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Maya Deren Collection, The
Maya Deren lived a relatively short life (dying in 1961 at the age of 44), and within that life, had an even shorter filmmaking career, which lasted from 1943 to 1959 (she worked on projects after 1959, but did not finish any of them before her death). Yet, during those 16 years, she managed to earn the title "mother of the American avant-garde film," largely through her hugely influential first film, 1943's Meshes of the Afternoon. Kino Lorber, as part of their ongoing efforts to present new restorations of hugely important contributions by women to film history, is now offering The Maya Deren Collection on DVD and Blu-ray, a one-disc offering that includes the six films Deren directed or co-directed, a seventh that she collaborated on with her then-husband Alexander Hammid, and an hour of footage that she had collected for a project that was never finished, and which was assembled by her widow Teiji Ito after her death in 1977.
When I first saw Meshes of the Afternoon a few years ago, the first and most overwhelming thought was that it was obviously a huge influence on David Lynch, arguably the most widely popular and mainstream American avant-garde filmmaker of all time. The film is a hallucinatory nightmare experienced by a woman (Deren) who is either home alone, home with her husband (Hammid), trapped at home with a mysterious figure wearing a black cloak and who has a mirror for a face, trapped at home with other versions of herself (at least one of which may be homicidal), or all of the above. Combined with the (then-contemporary) 1950s decor and the film's fascination with mysterious keys, the short shares obvious parallels with Lynch's Mulholland Dr., which also features a woman who may be fending off another version of herself in some sort of hallucinatory nightmare.
When paired with Deren's other films, however, different things emerge. Meshes of the Afternoon creates so much of its disorienting, gravity-defying eeriness thanks to the way Deren uses the edges of the frame to make the film more claustrophobic. Much like Lynch does when his camera slowly progresses deeper and deeper into some sort of dark and mysterious portal, Deren instills a sense of unease in the viewer by limiting their ability to orient themselves. The stairs in her house tilt at a bizarre angle; at times she appears to roll up the walls of the staircase trying to catch a glimpse of what might be an intruder in the bedroom. When a POV shot scans her living room, we almost expect to see something terrifying revealed with a casual inevitability. This use of the frame continues into At Land, in which Deren can climb up a piece of driftwood and onto a table in some darkened room. Is it a dinner party? A boardroom? We are never given the tools to comfortably orient ourselves, forced to make do with what she allows us to see and get ahold of. On the other hand, her dance films, A Study in Choreography for Camera and Meditation on Violence use this technique in a more magical way, allowing a dancer to fluidly leap or bound from one location in one costume to somewhere entirely different and with wholly transformed attire, more like a magic trick connected by Deren's love of perpetual motion. The effect is simple, yet striking.
Meshes of the Afternoon also sets up Deren's love of circular storytelling, with her character's journey looping deliriously in on itself over and over again. Study in Choreography might imply that this love stems from her love of dance, with the dances themselves and some of the camerawork forming literal loops or circles. Even Hammid's relatively straightforward documentary The Private Life of a Cat*, featuring narration performed and written by Deren, follows the circle of life as two housecats mate, the children are born and raised to independence, and then the ritual begins again. Deren's second most accomplished piece, Ritual in Transfigured Time is a slight outlier in that it allows its protagonist (Anais Nin!) to at least try and break the cycle. In it, we see a woman, played by Deren, acting like a human loom or sewing machine, before Nin's character is sucked into a seemingly endless dinner party consisting of nothing but endless introductions. Nin escapes that, only to find herself in a garden filled with male statues, and a man pursuing her who seems to want to become one himself. The metaphor for traditional life and traditional marriage is underscored by a shot at the end, with the colors reversed, that turns a funeral veil into a wedding gown -- it's probably no surprise that she divorced Hammid the year after it was made.
The last two films on the disc are perhaps a little disappointing. The Very Eye of Night is one of her most technologically ambitious shorts, taking the documentary style of the dance films Choreography and Meditation, and combining them with something more stylish in the vein of Meshes and Ritual. In it, she uses her color inversion trick again, this time to superimpose the resulting white figures of dancers over a black starfield, as if the characters are dancing in the cosmos. While the results are visually striking, the film's characters (each individually credited at the start) are nearly impossible to tell apart. Perhaps some kind of spot color or better clarity on the dancers' faces would've helped this short tell more of a story; as it stands, I could not make heads or tails of it in even an abstract sense. Finally, Divine Horsemen** is, of course, not the film that Deren herself would've made out of the footage, even assembled as it is with extensive notes and recollections that were used to assemble it. It is a fascinating cultural document, looking at ancient Haitian voodoo rituals, and her eye for the beauty of dance remains impressive, but as a film -- through no fault of anyone involved -- it does not feel as if it can fully capture her specific and unique vision.
