Meshes of the Afternoon 9781838713461, 9781844573776

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is the most important film in the history of American avant-garde cinema and one of the m

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Meshes of the Afternoon
 9781838713461, 9781844573776

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Rhodes Prelims

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Acknowledgments I want first to acknowledge the work of several generations of Deren scholars from whose work I have benefited so enormously. I especially want to single out the heroic work of the editors of the indispensable The Legend of Maya Deren, VéVé Clark, Millicent Hodson and Catrina Neiman, as well as pioneering work by Annette Michelson and Lauren Rabinovitz. This scholarship (and that of many others from whose work I draw on in the pages that follow) oriented me to Meshes of the Afternoon and to the contours of Deren’s complex world. I thank the staff at the Howard Gotlieb Research Center at Boston University, where the Maya Deren Collection is housed. J. C. Connor and Sean Noel were especially helpful during my time at the archive and afterwards. I owe thanks to the staff at Anthology Film Archive in New York City, and special thanks to Wendy Dorsett, Robert Haller and John Mhipiri. At the Billy Rose Collection of the New York Public Library, I owe thanks to Jonathan Hiam. Martina Kudlácek’s stimulating conversation and wonderful film-making have informed the research and writing of this book. My research in Boston and New York was supported generously by the British Academy. Others whose conversation, knowledge and intellectual solidarity are all somehow felt in this book include: Jo Applin, Jane Elliott, Julia Foulkes, Rosalind Galt, Elena Gorfinkel, Lee Grieveson, Daniel Kane, Brian Price, Jarod Heath Roll, Karl Schoonover, Keston Sutherland, Meghan Sutherland and Pam Thurschwell. I also thank Rebecca Barden and Sophia Contento at BFI Publishing and the members of the editorial board of the BFI Film Classics for their support. Last, to Michael Lawrence I owe the greatest debts. This book is dedicated to him.

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A note on research and citation My ability to write about Meshes of the Afternoon has been made immeasurably more interesting by the amount and quality of scholarship on the film and on Deren’s life and work. In particular The Legend of Maya Deren project was a major point of reference, as it must be for any scholar of Deren’s work I was fortunate enough – thanks to the generosity of the British Academy – to spend time rooting and reading through Deren’s archive at the Howard Gotlieb Research Center at Boston University. What became apparent to me is that, where Meshes is concerned, The Legend of Maya Deren had mined that archive for much of what was most illuminating regarding the film’s production. In what follows I will frequently characterise general aspects of Deren’s life, her attitudes, the attitudes of others towards her. My general understanding of these things is drawn from my immersion in both her archive and the Legend books. I, thus, offer footnotes only for actual quotations from specific archival sources (those included in the Legend and those found in the archive) and, of course, from other scholarly sources.

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Prologue: ‘Hollywood 1943’ This film’s credits precede its title: ‘A Film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Hollywood 1943’. Next we have the title card: Meshes of the Afternoon. These titles might strike us as being scantier information than we are used to seeing before a movie begins. No actors’ names are mentioned. (These makers will be the film’s actors.) No producer, cinematographer, costume designer, or name of studio. If this is Hollywood film-making in 1943, then it would seem rather different from, say, Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre or Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, or any number of films made by the studio system in the same year. These studio films would have cost much more than the $274.90 that Deren and Hammid spent in making Meshes of the Afternoon.1 And they would have involved the collective labour of dozens of artists and workers – workers many more in number than the two individuals, a husband and wife team, who are credited with the making of Meshes in the film’s terse title sequence. These two film-makers, it turns out (and as we shall see)

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were itinerants in Hollywood and would desert it for the east coast almost as soon as the film was finished. The film begins. A black-and-white image of what appears to be a narrow concrete street snaking its way into the background, rising as it sinuously recedes. The street is bounded by trees, bushes, a fence, an embankment. The concrete pavement is nearly white. Dark shadows play across its gridded surface. This is a still image in a moving picture. This is a picture of the world, of a street in Hollywood. This picture changes. From the top of the frame there extends into the picture a long (female) mannequin’s arm, in its stiff, rigid hand, cocked at the wrist, it ‘holds’ a large artificial (paper? silk? plastic?) flower that it deposits on the street’s concrete. The flower deposited, the arm disappears – not by withdrawing, upwards, back out of the frame – just disappears. This is modern ‘magic’: that of editing. We know what is being done to us,

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done to film and through film to us, and yet we will allow that we are startled. What startles us is what Deren herself, in an article that she would write some years later, would call ‘the creative use of reality’: the way in which the film’s ‘invented event … borrows reality from the reality of the scene … from all the uncontrolled, spontaneous elements which are the property of actuality itself’.2 What happens next: ‘Shadow of girl appears …’3 So reads a shot list that Deren would draw up in 1959. Shadow of girl appears. In this high-contrast, black-and-white, mid-afternoon world, the shadow of a ‘girl’ (once we see her, we are more likely to call her a woman) is cast on the pavement, the shadow of her hand reaching for the artificial flower. Her shadow is cast on the stuccoed wall of a Los Angeles bungalow. The shadow in question suggests bushy hair, a striking – even petulant – profile. The shadow looks, or looks like she is looking. Shadows, we know, are metaphors for this medium of shadows and lights. What does the shadow see? The camera tells us: a figure in black, a man, we think, disappearing down the Los Angeles pavement. The shadow runs. The play of shadows begins. *

