In the Mirror of Maya Deren

 

Laura Clifford 

Robin Clifford 
When Anthology Film Archives director, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, advertised for a volunteer to catalog the films of Maya Deren, director Martina Kudlacek applied and gained a rich documentary subject.  Those unfamiliar with Deren's work will have an eye-opening education while those familiar will get to know the passionate nature of a vibrant woman "In the Mirror of Maya Deren."

Laura:
Kudlacek begins her film with Mekas holding film cans marked Deren, declaring them the 'holy grail of cinema - we don't know what's inside,' before beginning a journey that details Deren's Russian Jewish roots, influences, lovers, colleagues, travels, and work.  Substantial clips of Deren's experimental shorts are put into context by collaborators and Deren's own narration, taken from wire recordings (the precursor to magnetic tape) of her lectures.  Although Deren appeared in many of her films, they were silent for the most part, and so Deren's broad New Yawkese is a surprise coming from the petite, exotic immigrant.

Second husband Alexander Hammid, the codirector of Maya's most famous work "Meshes in the Afternoon," reflects on her exotic beauty while perusing his stunning black and white photographs of her.  Friend and assistant Miriam Arsham fills us in on Deren's background from birth. Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage ("Dog Star Man") talks about her influence as he prepares a filmic tribute to her.  Choreographer Katherine Dunham, whom Deren worked for, describes her sensuality and need for movement while dancer Rita Christiani speaks of Deren's perfect motivational direction for her moves in "Ritual in Transfigured Time."

Poetry, dance, the sea, dreams, ritual and time are continuing themes in Deren's work.  1944's "At Land" is shot by the seaside, Maya (the name, adopted by Eleanora Derenkovskaya, means water) acting as sea creature exploring the shore.  She revisits the ocean in her 1946 film as well as in her explorations of Haitian Vodoun made possible by the first Guggenheim grant give to a filmmaker.  Maya's love of mirrors are featured in another clip, a dreamlike meditation with dual Derens which recalls both David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Drive."  Tai Chi expert Chao-li Chin ("Big Trouble in Little China") explains how Maya danced with her camera while following his movements in "Meditation on Violence" and we see that relationship repeated between subject and director/camera operator (Deren worked with a 16mm Bolex) in her amazing footage of a Haitian in Vodoun possession.

In her later years, Deren married Japanese composer Teiji Ito, eighteen years her junior.  His music became a vibrant part of her work as her interests became ingrained in his (he died in Haiti in 1982).  Deren's death of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 44 has been attributed to everything from her Dr. Feelgood shots to disappoint with the reception of her last film ("The Very Eye of Night") to poverty and starvation.

Kudlacek's film should be required viewing for any student of film. In addition to celebrating Deren, her love of the physical medium shines throughout her documentary with frequent cutaways to film strips and stacked reels.  'It's tougher to be a filmmaker than a painter,' Deren states - maybe her passion for her work wore her out.

A

Robin:
Maya Deren was a 60's avant-garde filmmaker who experimented in visions of form and movement on film - except she explored these imaginations in the 40's! Documentarian Martina Kudlacek examines the all-too-brief life of this ahead-of-her-time flower child whose film work is about "the time quality of a woman" in "In the Mirror of Maya Deren."

Deren was born Eleanora Derenkovskaya in 1917 to Ukrainian parents. It was the year of the Russian Revolution and, by 1922, the disastrous Soviet economy, pogroms against Jews and her father's Trotskyite leanings forced the now impoverished family to immigrate to America. After her parents separated in 1930, she was sent to boarding in Switzerland, becoming multilingual before continuing her education in the U.S. She seemed destined to work in the literary field until she met and married her second husband, Czech filmmaker Alexander Hackenschmied, later Hammid, and she bought a second-hand 16mm Bolex camera. She and Hammid made her first and most famous experimental film, "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943). With it, she set the level for the American avant-garde filmmaking in the 40's and 50's.

She returned to New York, changed her name to Maya (Buddha's mother's name, an ancient name for water and the "veil of mystery" in Hindu mythology) and rubbed elbows with the city's intelligentsia such as Marcel Duchamp and Anais Nin. Her influence as an experimental filmmaker impacted others in the field including Willard Maas and Kenneth Anger. She continued her groundbreaking works in 16mm film with "At Land" (1944) and "Study in Choreography for Camera" (1945). In 1947, her work, "Meshes of the Afternoon," was awarded the "Grand Prix International for 16mm Film, Experimental Class" at the Cannes Film Festival. She and Hammid divorced that year.

In the years between 1947 and 1955, Deren spent 21 months in Haiti filming Voodoo rituals and dance, but the unfinished work, referred to as the "Haitian Film Footage, was put aside when she wrote Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953). Her last film, "The Very Eye of Night" (1955), wasn't shown in New York until 1959, following a financial dispute with her producer. In 1960, she married a Japanese musician 18 years her junior, Teijo Ito, who created soundtracks for two of her films..

On 13 October 1961, Maya Deren died at the age of 44 of a brain hemorrhage, with much speculation as to the cause. Rumors of a Voodoo curse; the use of suspect vitamin shots from the Max Jacobson, known as "Doctor Feelgood"; and, a high-pressure court dispute over Ito's inheritance from his father were all blamed.

Deren's experimental visions in film have influenced avant-garde filmmakers for decades. A new generation of film buffs and serious students of the art can continue their study of her experimental films with the DVD release of her collected works, including excerpts from the Haitian footage. In 1985 the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award for artistic contributions to experimental film work.

Helmer Martina Kudlacek has assembled a collection of film and dance notables to discuss Maya Deren's life, her work and her influence. Miriam Arsham, a close friend and assistant to Deren in the 40's and 50's; Stan Brakhage, one of America's most influential independent filmmakers with over 200 film made since 1952; former Dunham Dancer Rita Christiani was the principal performer in Maya's "Ritual in Transfigured Time" (1945/46); choreographer Jean-Leon Destine developed a close relationship with Deren in the late 40's; all of whom discuss Deren's influence. Others interviewed include Katherine Dunham, producer/director Graeme Ferguson, ex-husband Alexander Hammid, actress Judith Malina and Jonas Mekas, whose Anthology Film Archive holds more than 4000 independent/avant-garde films, including a collection of Deren's works.

Kudlacek uses the wealth of available work by Deren and intersperses lengthy excerpts of the artist's films to showcase her talent for image, movement and grace. The films were all shot in black & white stock and generally run 15 minutes or less. Deren placed herself as the subject of most of her films and her sultry beauty and remarkably graceful moves are riveting to watch. In addition, there are rare wire recordings of the filmmaker's lectures to give the documentary a more poignant viewpoint.

"In the Mirror of Maya Deren" won't attract the Saturday night movie crowd looking for entertainment the likes of "National Security." It is, however, an absolute must for those who think themselves students of film and for the serious documentary buff. I give it a B+.

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