- Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde
To many film students of the 1970s, Maya Deren (1917-1961) remained but a mysterious name and a memorable face, the one who Anais Nin compared to a Botticelli painting, gazing from a window in Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren's work, including her footage of dance in Haitian Voudoun ("voodoo") ceremonies, was often cited but, until the 1980s and 1990s, too rarely shown. All artists and cultural critics interested in the history of independent cinema should familiarize themselves with this substantive and eclectic artist and theorist. In this collection, she is center stage, lighted and shot from many sides.
Maya Deren, born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev, emigrated to the United States with her parents as a child. A teenage socialist activist, she married young, studied literature and helped administer the Katherine Dunham Dance Company before making her films. Her second husband, Alexander Hammid, was a Czech filmmaker who collaborated with her and encouraged her individual flowering. Deren moved during her twenties, a richly creative decade for her, within a milieu of New York cineastes. Although she was insulted and lampooned by Dylan Thomas at Cinema 16's "Poetry and the Film" symposium in 1953 for her ambitious ideas, her "modernist poetics" can now be clearly located among Rudolf Arnheim's formalism, Andre Bazin's realism and Sergei Eisenstein's dialectical montage.
Deren worked with African American dancers such as Talley Beatty, acted uncredited in many of her own films and sometimes saw her character merging [End Page 452] with those played by Rita Christiani or Anais Nin. An attraction to motifs of ritual, water and transformation drew Deren to study and document Voudoun rites in Haiti. Her writings documenting this experience were given a frosty reception by academia, for Deren claimed to have experienced possession by the spirits at one Voudoun event, in the book's footnote. She supported younger unconventional filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and inspired others she never met, such as the appreciative Barbara Hammer. Deren's work also looks back to the turn-of-the-century trickster aesthetic of Georges Melies, though she felt unfairly lumped in with the surrealists by enthusiast Parker Tyler and others.
The essays in this collection explore all the above aspects of Deren's life and work, and the book closes with her own 52-page film theory text, "An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film," published in 1946. Like many works published shortly after a World War (from Andre Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto" to Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think"), it is forthright in its dedication to a new path, cleared in sweeping, yet sometimes labored, world-historical and scientific language. The nine chapters of Deren's "Anagram" are readable in two different sequences, shown upon a two-dimensional grid. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde borrows this anagramatic (perhaps, more accurately, acrostic) form in its title page to order its essays in two separate sequences as well. In light of this experiment in literary structure, one wonders what Maya Deren—with her eye for visually memorable characters' navigational fluidity, enhanced with poetic crosscutting— might have done in the medium of hypertext.