*

*

This is the story of a film that is not quite fifteen minutes long. It was made, apparently, on a whim, and yet it is one of the most dense,

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condensed, difficult and pleasurable artefacts of aesthetic modernism. According to the film critic J. Hoberman, ‘Un Chien Andalou aside’, Meshes of the Afternoon is ‘probably the most widely seen avantgarde film ever made’.4 For film historian David E. James, this lessthan-quarter hour of cinema constitutes ‘the most crucial pivot in the history of avant-garde film’.5 In the story that follows I want to try to explore how this film came into being, came to be what it is and came to matter in the ways that it has. This is a story that will take us from Kiev in 1917, to upstate New York, to experimental film salons in Prague, to a boarding school in Geneva, to the milieu of Trotskyist theory and practice in Depression-era New York City, and on to Seven Sisters academia at Smith College in the late 1930s. We will travel across the US on tour with an African-American Broadway production in order to touch down amid the exiled intellectuals and avant-garde artists living in wartime Los Angeles of the early 1940s, only to travel back to New York. This story will take us to lecture halls and screening rooms the world over, through circles of second-wave feminists and across the circuits of experimental film distribution, the university classroom, MTV and beyond. Meshes of the Afternoon is a film that was made by a twentyfour-year-old Ukrainian-born first-time film-maker (Deren) and her thirty-six-year-old husband, a Czechoslovakian-born cinematographer and maker of experimental short films and documentaries (Hammid). This film was made, as Deren herself once quipped, ‘for what Hollywood spends on lipstick’.6 This film is a point of origin (that from which much later avant-garde film-making flows), a point of transition (the thing that connects the interwar avant-gardes to those of the postwar period), a point of intersection (between the lives of two artists, between male and female, film and literature), an artefact of an extremely personal – even hermetic – modernist vision, and a document of political feminism. The miracle of Meshes of the Afternoon is that it is all of these things at once, and many other things besides.

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One vexing problem worth clarifying at the outset is the issue of Meshes of the Afternoon’s authorship. As Deren herself tirelessly explained and advertised in every sales and rental brochure she ever had printed, credit for the film’s authorship must be shared equally by both her and Hammid. I am convinced of the importance of Hammid’s contribution to Meshes and believe that, at the moment of the film’s production at least, it was as much his as hers. But I also believe that the legend of Meshes belongs to the legend of Maya herself.7 Works of art do not remain what they were intended to be by their makers, nor do they remain the same thing over time. Meshes, which was made by Deren and Hammid, has come to belong more to the former’s biography than to the latter’s. I make these – somewhat awkward – claims at the outset as a way of apologising – in the best sense of that word – for my approach to understanding this film. It is my conviction that this film emerges from a set of concerns and passionate commitments that are native to Deren’s life and her trajectory up until 1943 when she and Hammid began planning the film in their bungalow above Sunset Boulevard. Hammid, the husband, was something more than a midwife, but something other than the origin of this film. No artwork, of course, can trace its existence back to any pure point of origin. But Meshes of the Afternoon, while it is a model of artistic collaboration, is also, I believe, a testament to the consistency of one woman’s commitment to the elaboration of a vision that was peculiarly personal. The details of Deren’s life are rather dangerously seductive. The year of her birth – 1917 – implicitly identifies her life with the twentieth century’s history of utopian openings and radical upheavals. The migrations, displacements, conjunctions and overdeterminations of her biography offer what is perhaps a toopregnant set of coordinates for those attempting an interpretation of her work. Deren, with her antipathy to the claim of the personal and the biographical, would herself have been the first to object to any emphasis on the facts of her life as a way into an understanding of her work.

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The point of this book will be to try to understand how this film came into being, where it came from, what it became, and what came in its wake. Like Deren’s life, Meshes of the Afternoon is the stuff of legend, which is to say it resides in the ambience of myth. This book will explore and, I hope, dissolve some of this mythic ambience. I will take some effort to place the film in the context of Deren’s (and, to a lesser extent, Hammid’s) biography. The particularities of Deren’s life explain how the film came to be, and came to be what and how it is. But these particularities are caught up in and reflect, like so many tiny mirrors, the largest social forces and movements of the first half of the twentieth century.

