“The task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art but to experiment with the effects contemporary technical devices have on nerves, minds, or souls.”
- Maya Deren
Maya Deren shows up on everyone’s touchstone list, but there also needs to be a thread. I’ve collected a few starters, from other threads.
T mentions Deren in a thread regarding Lynch:
Maya Deren was a key figure in the development of the ‘New American Cinema’. Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to “Meshes of the Afternoon” in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters… the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual."Jenny Harmon responds:
As you point out, “Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters… the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.” I think I can understand why the evacuation and replacement of identities was an important aspect of the voodoo religion as it was a meshing of both the Christian beliefs forced on the Haitian slaves and their more ancient African beliefs. Perhaps when these two structures of thought reached a pitch in the psyche of their practitioners they were able to find a release in the ‘evacuation and replacement of identity process’, thereby forming a more complete sense of self.
As to your question about whether this “evacuation and replacement of identities is unique to the American outsider psyche up to a certain generation” : because film was birthed in Hollywood, maybe there is something to be said about the American outsider perspective in specific relation to film itself, and in relation to both Maya Deren and David Lynch. Specifically in regards Deren, when making ‘Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti’ she gave up filmmaking and joined the voodoo religion, perhaps due to suffering her own psychic split.
Watching the documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren Deren Im Spiegel der Maya Deren I couldn’t help wondering why an intellectual would be interested in Haitian Voodoun. The subject takes up a major portion of the documentary. There is a possible answer to be found in the film.
00:58:10 —>I agree that there are the forces in the universe… of which Vodoun speaks… but there are other religions which speak of those forces also. I do find that the manner in which it operates in practice, ritually… the interior miracle, if you will, is very valid.
André Pierre (?) on Vodoun:
You see, the Haitians never ask whether you believe in Vodoun.
They say, do you do it, do you serve?
Unknown person in the documentary:
00:57:41 —> I mean, she would kill me if she heard me say this… but it always made me think of students of the Talmud… where you take one sentence out of the Bible… and you can write 50 books… based on that one sentence. That’s exactly what Maya did. Every word, every possible meaning. In other words, she didn’t expand what she knew… but she went down into it.
The 3×5 cards are shown as this woman describes Deren’s meticulous attention to capturing and practicing her thoughts. I thought this was the most likely motivation beside the movement aspect of Vodoun ritual also recited in the film.
T’s evacuation and replacement of identities I think is necessary for a mind such as Deren’s; thus, Vodoun was an escape from intellectual rigors and at the same time cohesive with her core identity.
Regarding Deren’s quote — “The task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art": I think that her work did just that, despite her denials.
Oddly enough, one of my most commercially successful former students, Brannan Braga of STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II fame, wrote the best paper ever on MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON. He read all of Deren’s writings, watched her films, perhaps showing that the lessons of the avant-garde cinema have value even for filmmakers with more mainstream ambitions.
I’ll have more to say as people add posts to this thread, but thanks to Robert W. Peabody for initiating this discussion.
Yes, I included that quote in hopes of getting the thread going.
I think you are thinking of Meshes in the afternoon the film everyone knows they are supposed to reference.
The film I appreciate most was Deren’s last completed film, the 15 min The Very Eye of Night described as an entire film projected as photographed in the negative.
I believe Eye of Night does conform to the quote.
Ps. I’ve been watching Claire Denis’ oeuvre and that might explain why Meshes appeared flat to me in terms of narrative innovation. (Btw, in answer to chronological watch of a director’s oeuvre, Denis is the one – her style does change dramatically from Chocolate to L’intrus, her masterpiece.)
Just to clarify something
—the quote ascribed to Deren isn’t from Deren herself, it’s by Ute Holl, about Anagram.
I’ll be back to this thread in a little while, just writing up something else for Garage— which oddly is about outsiderism and the evacuation of identity in the American and European psyche 1950-NOW…
The opening quote.
Here’s a reference—
“…Ute Holl begins “Moving the dancer’s soul” with an account of the disagreement between Anaïs Nin and Deren regarding Ritual…in which Nin was cast. In this elucidating and convincing essay, Holl links the two artists via biographical details of their relations with their parents and their interest in psychology, leading into further discussion of Deren’s interest in possession through dance and the “psychological functioning of perception” (160). Holl unravels Deren’s opinion of Surrealism, which is articulated in “An anagram”, concluding that for Deren— the task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art but to experiment with the effects contemporary technical devices have on nerves, minds, or souls. (164)":http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/reviews/rev0703/ebbr15.html
It is not from Deren’s book, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film?
FWIW I have a rare noire stage setting photo with Nin standing half naked in a doorway I wonder what is was from – ?
I am pretty sure it’s Holl’s summary of Deren’s argument. Either way, it’s all good, and the quote nails the dancer’s feet to the floor. It’s been a long time since I read Anagram, but it’s a text of many layers as I remember it— reminded me very much of Julia Kristeva’s writing in this sense.
