“This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.”–Maya Deren, notes on Meshes of the Afternoon
DIRECTED BY: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid
FEATURING: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid
PLOT: Approaching her apartment one afternoon, a woman picks up a flower, sees a figure disappearing around a corner down the garden path, then fumbles her key as she tries to unlock the door to her room. She goes upstairs and falls asleep in a chair looking out of the window, where she has a series of dreams that recombine these simple events and objects in unexpected ways. Doubles appear, she floats up the staircase, and the person she briefly glimpsed earlier appears as a figure of menace haunting the corners of her mind.
- Deren legally changed her first name from Eleanora to Maya (Sanskrit for “illusion”) just before embarking on her career as a filmmaker with Meshes.
- Alexander Hammid, Deren’s second husband, co-created and appears in Meshes as “the Man.” The music that now accompanies the film was added in 1957 and was composed by Deren’s third husband, Teijo Ito.
- Some commentators, including avant-garde director Stan Brakhage (who knew the couple) claim that Meshes was largely the work of Hammid rather than Deren, who went on to have the more noted career.
- Meshes was made for $275 (which would be about $3,500 today adjusted for inflation). Deren once joked that she made movies for what Hollywood spent on lipstick.
- Added to the National Film Registry in 1990. The registry began in 1989 with twenty five American films worthy of preservation due to their historical and artistic importance and adds twenty five more films each year since; Meshes was in the second class inducted.
- Deren, a Ukrainian immigrant, was the first avant-garde filmmaker working outside the studio system of any importance in the United States. She was also a lecturer, wrote articles on film theory, and established the Creative Film Foundation and the Film-Makers Co-op. She unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage at 44 while studying and filming Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The image film critics usually invoke when describing Meshes is Deren with her face and palms pressed up against the windowpane, the reflections of palm trees merging into her curly black hair and an inscrutable expression on her face. The picture has an undeniable metaphorical power: here we see a portrait of the psyche, the plane where reflections from the external world merge into the self. But while there’s an undeniable intellectual appeal to that selection, we’re going to go instead with something freakier and more nightmarishly visceral: the cloaked form with a mirror for a face, a mysterious figure into whom the sleeping protagonist pours her suppressed fears and anxieties.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Many weird movies are about dreams, or plumb the sleeping mind to exploit dream logic and plunder the unconscious’ mutated symbols, but Meshes of the Afternoon is probably the most psychologically accurate dream movie ever made. From the way it repurposes everyday events and objects, turning keys into knives and passing pedestrians into emissaries of the unknown, to its impossible geometries where windows open onto stairs and distant beaches, Meshes captures the architecture of a dream—and traps us inside it.
Film student analysis of a scene from Meshes of the Afternoon
COMMENTS: A mesh is a net or a web, and this afternoon the strands that trap our nameless heroine are a flower, a retreating figure, a key, a bread knife, a phone, stairs, a mirror, a phonograph, images that play back over and over in her mind and draw themselves tighter and tighter around her until she cannot escape. These objects that invade her consciousness never explain what they want from her, why they are encircling her, yet their demands become more and more insistent until they drive her mad. Structurally, Meshes of the Afternoon resembles a fugue; the theme is introduced when Maya Deren picks up the flower, glimpses the shadow disappearing around the corner, fumbles her key, and surveys her disordered apartment. After she falls asleep, these incidents are replayed in variations that start off strange and build to a discordant climax. She sees herself on the garden path chasing the ever-receding figure. She enters her apartment and the knife is on the stairs where the phone used to be. She finds the key in her mouth and spits it out. Again she removes the needle from the spinning record, only to return home in her endless loop and find it back in its endless groove. She dreams that she wakes, then she dreams that she’s dreaming. She enters her home once again and sees herself in her dream, until multiple Mayas are sitting around the dinner table gazing at each other.
