By: Maria Popova
“The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other…”
Russian-born American filmmaker, poet, photographer, choreographer, and critic Maya Deren (April 29, 1917–October 13, 1961) endures as one of humanity’s most significant experimental filmmakers and champions of independent cinema. She was only twenty-six when she made the influential classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which remains required viewing for film students, visual storytellers, and general connoisseurs of creative culture alike. But Deren was also a masterful writer and film theorist, who authored dozens of articles in film journals and popular magazines, often included extensive program notes with her films, and self-published a chapbook of her writings. Nearly half a century after Deren’s sudden and premature death, the best of her written work was collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (public library) — a compendium of her views on cinema as an art form, the rewards and challenges of independent filmmaking, and broader questions of art, reality, and the creative process.
But arguably more revealing and insightful than all of her formal critical writings in the collection combined is a single letter Deren wrote in April of 1955, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday, to James Card — film archivist for George Eastman House, the institution Deren was considering for representation and preservation of her archive. Card had invited her to send a reel of Meshes of the Afternoon and preview prints of her other films.
After a series of questions intended to assess whether George Eastman House would provide a proper home for her films and be a bastion of her legacy — Deren observes that “it may seem exaggerated to speak of a will,” a remark particularly poignant given her untimely death a few years later — she notes that she considers her films Ritual in Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera “most representative” of her work, then writes:
Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it, for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. From the point of view of my own development, I cannot help but be gently proud that that first film — that point of departure — had such relatively solid footing. This is due to two major facts: first, to the fact that I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood and thought it, but, like a mute, had never spoken.
Noting that “the first speech of a mute is hoarse, ugly, virtually unintelligible,” Deren points to the second reason of her film’s success — the technical acumen and mechanical expertise of her husband and collaborator, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander “Sasha” Hammid, who made sure the film didn’t sound like a mute’s “first speech.” Embedded in her specific gratitude is Deren’s general advice to aspiring filmmakers about the importance of technical mastery and painstaking attention to detail — especially regarding speech and sound — as the foundation for a well-executed creative vision:
My debt to him for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young film-makers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!
Maya Deren and Aleksander Hammid, 1940
But Deren places even greater importance on the role of movement. Reflecting on her film A Study in Choreography for Camera, she writes:
This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…
And yet Deren offers a perfectly worded disclaimer to mistaking her insistence on technique for an absence of a deeper concern with creative vision, which she illustrates with an exquisitely insightful metaphor:
I have reticence about the more profound significance which is hard for me to explain except, perhaps, by analogy — the way a woman will look up and say to a man “That suit looks very well on you” instead of, “I love you. I am happy that you are here to look at.” The trouble is that people often think that technique is my primary consideration when I speak of techniques — just as if that man would begin discussing wholesale prices and yard goods, which would make the woman feel peculiar.
Similarly, Deren points out, the masterful technique for which her films were commended wasn’t an end of itself but merely a way for her to both access and articulate the deeper vision:
Each time one of those technical sequences buzzed in my head, like a beacon signaling “This way, this way,” it was because I was tuned to that frequency. I was not simply trying to get out of that room and go somewhere, anywhere, I was heading in a certain direction, and no matter how minute the crack that gave upon it, it was to pass through there that I labored. There may have been wide doors to both sides. I did not even try them for they did not give in my direction. And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.
She points to each of her films as complementary examples:
[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Rituals pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the large changes of the earth.
Noting that her latest project, The Very Eye of Night — which would be her last finished film — had “taken [her] out in space about as far as [she] can go” and spurred her desire to explain why she considers Meshes of the Afternoon a “point of departure,” she zooms out into a wide view of her body of work:
Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction.
Maya Deren (Still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' 1943)
But Deren’s most poignant point in the letter has nothing to do with her films themselves and everything to do with the spiritual foundation from which they spring. She recounts a recent awakening of sorts — the kind common to near-death experiences from which one emerges with a newfound gratefulness of the glory of life:
Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above.
Deren leaps spryly off this spiral of intensity into a playful sign-off:
Anyway, this is one way to look at that reel of film. You can’t say you haven’t been briefed!
Six years later, Deren died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. She was forty-four. Essential Deren remains the most complete record and bewitching glimpse of the singular mind and spirit which produced some of the most influential visual masterworks of the twentieth century. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart — Werner Herzog’s compendium of reflections on film and life, which was among the best books of 2014.
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