When I was first approached in 2004 to create six soundtracks for the works of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, I was wary. Not of the task, I was a huge fan of Deren already, indeed my highly vocal admiration of her was what led the project to my door. I was wary because I had crossed paths, and swords, with the film community a number of times already (that is another story for another time involving a “thank you” to Derek Jarman and a “fuck you” to the BBC). What compelled me to say yes to the Deren project, despite my misgivings and indeed mistrust of the film business, was Deren herself. Although she died eleven years before I was born, her artistic sensibilities, those of the initiator, the auteur, the lone gunman, was something I understand all too well. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus likens great art to suicide, making the existential argument that both are prepared “within the silence of the heart”. It is no coincidence that the last song Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis ever wrote was “In a Lonely Place”. Although it would seem virtually impossible to create a film in relative solitude, this is certainly not true of the formulation of ideas, and as an auteur, this was Deren’s primary concern.
Maya Deren stands almost alone as the mother of avant-garde film. Almost. The only real pretender to her crown is Leni Riefenstahl, but I would argue that Riefenstahl’s claim is forfeit. Not just because she was a Nazi, but also because necessity is the mother of invention, and Riefenstahl had the resources of a nation handed to her on a plate, in return for her pact with the devil. The argument that her films were of huge technical innovation and merit is as flawed as it is obvious. With those resources, surely any half decent artist could have created a visual feast? The Riefenstahl arguments invalidate themselves. Just because she was complex, that does not make her any more right, and neither does it make her work more interesting. It remains, at best, distasteful, and even if we could de-humanise ourselves enough to separate the art from the politics, would it truly be any more than an interesting artefact? Such are
the achievements of imperialism, they make history but they don’t make culture.
Deren, by contrast, was working virtually alone, with miniscule budgets, reliant almost entirely on her camera and her imagination. She had no agenda but her own creativity, and her only reward was the finished work. And yet we detect her influence in everything, not just the avant-garde, but deep inside popular culture. From Andrei Tarkovsky to Andy Warhol, from Jimi Hendrix to Woody Allen, Deren is there. The same cannot be said of Jonas Mekas, although he is
inarguably a great filmmaker, and of the same era. Nor can it be said of Stan Brakhage, at least I will not let it be said of Brakhage, whom I, having met him in 1996, regard as a journeyman rather than an artist in any valuable meaning of the word. (OK, I disliked Brakhage and his work, having given him ample opportunities I feel I fairly concluded that any suggestion that he was in Maya Deren’s league was nothing short of delusion.)
Maya Deren was emotionally stateless. Born in the Ukraine, her family fled to the US to escape persecution, and there found a whole other kind of persecution; economic. It was a pressure Deren would never leave behind. She fought money, either viewing it as a necessary evil, or merely as a semi-permanent annoyance, a disabling, potentially catastrophic pain in the ass. She would fight to raise money to make art, and to this end would only feed herself as a means to stay alive in order to make more art. She had zero interest in traditional narrative forms, visual devices or film grammar. Deren sought only to photograph her own imagination, to frame it and project it on to the screen for her own interest. Like all great artists, she was her own target audience, which elevated her above standard critical analysis. She was equally disinterested in being a girl or a boy. During her life she tried relationships, marriages and gender roles the way others try on outfits. None of them ever fit her satisfactorily, but for a long time she believed that one has to wear something. Her eventual discovery and later obsession with Haitian Voodoun ritualism changed that, liberating Deren from the shackles of Western materialism. She gained her mental and emotional freedom, at the cost of her work, her friendships and eventually her life. After her experiences in Haiti, of which I encourage you to learn, life back in New York was never going to sit well with her again.
Maya Deren never made a financially successful film, never really gained the critical acclaim or the respect of her peers. Indeed, she gained the ire of more successful artistic contemporaries such as Anais Nin, either because they gave her money which she could never repay, because there is no accountant for ideas, or because she challenged them wordlessly, indeed seemingly effortlessly, to examine their own work and stand by their own voices. She died young and malnourished. And yet her work, artistically at least, was a triumph. And that is what mattered to her and what should matter to us. Every one of her films is as surprising and beautiful now as they were when she made them in the 1940s and 1950s. Meshes of the Afternoon is, without argument, the greatest work of avant-garde cinema ever made. At Land has exerted a clear influence on everyone from Stanley Donen to Jean Baptiste Mondino, and Ritual in Transfigured Time remains the last word in the art of cinematic movement. With no budget, cheap film stock, limited time, and basic locations, Deren plays with light better than Orson Welles, moves her actors more gracefully than Cocteau, and silently expresses beauty more potently than any classic MGM musical. She wantonly defies and defiles every cinematic convention, and yet the effect, far from undermining the form, serves to reinforce the power of film. Her genius was her innate understanding of the audience’s unspoken contract with the artist; they are here to be led, to be loved, to be treated to sensuality rather than sensation; the audience engages their own imaginations with that of the artist, and the experience is that of a mind-dance. A Maya Deren film is music for the eyes.
Deren was such a one-off original of our species that it is virtually impossible to talk about her work with anyone who hasn’t seen it. This is an intellectual problem when essaying on her, but is also the highest compliment that one can pay to any artist, and she really is that good. It is possible that she was influenced by Un Chien Andalou and Blood of a Poet. Possibly. But Deren’s principle inspiration is clearly her internal dialogue, her conflict of self. Certainty and self-assuredness have no place in her world, her world is an entirely random and dangerous place, with implied violence and unrelenting physicality that speaks as loudly to the homoerotic component in us as it testifies to the ambiguous sexuality of the action on screen. Indeed, it could be argued that Deren’s interest in the surreal was predominantly as a tool to express ambiguity in all its forms; for her there is great strength in the unknown. When the
girl steals the chess piece and runs off to the horizon at the end of At Land, she isn’t just disrupting the game, she is ending the whole visual essay with an inexplicable act of defiance that seems more about escape than it does about playfulness. You know that she is never coming back, and that she intends to fling the king as far into the sea as she can at the first opportunity. Deren need not show her doing so, and any exposition is not required, because we felt the defiance already, it was there in the movement, in the expression and the whole act. This way Deren moves the story to a conclusion with no need for narrative. Ironically, by ignoring the apparent rules of film grammar, she has codified them
and expanded the visual vocabulary in a way no other filmmaker that side
(or this) of Stanley Kubrick has ever seemingly attempted.
There is a lot that you may read about Maya Deren, in her own words and the words of others, from fact to opinion, from theory to testimony. But none of it is as important or relevant as actually watching her films, which it is possible to do in a single afternoon, as she made so few. You have my personal guarantee that it will be an afternoon very well spent.