Here’s one thing to recommend the work of Maya Deren, an experimental filmmaker active in the 40s and 50s: you can watch her complete oeuvre in less time than it takes to get through The Godfather: Part II.
A fixture in Greenwich Village of the 40s, Deren mixed with the avant-garde luminaries of the time. Marcel Duchamp, Anaïs Nin, and John Cage appear in her short films, which make amorphous, allegorical explorations of dream life and the body.
I got my introduction to Deren’s work on Sunday night at Cinema Minima’s monthly screening in the back room at Cole’s Bar. Joseph Strand, a grad student in DePaul’s digital cinema program, took over as curator for the event in December. Strand assembled Sunday’s brisk, illuminating program from Deren’s work and clips from a 2002 documentary about her life by Martina Kudlácek.
Deren’s best-know film is her first completed short, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). A dream sequence that trades heavily in Jungian archetypes and camera tricks, it’s a remarkable exploration of the dreamlike narrative potential of film.
“It’s more about the resolution of feelings and emotions than resolution of plot,” Strand told me when I called him after the screening.
My favorite of Deren’s works is her 1944 short, At Land. Gone are some of Meshes‘ more cumbersome touches (the rudimentary effects, the heavy-handed frame story). At Land is an experience of pure movement and emotion. Don’t worry about understanding it, just feel it.
With two of her later shorts, Deren takes her storytelling minimalism even further. A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) and Meditation on Violence (1948) both feature only a single dancer. Meditation on Violence may be the pinnacle of what Deren sets out to do with her films. Vibrating with intensity, it finds a deeply creative force at the core of violence, something tied up inextricably with life, rather than death and destruction.
It also has as tight a dramatic structure as any Sophoclean tragedy, moving with a sense of necessity through the rising action, climax, and denouement.
Deren died of a brain hemorrhage in 1961 at age 44, after long-term use of amphetamines prescribed by the notorious “Dr. Feelgood.”
“Maya lived her life the way she lived her art,” Strand told me, mentioning her extensive work to promote and fund the work of other experimental artists. “She made sure she did what she cared about in a collaborative way that built up other people.”
Just don’t tell that to Anaïs Nin, who allegedly complained that Deren had filmed her in intentionally harsh light.
Cinema Minima is a project of AnySquared, and screens artist biographies and rare or local films on the first Sunday of each month at Cole’s Bar (2338 N. Milwaukee).