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1 An Exile Eleanora Derenkowsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, on 29 April 1917, almost six months before the Bolshevik Revolution. Her father, Solomon Derenkowsky, was a physician, and her mother, Marie Fiedler Derenkowsky, an educated woman whose mother was a doctor, but whose own university education was interrupted by the Revolution. Thus Deren was born into a culturally privileged, uppermiddle-class background. Her father was reported to have frequented the same intellectual circles as Trotsky, and both parents identified as Communists. They were secular Jews. (Deren consistently resisted referring to herself as a Jew.) The name Eleanora was chosen by Deren’s mother in honour of Eleanora Duse, diva of the Italian stage and sometime lover of poet Gabriele D’annunzio. This name would be adapted (to Elinor or Eleanor) to suit the changed geographical and linguistic circumstances brought about by Deren’s immigration to the United States, or shortened (to Elinka) as a term of endearment between mother and daughter, and eventually lost altogether with Deren’s legal change of her first name to Maya in 1943. This first first name, Eleanora, with its allusion to one of the most colourful female artists and performers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, could be said to have a certain appropriateness. The material conditions in the early years of the Soviet Union were extremely difficult – more so for Jews, even bourgeois secular Jews like the Derenkowskys. Deren’s father already had family in the US, in Adams, New York, who had emigrated before the Revolution, and these relatives smoothed the way for the family’s emigration in 1922. The Derenkowskys settled in Syracuse, New York, where Dr Derenkowsky found work as the director of a mental hospital. In 1924 the family name was shortened to Deren,

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and by 1928 they were naturalised as US citizens. At school, the young Eleanora Deren’s natural gifts were noticed, and she was allowed to skip two grades. Having undergone the ordeal of immigration to the United States as a child, she would, a mere eight years later as an adolescent, and at the beginning of the Great Depression, become an immigrant once again when she moved to Geneva for school. In 1930 Deren was enrolled as a student at the Ecole Internationale (International School) of Geneva, a boarding school established to educate the children of diplomats working at the League of Nations. According to Marie Deren’s (Deren’s mother’s) recollections, the move had less to do with the young Deren’s education and more with the strained relations between her parents. Marie lived in Paris and Geneva during Deren’s tenure in boarding school. Deren’s archives richly document her time spent at the Ecole Internationale. One finds letters, cards, sketches for dress designs, diaries, photographs and even her schoolwork. If we want evidence that the young Deren’s involvements and reflections pointed necessarily to her eventual achievements, then we would rely on her friend and classmate Shirley Lyons’ recollection that Deren ‘had always been artistic, always. The slightest thing she did was artistic.’ But the same Lyons recalled, only moments later and in the same interview: ‘I thought we were all going to be great.’8 The documentary evidence suggests that the young Deren was entirely ordinary and entirely exceptional. Her diaries and letters are filled with the intrigues of school-age crushes, amateur theatricals, Oedipal anxiety and fleeting impressions. ‘Gathered up costume all morning. Gave play. Flop … Tish, tish. Went to All Quiet on the Western Front. Wonderful but horrible. Danced after supper. Alexis and Charlie quite awfully nice to me.’9 So goes boarding school life, then as now, presumably. Other documents found in the archive, however, possess an uncanny sense of fatality – or at least precocity. In an essay in which Deren attempts to explain what constituted a ‘good book’, she writes:

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In my estimation a good book first must contain little or no trace of the author unless the author himself is a character. That is, when I read the book I should not feel that someone is telling me the story and forming the events but that the happenings are the consequences of circumstances which are naturly [sic] formed and not that some hand has formed them. The story sould [sic] be a drama or a comedy which rises out of itself and not by someone’s making.10

Apart from being fairly sophisticated thinking for a fourteen-year-old (to my mind anyway), the notion of an artwork arising ‘out of itself’ seems eerily to foreshadow Deren’s later theoretical and practical obsession with cinema’s ability autonomously and automatically to produce a lifelike image of reality. (This ability is referred to in film theory as cinema’s ‘indexicality’.) In An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, a work of film theory that she would publish in 1946, Deren writes: The most immediate distinction of film is the capacity of the camera to represent a given reality in its own terms, to the extent that it is accepted as a substitute proper for that reality. A photograph will serve as proof of the ‘truth’ of some phenomenon where either a painting or a verbal testimony would fail to carry weight. In other art forms, the artist is the intermediary between reality and the instrument by which he creates his work of art. But in photography, the reality passes directly through the lens of the camera to be immediately recorded on film, and this relationship may, at times, dispense with all but the most manual services of a human being, and even, under certain preconditions, produce film almost ‘untouched by human hands.’11

But I am getting ahead of myself, for surely making the comparison between the consistency in intellectual preoccupations that would seem to bind Deren’s juvenilia to her film theory (written in her late twenties – still precocious!) puts the cart before the horse. I want to offer up both the lure of this comparison and its potential frailty. On

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the one hand, the Deren who writes in the essay, age fourteen, seems to desire, perhaps unconsciously, something that eventually she would find in film. The essay would seem to confirm that Eleanora Deren was always waiting to become or in the process of becoming Maya Deren, maker of Meshes of the Afternoon, author of the Anagram. On the other hand, the trajectory that we trace, through the archive, from Deren’s school years through to her engagement with cinema, tells us that there was much about her life that was contradictory, inconsistent and unpredictable. Deren’s life was vibrantly various, but her interests – whatever medium they expressed themselves in – were surprisingly consistent.

