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Why Should We Care About Maya Deren? – A Guest Blog by Stephanie Morales Macedo

There is no experimental or avant-garde cinema without mentioning Maya Deren. Born on April 29, 1917, the Ukrainian-born American filmmaker believed that films were meant to create an experience. Deren’s black-and-white films were known for playing with time and space by using editing techniques such as jump-cuts and slow-motion. Deren has a variety of films that explore these techniques while also creating an experience such as At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meshes of the Afternoon and The Very Eye of Night.

Deren’s 1994 short film At Land shows how playing with time and space can deceive the viewer. At Land follows Daren through a dream-like sequence where she encounters people in different scenarios. In the end, Deren finds the chess piece she was looking for, but as she goes back through the journey she took the audience with, she runs into previous versions of herself. Deren said that At Land was intended to show the struggles within one’s personal identity. The very last shot of the film shows Deren running with the chess piece on the beach showing that the struggle with identity never truly ends. 

Still from Maya Deren’s At Land

The 1946 short film Ritual in Transfigured Time combines two of Deren’s interests: Dance and Rituals. Ritual in Transfigured Time starts off with Deren in a chair playing with yarn when a woman named Rita Christiani appears. Christiani reels Deren’s string in until Deren runs out and suddenly disappears. Christiani is next seen wearing a black dress and veil with a cross necklace. She is thrown into a dance party, but instead of dancing, she is trying to find her way out. As she walks through the dancing crowd and escapes into a park, a man follows her. They dance but throughout the montage, Christiani and Deren are switching roles until they run away from the man and end up drowning. Throughout the fifteen-minute short film, Deren uses slow-motion and freeze frames to accompany the dance scenes adding drama and emphasizing their movements. The drowning scene is powerful because the film was shot in negative making the black dress and veil transform into a wedding dress. Dance is a major part of many rituals, including weddings, but the ritual is stopped when the woman drowns. 

Every filmmaker has that one film that they are most known for. In Deren’s case, Meshes of the Afternoon helped spread her name like a wildfire. The 1943 short film is similar to At Land in the sense that Deren’s character is seen interacting with different versions of herself. Meshes of the Afternoon begins with Deren going to her apartment and taking a nap. As she is dreaming, a hooded person with a mirror for a face is seen carrying a rose as Deren’s character tries to follow him. Different versions of Deren interact with the hooded character to the point where one version sees the hooded character place a knife under the sheets of Deren’s bed. Deren is woken up from her nap from her real-life husband, but as he takes her to the bedroom, Deren realizes that her dream was real, but is later found out that it was a dream within a dream. Deren tries to attack her husband, but instead of hurting him, a mirror breaks. Moments later, Deren’s character who was previously sleeping is now dead. 

In 1990, The United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress preserved Meshes of the Afternoon for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance forever marking Deren’s place in film history. 

Deren’s last film was made in 1958 in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. The Very Eye of Night shows ballet performers dancing to music by Japanese Composer Teiji Ito. The whole short film is shot in negative with a wide variety of angle compositions creating an elaborate performance. Deren is known for her psychological films that touch on different subjects about the human experience, but The Very Eye of Night does not have a storyline. It simply shows Deren’s love of dance and filmmaking making it the perfect film for Deren to end her successful filmmaking career. 

To experience Maya Deren’s work on the silver screen accompanied by the beautiful music of Calvin Arsenia, join us for Night of 1,000 Candles on February 12 at the Cider Gallery! 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Morales Macedo is a Free State Festival intern. To learn more about Stephanie and our other amazing festival interns, visit this blog!