The Dreamy World of Maya Deren: A Filmography Retrospective

by Osiris Chacona

Between the years 1943 and 1946, legendary filmmaker Maya Deren would produce three short films which form an unofficial trilogy I’ll be referring to as “The Dreams Trilogy” due to dreams being the main theme of these films. All three pieces are essentially the same concept executed differently each time, similar to Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy or George Romero’s Dead trilogy. Each of them starts with the same idea, Deren entering or going further into a dream and then using that dream’s components as clever metaphors and opportunities to experiment with filmmaking.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943):

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Starting with Meshes of the Afternoon, which is indisputably one of the most influential short films of all time, and continues to be an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers. The story follows a woman (played by Maya Deren) who after noticing a strange figure on the street, comes home, falls asleep, and subsequently has a strange dream where she tries to chase a man with a mirror for a face. Deren proceeds to have an intense real-life-nightmare, and to our dismay, the film ends with her husband discovering her dead body in bed. Much has already been said about this short, being that it’s one of the most famous/iconic films of all time, so I won’t spend as long talking about this one as I will with the other two in the trilogy.

“I do think out of all of these, Meshes is her most visually impressive, being that the short is just one iconic shot after the next.”

It’s one of the best directorial debuts ever in my opinion and serves as a great introduction into Deren’s unique editing and directorial style. I do think out of all of these, Meshes is her most visually impressive, being that the short is just one iconic shot after the next. The film also has a more concise storyline that is relatively easy to follow, which Deren sacrifices in her later films for more abstract filmmaking. There are certain films which remind me why cinema is my favorite form of art, films that can conjure emotions that couldn’t be created through books, photography, or music. This is one of those films. Meshes of the Afternoon is a masterpiece that uses filmmaking to its fullest extent to create a wholly unique experience for the audience.

At Land (1944):

At Land (1944)

At Land follows Meshes, being the second film in the trilogy and continues with the style Deren introduced us to in her previous film. Although she does great work in Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren is really able to shine in At Land as a silent film actress. She is so expressive throughout the film and is able to distinguish her different “characters” well. The film starts out with Deren crawling through a table of rich people, interspersed with footage of her crawling through shrubbery. Once she reaches the head of the table she meets a man who is playing chess against himself. A pawn falls from the board which Deren gives chase to, before giving up to walk along a dirt road. On this road she meets a man who she talks to for a bit, and eventually turns into Alexander Hammid, who was Deren’s actual husband at the time and who she collaborated with when making Meshes of the Afternoon. The climax of the film shows Deren approaching two girls–one with black hair and the other with white–as she watches as they play chess. On a side note, the imagery of playing chess by the sea is so synonymous with The Seventh Seal that I wonder if Bergman took influence from this film. As the game continues, Deren coresses both of their hair and appears to be controlling both of them, similar to how the man played chess with himself in the beginning.  This climactic chess game is actually an exact copy of the famous chess game, The Immortal Game, played by Adolf Anderson (considered one of the best chess players), and Kiseresitzky. The game starts with white playing the king's gambit, a chess gambit which involves a lot of sacrifice in turn for a more powerful position on the board. The game is absolutely insane, with Anderson decimating his opponent.

“The chess game is a metaphor for this journey through the film industry, with Deren deciding how much she wants to sacrifice in order to win.”

From a material standpoint Anderson is losing nearly throughout the entire game with Kisersitzky taking both of his rooks, but Anderson always has the upper hand mentally. He focuses on black's king, slowly trapping the king in with lower value pieces, (knights/bishops) while black’s queen is on the other side of the board, mindlessly attacking the white king. Eventually, white delivers a killer checkmate with the bishop and knight. However, in At Land, Deren interrupts the game right before white’s queen is taken by the knight by picking up the queen and running away from the board with it. I think that this completes the storyline of Deren trying to find the lost pawn from the beginning of the film, since in chess once pawns reach the other side of the board they can become any piece (usually queens). I think the crux of this film is the first few shots which shows Deren crawling through a table of rich people. I think after the success of Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren was now inside the film industry, crawling through the table of executives. The chess game is a metaphor for this journey through the film industry, with Deren deciding how much she wants to sacrifice in order to win. She also evolved from a pawn, to a queen in the filmmaking world, becoming much more powerful. In the end, Deren decides not to sacrifice her queen, which to me is her freedom of creativity. Instead she takes her creativity and runs away from the industry (the chess board) to make her own path.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946):

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

Quite possibly Deren’s most visually striking film, Ritual in Transfigured Time is the third and final entry in this dream trilogy. The main “gimmick” of this short is the editing techniques used to mess with the viewer's perception of time. Multiple shots transition from slow motion into regular 24 frames per second seamlessly. The effect of having a man in slow motion chasing “Christiani” is technically impressive, but also conceptually creepy. I think out of the films in this series, the editing in this one resembles a dream the most. In fact she does such a good job editing this film, I started to feel a sense of deja vu to some dreams I’ve had. The film starts off with Deren untangling a scarf, which I believe to be the catalyst for this unraveling of time. Unlike in the first two films, Deren adopts more of a mentor figure in this film, and leaves Rita Christiani to star in this dream. While Deren’s titles are often poetic, Ritual in Transfigured Time is instantly interesting and captivating to me. From interviews we can clearly infer Deren was very inspired by the idea of rituals, “All art derives from ritual” (Freitag). A ritual is usually religious, but sometimes just a formal tradition that is passed down through generations. This idea being applied to art is very interesting, the idea that art evolves each generation like a religious ritual. Different mediums and times of art are represented in this film, with more classical art represented by the slow-motion ballerinas, and modern day art represented by Christiani and Deren, where the unraveling of the string is a metaphor for editing/filmmaking as an art form. I think Deren is showing how art never truly dies but changes form, how performance art has evolved into cinema. While it’s hard to beat Meshes of the Afternoon, I think Ritual in Transfigured Time comes close!

Overall it was a pleasure to check out this trilogy of films by Deren. So much creativity and thought went into each project, and they were all consistently entertaining. I am excited to look into the rest of Deren’s catalog to see what else she has to offer!

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