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2 A Young Socialist One of the greatest affairs of Deren’s young life was her passionate involvement with the Socialist Party and radical politics. The story began almost as soon as she entered Syracuse University, following her return from her schooling abroad, and is inseparable from the story of her engagement and marriage to her first husband, a Socialist activist and labour organiser named Gregory Bardacke. Deren’s activity as a member of the Socialist Party consumed much of the time she could spare from her studies. Her involvement in Socialist politics on campus, however intense, was not unique, especially during this period in American history. This was the period of the Popular Front (roughly 1935–9), a period in which a broad and loosely affiliated scene of Communist and Socialist political activity, activism and cultural production managed to gain a remarkable degree of public support and acceptance. (College campuses were particularly fertile grounds of Popular Front activity.) It was, of course, the economic and social crisis of the Great Depression that gave the Popular Front its opening in the United States’s otherwise typically conservative political landscape. Deren’s activities and commitments during this period reveal her to be circulating in (and animating) a number of the numerous and bewildering spheres and demispheres of radical politics and cultural production of the Popular Front. While at Syracuse Deren followed a broad liberal arts curriculum, apparently with the intention of majoring in journalism, and worked on the school paper, The Daily Orange. Her letters from the period (particularly those to Shirley Lyons, who was still back at the Ecole Internationale in Geneva) reveal a busy dating and social life. She joined Alpha Epsilon Phi, a Jewish sorority, went to football games and dances, and entered a dress design competition. She also

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ran away to New York over the Christmas holidays with a boyfriend, a trip that required enormous planning and effort to execute, an indiscretion that could have resulted in her expulsion had it been discovered. So, like the lives of most people, Deren’s combined contrarieties: an almost anal attention to social, academic and professional advancement on the one hand, and a wilfully bohemian disregard for convention on the other. Deren met Bardacke through her father. Bardacke was on a football scholarship at Syracuse. As the child of Russian parents, Bardacke could speak some Russian but could not write it. In order to satisfy his language distribution requirements, he sought tutoring in Russian from Dr Deren. According to Bardacke, he and Deren met in her father’s home. Bardacke was already deeply involved in campus Socialist politics and, according to Bardacke, Deren found her way into Socialist activity ‘as a result’ of their relationship.12 In a letter, again to Shirley Lyons, Deren narrates their meeting somewhat differently: ‘I think I told you about Greg. He is a socialist and I met him at a socialist protest meeting against discrimination against negroes.’13 Whatever the initial circumstances of their union, their mutual dedication to socialist politics and to each other seems to have been fairly complete. Witness her evocation of the relationship: ‘I love him and he loves me – that is all. It seems so clear, so inevitable, our life together. My writing career (he holds it above all else), his work (both as a chemist and socialist), our home – informal – in New York, an open house for the intelligentsia of the youth.’14 Both Bardacke and Deren were involved in the Liberal Club, a moniker that served to name (and to camouflage) the campus chapter for the League for Industrial Democracy, a student political organisation associated with the Socialist Party and which was banned at Syracuse. Deren’s desire to be a writer manifested itself mostly during this period in her commitment to The Daily Orange, the Syracuse student paper. Like any student journalist, she covered student elections, sport and new curricular developments, including the establishment

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of Syracuse’s first film studies course, ‘cinema criticism and appreciation’, taught by Sawyer Falk in the autumn of 1934, a class Deren herself took and that is rumoured to be the first film studies course ever taught in the US. Deren had the opportunity to interview the actress Anita Page (whom she described privately as ‘a stupid scatterbrained chatterbox’) and Cab Calloway, the African-American bandleader and singer, with whom she ‘almost fell in love’.15 As her involvement with socialism became more serious, however, she seems to have transferred a good deal of her activity to publications associated with her political commitments, such as The Hill Monthly, a student publication preoccupied with radical politics and the peace movement. One of her last pieces of journalism written during her two-year stint at Syracuse was a call for participation in a student anti-war protest held on 12 April 1935. Deren’s article was titled ‘The Curtain Rises’: her call to political action articulated – tellingly, we might think – through a metaphor borrowed from spectacular entertainment. Bardacke and Deren married in June 1936. Bardacke had just graduated from Syracuse. Deren was eighteen. The couple moved to New York City where Bardacke worked as an organiser, while Deren continued her education at New York University. At NYU she took a fiction workshop and several courses in journalism. She rounds off an autobiographical sketch that she wrote for her ‘Fiction Workshop’ course in the autumn of 1935 with the following hortatory note: With so much of importance to be done in the world, I find myself impatient with those who would fiddle while Rome burns, those who are capable if ignoring the faults of social organization and, in an entirely egotistical manner, make themselves the center of the universe, those whom the chaos has overpowered and has driven to escape into a petty world of self, those who spend their lives pretending and convincing themselves that all is well.16

Her instructor’s response closes with the advice regarding her next assignment: ‘Try to be careful not to make it propaganda except

