Mid-week Maya: The Witch's Cradle (1943) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: The Witch’s Cradle (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 The Witch's Cradle.

Witch's Cradle (1943)I've written for, and now run, this website over five years now and sometimes worry about my ability to still be surprised by cinema.  I'm shocked, usually intrigued, oftentimes drawn into their emotional worlds, but rarely do I gasp or feel that rare electric impulse which comes from joyous surprise.  Out of morbid curiosity I watched Age of Ultron over the weekend and felt depressed that all that time and money went into something which could not surprise or muster much creativity.  Why should I have expected anything else?  Because cinema is one of the few mediums where a sudden surge of empathy and excitement can come from movements which do not need to be mediated by language.  I hope for this in popcorn entertainment as much as experimental cinema, just in different ways.

The Witch's Cradle, Maya Deren's unfinished follow-up to Meshes of the Afternoon, has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot which gave me the shiver I longed for.  If you opt to follow along with the link posted above, it occurs at 4:45.  The camera is static and focused on a shawl which blends almost seamlessly into the dark wood floor.  A woman, previously branded with an occult sign and trying to follow the source of a string network which weaves throughout the room, bends over to pick up the shawl.  The expectation of this shot is simple, she'll bend over and pick it up and that'll be that.  Instead the shawl curls up and around the empty space like a second skin coming to life and is quickly wrapped around the frightened woman.

This was such a simple expectation to subvert, which made the gesture all the more shocking.  Nothing else in The Witch's Cradle surprised me as much as that one shot, but I had to play the moment over and over again.  It's an elegant way for Deren to show that the universe of The Witch's Cradle has possibilities which aren't readily apparent.  Gravity and space don't work like we expect them to and the most simple of actions suddenly has a new dimension which we can start learning about in the film.

Deren exemplifies a school of cinematic thinking in a few seconds which wish more filmmakers should take to heart.  Narrative experimentation is typically not a means of alienating the audience from cinema, but an invitation to learn what secrets the screen hides.  From this point to the end of The Witch's Cradle I was not just another member of an audience, but an accomplice in an ongoing investigation into the hidden nature of Deren's universe.  I would be lying if I said the rest of The Witch's Cradle was as enticing as those precious seconds, but it was still an engaging watch.

The fascination with self-discovery and exploration of Meshes of the Afternoon is continued in The Witch's Cradle.  It's a bit more disappointing after the subtle hints and visual queues showing further decent of the former is literalized as a maze of string in the latter.  The editing pattern is established early on with a woman (Pajorita Matta) appalled at a brand affixed to her forehead which does not disappear no matter how disgusted or appalled she is at the sight of it.  Matta's performance is less effective than the enticing work Deren did in Meshes of the Afternoon because of the repeated, and oftentimes melodramatic, responses to the brand.  Her reactions seem ill at ease with the ghostly emptiness pervading the building and the performance comes off more as reactions for a demo reel than a nightmare cycle of rebranding.

One interesting deviation from the mysterious presence of a man (Marcel Duchamp, he of the urinal fountain and "Nude Descending A Staircase") who at first seems to be tortured by the maze but may be the source of it.  In a chilling moment of camera trickery the string coils us from shoes and wraps around the man's neck like a garrote.  But we don't see his death throes, and instead witness the sting curl through the rooms while the woman tries to find the source.  This is another interesting play on the scenario of Meshes of the Afternoon where the woman was descending into a dream of the man's devising before killing herself to escape.  But in The Witch's Cradle there is no escape, the unexplained maze leaves the woman forever branded while the man lie dead, forever unfazed by the mystery which torments the woman.

This is another intriguing look at the way cinema can be a misogynist's dream.  The subtle sexual pressure of a camera lens has been with cinema as long as there has been cinema, and put into the context of when The Witch's Cradle was filmed this makes a lot of sense.  World War II was still going on with women filling out roles in America while men were off at war.  Deren, as an artist, created two films now which deal with the lingering psychic scarring from the way the camera views women even in the absence of men.  It makes an intriguing counterpoint to the pin-up girls and other propaganda of the era in how Deren's films don't necessarily create a world which is better off without the men, but contains obvious problems from their creative control of cinema.

Even though The Witch's Cradle wasn't as satisfying as Meshes of the Afternoon it still left a bit for me to ponder.  As much praise as I heaped on one moment of surprise the experience wouldn't be lingering with me if the atmosphere in the preceding and following moments was not as chilling.  I'm happy to be surprised by the moment, and wonder what else lies ahead.

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Posted by Andrew

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