Like many art film pioneers, the work and legacy of Maya Deren (1917-1961) is often more talked about than actually seen. This is set to change with the inclusion of her classic short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) in the latest instalment of the Cinema 16 series, an anthology of American short classics including other gems such as Andy Warhol's Screen Test: Helmut, D.A. Pennebaker's 1953 Daybreak Express and Standish Lawder's 1969 cult classic Necrology (Roll Call of the Dead).
The daughter of an educated Jewish émigré family from Kiev who arrived in the USA in the early 1920s, Deren has become an emblem of independent American cinema and a feminist icon. She is the woman behind the black and white window glass pane, looking out enigmatically from within a pattern of reflected trees, emanating an air of daydreaming madness, which is what Meshes of the Afternoon is about. Although its aesthetic roots are in Europe on account of its Surrealist form and Deren's interest in Eisensteinian montage, her film is distinctly American: it is pregnant with a sense of otherness; the voodoo, trance-inducing soundtrack alludes to a black culture that doesn't exist in Europe; the spiralling narrative flow that evokes a sense of shifting identities. It's no coincidence that America's most famous film surrealist, David Lynch, was inspired by Meshes when he made Lost Highway (1996), arguably one of his best films.
The film was Deren's first, and marked the beginning of her collaboration with Alexander Hammid, the Czech cameraman who she married. Laden with symbolism, it stars Deren herself as she often did in her films. Deren started her career as a dancer with choreographer Katherine Dunham's company, with whom she toured the USA. She met Hammid in Los Angeles in 1941 and it was this encounter that ignited her change of focus from dance to film, although her physicality and beautiful, dance-trained expressiveness is an integral part of her work.
Meshes of the Afternoon is an atmospheric, paranoid reverie where the main character repeats actions (walking up the street, looking out of the window) while a mysterious, hooded finger with a mirror for a face provides a black, nightmarish touch in a sun-lit Los Angeles street. It became the most famous experimental short film of the 1940s, and the thousands of music video clips that adopt similar strategies to disrupt conventional narrative are testimonies to Deren's influence, if not necessarily acknowledged by younger generations.
But, as in the case of a lot of good art, Meshes of the Afternoon, is best enjoyed if we avoid reading too much into it. The symbolisms are clear and allude to ideas of sexual angst, fear, death etc. But like poetry, the images are not there to 'educate'. Instead they serve a more lyrical function. Sometimes it's best to succumb to our intuition, like Deren seems to have done when she conceived it.The real meaning in this film is in the editing, in the beautiful synchronisation between image and sound which constitutes a perfectly formed organic whole. If Deren's intention was to cast a spell on the viewer and lead us into a state of trance like a celluloid priestess, she was completely successful.
Cinema 16 is out now: