Director: Maya Deren
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most film buffs know the dream world of Surrealism primarily through the works of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. These two gifted and original artists established a vocabulary for the irrational that has been adopted by many Western filmmakers over the years, most famously, David Lynch. One lesser-known genius of Surrealist filmmaking who deserves to be known more widely is Maya Deren.
A Russian Jewish émigré to America during the 1920s, Deren made a mere handful of short or incomplete films, usually in collaboration with her first husband Alexander Hammid, Surrealist supreme Marcel Duchamp, and/or second husband Teiji Ito. It is tempting to infer that she was not the true auteur of these films, but rather a collaborator with these men who provided everything from music to cinematography. Her work, however, clearly reveals a feminine poetry that tracks closely with the work of another genius woman of the cinema, Leni Riefenstahl.
Most of Deren’s completed works are 15 minutes long or less, and many can be seen in one sitting without changing the DVD player. What one encounters in an evening of Maya Deren is an exploration of how everyday objects and movements can imprint on our psyches and float freely through a filter of imagination, dreaming, and emotion. Like Riefenstahl, Deren was fascinated with the human form (Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera  is reminiscent of Olympiad and Riefenstahl’s photography of the human form) and nature as a sanctuary from male-dominated human commerce and a source of primitivepower. Both Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land feature the exotically beautiful Deren, but differ in the elements she confronts.
In Meshes, a black-cloaked figure drops a flower on the sidewalk. A figure whose face we do not see picks the flower up, climbs some stairs to a house, removes a key from a handbag, and then drops it down the stairs. The figure runs down to retrieve it, inserts it in the door, and enters the home. Newspapers are strewn on the floor. A phone is off the hook. The figure replaces the receiver in its cradle.
A loaf of bread with a knife slipped into it sits on the dining table. The figure climbs some stairs to the bedroom, then returns to the front room. We finally see the figure. It is Deren. She sits in a chair, places the flower in her crotch, moves her hand up her body and over her breast. We see an extreme close-up of her eye, looking aroused, but it flutters closed. The same set of circumstances repeats. When the black-cloaked figure walks with the flower along the sidewalk, Deren makes chase, watching herself through a window in the upstairs bedroom. As the films progresses, another Maya enters the scenario. Later, a man, broken glass, a black hand of death. Each replay takes us further and further inside Deren’s fears and to a shattering conclusion. The silent film’s drama is emphasized by the emphatic score by Ito, evoking Japanese ghost stories while mixing images of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
At Land, an entirely silent film, begins in the unconscious, with rolling waves crashing on shore and over the body of Deren. She struggles from her primordial sleep and climbs a twisted knot of driftwood to emerge into a dining room lined with fashionable society people. She crawls through thickets of shrubs, though it appears that she may actually be traversing the length of the long table, unseen by the diners. At the end of the table, a man and a woman are playing chess. It appears Deren can move the pieces with her mind, and she sends one piece plummeting off the table. We next see her chasing the piece down a crag, into a tide pool. She retrieves the piece and steps onto the beach, joining two women who are playing chess. She caresses and pulls their hair while they smile appreciatively. Then she flees down the beach, her footprints heavy in the wet sand.
Particularly feminine symbols and emotions can be seen throughout these two films: water as the unconscious, a flower as symbolic of female genitalia, the homely loaf of bread stabbed by a murderous anger, the desire to coopt the male world of logic, represented by the chess piece, in an all-female domain. Both films feature a feminine trio. In Meshes, Deren herself forms a trinity of conflict; in At Land, she is joined by two other women in a much more harmonious assemblage. Significantly, perhaps, Deren has a male protagonist in Meshes who is a source of sexual desire as well as discord. Seeing both films in succession gives the viewer a hint of Deren’s struggle with the animus, but relative peace with her own femininity.
And this is the significant advance Deren makes both on the idealized views of men and women created by Riefenstahl in her propaganda and her mountain films (The Blue Light, for example) and the male-centric films of Buñuel and Cocteau, which are sympathetic to women but only through the lens of male regard. Deren’s complementary point of view is a crucial addition to Surrealism and a humanist counterbalance to the only other significant female director of the era. I find Deren’s films extremely satisfying experiences, telling my side of the story, so to speak, in the vast, collective unconscious that is cinema.