MAYA DEREN’S LEGACY; WOMEN AND EXPERIMENTAL FILM
Through October 4th
In the Titus Theater Galleries, Museum of Modern Art, (11 W. 53rd St.)
For information, call 212-397-6980 or visit www.moma.org
Anytime an important time to rediscover Maya Deren
MoMa screens seven influential short films
BY JERRY TALLMER
Movies are dreams; dreams movies.
They have the same grammar, the same tools, the same fundamental elements — fade in, fade out, iris in, iris out, close-ups, long shots, double exposure, fade to black, slo mo, fast mo, hard cuts, shifting landscapes, endless unnerving repetition, all the rest of it.
Somebody who seems to have known that from the cradle was a woman named Maya Deren who is dead nearly 60 years now but lives on forever in the one single movie that beyond all other movies bespeaks the truths above — a 14-minute black-and-white film that cost $275 for Maya and her then husband Alexander Hamid to make in 1943 and is called “Meshes of the Afternoon.”
What a dream of a title.
This movie, along with a half-dozen others by Maya Deren, can be viewed by way of its repeated projection on certain of the lower-level walls of the Museum of Modern Art through October 4th. It is the fulcrum — or, if you like, the heart and soul of an exhibition of “Maya Deren’s Legacy: Women and Experimental Film” — curated by MoMA’s Sally Berger.
Words cannot convey what “Meshes” in itself conveys. There are indeed no words whatsoever in “Meshes” — no sound of any kind until Maya’s second husband, composer Teiji Ito, provided a staccato yet resonant (and perfect) musical track some dozen years into the film’s existence.
Let us nevertheless, however feebly, attempt some description:
A beautiful, intense, full-lipped, high-cheekboned zophtic young woman (Maya herself, of course) grasps a ripening flower, a door key, a dangerous breadknife — objects that have a life of their own, on a kitchen table, or on and off a flight of stairs, or (the flower) on an upstairs bed, or (the key) at and into the young woman’s mouth.
The young woman herself climbs those stairs; the camera follows her bare legs and sandals. The knife cuts into a breadloaf. A phone is off the hook. A record player spins, unattended. Then a hand lifts the needle off the record. There are newspapers spread all over the floor.
The young woman sinks into a big old slip-covered armchair. The camera irises in on one of her eyes. The eye closes. Then suddenly we are outside the house — Maya and Hamid’s 1943 Hollywood Hills bungalow — where the sandaled, sundressed young woman is chasing up a winding path after a tall, black-cloaked, black-hooded disappearing (female?) figure whose face is a mirror.
Now we are back in the house. Nothing has changed. Newspapers still bestrew the floor. The breadknife is on the stair. The sandaled feet climb the stairs. Suddenly we see the young woman full-face and breathtakingly sensual; then even more so upside down. The hand turns off the record player…and now, suddenly, there are two identical young women, two Mayas, and then a third one — Mayas, all three, sitting around that table, and then...
Then we get, for just one magical split second, what might be called “The Shot Seen and Cherished Around the World”: Maya Deren in full flower, age 26 (she was born in the Ukraine in 1917) looking at us, into us, through a pane of gauze and glass — a door or window — her hands, like a 13th-century Madonna’s, pressed upright, palms out, either to enfold us or ward us off…
There is more, much more, packed into those 14 minutes of “Meshes” — enmeshing us with love, death, dreams, desire, womankind, the attainable and the unattainable. And though any man would be crazy who did not ache to follow where that ripening flower and that key have gone, the impact of Maya Deren on women — in particular on young women who came to know her movies only long after Maya was dead — has been profound.
She died on October 13th, 1961, at a preposterous 44, of cerebral hemorrhage induced by fury and frustration over having to scrabble for the wherewithal to complete what should have been her seventh or eighth film — not to mention just plain rent and food to keep herself and Teiji alive and functioning in the Greenwich Village apartment that was also her production workshop...
“Maya Deren ran out of time, money, and life,” says MoMA’s Sally Berger, who in putting together the current exhibit has focused on Deren’s impact on contemporary filmmakers Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich.
The other six short masterpieces Maya gave to the world — the last two assembled after her death by Teiji (who is now also dead) from footage shot by her — are “At Land,” “Ritual in Transfigured Time,” “A Study in Choreography for Camera,” “The Very Eye of Night,” “Mediation on Violence,” and “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.”
These will be screened for the public in two parts, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., on Sunday June 20th, and possibly also on later dates during the run of the exhibit.
On Monday, June 21st and Wednesday, June 23rd, there will be correlative screenings of some of the early works of Schneemann, Friederich, and Hammer.
Two of Deren’s films — “A Study in Choreography for Camera” and the raw-footage “Divine Horsemen” — reflect her deep affection for dance, springing from her 1941 employment as an assistant to Katherine Dunham, the influential choreographer who was also (a) black, (b) a woman, (c) an anthropologist who took Deren with her on a fecund trip to Haiti.
The solo dancer of “A Study in Choreography for Camera” — shot entirely in Manhattan’s 79th Street boat basin — was in fact the Dunham company’s Talley Beatty. For that matter, Maya Deren herself — this writer can testify — could dominate an entire convivial gathering with some wild voodoo dancing in her and Teiji’s living room. For further and more consequential matter, she left behind her, in addition to her movies, the book “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” (1953), which is still regarded as a prime source of vivid information on all things Haitian.
To curator Berger, as she spells out in an insightful essay accompanying this exhibit, what Maya Deren incidentally but most importantly did was to break through into a field — film directing — then almost wholly dominated by men. The essay can be found in “Modern Women: Women Artists” — a MoMA publication.
“I think this is an important time to rediscover her,” says Sally Berger.
This writer remembers a thousand things about Maya, from her flaming red hair to sitting beside her at a Movieola in her kitchen, learning how to snip film with a scissors and rejoin it with Scotch tape. Anytime is an important time to rediscover Maya Deren.