Meshes of the Afternoon was produced in an environment of wartime volatility and this is reflected symbolically throughout its mise-en-scène. The title card suggesting that the film was ‘made in Hollywood’ is ironic, Deren sets her film within an LA setting, but it is the nightmare element of the dream factory that interests her most. The film establishes an atmosphere saturated in paranoia and distrust with lovers turning into killers and with the presence of a mysterious but fascinating hooded figure. As European émigrés, Deren and Hammid invest their film with an acute sense of restlessness and alienation. Meshes of the Afternoon reflects this uncanny estrangement in the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of its central character (played by Deren) and in its cyclic narrative, a structure that seems condemned to repetition. The hooded figure with the reflective face adds yet another dimension, reflecting back the identity of those who look into her eyes.
Thomas Schatz points to Meshes as the best known experimental film of the decade. He categorizes it as the first example of “the poetic psychodrama”, films bearing the impression of art cinema which were seen as “scandalous and radically artistic.” He writes that the poetic psychodrama “emphasized a dreamlike quality, tackled questions of sexual identity, featured taboo or shocking images, and used editing to liberate spatio-temporal logic from the conventions of Hollywood realism.”
Meshes of the Afternoon is shot as a silent film, there is no dialogue, communication between characters or diegetic sound. A record player plays silently. Whilst the disc revolves and the needle is engaged in the groove, there is no indication of the sound that it makes. Teiji Ito’s soundtrack makes Meshes appear like a music video before its time, the drumbeat is synchronized to movement and to the cut. When Deren takes one of her many short journeys along the path or up stairs, the sound of her steps is overlaid by Ito’s drumbeat metonymically standing in for and amplifying her movement. Inspired by Eisenstein’s notion of rhythmic montage, the editing and movement are accentuated by the rhythm of the soundtrack.
Rhythm is a defining element of all of Deren’s films, it arises from the play of repetition and variation which is integral to her experiments in narrative. Meshes deploys an innovative style of cutting on action where the protagonist steps over such disparate terrains as the beach, soil, grass and concrete. The rhythmic drumbeat and the repeated movement highlight her deliberate progress across these discontinuous spaces. As the central, consistent element, Ito’s soundtrack enables Deren’s temporal and spatial experimentation.
Rhythm also impacts significantly on spectatorship. The rhythm of the sound, movement and editing conspire to produce the effect of a trance film. Meshes of the Afternoon‘s dream-like mise-en-scène, illogical narrative trajectory, fluid movement and ambient soundtrack invite a type of contemplative, perhaps even transcendental, involvement for the spectator.
Whilst Meshes engages the viewer, it also presents vision in crisis. The film is constructed from a myriad of eyeline matches and mismatches. The use of extreme angles to imply one character looking down on the dreamer, a type of spider’s point of view, foreshadows the dreamer’s death. Seen in reverse it could translate as the dreamer’s ‘out of body’ experience. Occasionally Deren’s point of view proves to be ineffectual, the reverse shot from the sleeping Deren is impossible. The fourth replica of Deren’s character wears bulbous goggles that can do nothing to enhance her vision.
The film sets up a nightmare vision. Meshes is a projection of the dreamer’s desires and fears. Deren’s point of view transforms into tunnel vision with her perspective funneled through a cylinder rounding out the edges of the frame. This nightmarish vision is intensified with the use of an obscure horizontal wipe, with a semi-opaque filter, mystifying the image and implying the beginning of the nightmare. In Deren’s nightmare progress is difficult, speed is varied and the emphasis on circularity results in an unnerving repetition. The hooded figure is perpetually out of range, all attempts to capture her prove futile. In domestic space, activity has been suspended. The phone is off the hook, the record player is playing, the knife has begun to slice through the bread. Deren writes, “everything that happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence – the knife, the key, the repetition of the stairs, the figure disappearing around a curve in the road.”
Deren is clearly influenced by Méliès’ magical editing style with objects transforming without warning. Meshes is also inclined towards the Gothic’s fascination with the instability of objects, uncanny visions and confusion surrounding the intentions of the male characters. The film is one of many made during the 1940s which asks: is the hero intending to kiss the heroine or to kill her?
P. Adams Sitney refutes the notion that Deren was the director of Meshes of the Afternoon. He argues that Hammid “photographed the whole film. Maya Deren simply pushed the button on the camera for the two scenes in which he appeared.” Stan Brakhage also classifies Meshes as Hammid’s film. Deren’s biographers perceive the film as a collaboration, noting that Hammid provided the mechanical expertise to realize images born from Deren’s imagination. What is undeniable is that Meshes establishes key themes and cinematic innovations that Deren continued to explore throughout her career as an experimental filmmaker. –Wendy Haslem, Senses of Cinema
Maya Deren (April 29, 1917, Kiev – October 13, 1961, New York City), born Eleanora Derenkowsky, was an American avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist of the 1940s and 1950s. Deren was also a choreographer, dancer, poet, writer and photographer.
Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine to Solomon Derenkowsky and Marie Fiedler. It is said that she was named after Eleanora Duse, an Italian actress. In 1922 the family 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 to be with her daughter while she attended the League of Nations School in Geneva, Switzerland from 1930 to 1933.
Deren began college at Syracuse University, where she became active in the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League. Through the YPSL she met Gregory Bardacke… read more
Alexandr Hackenschmied (17 December 1907, Linz – 26 July 2004, New York City) was a leading photographer and filmmaker in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1938 and became involved in American avant-garde cinema. His film, Meshes of the Afternoon, which he made with filmmaker Maya Deren — to whom he was married from 1942 to 1947 — has become an icon of avant-garde cinema in the U.S.
He changed his name to Alexander Hammid when he became a citizen of the United States in 1942. He is best-known for his work in documentary film, both as a director, cameraman and editor.
According to Jaroslav Andel’s biography of Hackenschmied, in 1930, Hackenschmied created his first film Bezúčelná procházka (Aimless Walk) which inaugurated the movement of avant-garde film in Czechoslovakia. The same year he also organized the Exhibition of New Czech Photography in the Aventinska Mansarda — a showcase for artists of the Aventinum publishing house in Prague… read more
How your daily routine, your mind, your life can turn into an asylum. Did you feel that anxiety/calm, dream/nightmare sense all at once?
watched it several times in a row, quite mesmerized after the third row definitely experimental and refreshing
The camera movement gave me a feeling of an ethereal freedom within the scene, you can almost become one with the "protagonist", the playfulness of shadows was beautifully performed, and the main theme/plot/etc is creative not only for the 40's, but also for these days. It's a wonderful presentation of how little does all that technology today mean when compared to the pure and clean creativity of the human mind.
Also: Terrific new covers for forthcoming books.
Also: Bill Simmons on Eddie Murphy and an overview of several projects in the works.
Really nice suggestive images that build and build, I love the repetitious quality and the slightly ominous feel, yet not feeling heavy at all. My only complaint is this sense of a story that’s in… read review