Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) opens with a scene of fearsome waves crashing against a desolate shore. It could almost be described as Debussian, save for the unsettling dead and total silence that continues, unabated, throughout the film.
The exotic Deren appears, emerging from a sleep, like a mermaid spit ashore from the crashing waves.
Deren begins slowly climbing a massive, twisted, dead tree trunk; the figure of Deren/Eros embarking on her great existential journey.
The nymph (her face adorned with child-like innocence) slithers on her stomach across a dining room table, populated with faceless corporates. They do not take notice of her, preoccupied with idle chatter and many cigarettes. Her eyes focus on a solitary figure, playing chess at the table’s end. By the time she reaches that end (there are brief, repeated, struggled, exploratory diversions through a mass of shrubbery) she finds the player has just left and, as she gazes at the board, the rest of the room’s occupants are also leaving.
Telekinetically, she moves the chess pieces, until the pawn (one of eight) falls through a hole in the table. She attempts to retrieve it and finds herself back on the shore, then on a country road, walking and talking with a young man (represented by five different men).
She cannot keep up with the man and he leaves her behind as he disappears into a cabin, shutting the foreboding door behind him.
Determined not to be abandoned, she crawls under the log cabin but emerges in a contemporary, nearly abandoned home, laden with furniture, covered in white sheets.
It is not the young man she finds, but an older, bedridden man (figure number six), under a white bed sheet. They silently stare at each other, identify with one another, for a sustained moment. She walks on down the hall, opens a door, but does not go through.
She goes through another door to emerge at a rocky descent which takes her back to the seashore.
She gathers white stones, too many to hold. She drops many of the stones, collapsing in her attempt.
She comes upon two women (figures seven and eight). The imagery of a chess game is repeated between the two strangers as Deren intensely observes: the perennial, almost animalistic outsider.
With her eyes, Deren seems to hold the two women in contempt as she plots. She mesmerizes and distracts them as she caresses their hair, evoking arousal.
A second Deren appears, seizes the opportune moment and snatches a white pawn from the board and runs off, like a curious, frightened, mischievous faun.
A third Deren again collects white stones on the beach and observes her second, mirrored image running with the chess piece.
The first Deren also observes, with her two lovers. Maya runs away. Snippets of reversal images; the tree trunk, the rocks, the contemporary home with white sheet covered furniture, all flash before her. She flees this odyssey; a state of bewilderment and confusion, towards her only true sanctuary; along the seashore and the sea that birthed her.
The late Stan Brakhage, a devotee of Maya Deren, speculated that her first and most famous film, Meshes of the Afternoon, was more the work of her then husband and collaborator, Alexander Hamid. This assertion really does not hold up to scrutiny. In composition, Meshes may indeed be more Hamid than Deren, but conceptually the film is pure Deren. At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time continue Deren’s conceptual themes, while Hamid’s body of work reveal an artist who dabbled in experimental film, but was more comfortable in documentary.
While Meshes of the Afternoon may be a somewhat more innovative film, and deserves every bit of its well-won acclaim, At Land remains Deren’s most personal film and, for such an enigmatic figure, that is an essential and rewarding experience.
Deren would physically disappear from her work following Ritual (which also featured the legendary Anaïs Nin), and that was a mistake.
While the later films certainly contain Deren’s preoccupations—rhythm, space, the Riefenstahl-like figures, and the dream effeminate—the physical loss of Deren’s mysterious and magnetic on-screen personality renders the remaining films as being interesting only in the after-light of these first three films, for the shared elements, but not as entities within themselves.
Still, there belongs, along with Buñuel and Cocteau, a third and possibly most compelling figure in early experimental film: the inimitable Maya Deren.