Mid-week Maya: At Land (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: At Land (1944)

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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 At Land.

At LandAs I wrote about Maya Deren’s The Witch’s Cradle last week, I like surprises. Nothing is better than being in the middle of an awful, middling, or boringly pleasant experience then being jolted by a detail which throws everything which came before in a new light. On that standard, Deren’s At Land is consistent with the same kind of experimentation which made Meshes of the Afternoon so powerful, and incorporates more of the trickery that jolted The Witch’s Cradle out of its complacency.

But the cumulative effect of those two components merging into one cinematic tapestry is astonishing for the length of At Land instead of the moment of The Witch’s Cradle. With At Land, Deren is exploring the interior space of a subject with the same kind of inventiveness which permeated the early shorts of Georges Melies. But where the tone of Melies’ films was usually one of whimsy or fun, Deren’s films are contemplative and searching. There’s never a clear destination, and even the violent conclusion of Meshes of the Afternoon ends with Deren’s dreamy wanderer crossing the final frontier into death.

Every sequence in At Land brings the other pieces into new perspective. The churning of the sea seems like a normal day at the beach until the black clad Deren appears in the corner. What’s natural is now more dangerous, and when the sea recedes after depositing Deren, in a shot reminiscent of the shawl coming to life in The Witch’s Cradle, it leaves her alone to face the wilderness.

At Land's shifting terrain is a great comment on creative growth when placed in the context of Deren’s earlier films. Her again nameless wanderer travels terrain which goes from rocky outcroppings to the slick interior construction of a corporate meeting. But instead of ending the journey violently, she continues moving forward. Even when she’s confronted with a maze of doors – which Deren brilliantly conveys with different shots of home with multiple panels close together then edited in quick succession – she continues moving on.

This could almost be seen as a sequel to Meshes of the Afternoon. As Deren’s wanderer died, she was free to roam the new landscape as she wished, and not following the unseen hand of some man. A sequence in At Land lends some credence to this idea as part of Deren’s wandering has her standing at the end of a bedridden man after being lectured by a younger man on the road. The resemblance of this young man to the one in Meshes of the Afternoon is important, as the suicide which ended that film left Deren free to roam the new landscapes and not having to listen to the ramblings of the man who she is now able to leave to his lonely death. The Witch’s Cradle was released unfinished, so it’s even more fair to place At Land as the “true” follow-up to Meshes of the Afternoon.

As much as I love surprise, I also love when a filmmaker creates a work which places past works in a new light. At Land succeeds at this swimmingly, continuing the same implied visual narrative of Meshes of the Afternoon in a way which places Deren at the seat of control. The image at the end of her running toward the horizon has one crucial detail – she never disappears. Now free to do what she wants with cinema, she created a world where she not only wanders freely but brings other women with her, then becomes a spec on the horizon but never vanishing. Her imprint on art, this new world she created, is alive no matter how small she may seem in comparison.

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Posted by Andrew

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