The Films of Maya Deren Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Jul/150

Mid-week Maya: The Very Eye of Night (1958)

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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 Very Eye of Night.

The Very Eye of Night (1958)I like when creators do companion pieces, rather than sequels, to their work.  It's part of the reason Ridley Scott's Prometheus worked so beautifully as Scott was able to comment on the place in science fiction his work occupies while still providing new questions in a familiar yet different atmosphere.  This is, perhaps, the best approach to take with Maya Deren's The Very Eye of Night.  On the surface, it just seems to be a restaging of the same dreamy dance which made Ensemble for Somnambulists so intoxicating.

But there are several details, some minor and some crucial, which make The Very Eye of Night similarly attractive.  Instead of Ensemble for Somnambulists approach to taking place within the scope of an entire dream, The Very Eye of Night is at that hour in the dead of night when your dreams reach their apex and whatever rules you adhere to in the waking world fade by the wayside.  It helps illuminate why the general aesthetic of The Very Eye of Night is similar to Ensemble for Somnambulists, but the effect is so very different.

9Jul/150

Mid-week Maya: Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

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

Ensemble for Somnambulists - 1951I’ve made my love of dance movies no secret in the five years writing for this site, and part of the joy of watching Maya Deren’s films is getting an idea of where the genesis of these movies and routines originates.  Ensemble for Somnambulists continues in the excellent tradition of Meditation on Violence and A Study in Choreography for Camera.  But those films used, to great effect, environments which can easily exist.  There is some subjective travel within the editing, but the motions and images within the frame  could be found in just about any town.

What makes Ensemble for Somnambulists so exciting is how Deren constructs an impossible environment and still finds ways for the performers to interact within and on it.  The harsh polarization of the film stock is important to this, as the figures appear as ghosts within a sea of darkness, and it’s impossible to tell whether they are floating or coming into contact with ground which can’t be readily seen.  The biggest hint involves the tilt from a collection of lights as stars to the darkness from which the performers emerge.  “Somnambulists”, after all, are essentially sleepers in motion and we are not accustomed to seeing people act out their dreams.

1Jul/150

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.

24Jun/150

Mid-week Maya: The Private Life of a Cat (1947)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for The Private Life of a Cat.

The Private Life of a Cat (1947)Barely thirty seconds into the opening credits for The Private Life of a Cat will reveal just why I had a lackluster reception to the film.  The Private Life of a Cat was one of Maya Deren's collaborative films, and whatever the extent of her involvement was it apparently was not enough to attach her name to the credits.  You'll see her partner, and then-husband, Alexander Hammid in the credits but not Deren.

This is makes sense, because there's little to nothing in The Private Life of a Cat which bears the creative stamp Deren has come to develop with her films.  In her previous efforts Deren has shown a willingness to blend the movement of the camera with her performers and the background to attain a sort of transcendence in harmony between the three.  I've been impressed by the results so far, and wonder what The Private Life of a Cat would look like with her brand of subjectivity.

17Jun/150

Mid-week Maya: Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for Ritual in Transfigured Time.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)I suppose it had to happen with one of these films.  Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time kept me interested and smiling at times, but not enthralled in the same way her previous four films have been capable of.  Ritual in Transfigured Time helps put some of the other experimental cinema I've been watching into context.  Variations on a similar theme, be it through direct visuals or editing rhythm, can continue to please if not altogether satisfy when watched week after week.

For starters, Deren is working against the typical male gaze of the camera (long before Laura Mulvey's seminal "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema" was published).  Much like in A Study in Choreography for Camera, she strips a man nearly naked so her camera can follow the curves of his muscles and form as he performs a dance.  What was disappointing in Ritual in Transfigured Time was how the figures did not seem to accentuate the environment in the same was as A Study in Choreography for Camera.  But as a trade, the dance is prefaced by the innate rhythmic swaying of various participants as they move in and out of conversation with one another.