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indirectly, if you use a radical theme.’17 Deren’s somewhat awkwardly immature formulation of her political commitments is not the best evidence of what was very real and serious activity on her part during this period of her life. At NYU she joined the local chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) and became the organisation’s national secretary. The punishing (and perhaps necessary) officiousness of the letters she wrote in this capacity anticipate the frequent tone of her correspondence in later years. (She was often upbraiding other ‘Yipsels’ for failure to comply with party policy and procedure and often signed her letters ‘comradely’ or ‘with Socialist greetings’.18) These were the same years during which, according to Bardacke, Deren ‘would do anything at all – almost anything at all to promote her [writing] career. She was very determined.’19 It’s hard not to read this comment as an attempt to insinuate something slightly unflattering about Deren. She was, in fact, determined, and being a determined young woman in the 1930s, no matter how left-wing her social circles may have been, cannot have been terrifically easy. She clearly wanted to be done with university education as quickly as possible; attending summer school after each of her three years of university enabled her to graduate from NYU in the autumn of 1936 (with a major in English, a minor in Journalism and a second minor in French), only three years after she began her studies at Syracuse. It would be difficult to separate neatly the determined busyness of her activities as an organiser from the busyness of her development as a writer and artist. As we see in the passage quoted from her coursework above, Deren articulates her impulse towards creativity inside a context that was plural and socially committed. Whether as party disciplinarian or as artist, the claims of particularity or personality needed, for Deren, always to be subsumed inside a generalising (or even universalising) project. When Deren, in an ‘organisational supplement’ on regional organisation from 1937, writes that ‘a worker alone, individually, cannot make any gains

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against his boss for himself’,20 she describes a part–whole relationship that will also eventually inform her understanding of the individual artist’s function in the social world. Following Deren’s sprint through her last credits in the summer of 1936 and her graduation from NYU, she and Bardacke moved for a time back to Syracuse, where both remained politically active and where Bardacke worked as an organiser for the Socialist Party. This period of Deren’s life and political activity coincides with the ‘inclusive phase’ of the Socialist Party – the moment at which, in 1936, American Trotskyists – affiliated with the Workers’ Party of the United States – officially joined the Socialist Party, and during which the Socialist Party and the Communist Party began to cooperate more closely in order to create the conditions in which the Popular Front could achieve a radical left hegemony in American politics. To call the relations between these parties (and the relations between the left and right factions inside each of them) byzantine is not to describe them. Radical politics inside and outside the major (Communist and Socialist) parties was characterised by intense factionalism, sudden reversals, expulsions and conversions. (Chief Eleanor (Maya) Deren, May Day, 1936, New York City. From the Maya Deren Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

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items of dispute in the Socialist Party, for instance, were the Party’s attitude towards the Soviet Union and its anti-war stance in regards to developments in Europe.) This story cannot be told here, but it is one in which Deren was an actor – at both the margins of the centre and the centre of the margins. Deren continued organising for YPSL. In the summer of 1937 she went so far as to run, in collaboration with some Trotskyist colleagues, a Socialist ‘training school’ in a rented summer home in Cazenovia, New York, on Lake Cazenovia, about seventy miles outside of Syracuse. By this point she and Bardacke had drifted apart (the cause of their estrangement is not entirely clear), and by the autumn of 1937 she was back in New York City, as active as ever in radical – if not Socialist Party – politics. She entered the milieu of Max Eastman, an agitator, radical theorist, literary critic, biographer of Trotsky and translator (of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, among other things). Eastman was, according to Popular Front historian Michael Denning, ‘one of the foremost American leftists’ of this period;21 however, he was also a rogue thinker who criticised the Hegelian foundations of Marx’s thinking and had, by the time of his association with Deren, turned critic of Trotsky. (Eastman became increasingly conservative across the 1940s and 50s, although it remains difficult entirely to pin down his politics.) Deren’s affiliation with Eastman suggests her drift away from party discipline, at the very least. With Eastman’s son, Dan, Deren collaborated on an ‘internal bulletin’ on ‘The Russian Question’ which they presented together at a meeting held in the run-up to a convention in December 1937 that would found the Socialist Workers Party, which was formed following the expulsion of Trotskyists from the Socialist Party in the summer of that year. Deren and Eastman argued that the Soviet Union was not a ‘workers’ state’, but ‘closer to feudalism’.22 Whatever the value or truth value of this argument, the position clearly marked Deren as being, of course, far outside the orthodoxy of the Communist Party and its support for Stalin, but also placed her on the fringes of mainstream Socialist

