I only got seriously into film until I started watching experimental film. It was out of the creative potboiler the audio-visual television freak outs of the 1980s. When MTV premiered (or rather in Canada, MuchMusic), the idea that a mini-music commercial could be artistic, gave everybody license to be as different as possible to sell their musical product. How else would I have been exposed to music videos by DEVO or The Residents, but on late-night weird music television? I needed more than just watching late night music videos and late great blue movies, so I started picking up experimental film at the library.
It wasn’t that hard to find. Some of the first directors I got into were Chris Marker, Kenneth Anger, Luis Buñuel, Andy Warhol, and Maya Deren. As a repressed kid who lived from home to library to school, with no social life to speak of, my favourite part of the day was bringing home VHS tapes from the library. I remember taking Meshes of the Afternoon, out of my backpack and watching it with a snack before the rest of my family arrived home. (I just searched for it and the Toronto Public Library still has one VHS copy circulating. It could be the same one I borrowed in the late 80s.)
I must admit that all the movies I watched back then were seen on maybe three hours of sleep, so I was already in a weird mind space as it was. The soft oriental score by Teiji Ito was enough to put anyone at ease at the beginning, however, as soon as that flute hit, I was scared. I had to look around and make sure I was home in familiar surroundings. Imagine watching an elongated hand come out the sky holding a flower while a mad screeching of a flute plays on out of nowhere.
Well, that’s as much as I remember from my reaction to the film back then, but it was enough to make an impression, and enough for me to keep looking for it once downloaded video became a thing on the internet.
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid are the wife and husband team behind Meshes In The Afternoon. Deren believed that the world of film was an untapped medium for exploring time, memory, and movement. Many scoffed at her poetic and sometimes very personal approach to filmmaking. Meshes is kind of like a manifesto of sorts that poses to the film world: What is film form? What is its social meaning?
In Meshes, a woman (played by Deren) notices a man outside. She goes inside and falls asleep on a chair. She dreams of a hooded figure with a mirror as a face. She follows him through her recurring dream, but is unable to reach it. Objects such as a record player, a key, a flower, knife, and telephone inhabit the dream. The figure puts a knife under her pillow. As she travels through the dream she sees previously versions of herself. She tries to stab at one of her selves and is woken up by a man (played by Hammid). The scenes repeat again, but the results become different, yet are still familiar.
I’d detail more, but Meshes in its entirety is something to be experienced rather than discerned in text. However, it is something to be pondered about as a seminal point in filmmaking. It’s a narrative film of short moving images exploring the mind as a shared experience. Thus, it provokes the audience into thinking, “What am I really seeing? What am I really feeling? What is real and what is fiction in here?” Deren and Hammid play with time and distort it utilizing a running series of personal archetypes to thread the film’s narrative. Angles and odd camera shots create an atmosphere that is very strained in what would should be a comfortable home environment. As Deren moves through the dreams and in what we think is the real world, she contorts her body while the camera answers back with it’s own reclining perspectives. It’s a ballet of images and the first time a filmmaker has dared to use the body to tell a story: this story is of a woman exploring her subconscious. The filmmakers here offer a new discourse: a sexual taxonomy; one where the driving force is a desire to identify. It’s a poetic introspection (for some a masturbatory depiction), of a woman struggling to find the real within the fictions of her own mind. It’s powerful to think on it (how dare she?!), especially when the film was made in a time when women were about to become factory workers, empowering themselves, as the men went to war. A woman psychoanalyzing herself and displaying it on screen was virtually unheard of, and ballsy in a male-dominated film industry. You could say, that in many ways, Deren and Hammid started the first of the female (film) confessionals.
The shots are posed, deliberate, and striking through the heavy use of light and shadowed contrasts. The mirror-faced hooded figure is reminiscent to the Grim Reaper, while Deren herself goes from soft and innocent, to menacing, and then back to an almost angelic state in the film. The subconscious images are a hallucinatory terror that quietly inhabits the audience’s mind giving no sense of reassurance. There is no reality for its viewer to hold on to. Even as the images repeat themselves and twist, there is no balance offered and the viewer is forced to focus on the actor’s movements until their view is released in a surreal death scene. Linear ideals are rejected and Deren offers up her famous (and still much discussed) “vertitcal vs horizontal perspective” with the penetrating female flower bearing arm.
“The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by “a poetic structure”), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned in a sense not with what is occuring, but with what it feels like or what it means.”
Through my repeated watching of Meshes (sometimes I put it in the background, just to hear the soundtrack as I do dishes), I’m still taken aback by how forward thinking Deren and Hammid’s visions were at the time. Hammid went on to do more documentary film while Deren kept exploring different forms of avant-garde and controversial documentary styles. At Land is another one of my favourites for it is steeped in societal psychological exploration and it is a bigger play at temporal studies.
I’m reminded at this time of how much her influence still permeates the poetic and visual world. Besides Kate Bush’s uncanny resemblance to Deren, I go back here and watch one of Bush’s works as I set about my day.
“Anagram, Gestalt, Game in Maya Deren: Reconfiguring the Image in Post-war Cinema”
by Orit Halpern (who I suddenly have a mad crush on)