Maya Deren (April 29, 1917 â" October 13, 1961), born Eleanora Derenkowskaia (Russian: ÐÐ»ÐµÐ¾Ð½Ð¾ÌÑÐ° Ð"ÐµÑÐµÐ½ÐºÐ¾ÌÐ²ÑÐºÐ°Ñ), was one of the most important American experimental filmmakers and entrepreneurial promoters of the avant-garde in the 1940s and 1950s. Deren was also a choreographer, dancer, film theorist, poet, lecturer, writer and photographer.
The function of film, Deren believed, like most art forms, was to create an experience; each one of her films would evoke new conclusions, lending her focus to be dynamic and always-evolving. She combined her interests in dance, Haitian Vodou and subjective psychology in a series of surreal, perceptual, black and white short films. Using editing, multiple exposures, jump cutting, superimposition, slow-motion and other camera techniques to her fullest advantage, Deren creates continued motion through discontinued space, while abandoning the established notions of physical space and time, with the ability to turn her vision into a stream of consciousness.
Perhaps one of the most influential experimental films in American cinema was her collaboration with Alexander Hammid on Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). She continued to make several more films of her own, including At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) Â â" writing, producing, directing, editing, and photographing them with help from only one other person, Hella Heyman, as camerawoman. She also appeared in a few of her films but never credited herself as an actress, downplaying her roles as anonymous figures rather than iconic deities.
Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine, into a Jewish family, to psychologist Solomon Derenkowsky and Marie Fiedler, who supposedly named her after Italian actress Eleonora Duse.
In 1922, the family fled the country because of anti-Semitic pogroms and moved to Syracuse, New York. Her father shortened the family name to "Deren" shortly after they arrived in New York. He became the staff psychiatrist at the State Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Syracuse.
In 1928, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Her mother moved to Paris, France to be with her daughter while she attended the League of Nations International School of Geneva in Switzerland from 1930 to 1933.
Deren began college at Syracuse University, where she studied journalism and also became active in the Trotskyist Young People's Socialist League. Through the YPSL she met Gregory Bardacke, whom she married at the age of 18. After his graduation in 1935, she moved to New York City. She and her husband became active in various socialist causes in New York City. She graduated from New York University with a bachelor's degree in literature and separated from Bardacke. The divorce was finalized in 1939. She attended the New School for Social Research and received a masterâs degree in English literature at Smith College. Her master's thesis was titled The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry (1939).
After graduation from Smith, Deren returned to New Yorkâs Greenwich Village, where she joined the European Ã©migrÃ© art scene, and worked as an editorial assistant and free-lance photographer. She became known for her European-style handmade clothes, wild, curly hair, and fierce convictions. In 1941, Deren wrote and suggested a children's book on dance to African American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and later became her personal secretary. At the end of a tour, the Dunham dance company stopped in Los Angeles for several months to work in Hollywood. It was there that Deren met Alexandr Hackenschmied (later Hammid), a celebrated Czech-born photographer and cameraman who would become her second husband in 1942. Hackenschmied had fled from Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Hitler's advance. They lived together in Laurel Canyon where he helped her with her still photography. After living in New York, "California presented rich sights in the FortiesÂ â" urban Hollywood in its archetypal, image-ridden 'glory,' and lovely desert countryside;" her photographs focused on local fruit pickers and the surrealism of Los Angeles.
Meshes of the Afternoon
In 1943, Deren purchased a used 16 mm Bolex camera with some of the inheritance money after her father's death from a heart attack. This camera captured her first and best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), in Los Angeles in collaboration with Hammid. Meshes of the Afternoon is recognized as a seminal American avant-garde film. It is the first narrative film in avant-garde American film, which critics have said took on an autobiographical tone - for women and the individual. Originally a silent film with no dialogue, music for the film was composed by Deren's third husband Teiji ItÅ in 1952. The film can be described as an expressionistic "trance film," full of dramatic angles and innovative editing. It seems to investigate the ephemeral ways in which the protagonist's unconscious mind works and makes connections between objects and situations. A woman, played by Maya Deren, walks to her friend's house in Los Angeles, falls asleep and has a dream. The sequence of walking up to the gate on the partially shaded road restarts numerous times, resisting conventional narrative expectations, and ends in various situations inside the house. Movement from the wind, shadows and the music sustain the heartbeat of the dream. Certain symbols recur on the screen, including a cloaked, mirror-faced figure, and a key, which becomes twinned with a knife.