*While the internet seems to disagree, The Private Life of a Cat only credits Hammid as the director. In the notes included with the Blu-ray, Sullivan does not contradict this or even say that she went uncredited, and I can find no suggestion that she actually directed it, although it's certainly possible that the division of "role" was not so strict, as she and Hammid were married and the film was shot in their home.
**Warning: this piece does contain extensive footage of live animals being killed, which may upset certain viewers. Worth a heads up, anyway.
An image of Maya Deren wearing the strange, disco-ball sunglasses and brandishing a knife, from Meshes of the Afternoon, graces the front cover of Kino's Blu-ray of "The Maya Deren Collection." Once the package is opened, one then has the option to turn the reversible artwork around to a more serene image of Deren from the same short, peering out the window. The same core image on the reverse also adorns the front of the booklet, which features essays by author Moira Jean Sullivan, and the default cover image is duplicated on the disc itself.
The Video and Audio
Per the liner notes, all of the 1.33:1 1080p AVC shorts were scanned in 2K at Metropolis Post, mostly using printing negatives in Tavia Ito's collection. Divine Horsemen uses a 1977 assembly negative, and The Private Life of a Cat was scanned off of a print provided by Pola Chapelle, with frame-by-frame cleanup done by Bret Wood at Kino Lorber. Those who have seen Kino's other Blu-rays will know what to expect: lines/specks/other types of print damage, softness (at times it can be unclear if out-of-focus shots, excluding a few naturally soft optical effects, are due to the limitation of the materials or an intentional choice) and distortion are often left alone in favor of preserving overall image fidelity. Anyone who watches enough short film from the 1940s and earlier should find this collection to be well within the norm in terms of presenting this material in what is always clearly HD, even at its most compromised points.
Sound across all of the shorts with sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono track. Unlike silent films from one or two decades earlier, which often have multiple options when it comes to score, when Deren's films have music (many are truly silent), they have specific composed tracks. Naturally, the quality of these recordings is similar to that of the picture: rough around the edges, with the kind of crackling, popping, and distortion that comes with age, but a basic fundamental clarity that Kino has worked to preserve.
In addition to their massive 2018 box set Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Kino has released a few of these collections in 2020 (with no content overlap!), including two Alice Guy-Blache discs and a Julia Crawford Ivers collection (with no overlap between the four sets, and barely any with Flicker Alley's 2017 set Early Women Filmmakers). For the most part, Kino's 2020 releases do not have extra features (just booklets, a restoration featurette, and one commentary between the other three), but The Maya Deren Collection is an exception at the other end of the spectrum, with a full host of supplementary content.
With the exception of A Study in Choreography for Camera and The Private Life of a Cat, each of the films included here has an audio commentary by either scholar Moira Jean Sullivan or film curator Thomas Beard. These are clearly prepared comments rather than off-the-cuff, and not always completely screen-specific. They have a dry and somewhat awkward quality to them that comes out of that type of preparation (with Beard, think of an NPR segment; with Sullivan, think of a college lecture), although they provide insight into Deren's history, methods, and intents that are worth hearing. Sullivan's tracks are a bit leaner, and focus more on unpacking what Deren is attempting to convey, while Beard's focus is a bit broader, attempting to contextualize Deren's work within film and general history, as well as within the timeline of her life. The tracks by both commentators do feature a number of dead spots where they simply let the film play, which might be a bit disappointing, but it's nice that Kino went to the effort of commissioning them, and I'm sure plenty of viewers will enjoy their inclusion.
More audio extras follow. Outtakes from the soundtrack recording sessions for Meshes of the Afternoon (13:07) and The Very Eye of Night (13:22) have been provided by Teiji Ito. Although these are fascinating from a historical perspective, there is not much to say about them, other than that they are in great shape. There is also an alternate French dub for Divine Horsemen. To access this, or the audio commentaries, you need to either use the audio button on your remote or select it on the "Films" menu under the specific title, as they do not appear on the "Extras" submenu.
Finally, there is a single video extra: "Invocation: Maya Deren" (55:26), by Jo Ann Kaplan. I cannot tell where this documentary originally appeared when it was released in 1987, but it has the basic structure of a (very well-made) TV special, and features interviews with people such as collaborators like Alexander and Hella Hammid, as well as fellow filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, and features narration by Helen Mirren. The documentary also contains archival audio material from Deren herself (seemingly all taken from an October 1953 symposium), as well as other incredible bits of footage, such as all sorts of photographs of Deren (both candid and art photographs), and entirely unexpected raw materials, such as color footage from Meshes of the Afternoon or the in-process hand-drawn title sequence from The Very Eye of Night. An invaluable addition to the disc, peering into her style and what she was like, even if it does feature quite a bit of footage from the films the viewer has presumably just watched.
Fans of Deren's work should enjoy this collection, which offers not only a complete collection of her work, but a handsome supplementary package to go along with it. Recommended.
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