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thinking – although she did not follow Eastman in his drift to the right. Perhaps the most important thing to hold in mind in attempting to account for the interest of this period of Deren’s life is the mere fact of her prodigious activity in left political circles, her radical immersion in radical politics. Deren’s divorce from Bardacke was finalised in 1938, although she seems to have reverted to signing her correspondence ‘Eleanora Deren’ as early as 1937. Between the time of their separation and final divorce, Deren took classes at the New School (a haven of left progressive thought) and continued to work towards becoming a professional writer. From this period there survive a variety of sketches, reviews, poems and other pieces of writing. Deren eventually made the decision to enter Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, as an MA student in the autumn of 1938. From this period onwards the explicit (party-oriented) signs of political activity seem slowly to evaporate from her life. (At roughly the same time the major radical parties were disintegrating due to the divisiveness that beset the Popular Front’s moment of greatest influence.) In the place of party membership and organising, there emerges a commitment to literature, to the literature of modernism. The relative seamlessness of this transition is explained by Bardacke: ‘I don’t think it was actually a transition. The Socialist Movement was very much involved with literature and publications, the theatre and just about everything.’23 Given the degree to which Trotskyist Socialists were either defenders of the arts or themselves practising artists and writers (not to mention Trotsky’s own work as a literary critic and aesthetic theorist), Deren’s decision to pursue a literary career, I want to suggest, ought not to be considered as a radical break with her former activities at all.24 Annette Michelson has suggested that Deren’s intense involvement in the Trotskyist scene ‘had undoubtedly predisposed her to a sense of community, of shared goals and collective experience’.25 The editors of The Legend of Maya Deren suggest that Deren ‘failed to link her literary and political selves’ during the time she wrote her MA thesis at Smith.26

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This perspective, however, misses the literariness of the Trotskyist political scene itself. Her commitment to collective experience remains legible in her exploration of modernist poetry and its staging of the tension between the particular poetic utterance and the larger social world.

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3 Modernist Commitments Certainly the move to from Deren’s bohemian milieu in New York to Northampton was in and of itself a traumatic rupture. Smith’s milieu of WASP privilege was, perhaps, an unlikely place for Deren (bohemian, crypto-Jewish, leftist) to pitch up. She claimed to have been attracted to Smith because of the institution’s ‘fat fellowships’.27 During the year leading up to her enrolment, Deren had been pursuing a variety of jobs, including translating Victor Serge’s The Conquered City (Ville Conquise, first published in French in 1932), an account of life in Russia immediately following the Revolution. This job was given to her by Max Eastman.28 The difficulty of finding paying work seems to have been a determining factor in the decision to pursue graduate school: ‘It was the only alternative I could see to spending the rest of my life on WPA or behind department store counters.’29 For a young woman of Deren’s talents, background and education, the pursuit of graduate work at Smith would have promised an inevitable career in education. It was exactly this inevitability that haunted her at Smith. Immediately upon her arrival at Smith, Deren wrote a series of letters to ‘A. E.’ or ‘AlterEgo’. These are diary entries, really, and they occupy themselves with her understandable misgivings and confusions about the world she was thrust into in Northampton and the life she had – however temporarily – left behind in New York City. After her first few days of seminars, she wrote to ‘A. E.’: ‘I have a terrible sense and foreboding, of being caught in a whirlpool of scholasticism. I hate it! I don’t want it! It is as dead as it can be and its people are dead … I am going to fight it … Creative writing is still my field – god damn it – and I’m going to do it if I die in the attempt.’30 Interestingly, however, one of her complaints about the ‘scholasticism’ at Smith was its failure, in Deren’s estimation, to study literature in a rich

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historical context that would discover literature’s changing nature across historical periods: ‘It is this so-called scholarship, this academic approach which ignores even the laws of change and development in history but chooses to take one spot and study it out of relation to change; it is this that appalls [sic] me.’31 Deren’s strategic response to the limitations that she imputes to this world was basically twofold: 1) to continue to write creatively and 2) to write a thesis that would aspire to the kind of historical and cultural synthesising she felt was lacking in the scholarship to which she was being exposed. Deren seems to have arrived at Smith with a fairly strong sense of what her MA thesis would be about. The thesis was eventually titled ‘The Influence of the French Symbolist School on AngloAmerican Poetry’.32 The Anglo-American poetry referred to in this title is mostly that of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Presumably she would have encountered these poets – had she, that is, not encountered them in her own reading – in her ‘Modern English and American Poetry’ course at NYU, which she took in her final year and for which she received an A. (Interestingly, we do not find any frequent or emphatic reference to these poets in Deren’s papers from this period.) Eliot, of course, was the most influential serious poet in this period, as well as an influential critic and theorist, and his impact was still being absorbed and metabolised in poetry and serious literary criticism of the 1930s. Deren’s ambition to trace the genealogy of Eliot and Pound back through French symbolism was facilitated by her fluency in French and is evidence of her desire to grasp the totality of something – to understand its origins, its place in culture, its life. In fact, very early on in her thesis, she laments the lack of ‘some authoritative work on the relationship between science, economics, politics, and ideology (of which literature is an expression)’.33 Her interest in the genealogy of contemporary poetry was surely influenced by Eliot himself, especially his argument in his most famous essay, ‘Tradition