The loose repetition and rhythm cuts short any expectation of a conventional narrative, heightening the dream-like qualities. The camera initially avoids her face, which precludes identification with a particular woman's face. Multiple selves appear, shifting between the first and third person, suggesting that the super-ego is at play, which is in line with the psychoanalytic Freudian staircase and flower motifs. Very aware of the "personal film," her first piece explores a woman's subjectivity and her relation to the external world. Georges Sadoul said Deren may have been "the most important figure in the post-war development of the personal, independent film in the U.S.A." In featuring the filmmaker as the woman whose subjectivity in the domestic space is explored, the feminist dictum "the personal is political" is foregrounded. As with her other films on self-representation, Deren navigates conflicting tendencies of the self and the "other," through doubling, multiplication and merging of the woman in the film. Following a dreamlike quest with allegorical complexity, Meshes of the Afternoon has an enigmatic structure and a loose affinity with both film noir and domestic melodrama.
Deren filmed At Land in Port Jefferson and Amagansett, New York in the summer of 1944. Taking on more of an environmental psychologist's perspective, Deren "externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world...as if I had moved from a concern with the life of the fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life." Maya Deren washes up on the shore of the beach, and climbs up a piece of driftwood that leads to a room lit by chandeliers, and one long table filled with men and women smoking. She seems to be invisible to the people as she crawls across the table, uninhibited; her body continues seamlessly again onto a new frame, crawling through foliage; following the flowing pattern of water on rocks; following a man across a farm, to a sick man in bed, through a series of doors, and finally popping up outside on a cliff. She shrinks in the wide frame as she walks farther away from the camera, up and down sand dunes, then frantically collecting rocks back on the shore. Her expression seems confused when she sees two women playing chess in the sand. She runs back through the entire sequence, and because of the jump-cuts, it seems as though she is a double or "doppelganger," where her earlier self sees her other self running through the scene. Some of her movements are controlled, suggesting a theatrical, dancer-like quality, while some have an almost animalistic sensibility as she crawls through the seemingly foreign environments. This is one of Deren's films in which the focus is on the character's exploration of her own subjectivity in her physical environment, inside as well as outside her subconscious, although it has a similar amorphous quality compared to her other films.
A Study in Choreography for Camera
In the spring of 1945 she made A Study in Choreography for Camera, which Deren said was "an effort to isolate and celebrate the principle of the power of movement." The compositions and varying speeds of movement within the frame inform and interact with Deren's meticulous edits and varying film speeds and motions to create a dance that Deren said could only exist on film. Excited by the way the dynamic of movement is greater than anything else within the film, Maya established a completely new sense of the word "geography" as the movement of the dancer transcends and manipulates the ideas of both time and space. Running at just under 3 minutes long, A Study in Choreography for Camera is a fragment but also a carefully constructed exploration of a man who dances in a forest, and then seems to teleport to the inside of a house because of how continuous his movements are from one place to the next. The choreography is perfectly synched as he seamlessly appears in an outdoor courtyard and then returns to an open, natural space. It shows a progression from nature to the confines of society, and back to nature. The figure belongs to dancer and choreographer Talley Beatty, whose last movement is a leap across the screen back to the natural world. The edit its broken, choppy, showing different angles and compositions, and even with parts in slow-motion, Deren is able to keep the quality of the leap smooth and seemingly uninterrupted.
Ritual in Transfigured Time
By her fourth film, Deren discussed in An Anagram that she felt special attention should be given to unique possibilities of time and that the form should be ritualistic as a whole. Ritual in Transfigured Time began in August and was completed in 1946. It explored the fear of rejection and the freedom of expression in abandoning ritual, looking at the details as well as the bigger ideas of the nature and process of change.
