Mid-week Maya: Introduction and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Mid-week Maya: Introduction and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

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The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for Meshes of the Afternoon.

Maya IntroductionSomething occurred to me when I was halfway through my series on Stan Brakhage. He was a prolific experimental filmmaker, but certainly not the only one, and his roots had to stem from somewhere. So my digging around led me to an excellent resource in the UbuWeb database, and looking at some of the samples triggered my interest in Maya Deren.

Deren already has a fascinating background to me because of my interest in exilic and diasporic films. For those unfamiliar with the term, movies created by a person who either left or was forcibly removed from their country of origin and attempts to connect with similar people in a new environment. Iranian films are one of the most robust environments in America for this, with the recent A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a stirring example.

In Deren’s case, she was born to a Ukranian-Jewish family, emigrated early in her life to America, and attained her education in France and Massachusetts. When people come from that kind of background their films tend to be disjointed and non-localized in the sense that they take place in environments which are entirely foreign even if they are the creator’s home. Considering the America of the early 20th century was not kind to foreigners, and certainly not welcoming to Jews, I wondered what kind of effect this would have on her films. So, since her films are readily available online I decided she would be the subject of my next director series, and I tracked down her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon.Meshes of the Summer AfternoonMeshes of the Afternoon is a film which is not as experimental in the Brakhage sense of mixing different stocks and directly manipulating the film stock. But it is more experimental in a more evocative sense, manipulating the camera to create an unmoored environment for Deren to express subjective pressures. I also have to point out this is much more in my wheelhouse of cinematic pleasures, and the voyeuristic effect of the camera on women’s bodies present in Meshes of the Afternoon is as creepy as anything in Psycho, Peeping Tom, or Mulholland Drive.

All of those films owe something to the imagery in Meshes of the Afternoon. The protagonist, a woman who keeps reliving a dream within a dream, produces and then cannot keep hold of a key which unlocks the next layer of her existence. Mulholland Drive had a blue key which unlocked “proof” an ill deed was completed, and in Meshes of the Afternoon the key is reproduced in each layer, but just unlocks another vantage point of voyeurism. In her sleep the protagonist first goes for a walk in her dream self, but then watches the apparition created by her first dream, and is repeatedly cloned until the many variations of “her” sit at a table and experience sudden violence.

Deren seems to have sense the misogynistic power early cinema already wielded. The protagonist, also Deren, is simultaneously following and pursuing a figure clad in a hijab and whose face is a reflection. The tables are turned and the figure is revealed to be a man who watches her in her waking state from a one-way mirror and removes the guise to fondle the sleeping woman. This world is akin to a cruel joke, the key constantly slipping away from the protagonist and any successful “unlocking” just opens another realm of confusion and unproductive self-analysis. The reveal of the man behind the hijab is crucial because it’s not Deren who was in control of the narrative, but the mirror man creating a false mirror of the woman to pursue. When the film ends on her apparent suicide it’s not exactly a moment of despair, but of muted triumph. Instead of continuing down the rabbit hole of endless manipulation and false reflections, she shatters the mirror and forges her own path.

Oddly enough, the modern equivalent to Meshes of the Afternoon is Zack Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch. Sucker Punch replicated the structure of Meshes of the Afternoon, only instead of the protagonist being tossed around by the mirrored man’s manipulation of her world, Sucker Punch’s female characters are tossed around between different genres of exploitation. Much like the death of the protagonist at the end of Meshes of the Afternoon signals a refusal to participate in the cycle of disenfranchisement, Sucker Punch ends on a hopeful note of release as the women refuse to play a part in men’s narrative fantasies.

Deren’s technique all throughout Meshes of the Afternoon is stunning. She suggests that she is not herself in the lens of a man’s camera by first reducing her presence to a shadow which interacts with the world. As she moves between each layer Deren rotates the camera and disoriented the Euclidean space of her home so that walls, ceilings, stairs, and doors are unreliable ways forward. Meshes of the Afternoon is also available with a soundtrack, which did not work well in many of Brakhage’s home films, but here the clicks and dissonant music in the background serve as a reminder of the steps the protagonist is not taking.

I was really impressed with Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren is able to seamlessly integrate several layers of reality through her inventive camera placement and sometimes erratic physical performance. It only reaffirms my belief that all directors should start with a black and white silent film, and left me excited for the Deren films to come.

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Posted by Andrew

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