Anyone who has ever fallen asleep in an easy chair on a sunny afternoon will recognize the strange experiences that bedevil Deren’s character. There is that horrible dream frustration of running but never getting anywhere as she chases the black cloaked figure; no matter how hard she pumps her legs she never gains any ground on that eternally receding soul. Through inventive low-budget camerawork Meshes captures the sense of floating in dreams as Deren is sucked out her window by some metaphysical breeze, then clings to her stairs to keep herself from flying to the ceiling and being pinned there. As the dream continues to repeat itself and we see shots of Deren’s increasingly distraught face we get that uncomfortable feeling of being aware that we are dreaming but being unable to wake. There is that familiar nightmarish false relief as we dream that we’ve awakened, but soon something impossible happens–a flower turns into a knife—and we realize that we are still trapped in the dream. There are the constant transformations as we gaze at one thing, but it turns into something else. In Meshes, every object is eternally becoming that knife the protagonist saw dropping out of the bread loaf. The knife takes the telephone’s place on the stairs, it appears under the covers of her unmade bed. The woman holds the key in her hand and it turns into the knife; then she enters the door with it clutched before her defensively to find two more Mayas already sitting around the table inside. Everything in Meshes is turning into that blade; it’s the film’s end destination.
The dream’s repetitions and re-iterations make the meshes of the title; this is not a pleasant afternoon nap, it’s an anxiety dream, one that can’t be escaped. The source of her unease and the meaning of her hallucinations is as obscure to us as it is to the dreamer. There is no narrative or story per se, but there is the suggestion of a psychological reality, something that the woman may be hiding from herself. What is causing her nightmare? We know very little about her, but we do learn that she doesn’t live alone. There is a man in her life, who makes a late appearance in the story, waking her from her disturbed slumber with welcoming arms. As far as we know, he—and the mystery figure seen disappearing around the corner—are the only other souls besides Deren living in this insular reality. Is that man the source of her anxiety? Does her dream transform him into the cloaked figure with the mirrored face who slowly deposits the flower on her pillow? Is there an unrevealed history between the two?
Complicating matters is the fact that we don’t know where—or, really, even if—the story begins or ends. Just as Deren “wakes up” and looks out her window, only to see herself chasing that shadowy figure on the garden path, there as the sense that this scenario is caught in an endless loop. The “double ending” is famously ambiguous; just when we seem to have returned to reality, things turn even more bizarre. There is some reason to believe that the final shot may occur in “reality,” especially since, for the first time, the movie seems to assume the point of view of someone other than the female protagonist. But, we have seen before that Deren’s dreaming character is capable of seeing herself in the third person, as if she’s having an out-of-body experience; once, she even imagines herself about to stab herself. Furthermore, given the film’s untrustworthy circular recurrence-with-variations structure, we may doubt that we even can tell where the story begins. It’s true that the early shots establish the theme and introduce the motifs that will later be twisted in the dream, but the atmosphere is slightly otherworldly and off even in this introductory passage. When Deren drops her key it falls in slow motion, giving this mundane occurrence an irrational significance. And who keeps their telephone sitting on the stairs, off the hook, and what are the chances the knife would dislodge and fall from out of that loaf of rye just as she enters the room? Also, we shouldn’t forget that the movie actually begins with a magical prologue wherein a mysterious hand delicately and deliberately places that white flower Deren will discover on the pathway to her apartment, then pops out of existence. The movie appears to be already in the middle of the dream even as it starts.
