There is something enchanting about watching Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) that exceeds the film's impressive technical execution and its captivating enigmatic images. This enchantment persists long after the passage of time and despite repeat viewings, careful analyses, or countless cinematic imitations. Artists and scholars alike return to the film—not only because of the film's legendary status in American postwar experimental cinema but also because of the inescapable pull of its spiraling structure and its eerie play with the border between reality and artifice. It is not surprising that the film's remarkable coauthor, Maya Deren, would go on to develop a profound interest in tribal ritual and magic. The circular, dreamlike structure of Meshes, her first and most famous film, already suggests a hypnotic ritual dance that transcends conventional spatial and temporal experience.
This sense of the film's magical generative power is precisely what John David Rhodes pursues in the latest installment of BFI's Film Classics series dedicated to Meshes of the Afternoon. In this short text that introduces [End Page 139] and celebrates the film, Rhodes returns to a landmark work that is familiar to most media students and scholars to discuss its value to cinema studies and the reasons for its profound impact on cinema history. In an effective summary of the film's historical significance that bears citing at length, Rhodes writes,
This film is a point of origin (that from which much later avant-garde filmmaking flows), a point of transition (the thing that connects the inter-war avant-gardes to those of the postwar period), a point of intersection (between the lives of two artists, between male and female, film and literature), an artifact of an extremely personal— even hermetic—modernist vision, and a document of political feminism.(12)
At the core of this fifteen-minute cinematic experiment is a woman—a mysterious character played by the filmmaker—whose dreamlike journey through a Los Angeles home becomes a circular nightmare full of evocative self-multiplications and mysterious transmutations. Written accounts of a cinematic work can never do justice to the viewing experience, but Rhodes's text does a respectable job of intertwining comprehensive descriptions of the film with key still images and interpretive notes. One especially strong section of the text discusses the film's play with traditional point-of-view cinematography, as the main character encounters her own doubles and begins to inhabit a world without a single stable agent: "it is the unprepared-for, the casual abruptness in these switches in point of view that make them so powerfully unsettling and engrossing as we are drawn in and then expelled from a subjectivity that we think we share" (59). By drawing on a number of well-established archives of Deren's writings, Rhodes is also able to show how Meshes uses formal cinematic devices (point of view, editing, etc.) to break down coherent models of space and time, creating "an architectural form whose boundaries were necessary only insofar as they acted as permeable thresholds to another world" (87). These permeable thresholds create rich ground for meaning and make a definitive interpretation of Meshes both irresistible and ultimately impossible.
The book's central organizing argument is that the meaning of Meshes in cinema scholarship has been greatly shaped by the history and persona of its maker. Maya Deren is already at the heart of the film, embodying a somber young woman who keeps encountering her own doubles in a series of journeys with an unsettling dark conclusion. As Deren wrote about the film, "you have to come a long way—from the very beginning of time—to kill yourself" (86). Paradoxically, Rhodes notes, Deren's stated attempts to eliminate herself as a singular stable subject in Meshes have produced a film that has become inseparable from her status as a pioneering avant-garde filmmaker with a personal vision.
One way that the legend of Deren herself has become intertwined with the meaning of the film is on the level of production. Although the project was a collaboration between Deren and her then...