Meditation on Violence
Deren's Meditation on Violence was made in 1948. Chao-Li Chi's performance obscures the distinction between violence and beauty. It was an attempt to "abstract the principle of ongoing metamorphosis," found in Ritual in Transfigured Time, though Deren felt it was not as successful in the clarity of that idea, brought down by its philosophical weight. Halfway through the film, the sequence is rewound, producing a film loop.
Her entrepreneurial spirit became evident as she began to screen and distribute her films in the United States, Canada, and Cuba, lecturing and writing on avant-garde film theory, and Vodoun as well. In February 1946 she booked the Village's Provincetown Playhouse for a major public exhibition, titled Three Abandoned Films, in which she showed Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and A Study in Choreography for the Camera. The event was completely sold out, inspiring Amos Vogel's formation of Cinema 16, the most successful film society of the 1950s.
In 1946, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for "Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures," and won the Grand Prix Internationale for 16mm experimental film at the Cannes Film Festival for Meshes of the Afternoon. She then created a scholarship for experimental filmmakers, the Creative Film Foundation.
In 1958, Deren collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and Antony Tudor to create The Very Eye of Night.
Deren was a muse and inspiration to such up-and-coming avant-garde filmmakers as Curtis Harrington, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, who emulated her independent, entrepreneurial spirit.
In 1943, she moved to a bungalow on Kings Road in Hollywood and adopted the name Maya. Maya is the name of the mother of the historical Buddha as well as the dharmic concept of the illusory nature of reality. In Greek myth, Maia is the mother of Hermes and a goddess of mountains and fields. Also in 1943, Deren began making a film with Marcel Duchamp, The Witches' Cradle, which was never completed.
In 1944, back in New York City, her social circle included Marcel Duchamp, AndrÃ© Breton, John Cage, and AnaÃ¯s Nin.
Many friends described her look as that of an exotic Russian Jew, contributing a part of her attractiveness to her bohemian, Greenwich Village lifestyle. In the December 1946 issue of Esquire magazine, a caption for her photograph teased that she "experiments with motion pictures of the subconscious, but here is finite evidence that the lady herself is infinitely photogenic." Her third husband, Teiji Ito said "Maya was always a Russian. In Haiti she was a Russian. She was always dressed up, talking, speaking many languages and being a Russian."
Criticism of Hollywood
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Deren attacked Hollywood for its artistic, political and economic monopoly over American cinema. She stated, âI make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick,â and observed that Hollywood âhas been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form.â She set herself in opposition to the Hollywood film industryâs standards and practices. Deren talks about the freedoms of independent cinema:
Artistic freedom means that the amateur filmmaker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words...to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot...nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes...Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.
Haiti and Vodoun/Vodou
When Maya Deren decided to make an ethnographic film in Haiti, she was criticized for abandoning avant-garde film where she had made her place, but she was ready to expand to a new level as an artist. She had studied ethnographic footage by Gregory Bateson in Bali in 1947, and was interested in including it in her next film. In September she divorced Hammid and left for a nine-month stay in Haiti. The Guggenheim Fellowship grant in 1947 enabled Deren to finance her travel and complete her film Meditation on Violence. She went on three additional trips through 1954 to document and record the rituals of Haitian Vodou.
A source of inspiration for ritual dance was Katherine Dunham who wrote her masterâs thesis on Haitian dances in 1939, which Deren edited. Afterwards Deren wrote several articles on religious possession in dancing before her first trip to Haiti. Deren not only filmed, recorded and photographed many hours of vodou ritual, but also participated in the ceremonies. She documented her knowledge and experience of Vodou in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York: Vanguard Press, 1953), edited by Joseph Campbell, which is considered a definitive source on the subject. She described her attraction to Vodoun possession ceremonies, transformation, dance, play, games and especially ritual came from her strong feeling on the need to decenter our thoughts of self, ego and personality. In her book An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film she wrote:
"The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalized element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalization is not the deconstruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specializations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning."