A semi-naked Anaïs Nin? sounds like an image peeled from the retina of Henry Miller : )
I have been meaning to pop it from the frame & scan it so I can find out what it is from.
It was given by Nin to friend of mine who knew her.
I bet Ehrenstein would know what it is from.
A dancer, was a force in the documentary In the Mirror of Maya_. There was the passage below, which reminded me of Sontag’s use of memento morimori : to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability and mutability.(wiki)
And many people feel that death is a release…and you go into something else.
I had no feelings about that. There was never any question in my mind. All I can think about was the absolute abyss of death. After death, to me, there is just nothing. I think it was the scenes where she had sort of a running in it. That’s what I felt like doing. I felt, if I could just outrun death… if I could just get away from it, the whole thought of it. And I also remember that if you… wash your face… you can wash away the memories. But that is pure myth. Because I’ve washed my face to all end of time… and death was always there in me. So that was the easiest part… of any ritual or any dance scene… that Maya might have wanted for me to totally express… and that… that was a ritual in time and in death ….to me.
James Merrill knew Maya Deren before and after her death. Their conversations by Ouija board are transcribed in The Book of Ephraim. In the excerpt below, Maya’s words are in block capitals, her medium’s in regular case.
…then Ghédé mounted her. Brought his whip down.
DAVID JIMMY I AM YOUNG AT LAST
WHO ALL THESE YEARS TRIED TO APPEAR SO
MY HAIR IS TRULY RED EPHRAIM IS STILL
A COURTIER SHALL I TEACH HIM HOW TO CHACHA
THE CLIMBERS HERE COUNT & RECOUNT THEIR PAST
LIVES POOR ME WITH ONLY ONE BUT O
I NUMBER LOVES ON TOES AND FINGERS TELL
TEIJI (her young husband) IM A CHESHIRE
CAT ALL SMILES I LOVE MY WORK ST LUCYThe St Lucy? SHES MY BOSS IS LETTING
ME DIRECT SOME AVANTGARDE HALLUCI
NATIONS ETC FOR HEADS OF STATE
U SHD HEAR THEM MOAN & FEEL THEM SWEATING
WE GIRLS HAVE STOPPED A WAR WITH CUBA Great!
How about Erzulie? BUT SHE IS QUEEN
OF HEAVEN Oh, not Mary? Not Kuan Yin?
THEY ARE ALL ONE QUINTESSENCE CHANEL NO
5 X 5 X 5 X 5 X 5
AMONG HER COUNTLESS FACES I HAVE BEEN
SMILED ON BY ONE THE SHADES SHE LOOKED WELL IN
ON EARTH ARE MY FADED POPPYBLUSH & UMBER
ARE HERE RESTORED I AM HER LITTLEST FAUVE
The moment brought back Maya in a whiff
Of blissful grief— small figure boldy hued,
Never held in high enough esteem;
Touches of tart and maiden, muse and wife,
Glowing forth once more from an EtudeDe Jeune Femme no longer dimmed by time.
From the Dramatis Personae of The Book of Ephraim:
Deren, Eleanora (“Maya”),
1917-61, doyenne of our
American experimental film.
Mistress, moreoever of a life style not
for twenty years to seem conventional.
Fills here Village flat with sacred objects:
Dolls, drums, baubles that twirl and shimmer,
Stills from work in progress, underfoot
The latest in a lineage of big, black,
strangely accident-prone Haitian cats.
Dresses her high-waisted, maiden-breasted
Person - russet afro, agate eyes-
In thriftshop finery. Bells on her toes,
Barefoot at parties dances. Is possessed
(Cf. her book on voodoo, Divine Horsemen)
During a ceremony (1949?)
By Erzulie the innocently lavish,
Laughing, weeping, perfume-loving queen
Among the loa, or divinities.
From Chapter “M”:
Maya in the city has a dream:
People in evening dress move through a blaze
Of chandeliers, white ordhids, silver trays
Dense with bubbling glassfuls. Suavities
Of early talking pictures, although no
Word is spoken. One she seems to know
Has joined her, radiant with his wish to please.
She is a girl nagain, his fire-clear eyes
Turning her beautful, limber, wise,
Except that she alone wears mourning weeds
That weigh unbearably until he leads
Her to a spring, or source, oh wonder! in
Whose shining depths her gown turns white, her jet
To diamonds, and black veil to bridal snow.
Her features are unchanged, yet her pale skin
Is black, with glowing nostrils— a not yet
Printed self… Then it is time to go.
Long trials, his eyes convey, must intervene
Before they meet again. A first, last kiss
And fadeout. Dream? She wakes from it in bliss.
(Film bufffs may recall the closing scene
Of Maya’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time.”
The young white actress gowned and veiled in black
Walks out into a calm sea.
It covers her. Then downward on the screen,
Feetfirst in phosphorescent negative
Glides her stilled person: a black bride.
Worth mentioning as well may be that “white
Darkness” — her own phrase — which Maya felt
Steal up through her leg from the dirt floor
During the ceremony in whose course
Erzulie would ride her like a horse.)
“I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick” Maya Deren
I like this quote