the 1940s and 1950s. She was very involved in the amateur film movement (focusing on the edge & fringe stuff, kind of like punk in its day), experimental film and the avant-garde.
What I appreciate most about Maya Deren’s films is that they have a rather disturbing surreal quality that is further enhanced by how scenes are cut and transitioned, their timing and perspective, and a more conceptual influence rather than a focus on space and time as we perceive it physically. Every movement has a sense of meaning and significance. Actions, costuming and backdrop become very impactful, not because of high budgets or involved underpinnings, but because of how things flow together. The result feels accessible but not entirely tangible, like a journey into the subconscious or a dream-like reality.
I am including three of Maya Deren’s films here for you to enjoy, starting with the most iconic Meshes of the Afternoon and then including my personal favorite At Land and also Witch’s Cradle, a collaboration with Marcel Duchamp.
If the video doesn’t load properly, you can find it on YouTube here. https://youtu.be/dWQcJyn981M
Meshes of the Afternoon was Maya Deren’s debut film and has been considered among both the best and worst films ever made depending on who you ask. The first time I saw it, I was transfixed. I felt a personal kinship with this filmmaker who lived and worked decades prior to myself for, despite my lack of awareness of her work, I was using many of the same symbols. I had even created a mirror mask that I could wear to engage in performance art – a one-way mirror that from the outside reflected the viewer’s visage back at them while I could see everything through it and engage accordingly. Other references and relationships with objects (broken glass, mannequins, flowers, keys, possible suicide) had also appeared in my work. I had also experimented a bit in video in film speed and intentional repetition. I watched the film over and over again, each time picking out more details than the time prior.
If the video doesn’t load properly, you can find it on YouTube here. https://youtu.be/aW7fhlJgmwI
At Land is my personal favorite of Maya Deren’s films. I can relate all too well to some of those high class socialite dinner parties where you feel out of place, trying to crawl your way through all of the artifice. I love the transitions and the sense of journey that comes across. The joy, the anxiety, the betrayal… seeking that which you thought you had lost. To me, it’s the ultimate dreamscape adventure-quest, but then again my dreams are not ordinary. Again note: I am not trying to interpret or examine symbology so much as share my personal reaction.
If the video doesn’t load properly, you can find it on YouTube here. https://youtu.be/NkMfRVaA6fs
I love all of the occult references and the repetition of time in this. The exploration of time plays a critical role in all of Maya Deren’s works, but it strikes even more so in this one in particular. Having originally majored in Fiber Arts, I also enjoy the strings that weave through and intertwine between everything. But more than anything, I love “Is The Beginning Is The End…” I have used a similar mantra before in several performance art pieces as a chant, and also as a written work, to further explore narrative as just something one enters into and slips out of, not anything with a definitive start and ending. Like Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn movie says, “There are no happy endings. Because nothing ends.”
Anyway, for all that this isn’t technically a review, I give Maya Deren 4.5 Cthulus.(4.5 / 5)
You can take it or leave it. Personally, I love her work but I know not everyone shares this sentiment, especially anyone who didn’t want to go so much in depth into older works and found themselves in a film criticism class devoted to such pieces. Because if you were expecting to analyze Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared and then wound up back in the 1940s and 50s, that may not have been your cup of tea (for all that the historical references and symbols can shed more meaning on the current). And please be aware: I posted all of these links to silent versions of the films because those are truer to the original, but there are many lovely interpretations involving various soundscapes and audio interpretations if you prefer, just look on YouTube.