Mid-week Maya: Meditation on Violence (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: Meditation on Violence (1948)

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Unfortunately, today's Maya Deren is not easily available in its full-length on the internet.  Those interested should check a local library for potential listings of a collection.

Meditation on Violence (1948)Something I've danced around in previous installments is just how radical Maya Deren's films are.  One school of feminist film-making says that there is no way to really make a feminist film so long as the lens is still creating a world through the visual language of men.  Now a few years after World War II, how many film-makers in America were producing experimental silent film with non-Caucasian stars?

Not many, and today's film, Meditation on Violence, shows why Deren is in a league all to herself.  By 1948 the visual language for musicals was well entrenched in the collective American visual consciousness.  But film as music, or dance as Deren has approached it before, was still lacking.  There is no lack of poetry in the cinema of the early 20th century, but this kind of experimentation where one form of medium may be able to substitute for the experience of another is unheard of.  While the kings of early cinema cemented a common visual language, Deren was pulling it apart.

Nothing shows this better than the first appearance of Chao Li Chi, whose movements Deren examines over the next handful of minutes.  He has the makeup of a silent movie star, yet his features are undeniably his own, and moves with strength and grace throughout the indoor then outdoor arenas of Meditation on Violence.  With just a bit of makeup, Deren managed to upend the idea of a silent film star.  Of course China had a robust film industry as well, but the sort of "Americanized" make up on Li Chi shows the beautiful variety we could have had in our movies.  Even before we get far into his routine we're presented with a systemic idea of violence, not a physical one, in the form of forcing American stars to look a certain way.

Then there are the movements which are among the most stunning of Deren's filmography.  Li Chi goes between different walls, light and dark, as Li Chi performs in traditional Wu-tang and Shaolin styles of boxing.  His shadow is a reflection of his movements at first, but as he moves between walls the shadow splits, then seems to gang up on him as it surrounds his body from four different points on the wall, before disappearing back into the darker wall.  His movements are violence as beauty, or just as easily the reverse, as Deren's mostly stationary camera watches his shadow dance.  If all he does with this dance is mimic violence, then the shadows at times lack the gentle flow, which questions the idea of violence on film to begin with.  Is there any way to make it beautiful, when the act itself will always be one of destruction?

It's an idea made abundantly clear in the following passage which has Li Chi incorporating a sword into his routine.  Again, he moves like water, and seems unable to disturb even the surrounding air because of his care.  He leaps into the sky and we linger on his dreamy expression just as Deren pauses the stock entirely.  In this single moment we see the leap in an entirely different light, and it is frozen at the exact point the sword would come sailing down through an opponents skull.  Li Chi's beautiful movements continue afterward, but the point is clear - all of his beautiful movements could harm someone at any time, and no matter how pleasurable the sensation of watching him is the threat of violence still lingers.

I likened Meditation on Violence to music, and to be more specific it is a concerto.  Deren is consciously aware of the subconscious impulse to be drawn to both beauty and violence in film.  With its unique ability to enthrall the masses under a collective spell, Meditation on Violence becomes as much about our relationship to this beauty and violence as it is a depiction of it.  Are the shadows repelling the violence, or drawn by the beauty?

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Posted by Andrew

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