Movement, Magic and Mirrors – Five short films by Maya Deren, Cornerhouse

Text by Adam Scovell

There’s something menacing about the work of Maya Deren.  Like all that is unnerving in cinema, the most affective filmmakers often make it deliberately difficult to explain why their array of visuals can give rise to such feelings.  Perhaps it is this difficulty that creates the uncertainty in the first place but there’s something more to Deren’s variety of short film than simply the unknown.

Deren’s films capture a side of reality perhaps hidden by tunnel vision nostalgia for the 1940s and 1950s.  This is ironic in one sense as her films are definitely as far away from realism as conceivably possible.  Yet, in spite of their fantastical nature, they manage to capture more of America, or more precisely L.A, than whole reams of supposedly realist, big budget drama.  They do this through focusing on one specific idea; that dark thoughts (so often inconceivable in golden age Hollywood unless in soft-focus melodrama) can manifest into the physical world of the protagonist, often Deren herself and can mould reality around them.

With this in mind, her films represent that dark underbelly of Hollywood – that same vein that filmmakers such as David Lynch would mine endlessly in his work.  Films like Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) are nigh on inconceivable without Deren paving the way for dark surrealist nightmares, set so clearly in the upper-class art realms of the L.A elite and a product of creative endeavours enwrapped by commercial excess.  Even more peer-based filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger owe her a sense of acknowledgment for bringing these nightmare labyrinths into the visual medium in that, behind the smoke and mirrors lies an ultimate truth that most (including Deren) sought desperately to grasp.

In her most famous work, Meshes on the Afternoon (1943), Deren is trapped in one of these many labyrinths, set around a persistent returning moment in time while trying to catch up with a faceless figure.  Objects play a huge role in Deren’s work, hinting that they possess other qualities besides their typical uses.  From keys to knives, Meshes on the Afternoon entraps itself in a Borges-esque world, perhaps even one melding together past, present and future times as found in Eliot’s Four Quartets; if ever a filmmaker could have adapted such a work, Deren would have been the likeliest to do it justice.

Deren’s films occupy that strange area found between gentle dozing and the gaping chasm of a recurring nightmare.  From the obsessive physicality of Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) to the visual of the infinite through a game chess in At Land (1944), Deren presents herself as a chief questioner of the role of time in film.  Watching her work is the aesthetic equivalent of being pulled down into a contrasted pit of quicksand yet the experience is a strangely pleasurable one, even occasionally cathartic.  Perhaps they embrace our dark desire for a Freudian Death Drive, or at least an escape from the mundane reality of endless, grey purgatory.  Through films that manifest a suffocating aesthetic of dreamscapes and endless repetition, there’s no doubt that Deren is one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century who left a long, mirrored shadow in her wake.

Movement, Magic and Mirrors: Five short films by Maya Deren are screened at Cornerhouse on the 27th of April.

Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker based in Liverpool.

Published 26.04.2014 by Lauren Velvick

569 words