For my tastes, the significant works of Maya Deren are her three mystical self-portraits of nightmare & fantasy, Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & Ritual in Transfigured Time made from 1943 to 1946, the so-called "trance films." Signal works of the avant garde, they're also fascinating for devotees of artiful horror cinema, & are great works, especially Meshes.
Her remaining films would interest me less if Deren hadn't made those three great works of fantasy & surrealism, an attitude she confronted during her life with some annoyance since she regarded her later films just as highly.
For me, coming to her other films preferring & enamored of those early films, I nevertheless get a good deal of pleasure from everything else as well, & perhaps especially The Private Life of a Cat (1944).
The content of Private Life is thought to be largely the planning of Maya Deren, while the camera work & final edit was that of her second husband Alexander "Sasha" Hamid.
It is speculated that Sasha's input is the reason this film is devoid of the surrealism & morbidness of Maya's best work, though I find nothing contradictory about an artist of the macabre filming her cats striclty as beloved pets rather than as stars of a horror tale.
The film records the housebound lives of She the tabby & He of pure coat, in a sentimental manner probably intended to reflect human love for spouse & family. It's lovely cinematography showing the cats fondness for one another.
Simple clever editing gives the impression of She's quest for a place in the apartment to have her kittens, finding a handily provided paper-lined box. The birthing & cleaning process are shown in extreme close-ups.
All is presented in complete silence without a musical score. I shiver with horror of some nurd at youtube adding their own choice of music (perhaps bits of John Sebastian's "Nashville Cats" & Rudy Vallee's "Kitty from Kansas City"), for part of the film's power is the abject silence of the piece.
There's quite a funny-appealling sequence when She takes her kittens one by one & puts them in the unused fireplace, & He begins playing with the two-week olds whose eyes have just opened. She then lays down some distance away & calls to her kittens to come be fed, this as a parent's ploy to get the kittens to walk through new territories.
Ultimately this is for cat lovers & not really for film buffs, as it's nothing more than twenty minutes of pictoriality of the photogenic mother cat & her kittens' development, a document of life as indoor cats with humans unrevealed. Watching She & He & their kittens is a pure joy, with the only didactic moment the final sequence which is a statement of life's circularity.
Once past Maya's macabre films & the sentimental cat film, her primary obsession appears to be dance.
The opening title card for The Very Eye of Night (1958) reads "a choreography for camera by Maya Deren made in collaboration wit Metropo.itan Opera Ballet School students under the direction of Antony Tudor." Tudor was a leading ballet choreographer of the era.
The score is by Maya's third husband Teiji Ito, the first composer to adapt traditional Japanese instrumentation to the avant garde. At a quarter hour length, the opening simulates the night sky, with a few notes beating on the soundtrack.
Then dancers begin to appear, drifting as ghostly negatives in the sky. The first two dancers each have an arm reaching forward, palm forward, a pose encountered in several of Maya's films.
The dance of celestial bodies & the constellations is achieved with beautiful if primitive special FX, & comes off as a kind of magical mummery, a dream ballet with cinematic roots going back to Georges Mileas in films as The Astronomer's Dream (1899) or The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun & Moon (1907).
This is the most surreal of her dance films & thus for me the most exciting, with some surprising subtlties, unexpected humor (like the one-legged dancers), & a capacity to entrance akin to the earlier "Trance films."
Maya had done a preliminary version of The Very Eye of Night which she completed & never released, perhaps realizing it didn't capture her vision quite right.
This was Ensemble for Samnombulists (1951) made during a Toronto Film Society workshop. It is seven minutes in length with ballet dancers shown less effectively than in Very Eye of Night, drifting in the night.
It has a scarier look than Eye which seems not to have been intentional. Without the assistance of a world-class choreographer which she had for Eye, Ensemble in the main fails; although, if the finer version had never been made, beside which Ensemble pales, it might've stood as an interesting slightly shoddy experiment.
The least consquential of her films is the short-short A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945).
The camera pans in one direction encountering the same dancing man in the forest, a loop that gives the impression of the dancer having doppelgangers.
The camera then settles on him & he continues through his dance moves which are instantly inside an apartment, then whirling in front of a Hindi statue, & back in the forest to conclude with a squatting Maori warrior pose.
That final pose is quite powerful, & there's no question but that Talley Beatty is a superb jazz dancer more than worthy of filming. He was at this time a member of Katherine Dunham's troupe, & his collaboration with Maya was the first glimpse of his own choreography to be committed to film.
He became an extremely well known modern dancer in the 1940s, then established his own dance company in the 1950s & choreographing acclaimed dance programs through the 1980s. Nevertheless, the three-minute film is simply too slight.
More substantive in combining Maya's interest in dance & multi-culturalism is Meditation of Violence (1948).
It's introduced on a title card (without use of caps) as "based on traditional training movements of the wu-tang shao-lin schools of chinese boxing."