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and the Individual Talent’, first published in 1919 and reprinted in 1920 in The Sacred Wood, a collection of his essays. Here Eliot elaborates his belief that ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.’34 Eliot’s concern with the tradition out of which authentic art emerges and with which it must engage seriously leads inevitably to his famous critique of poetry’s expressivity – its attachment to and evidence of ‘personal’ experience. For Eliot, serious poetry is generated not by the ‘ “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions’, but rather by ‘the intensity of the artistic process’, a process in which the poet is as much scholar and critic of (past) literature as she is inventor of the new.35 The artistic (not emotional) intensity of serious poetry leads to Eliot’s notorious (and extremely influential) liquidation of the personal in poetry: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’36 Eliot’s argument would inform not only Deren’s thesis; it would haunt also the entirety of her film practice and theory. The thesis strikes me as a strange document (though I will have to admit to not having read other MA theses from the 1930s). It is an opinionated, synthesising sort of synoptic explanation of how poetry gets from early nineteenth-century Romanticism to early twentiethcentury modernism. It is furnished with lists and charts, and studded with frank characterisations of the lives of the poets. For instance, regarding Mallarmé, whom she calls ‘a genius out of a job’, she writes, not a little nervily: His life, spent as a retiring professor, is indicative of his preference of art and literature over life and real experience and herein, I believe, lies the essential weakness of his whole system … [H]is awe-inspiring mechanism for expression, which he spent his entire life developing, was doomed to sterility for want of something equally awe-inspiring to express.37

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This jab at Mallarmé’s profession cannot but be a sideswipe at her own teachers, the intended readers of the thesis. It is somewhat startling to see Deren use the thesis itself as the instrument for dissociating herself from academia. Essentially the thesis is a meditation on the tension between universalism and particularity in the work of art. Deren never says this in so many words, but this seems to be her subject. The ‘Romanticists’ (who are never to be trusted in Deren’s account of things – particularly in her Anagram, the contours of which clearly take shape in the thesis) had mistakenly and ‘idealistically exalted the ego in terms of free and conscious will’.38 Improving on them were the Symbolists, who, because they took inspiration from the ‘subconscious’, itself an extension of ‘the inner realities’, developed an understanding and use of the imagination that relied ‘to some degree, upon realism and science’.39 What Deren seems to mean here is that whereas Romanticism tended to celebrate the purely singular condition of the singing individual (with his or her personal predilections, frailties and sensibilities), Symbolism moved deeper, into a more primordial territory of the imagination that superseded or, indeed, that grounded any ‘personal’ experience. This is not the first time that the tension between the personal and the impersonal, or the individual and the collective has appeared in Deren’s work: we have seen it in her high-school essays and her undergraduate journalism, and it will reappear in her film theory (and, eventually, her turn to voudoun). Whereas Deren’s understanding of the development of French poetry cast the Parnassians (the movement that championed l’art pour l’art and was led by Theophile Gautier) as a sort of warm-up act for Symbolism proper, so did, in the Anglo-American scene, Imagism act as the necessary but undeveloped precursor to the work of Eliot and Pound.40 Imagism is credited, first and foremost, with being ‘a reaction against Romanticism’.41 In making this argument Deren draws heavily from the work of T. E. Hulme, a poet, theorist and member of the Imagist movement. (Hulme famously disparaged

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Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’.42) Imagism was at the vanguard of the early twentieth century’s many -isms. It favoured a direct rendering of objects over and above a representation of sentiments and subjective interiority. It countered Romantic and Victorian prolixity with a ‘hard’43 abbreviation of form. Its adherents included, in addition to Hulme, Ezra Pound (who would later distance himself from the movement), H. D., Richard Aldington, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, among others. By tracing the influence of the Symbolists on the Imagists and then on Pound and Eliot, Deren is able to claim for these poets the Symbolist mediation of the particular image and the idea. Apart from the tracing of this genealogy, Deren’s thesis has curiously little (of any real, original interest) to say about Eliot’s poetry itself. She directs her most sustained close reading at ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1917), which she, rather predictably, reads as an allegory of a civilisation in decline. The thesis’s last paragraph claims that ‘Symbolism will continue to exert a profound influence as long as the transitional and complex social environment, to which the artist has such difficulty making an intellectual and logical adjustment, continues.’44 In other words, the context of Symbolism is crucial to an understanding of contemporary poetry’s mediation of and intervention into twentieth-century modernity’s upheavals, distortions and abrasions. This is a curiously bland place to have arrived at by the thesis’s end. Deren herself was less than satisfied with it and wrote in a letter that its ‘meaning … had been dissipated and that only the facts were there … proving, as it were, very little’.45 Deren’s frank self-assessment is, I think, mostly right. Reading the thesis today, however, I cannot help but be struck by its formulations of certain ideas and attitudes towards the aesthetic that will matter later to her as a film-maker. For instance, in Deren’s assessment of the Imagists (as always, written very much under the sign of Hulme) the Imagists’ pretence to directness was their greatest virtue. She defended them against the familiar charge of obscurity in terms that would remain important for her:

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we can see that the obscurity of which the Imagists have been accused is actually motivated by a desire for precision, regardless how rare or startling the precise word; and the suggestiveness of Imagism is the result, not of words exhaling indecision and vagueness (as is often the case with the Romanticists), but of the direct comprehension by the live and strong expression, the new and startling image.46

