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Maya Deren Experimental Films

Microcinema // Unrated // June 26, 2007
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted May 14, 2007 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant definitely has a soft spot for some experimental filmmakers, as can be seen in this column's reviews of disc sets like The Films of Kenneth Anger, Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s and even Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids. Following very much in the tradition of early dream-scape film sculptors like Man Ray, Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau are the few but influential mood and mystery short subjects by the New York avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren. They've been given a reasonable presentation in Maya Deren Experimental Films.

In the 1940s, especially in wartime, there was no underground filmmaking community. Deren seems to have been a self-styled Greenwich Village artist that made films instead of sculpture or paintings; she was definitely part of a thriving artistic community at a time when film culture per se was limited to shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Independent film artists were not common and infrequent screenings might be held as private creative exchanges between artists. With their poetic, dreamlike imagery, Deren's films caught the attention of the rarified art world. She was not prolific and after only a few pictures collaborated with other filmmakers in film co-op projects. She died suddenly in 1961, at only 44 years of age.

Deren's films combine cinematic finesse with an intellectual outlook, and a definite sensual emotionalism completely her own. Few of her film 'tricks' and effects are as elaborate or as fussy as the visions of Jean Cocteau but her best work often seems more alive, with an awareness of the flow of time and consciousness. She's also quite sucessful in her early films in creating a strongly subjective point of view, with mind's eye shots that mirror her main character's POV as clearly as POV shots in a Hitchcock film. Always visually arresting, Deren's films don't insist on a particular psychological interpretation or set of symbols. They play best as experiences expressing Deren's personal mystical feelings.

That's a lot to say for two or three B&W 16mm films with no synch sound, filmed by a pre-Beat artist with a spring-wound Bolex camera. Let me just add that when Louis Clyde Stoumen and David Bradley screened Meshes of the Afternoon at UCLA, an audience of jaded, 'we-know-everything' 70s film students had their heads taken off. Half of us were counting on stunning the world with personal, artistic film dissertations on the meaning of existence, etc., something this woman had done twenty years before.

Text excerpts from Maya Deren's personal interpretations of her work accompany each short film, with a few observations by other artists and critics.

The Films:

Meshes of the Afternoon 1943-59, 14 min. : This definitely is the one to see. The bare outlines of a little story have a young woman (Deren) led up a hillside walkway, where she enters an attractive house; she interacts with a man and then seems to float around the room, an effect handled almost exclusively with a subjective camera. She eventually (we think) witnesses the arrival of a doppelgänger, who also enters the house. This copy undergoes the same experiences until we have three Mayas together in the room. First husband Alexander Hammid helped Deren film this slice of perfection; it was re-scored in 1959 by her second husband Teiji Ito, which explains the second date above. Deren must have been quite the artistic personality. She changed her name from Eleanora Derenkowsky for this picture, and chose "Maya" because Hammid said that it meant "illusion." As an actress she has a natural look, velvety smooth motions and a questing expression on her face that encourages our involvement.

At Land 1944, 15 min. : At Land is another slice of a dream world. A female spirit washes up on a beach and climbs some rocks that lead into a corporate boardroom, where she swims down a table between the lines of businessmen. Other surreal occurrences are just as spooky. Anaïs Nin reportedly first saw Deren when she came upon her lying in the surf of a Long Island beach while Hammid filmed. The beach material surely made 1,001 aspiring film students think that they could rush to the shoreline and return with a similar masterpiece. It's not that easy.

A Study in Choreography for the Camera 1945 silent, 4 min. : Deren switches from Surrealism to the Dance Film subgenre, conducting a brief study of a dancer's moves without cinematic interpretation.

Ritual in Transfigured Time 1945-46, 15 min. : The dance influence encroaches on Deren's surrealistic dreams in her most elaborate picture. Anaïs Nin and dancer Rita Christiani (I Walked with a Zombie) join Deren at a fancy dress ball and then cavort with an idealized male dancer (Frank Westbrook) in the gardens outdoors. Deren's facility with direction has advanced but the picture lacks the more intimate touch seen in the earlier pieces.

Meditation on Violence 1948, 12 min. : Dance aficionados and Hapkido experts may respond to this picture, a take-it-or-leave-it concept effort. Deren films Hatian-Chinese martial artist Chao Li Chi in an unchanging medium shot as he goes through strenuous action forms involving a lot of punching. Sometimes he wears a shirt and sometimes not. Li Chi's stated philosophy proposes that constant motion is a way of possessing natural forces, instead of being possessed by them. But it's difficult to see how his impressive display becomes a meditation on violence. 1

The Very Eye of Night 1952-59, 15 min. : Maya Deren's last film is again dance-related and did not impress this viewer. We only see glimpses of dancing as the film is arranged mostly to show floating figures moving or posing superimposed over a starry sky, like statuary imitating constellations. The effects to do this are smoothly executed but the film never looks like much more than a filmmaker overreaching -- 16mm opticals just don't cut it.

Maya Deren Experimental Films has been out on DVD for some time by Mystic Fire Video and only now is being distributed by Microcinema. The transfers are good but could be better, which is a bit disappointing after the excellent restoration work afforded Kenneth Anger's films on Fantoma's recent release. The Maya Deren prints we were shown back at UCLA were so good that they looked like 35mm. What we see here is sufficiently clear and but nothing exceptional; this may be the same old transfer that has been on VHS tapes since the 1980s.

Extras include two more films. An excerpt from Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti is the first ten minutes or so of a film of authentic Voodoo rituals. It was completed in 1985 from footage shot in1949 by Deren and Teiji Ito. It's the real thing and well explained by a new narrator. Maya Deren wrote a book about what she learned of Voodoo, and its title was reused for this assembly of her footage. The other picture is Private Life of a Cat by Alexander Hammid, that simply and elegantly shows the family cat finding a place to have her kittens, giving birth and caring for them. It ends with the Tomcat dropping by to check out the new brood (where did these things come from, anyway?). In its own way, this is probably more artistic than some of the dance-related films.

A brief photo gallery and more 'notes and quote' text extras are included, along with a text biography for Ms. Deren. Louis and Bebe Barron, the experimental music makers tapped by Dore Schary to provide 'electronic tonalities for Forbidden Planet, are mentioned as part of Deren, Hamid and Ito's artistic circle of friends.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Maya Deren Experimental Films rates:
Movies: Good to Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Two extra films, text notes and biography, still gallery.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2007


1. The combination of 'meditation' and 'violence' reminds me of a report made by my Taekwondo-student children. After a typical class of forms and other activities, their Korean-American instructor asked his students to meditate for a minute. He did it by barking out the following orders in a guttural ROAR, as if ordering an attack: "Ready! One! Two Three! MEDITATE!"

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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