Deren filmed 18,000 feet of Vodou rituals and people she met in Haiti. The footage was incorporated into a posthumous documentary film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, edited and produced in 1977 (with funding from Deren's friend James Merrill) by Teiji ItÅ (1935-1982) and his wife Cherel Winett ItÅ (1947â"1999). All of the original wire recordings, photographs and notes are held in the Maya Deren Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. The film footage is housed at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
An LP of some of Deren's wire recordings was published by the newly formed Elektra Records in 1953 entitled Voices of Haiti. The cover art for the album was by Teiji Ito.
Anthropologists Melville Herkovitz and Harold Courlander acknowledged the importance of Divine Horsemen, and in contemporary studies it is often cited as an authoritative voice, where Deren's methodology has been especially praised because "Vodou has resisted all orthodoxies, never mistaking surface representations for inner realities."
In her book of the same name, Deren uses the spelling,'Voudoun,' explaining: "Voudoun terminology, titles and ceremonies still make use of the original African words and in this book they have been spelled out according to usual English phonetics and so as to render, as closely as possible, the Haitian pronunciation. Most of the songs, sayings and even some of the religious terms, however, are in Creole, which is primarily French in derivation (although it also contains African, Spanish and Indian words). Where the Creole word retains its French meaning, it has been written out so as to indicate both the original French word and the distinctive Creole pronunciation." In her Glossary of Creole Words, Deren includes 'Voudoun' while the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary draws attention to the similar French word, Vaudoux.
Deren died in 1961, at the age of 44, from a brain hemorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition. Her condition may have also been weakened by her long term dependence on amphetamines and sleeping pills prescribed by Dr. Max Jacobson, an arts scene doctor notorious for his liberal prescription of drugs who later became famous as one of President Kennedy's physicians. Her father suffered from high blood pressure, which she may have had as well.
Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Mount Fuji.
Deren was a key figure in the creation of a New American Cinema, highlighting personal, experimental, underground film. In 1986, the American Film Institute created the Maya Deren Award to honor independent filmmakers.
The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. 1 Part 2 consists of hundreds of documents, interviews, oral histories, letters, and autobiographical memoirs.
Works about Deren and her works have been produced in various media:
- In 1987, Jo Ann Kaplan directed a biographical documentary about Deren, titled Invocation: Maya Deren (65 min)
- In 1994, the UK-based Horse and Bamboo Theatre created and toured Dance of White Darkness throughout Europeâ"the story of Deren's visits to Haiti.
- In 2002, Martina Kudlacek directed a feature-length documentary about Deren, titled In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Im Spiegel der Maya Deren), which featured music by John Zorn.
Deren's films have also been shown with newly written alternative soundtracks:
- In 2004, the British rock group Subterraneans produced new soundtracks for six of Deren's short films as part of a commission from Queen's University Belfast's annual film festival. At Land won the festival prize for sound design.
- In 2008, the Portuguese rock group MÃ£o Morta produced new soundtracks for four of Deren's short films as part of a commission from Curtas Vila do Conde's annual film festival.
As well as directing, Deren was also an important film theorist.
- Her most widely read essay on film theory is probably An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, Derenâs seminal treatise that laid the groundwork for many of her ideas on film as an art form (Yonkers, NY: Alicat Book Shop Press, 1946).
- Her collected essay were published in 2005 and arranged in three sections:
- Film Poetics, including: Amateur versus Professional, Cinema as an Art Form, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality
- Film Production, including: Creating Movies with a New Dimension: Time, Creative Cutting, Planning by Eye, Adventures in Ceative Film-Making
- Film in Medias Res, including: A Letter, Magic is New, New Directions in Film Art, Choreography for the Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence, The Very Eye of Night.
- "Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti," was published in 1953 by Vanguard Press (New York City) Thames & Hudson (London), republished under the title of The Voodoo Gods by Paladin in 1975, and again under its original title by McPherson & Company in 1998.
- Women's cinema
- Deren bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
- Maya Deren at the Internet Movie Database
- In the Mirror of Maya Deren at IMDB
- Martina KudlÃ¡Äek (director of "In the Mirror of Maya Deren") by Robert Gardner BOMB 81/Fall 2002
- Maya Deren Forum
- Private Life of a Cat (1947) at the Internet Archive
- Maya Deren Collection at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center
- 'Divine Horsemen' (book): excerpts