Stones in My Head, Devils in My Bed
The first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim grant could hardly have been an unlikelier choice. Maya Deren was certainly no typical American filmmaker of the 1940s. A Russian immigrant, a Haitian Voodoo priestess, and a bohemian who dressed like a flower child 20 years early, Deren was also the director of ephemeral non-narrative psychodramas in which she often played multiple roles.
A trained dancer with graduate English degrees and a cadre of art world mover-and-shaker friends, Deren ignored contemporaries such as Welles, Sturges, and the like, choosing instead to emulate surrealists like Buñuel, Dali, and Melies. In so doing, Deren paved the way for later experimental directors of both sexes.
Though her films speak in some “universal” human dream language, they remain distinctly feminized. Remarkably, over 30 years before Laura Mulvey identified the “male gaze,” Deren complicated the idea of a gendered cinematic perspective. Her films are, by turns, chaotic and measured, wild and formal, but through all run themes of patience, movement, and the nature of art and time—themes that, according to the director, express the films’ essential “femininity.”
Deren flits, ghostly, on the edges of found footage and in clips from her own films in Martina Kudlacek’s new documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren. She is rarely shown full-bodied (usually it’s just an ankle, a hand, or a lock of curly hair that represents the whole). With her dark eyes, mop of untamed hair, and pouting lips, she seems less like an actual human being and more like a stylized representation of one. Deren was justly famed during her lifetime for her fiery physicality and personal celebrity.
Making a coherent documentary about such an intense personality was surely a tremendous task. Kudlacek, for the most part, rises to the challenge. In the Mirror of Maya Deren is an elegant, composed, surprisingly confident mix of original footage, film clips, recent interviews, and curious lingering shots of tangible filmic objects: Steenbeck editing machines, primitive sound recording devices, reels of film. These objects are significant beyond merely referencing the director’s occupation. In celebrating Deren’s life and contribution to film, Kudlacek also offers a subtle elegy for the ways films used to be made—with one’s hands.
In a fascinating audio recording, Deren observes that men are creatures of immediacy, whereas women have patience ingrained in their very bodies. The old, patient ways of filmmaking that Deren represents, with none of the immediacy and freneticism of, say, computer editing and animation, are linked here to the feminine. And that, of course, is one of Deren’s greatest contributions; in creating her own film language of dreams, movement, and dance, she opened the door for later reinventions of film by women like Yvonne Rainer and Chantal Akerman. Her legacy, indeed, lives on.
Still, that legacy can be perplexing, hyperbolic and often contradictory. Deren’s films were filled with constant movement: quick pans and running feet, shattering mirrors—common motifs—seem chaotic. At the same time, Deren restrains these signifiers of “wildness” in the formality of a rectangular frame.
Kudlacek understands this calculated contrast between the static frame and fluid movement. Throughout her film, she shoots the aforementioned static objects, interspersed with a cutaway of what seems to be a multiply exposed rippling current. This shot, in which tumbling water fills the frame, serves the dual purpose of quietly reflecting upon Deren’s thematic contradictions and evoking one of her favorite metaphors, water. Like the rest of Deren’s symbols, water is never a constant. By turns, it signifies birth, death, the feminine (not, as Deren would remind us, the “female”), self-knowledge, and much more. Most importantly, though, Deren found water in perpetual motion to be enormously seductive.
Movement characterized Deren’s own short life (she died in 1961 at the age of 44). After some mind-opening trips to Haiti between 1947 and 1955, Deren became deeply involved in Voodoo and, after her possession by a Voodoo goddess of love, she was initiated as a priestess. Her vibrant films of this period take up Haitian subjects who are possessed by religious fervor and, at times, by gods; they throw themselves all over the screen in hectic dances. Deren shot these movements with such a deliberate and loving eye.
Kudlacek employs her own deliberate and loving eye to examine Deren’s life, and to good effect. In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a subtle and reverent look at one of America’s most important—and often forgotten—filmmakers.