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Maya Deren

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Maya Deren
(1917 - 1961)

Three Key Films: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Meditation on Violence (1947), The Very Eye of Night (1959)

Underrated: Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1981). Thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship, Deren traveled to Haiti to film voodoo rituals from 1947 to 1954, publishing a book on the subject, Deren wouldn’t live to finish the film, but 20 years after her death, her former collaborator Teiji Ito would complete it. In the footage that Ito compiled, we see that Deren was creating an important historical and cultural document, not to mention the fact that she herself was seen participating in the ceremonies. As admirable as Ito’s work is, we’re still left wondering what Deren’s own final cut of her own footage would have looked like.

Unforgettable: Three minutes into Meshes of the Afternoon where we see the Deren’s character falling asleep and then the second (but not last time) she runs up a path home, leaving us wondering what we’re really watching (dream, hallucination, artistic statement). The scene keeps getting replayed throughout the 14-minute film, changing each time in more disturbing ways, as later seen in films like Groundhog’s Day, Mulholland Drive and Last Year at Marienbad. It’s as important a moment insurrealistic cinema as the eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou; unlike Bunuel’s extreme imagery, Deren went for a more subtle type of mind bending, also breaking apart the narrative thread of cinema. We also see Deren as the ravishing exotic beauty she was, not to mention that mirror-faced hooded figure and reappearing knives, keys and multiple Deren’s.


The Very Eye of Night (1959)

The Legend: On March 7, 2010, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally recognized a woman as being worthy of the title ‘best director’ for the first time in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. Even as a constant Hollywood critic, Deren would have loved to have seen that moment, if not receive an achievement award from the Academy (which should happen).

Originally from the Ukraine, her family came to America five years after her birth. After college, she made her way to New York City where she did a thesis on poetry, worked as a photographer and assisted a choreographer. She then made her way out to Los Angles, finding a kindred spirit in Czech Alexander Hammid, who became her second husband and collaborator on Meshes of the Afternoon, which alone would have assured her place in film history.

Deren would go on to make five more short films (including the space ballet The Very Eye of Night, done with the Metropolitan Opera), as well as leaving behind almost as many unfinished projects after a combination of brain hemorrhage and malnutrition took her life tragically early at 44.

Because her films were all in short form, her collected work fit on one DVD, the highly recommended Experimental Films (Mystic Fire). The 2002 documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren is also a valuable resource. Jason Gross



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