Today I am writing about one of my favorite ladies, Maya Deren. She was an spectacular filmmaker that worked hard to make her art known.
Maya Deren was a special lady. For all her many passions, her biggest was making movies. She filmed what she wanted to film and always did refuse to join the showbiz side of Hollywood. She only made films for artistic purposes.
In fact, one of her well-known quotes is, “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.”
Maya was eccentric! She was a pioneer in avant-garde, surreal filmmaking and even developed a style in clothing that would not become famous in years to come. She also always travelled to Haiti, as one of her biggest passions was the Haitian culture.
However, she did have financial troubles and at times had problems getting her films screened. At one point she couldn’t afford to feed her cats.
I am going to discuss some of the films that she thankfully shared with the world and later left them as a legacy. Let’s see.
Meshes of the Afternoon
This is the most famous film from Maya today. It was directed by both Maya and her then husband Alexander Hammid in 1943 with the ambition to create a more avant-garde film.
This short fourteen minute film begins with a flower being dropped on the ground and then Maya holding it when walking back to her house. She seems casual, but dressed in interesting attire. I have to comment on her clothes, of course!
We then see her silhouette of her incredibly curly hair, figure, and the flower. It seems that the film is straying from reality little by little…
In fact, we don’t see her face right when it begins. She is just entering her home, a quite normal part of human routine, but something more is shown here. They don’t want to show what a typical person does. They want to show something from the mind; that is not part of a routine.
When Maya enters her home, she goes upstairs and everything looks fine. She decides to take a nap, but then things turn…very odd. A good odd, though.
I admire this film because of the manner of editing, angles, and shots. Maya Deren herself editing the film, making it more mysterious and a little dark.
Maya seems to chase a person dressed as a Grim Reaper sort of figure with the face of a mirror. Is she chasing death?
The film is silent. Maya believed in silent movies in the forties!
Another important part of the film is when she grabs a knife from the bottom of her stairs. What could this mean? Does she have murderous feelings?
I am quite impressed by the mode of editing! It was a sort of experiment to add the slow motion, but what I really loved the different shots of her standing just a few feet or inches away, making her look like a ghost.
I have had dreams that are like Meshes of the Afternoon. The room has spun in circles, like how it did when Maya was on the staircase.
Then she can glide and appear like a swan.
She looks graceful in this shot!
In my experience in seeing some of Maya’s work, I noticed that she liked to more sides of herself. There’s never only one Maya in her film. I believe all the Mayas must represent her emotions. This is what made her work so different back then. There was more focus on the subconscious.
There are more appearances of knives, keys, and ultimately her husband Alexander Hammid. Something is thrown at him and the image of him shatters. Shards of glass are then shown on the shore of a beach.
The film also is visually beautiful to see. It is a quiet dream with many loud, yet mute, happenings and Maya doesn’t even react to as if they were part of a nightmare. This was part of her vision and of her husband’s. Maya took her work very seriously!
The Private Life of a Cat
This is one of my favorite films by her!! It is cute to the tenth power. Maya was a big cat person to the point that she filmed the birth of her cat’s kittens. This little film stars no humans.
The movie begins with Mommy Cat being pregnant and finding a place to give birth. Sure, many have filmed their pets give birth before, but not many had been so dedicated in the editing and camera work to add more warmth to the sight of this little cat family.
The movie gives personification to all cats to show that they too are able to be a family and care for their offspring.
Both Maya and her husband took advantage of such a situation in a creative manner! Even if you are not a cat person, the film is adorable.
When I first watched the film, I honestly imagined voices for them. The best part is when the cats are scolding their babies or when the Dad cat helps his baby climb the scratching post 🙂
And I almost forgot when the Dad cat visits the Mother and his kittens shortly after she gave birth! They do truly look in love.
These cats must’ve been more than pets to Maya. She probably considered them her children.
When there’s a close up of the cats, you can add thoughts and emotion to their little faces. It is so touching!
Cats are people, too 🙂
I picked this one because for some reason I do seem to like it a lot. It is not an easy film to understand, so you can form your own interpretation of it.
It begins with Maya being thrown from the sea to the shore. She always loved the sea, so you can just consider her a creature of the sea. She is in a beach.
It looks like the birth has given birth to Maya and she awakes. She walks to climb a long vine sort of thing made of palm tree branches and arrives to the top of a dinner table of high class people.
She drags herself across the table…and no one seems to care. Are they too involved in their affairs to care? Is she such an explorer from the sea that she doesn’t seem to care either…then no one must care about anything then, hmm….See, this film makes me think.
I must praise the editing again when Maya is dragging herself the scene changes to Maya getting through shrubs and leaves.
When she reaches the end of the dinner table, she sees two men playing chess and she pays serious attention to the game. Yet the pieces move by themselves! More masterful editing…
Then one of the white pawns fall and washes down a waterfall! She, being the explorer that she is, chases it down….but then gets distracted….
She walks and then encounters a man…or men actually. The more she walks, the men showed change, but they are wearing the same clothing. The last man to be shown is Alexander Hammid.
She follows him into a house, but then encounters another man, appearing sick, under a white blanket. She leaves him to explore something else.
She starts picking sea shells…Her main focus is picking as many sea shells as she can.
Here we see nothing more natural than the act of picking sea shells. I mean, she’s not worried if her outfit might get dirty or her dress torn. No, her main objective is picking those sea shells.
But, then her attention shifts to the sight of two girls playing chess. She watches them enjoy the nice game, but they don’t seem to notice her. Maya is invisible to them. She possibly thinks that they may be noticing her and takes part in their delight as well.
She pretends to be amused, but then steals the white pawn!
As she runs back with the pawn, we see another Maya still laughing with the girls, another Maya picking shells, Maya on top of a cliff, Maya dragging herself through a bush, Maya attempting to climb the palm branches, Maya in the house, and she keeps running…
So, what could this all mean? Maya said this film was about maintaining personal identity. Here, her character shifts roles. Each part of her is fully focused on one thing, but the whole Maya never really is. This film is an example of a problem she may have experienced not knowing who she truly was; or just being the real person that she was.
Maya Deren was exceptional. Even after writing all of this, I feel really proud of her. This may not show enough, but I really am. She didn’t make films for profit or for worldwide fame. She made it because it was the best mode to express her “visions” or issues within herself. We saw Maya in her films, in both physical and emotional forms. She was a true, dedicated filmmaker. Even when she was not doing well financially, she did as much as she could to make her films be shown to the world. The camera was her other eyes. She was a very special, creative lady who I am glad is remembered today for her achievements. Her filmmaking is exemplary of a woman who could express her art without anyone telling her not to.
She had fiery passions and dedicated herself to her films until the end of her life. This is a person to always remember when wanting to get ahead.
Her work has inspired many contemporary filmmakers, especially in surreal cinema!
Thank you, Maya!
I wrote this post as a contribution to The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently! Do check out other contributions about women in early cinema!