The performance is by Shanghai-born actor Chao Li Chi in his first film appeareance, choreographed by himself to a traditional musical score for flute, composed by Teiji Ito. Chao is perhaps best remembered as a regular on the long-running prime time soap Falcon Crest, but has been in many films & television shows, including a cameo as the old Chinese magician . Chung Ling Soo in The Prestige (2006).
About seven minutes into the film, the slow tai chi movements alter dramatically. Chao leaps seemingly from a stage or martial arts studio (it's actually Maya's New York apartment) to an exterior setting by a stone wall, clad like a character in a kung fu historical, doing exercises with sword.
He eventually reappears on the indoor set with his buff torso again bared, which strikes me as a mistaken editing choice in that it stops the film's forward momentum by returning to the start. I can't help but feel it should've climaxed on an actual battlefield but that would've taken a lot more planning & staging.
But if the film is studied a bit more closely it becomes clear that there is not mere circularity in returning to the beginning. Rather, the film is literally shown in reverse, & for me it was a startling realization that Tai chi movements are so incredible in their balance that they look completely normal rather than backward when shown in reverse.
It's really possible to watch the film never noticing the point of reversal, unless you look for it at that point when Chao leaps at the camera with sword.
In 1948 there was not yet the fad & constant exposure to Shaolin & kung-fu arts in the west, & the subject was by itself unusual. Today it's commonplace. Deren records her novelty-subject very blandly with no context beyond the exercise motions of the wu shu practitioner.
In consequence it looks like antique newsreel footage or even something that might've been made for a mutoscope, lacking the intrigue & artistic fire of her better films.
In 1947 Maya Deren received a Gugenheim Fellowship which she used to study voudoun in Haiti. The footage was shot during three trips to Haiti in 1947, 1949 & 1954. The dvd's statement that the footage was shot 1947-1951 is in error. Footage showing the priest Isnard is from 1947; the Boeuf Azacca ceremony is from 1949; & young Jaques performing the juba is from 1954.
The narration by Teiji Ito borrows liberally from Maya's published monograph on voudoun. It is informative & establishes an attitude of respect for what is shown.
And if you think for a minute of how voodoo has been portrayed almost universally in American cinema, a respectful document from the 1940s would've been a unique thing.
Maya used footage during live lectures & completed an academic monograph on her investigation, but she died before the film could be finished.
She'd hoped it would be used in anthropological sources, but because she was an outsider to academe, & because she involved herself in voudoun rituals rather than remaining an aloof eye, she was unable to penetrate the educational system or obtain grants to finish her film as a scholarly work. Long after her death, the footage would be valued for what she had originally intended.
It was posthumously edited by Teiji & his second wife Cherel Winnet Ito in 1973, into the fifty-minute documentary narrated by Teiji, & released in 1977 as Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, the title also of her monograph. Cherel did further tinkering in 1983 with a bit of narration of her own, released in 1985.
Most regard this edited footage as really a film by Cherl & Teiji, as the editing amounts to an interpretation of Deren's raw footage, selected from the 20,000 feet of film preserved by the Anthology Film Archives in New City & rarely shown in its entirety, though a viewing can be arranged for a fee.
Voudoun is a dynamic shifting faith & what was true of it in the 1940s may well be extremely different today. As an historical visual document plus Maya's wire recordings of voudoun music, this is some of her most important work, a significant record of a folk religion, with particular focus on Deren's personal interest, dance.
She became personally involved with the faith & had access to rituals other filmmakers never had. A teenage Teiji travelled with her as her sound editor & general assistant, but was often off on his own missions while Maya worked alone.
Teiji studied voudoun music with a master drummer called Coyote, & his own music was thereafter strikingly influenced by a blend not only of his former interests in Buddhism & Native American beliefs, but the mysticism of Voudoun.
The famously cruel method of animal sacrifices is recorded in detail with narration to reassure the viewer somewhat. Some voudoun clergy don't do it quite this cruelly, but this film captures the breaking of the legs & the wings of the living rooster in particular detail. The fact that these are by no means quick deaths for bird or goat does make it seem a mite more gruesome than a slaughterhouse which at least pretends to want to make death quick.
The main delight of the documentary footage is in the dance & music, & while it seems a fairly "normal" faith most of the time to Maya's camera's eye, we do glimpse the trances that sacred dance can induce. And it is amusing to remember the trance films which seem to have led naturally to Maya Deren's interest in voudoun.
Maya's first, abandoned film was begun in collaboration with the father of Dada, Marcel Duchamp, but all that remains of it are multiple takes & scraps, from which an interesting film can barely be deduced.
These scraps show a string animated by another string, wrapping itself around a Duchamp's throat. A woman gazes, looks startled, in multiple outtakes. A man at a table struggles to form a cat's cradle between the fingers of his hands, failing. A cow's heart from the meat market beats.
A black string crawls up a woman's arm. She has a mystic diagram on her forehead. Many more such images are shown, with tracking shots of string woven through a set, sometimes like a giant spider web. If anything specific was intended by all this it's hard to discern, though we might assume the strings are the tapestry of life & death, only tenuously holding the world together.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl