Tag Archives: Maya Deren



DIRECTED BY: James Agee, , Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, Rudy Burckhardt, Mary Ellen Bute, Joseph Cornell, Jim Davis, , Marcel Duchamp (as Rrose Selavy), Emlen Etting, Oskar Fischinger, Robert Florey, Amy Greenfield, Alexander Hammid, Hilary Harris, Hy Hirsh, Ian Hugo, Lawrence Janiak, Lawrence Jordan, Francis Lee, Fernand Léger, Owen Land, Helen Levitt, Jay Leyda, Janice Loeb, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Dudley Murphy, Ted Nemeth, Tom Palazzolo, Bruce Posner, Charles Sheeler, Phil Solomon, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Francis Thompson, Slavko Vorkpich, J.S. Watson Jr., Melville Webber

FEATURING: Too many actors (many amateurs) to list

PLOT: A collection of influential short experimental films spanning five decades.

Still from Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: To be clear, one of the individual films featured in this compilation (Meshes of the Afternoon) has already made the List. Many of the others are noteworthy, but we deem none quite List-worthy. As a collection, these discs are recommended for weird movie fans and adventurous cinephiles. This is a must-own, cornerstone release for dedicated experimental film devotees.

COMMENTS: Released by silent movie specialists Flicker Alley and curated by director/film historian Bruce Posner, “Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film” is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—although we might quibble about whether every one of these films is actually a “masterwork,” they are all, at the very least, representative of a major figure or category of experimental film. These shorts, spread out over two DVDs or Blu-rays, are  rich and challenging, and may be best experienced in small nibbles, one or two at a time, contemplated over a span of several evenings, accompanied by a fine sipping beverage.

The films are arranged chronologically and although they span the full range of artistic expression, they often fall into several distinct types or subgenres. One of the earliest forms is the “city symphony” (à la 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera), of which the very first film in this collection, “Manhatta,” is an example. In a city symphony the director simply takes his camera into an urban environment (in American film usually New York City) and films what he sees, later arranging the footage into a montage that paints a portrait of the town. There are five or six examples of the form here, and although this can be one of the dullest of formats, Francis Thompson’s 1958 eyebending opus “N.Y., N.Y.,” shot with an array of distorting lenses of the director’s own design, is a notably thrilling exception. Other film types you may notice are the figure study, where the lens focuses on the human body in motion (“9 Variations on a Dance Theme,” “transport,” Maya Deren’s “Meditation on Violence”) and purely abstract films (“1941,” which uses broken light bulbs and wet paint, or Stan Brakage’s “scratch on the emulsion” experiments).

An especially noteworthy subset of these experiments is the music Continue reading CAPSULE: “MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM 1920-1970”


“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: , 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.

Still from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)


  • 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 Continue reading 119. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)


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.

Maya Deren's At LandThe 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 Continue reading MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)