Screened back to back, Deren’s experimental films–excluding her choreographic studies—occupy only about forty-five minutes of running time, and they are almost a continuum, a continuation of the unending dream of Meshes of the Afternoon. One of the final shots of Meshes shows shards of a shattered mirror falling onto a beach and being swept away by the tide; Deren’s next film, At Land (1944), begins with waves washing Maya up onto the shore. It’s tempting to think of At Land as picking up where Meshes leaves off, as a sort of afterlife for Afternoon. Several Meshes motifs recur in At Land. Again there are impossible dream geometries: Maya climbs a dead tree and finds a long dinner table at the top; she walks through a door and finds herself thrown out onto a rocky cliff on a beach. Again there are multiple Maya’s scurrying about: one Deren distracts two chess players by stroking their hair, while another steals a pawn and runs off with it. Although Deren is not the star of her third major experimental short, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), she does appear in its opening scene, wearing what looks like it could be the same dark cocktail dress from At Land. Ritual departs from the other two pseudo-narrative surreal films in that it incorporates Deren’s passion for dance; there is a wonderful sequence where people walking through a cocktail party greeting each other break into spontaneous quadrilles. There aren’t multiple Mayas in Ritual, but there are three dark-haired women of similar stature (one played by author Anaïs Nin and the other by dancer Rita Christiani) in similar dark attire (Christiani and Deren wear identical shawls around their shoulders). Again, Maya ends up in the ocean; this time, she is seen underwater, in negative image, drowning. (Might she wash up in At Land, starting another cycle?)
Originally silent, it’s hard to imagine Meshes of the Afternoon without Teijo Ito’s freaky, droning score after you’ve heard and seen them together. A plucked guitar and a Japanese flute are interrupted by an unexpected percussive gunshot. A drum beat marks the key’s tumble down the stairs and tick-tocks like a needle skipping on a record as Deren enters the apartment. The beginning of the dream is announced by a weird drone duet between a bowed cello and humming man, as the camera pulls back through a peephole (incongruously mounted on the woman’s upstairs window) to reveal the mysterious cloaked figure striding down the pathway for the first time. Like the exotic beauty of Deren herself, the effect is otherworldly and sensual; it simultaneously pulls the viewer into a trance-like state while repulsing her with its weird, discordant moaning. It amplifies the film’s already ample ambient anxiety, becoming an persistent buzzing in the ears that you can’t get rid of. The repetitive figures of the score become another strand in the mesh that binds you inside this enigmatic woman’s private consciousness. For fifteen minutes you are trapped in this psychic fugue; it’s a wonderfully intense and insistent experience, but you’ll be relieved when Maya’s magic mirror finally shatters and you can cut yourself free from these nightmare filaments. The film’s protagonist is, perhaps, not so free.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Deren veers away from plot to advance her view that a film should be like a poem: a deep tissue of images designed to examine a mood or startle us with the strangeness of the things around us.”–Leo Charney, All Movie Guide
“Over a century of cinema, there is one film that clearly stands out, above all others, as a near-perfect cinematic distillation of the essence of the dream experience. That film is Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’…”–Giovanni Fazio, The Japan Times (screening)
IMDB LINK: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Maya Deren | Senses of Cinema – This thorough biography composed by Wendy Halsem for the December 12, 2002 issue of Senses of Cinema focuses extensively on Meshes, and includes its own “links of interest” section for further reading
MoMA | The Collection | Maya Deren. Meshes of the Afternoon. 1943 – The Museum of Modern Art’s page on Meshes of the Afternoon, a print of which is in their permanent collection
Maya Deren: At Land – Alfred Eaker’s review of Deren’s At Land for this website
BFI Film Classics: Meshes of the Afternoon – Yes, a 14-minute movie inspired a 128-page book by John David Rhodes, a professor from the University of Sussex
DVD INFO: Meshes of the Afternoon is available, together with At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and Deren’s choreographic studies (including the beautiful The Very Eye of Night, a ballet of negative images floating in front of a field of shifting stars) on the Mystic Fire Video release “Maya Deren: Experimental Films” (buy Besides Deren’s complete filmography, the disc also contains extensive notes on each film, excerpts from her unfinished film “Divine Horsemen,” Alexander Hammid’s short The Private Life of a Cat (which documents the birth of some kittens in the Deren-Hammid household), a Deren biography and bibliography, and excerpts from writings about her by Anaïs Nin and Le Corbusier. Before the Mystic Fire release, Meshes was available as part of the (now out of print) “Cinema 16: American Short Films” collection (buy There it appears alongside (lesser) shorts by Andy Warhol, George Lucas, Gus Van Zant, Todd Solondz and others; the most impressive companion film is Tim Burton’s Vincent (1982).
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Regicide.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)