‘We are subject to her will, her strong personality, yet at the same time we do not trust or love her wholly. We recognize her talent. We talk of rebellion, of being forced, of tyranny, but we bow to her projects, make sacrifices.’ - Anaïs Nin
Like some of the crashingly immediate impact-visions from one of her own experimental films, when I heard that Silent Cinema in Galway was to do a retrospective of Maya Deren’s work, I was forcibly struck by three images:
2010 and Anthology Film Archives is having its 40th anniversary in New York. Lou Reed is tearing agonized sounds from a guitar in a nod to his near-unlistenable-to double album Metal Machine Music. As feedback rends the air it is to a backdrop of projected scenes from Maya Deren’s films. And how utterly appropriate that must have seemed: these two saints of the avant-garde coming together across Time in an almost sexual cacophony of sight and sound.
A blazing-inside teenager, who would become the legendary film director Sam Peckinpah, listens to his sister read a verse from Edna St. Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.
‘That’s going to be me’ his sister recalls him whispering to her. ‘That’s going to be me.’
Deren and Peckinpah will both live their lives on the edge, their years on this planet brief, their time at the top of their game even shorter. And the impact of each on their respective fields… immeasurable.
In Ridley Scott’s majestic film Blade Runner, the CEO of the Tyrell Corporation meets with Roy, a replicant with a four-year lifespan. Like most of us, Roy wants to know why he can’t have more. And Tyrell tells him:
‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.’
That four-year lifespan corresponds, artistically, to Deren. And like Peckinpah, her period of influence was over too soon; their final years were spent broke, with Deren pretty much penniless. Only Lou Reed went on to live a full life, and God knows he came very close to burning out early. Very, very close.
‘In revolutionary moments, time seems to accelerate, and changes usually marked out in decades take place in a matter of months. There’s a special, melancholy tinge to the fate of those who were themselves at the forefront of the very revolutions that left them behind. (Elvis Presley comes to mind.)
‘[This is] the tale of an artist who, in the mid-nineteen-forties, in the span of four years, by the age of thirty, remade her artistic world – drastically and definitively. Despite, or thanks to, her youth, she nearly single-handedly put experimental cinema on the American cultural map, and also became its iconic visual presence. Then, just as quickly, she fell out of that world, never to return in her too-brief lifetime. She died in 1961, [of a cerebral brain hemorrhage] in poverty and obscurity.’
She may have died in poverty but she was born into wealth and privilege in 1917, in Kyiv, Ukraine, to Jewish parents. Eleanora Derenkowski, as she was then, was the daughter of Solomon, a doctor; and of Marie, a student of piano and economics. Their fortunes underwent a drastic change, however, following the October Revolution; and they understandably chose to escape the attentions of the barbaric Soviet Bolshevik pogroms by fleeing to New York.
(Just a personal opinion, here: even after she had changed her name to Deren I don’t think that Maya ever got over that feeling of what we would today call ‘entitlement’. If you don’t believe me, check out her totally unreasonable demands on her Greenwich Village landlady towards the end of her life. This at a time when she was actually having to ask her friends -- who she was rapidly running out of -- for food. And I think that the landlady sounds like a hoot and a very, very patient woman. ‘Dear Miss Deren: You now seem to be labouring under a new set of delusions…’.)
And oh boy, did Maya blaze through New York! Before she had even thought of turning her many talents to film, she had received her Masters Degree in English Literature, become both a professional journalist and photo-journalist, a New York revolutionary Socialist leader (!) and had joined up – mainly by hanging around and being enamoured by her – with the African American dance and choreography pioneer Katherine Dunham. Travelling with the troupe in the Deep South, she was able to pass herself off as a redheaded African American. And all this before her adventures in acting, dance, poetry, lecturing, writing and ideas on film theory.
She also blazed her way through men, gathering three husbands before her death at 44, including her collaborator on Meshes, Alexander Hammid, who credited Deren as the film’s artistic creator as well as its main actor.
Did taking her eye off the ball that she had begun rolling lead to her eventual disappearance from the scene? I think… maybe so.
After being awarded a Guggenheim grant, she decided to use the money to satisfy her curiosity about Haiti and Vodou rituals (as you do), traveling there three times over 1946 and 1947 in the company of anthropologist/filmmaker Gregory Bateson, with whom she was now in a relationship. Only bits and pieces of footage exist of her trips and I’m unsure whether enough can ever be salvaged to make a film of them. She did, however, write the book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.
By the time she returned to the States, the experimental film scene had moved on in directions that she wasn’t particularly taken with. And she slipped farther and farther into obscurity. Only…
…it’s easier now to source and access any amount of information on Maya Deren than at any time I can remember. Arts houses show her films regularly, her writings and letters are being collected into a coherent whole and just by researching this article alone I’m suddenly aware of more of her work than I ever was.
And you know, it’s one of those coincidences that I love: I had been thinking of doing a piece on Deren just around the time that Adam came up with the idea of showing her films on September 30th. I’m not sure what order he’s going to do that in (and don’t want to know; I like surprises) but it occurs to me that if he shows At Land directly after Meshes it will be rather symbolic of Maya’s own resurrection. After all, at the end of Meshes of the Afternoon she is a corpse; At Land begins with her washed up alive on a beach.
No pressure, Adam; no pressure.
And one final thought:
There are certain artists who came along later and whose names you just have to see to wonder if there is a Deren connection. I can’t even attempt the work of William S. Burroughs without visualizing scenes from Meshes of the Afternoon or At Land or Ritual in Transfigured Time. That last one actually has Gore Vidal appear in it!
Likewise, J.G Ballard and his bizarre collection The Atrocity Exhibition. Would we even have those cooly presented and yet shocking ‘compact novels’ without Deren?
David Bowie? For me it goes without saying. And on Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant seventies movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (which starred Bowie as that unforgettable alien Thomas Jerome Newton), film historian Paul Duncan had this to say:
‘The film intentionally dissolved from one scene to another without explicitly stating if the time or place had changed, which meant that the viewer was constantly disorientated. You have to look to the experimental films of the past – like for example Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, or the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau – to experience a similar dreamlike feeling.’
Oh yes… and after finally getting to see David Lynch’s extraordinary Inland Empire, well. No one can doubt that Lynch is one of a kind; but nor can anyone doubt the influence on him of the late but very much with us Maya Deren. Whether you are visiting or revisiting her work at the end of the month I hope that you’ll agree that the world of the cinema would have been poorer without her.