Sunday, October 5, 2008

Maya Deren's Influence

I first saw "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943), Maya Deren's first and most remarkable experimental film, during a workshop with James Reckseidler and I was instantly drawn to her mythopoetic approach. I would like to call her work surrealist, but it was a term that she eschewed over her preferred descriptions of avant-garde or ritualistic.

Maya Deren was born in Kiev in 1917 as Eleanora Derenkowsky. In 1922, the threat of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine caused the Derenkowsky family to flee to the United States where they Anglicized their surname to Deren. (Having recently worked on an article about Stanislavski, Vakhtangov and the Habima, and researched many Jewish artists in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—all of whom displayed such dedication and innovation—I found this part of her story quite fascinating.)

Deren's education ranged from journalism to political science to symbolist poetry, and she also showed a marked interest in dance, anthropology and the theory of relativity. (I rather like the fact that her list is so similar to mine.) Naturally, all of these interests informed her work in unique and unusual ways. It was in collaboration with filmmaker Alexander Hammid, whom she eventually married, that Deren produced "Meshes of the Afternoon". It was during this time that she decided to focus on film (and change her name to Maya).

Deren wrote and directed several experimental films, but it is in her writing that her status as an innovator in film production and film theory is truly apparent. I am particularly interested in the paper that she presented at a Cinema 16 Symposium in 1953, entitled "Poetry and the Film." In this paper, she argued that film works on two axes: the horizontal—including narrative, character and action—and the vertical—characterized by the more ephemeral elements of mood, tone and rhythm. I don't know about you, but when I read this explanation, it was as if a light bulb had turned on over my head. I suddenly understood that my short films focus primarily on the vertical axis: mood, tone and rhythm.

So it is the understanding of that vertical axis that Maya Deren provided for my film, a gift that I expect will continue to influence my future work.

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