In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

A subtle and reverent look at one of America's most important -- and often forgotten -- filmmakers.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Director: Martina Kudlacek
Cast: Miriam Arsham, Stan Brakhage, Chao Li Chi, Rita Christiani, Jean-Leon Destine, Katherine Dunham, Graeme Ferguson, Alexander Hammid
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-01-24 (Limited release)

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.






"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.


Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.


Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.


"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.


Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.


'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.


Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.


VickiKristinaBarcelona Celebrate Tom Waits on "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (premiere)

VickiKristinaBarcelona celebrate the singular world of Tom Waits their upcoming debut, Pawn Shop Radio. Hear "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" ahead of tomorrow's single release.


'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.