Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon stands as a landmark in the history of American experimental cinema. Released in 1943 it marked Deren’s debut as a filmmaker and immediately set a new trajectory for the genre. Meshes of the Afternoon explores abstract concepts of the subconscious. Maya Deren masters a new language of film, within which we see the process of metamorphosis take place, as the camera repeatedly switches from subjective to objective (Rabinovitz, 2003). Deren's Avant-Garde filmography aims to rewrite the conventions of cinema. In a traditional Hollywood narrative, a woman's body is presented through the male gaze and only displayed for the progression of a male character. Maya Deren successfully challenges these conventions by adopting the techniques of Film Noir, extreme camera angles, stark lighting, and point-of-view shots; juxtaposing these formal techniques with a disjointed female narrative.
Meshes of the Afternoon explores the subjectivity and objectivity of women in women's films. Deren explores the expansion of time associated with waiting. This combined with the space of the home and its constriction of the 'world attributed to the woman', the world, which woman is so often held prisoner of (2003, 56). The film's hypersignification of this domestic world displays Dadaist and Surrealist tones, experimental artistic movements which Freudian psychoanalysis is often associated with. Although we are reminded here that Deren strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytical interpretations of her film and instead encouraged the viewer to interpret each motif in context to the film`s narrative as a whole.
Meshes of the Afternoon begins by introducing a woman through images of her legs, arms, and her shadows. There is no establishing shot. This first sequence is comprised of multiple close-ups. The tight framing of Deren's body parts as well as the objects she interacts with all become autonomous (Rabinovitz, 2003). The female body switches from subjective to objective throughout this film. Deren enters the living room through a point-of-view shot that transitions into an eye-level close-up of her feet. Her hands flow along her stomach and her breasts, and the camera obediently follows the lines of her body (Rabinovitz, 2003). The film transitions into the dream world through Deren's eyes which then progresses into a tunnel vision of the window. Creating a jarring exchange from the personal female gaze to Deren's physical entrance into the space. Her sight no longer defines the domestic space. Abrupt camera angles and jump cuts cause 'physical laws to transcend'(2003, 62), time and space into poetic expressions. Deren once said that ‘a truly creative work of art creates a new reality’ (Deren, 2001), this is evident in Meshes of the Afternoon, as we as an audience are invited to interpret and question the film`s layered psychological narratives. Deren uses familiar household objects and transforms them into almost conscious beings each representing another part of herself or on a larger scale the dimensions of being a woman subjected to the fate of an object as the concept of ‘other’.
Pruit defines Meshes of the Afternoon as a 'watershed moment in history' (2006, 138), prescribing it as an Avant-garde and feminist film. With this in mind, it is crucial to note the reflexivity where Deren switches between the male and female gaze. Utilising the male gaze to suspense the loss of control she is experiencing within the domestic world. The initial dream perspective switches to the male point of the view. Hammond's character's domineering viewpoint now controls the flow of images. These contrasting thematic viewpoints question if it is only possible to own ones self-image outside of a male perspective in death. This is highlighted in the final sequence when we see Deren's dead body. The final close-up images of her dead eyes are a revolt against cinematic structures of female violence (Rabinovitz, 2003).
Male Surrealists such as Buñuel and Dalí turn to women as their source of inspiration, conceptualising them within the violence, witnessing women as victims to the primitive man. In Un Chien Andalou (1929) we see how the primitive takes over, sexualised body parts are to be perceived as objects, and they are there to bear witness to violence. To echo Freudian terms that a woman is the most ‘marvellous and disturbing problem in the world’ (1994,10), it is clear in Un Chien Andalou that this is the case. The woman is but a passive object in the violence of desire. However, Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon also situates itself within the violence of desire but it provides a form of agency to her female character. Maya Deren’s character goes beyond that of a mere sexual object as she revolts against the passive portrayal of women in conventional Hollywood narratives. The audience is removed from the construction of a woman within a man's dream world and bear witness to the female dream world from a female perspective, a rarity in cinema.