Notes on Maya Deren

Thrown together by David Tamés
v.1, revised March 7, 2020

Maya Deren, “Cinema as an Art Form,” in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film, Bruce McPherson, ed., Documentext, 2005, pp. 19-33 {download PDF} is an interesting read, after making Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren drafted this essay to explain her goals with the film, here are some excerpts:

  • “If we accept the proposition that even the selected placement of the camera is an exercise of conscious activity, then there is no such thing as documentary film, in the sense of an objective rendition of reality.”
  • “... where the elements are recombined, not in imitation of their original and natural integrity, but into a whole new whole to thus create a new reality.”
  • “... the motion picture, though composed of spatial images, is primarily a time form. A major portion of the creative action consists of manipulation of time and space.”
  • “By manipulation of time and space, I mean also the creation of a relationship between separate times, places, and persons.”
  • “If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. It must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate to those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural modes, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province.”

Another good reading related to Meshes of the Afternoon is Sarah Keller, “Teaching Meshes of the Afternoon,” The Cine Files, issue 9 (fall), 2015, {link to article}, here are some excerpts:

  • “...provenance puts the film into the realm of cinema outside of commercial/narrative interests on the one hand and strictly documentary/social/political interests on the other.”
  • “...the year the film was made points to a number of ways we might contextualize Meshes of the Afternoon in film history and in history more broadly. At a minimum, I try to connect it to film noir, women’s films, and art movements of the moment.”
  • “The film apportions a range of access points for its viewers: it embraces circularity and repetition (in its overall structure), assays the expressive capacities of the camera (especially movement: for example in the sequence repeated with variations of Deren ascending the interior staircase), and mobilizes post-production techniques to effect a fantasy of multiplying subjects, bringing non-contiguous spaces together through the magic of editing (e.g., the famous steps taken across multiple spaces). While the non-continuity and alternative narrative structure present a challenge to a lot of students, if we start with simply what we’ve observed, and then try to come up with one other thing in the film that seems to relate to it in some way, it soon becomes a dynamic network of associations and ideas.”