As I have mentioned earlier, it is too tempting to see at every turn in the archive of Deren’s writings some foreshadowing of her eventual move to work with film. What does, however, seem at stake here and what will be at stake in her turn to film is an interest in finding the point of intersection between material concreteness and abstract ideation, or between an image and the ‘comprehension’ of that which an image discloses, over and above its concreteness and particularity as image. Deren’s interest in this tension is not reducible to an interest in the philosophical problem of the relation between particularity and universality in purely abstract terms. (This problem itself is the site where the relation between thing and thought is negotiated, of course.) Rather, her interest is consistent with her abiding (indeed, nearly tormenting) desire to reconcile what she called, in her student work, the ‘petty world of self’ and the claims of larger, historical urgency. A postscript added to one of her early letters to A. E., written just after her arrival at Smith and before she began writing her thesis, gives us a better sense of the desires that motivated it than does the thesis itself: [H]ere arises the whole question of whether artistic express [sic] of something can be convincing in the intellectual sense. Intellectual conviction is the result of analysis … not merely reportage of which one can question the truth, And [sic] how a poem can deal with scientific proof and analysis with statistics and all that … well, it just can’t. That is not the province of poetry. So far I have been able to conceive of poetry only as being narrative or lyric (in which I include dramatic). Applied to ideology, a narrative poem would be

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reportorial and a lyric poem would be agitative (either passively or aggressively). I cannot conceive of it being analytical. I suppose if you wanted to be mechanical about it one would come down to the old business about poetry being too subjective to have validity as an agent of objective proof. That is, by and large, true. Does this mean, then, that ideology is unimportant … no! Ideology is important. However, convincingness, in the sense of intellectual convincingness, must be ruled out as a critical criteria. The critical criteria should be, instead, the degree of success with which the work expresses (either through narrative reportage, subjective lyricism, or dramatic description) the particular ideology which it espouses. This criteria allows us to consider both Eliot and any left-winger as a great poet.47

Academic decorum probably would not have permitted Deren to pursue the question of poetry’s political use-value. What is (just barely) implied in the thesis, and what is fumbled towards in this postscript is something like (and is no doubt self-consciously imitative of) Trotsky’s theory of the aesthetic, especially in his Literature and Revolution with which Deren was undoubtedly familiar. In defending the (relative) autonomy of art, Trotsky maintained that ‘the plow of the new art … must plow the entire field in all directions’.48 By this he meant that ‘the form of art is, to a certain and very large degree, independent’.49 Trotsky’s championing of art’s independence – what we might also call its autonomy – was only one of his sins against Stalinist orthodoxy for which he was exiled from the Soviet Union and eventually assassinated. But Trotsky’s aesthetic theory was a galvanising force among antiStalinist (and therefore anti-communist) Socialist intellectuals, especially those in the circles that Deren frequented in the period just before and after her year at Smith. In exactly these Trotskyist circles, among what have come to be known as ‘the New York intellectuals’, T. S. Eliot’s name functioned as a kind of shibboleth. Despite Eliot’s royalist, Anglo-Catholic tendencies, critics like William Phillips and Philip Rahv (the founding editors of the Partisan Review) took up Eliot as a critical figure

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whose ‘writing expressed criticisms of contemporary life that transcended his political views’.50 Communists, on the other hand, used Eliot as a shorthand figure for the denunciation of decadent (Trotskyist) literary taste. Given Eliot’s centrality to these debates, Deren’s interest in him not only binds together the period of her intense political activism with that of her sojourn in academia, but also should be seen, in and of itself, as a kind of political gesture, one that would have been entirely legible inside her social and cultural world, and one that aligned her with a politics that espoused socialism and aesthetic autonomy. Eliot’s example (as both poet and theorist) seemed to offer a method of finding in the eccentricities and deformations of the particular (if not ‘personal’) poetic voice a key to the analysis of the larger social whole.

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4 With Dunham Following her graduation from Smith, Deren found work again as a personal secretary to Max Eastman, under whose patronage she continued to translate Serge’s Conquered City; the fruit of this labour was to go unpublished. Her commitment to it, however, is a clear sign of the continuity of her anti-Stalinist politics (and literary politics). Through her various connections she worked as personal assistant and secretary to a number of New York personalities between 1939 and 1941 while continuing to write and publish in various freelance capacities. She also began her first forays into anthropological research. In 1941 she made a contact that, more than any other during this period, would radically alter Deren’s life, pushing her into new spheres of activity and dragging her across the country. I refer to her encounter and collaboration with the dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. Deren first wrote to Dunham in February 1941, ‘c/o “Cabin in the Sky”, Martin Beck Theater, 45th Street, New York City’. This was the production with which Dunham was starring and which would close in early March 1941 after 156 performances.51 Deren wrote to Dunham like a fan – less star-struck, however, than stubbornly insistent that the two should meet. Deren’s immediate object was a project on which she hoped the two could collaborate. She describes this project in some detail in a second letter, dated 13 March 1941, after the establishment of communication with Dunham: I also have a suggestion on the juvenile book and wonder what you think of it. You told me that you had taken some very interesting movies of a little boy doing some sort of dance. It occurred to me that if consecutive stills from a portion of that movie were reproduced on the upper-right-hand corner of the

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pages, the child could sort of run-off the movie by rippling the pages. It’s a novel idea which children would take to; at least, when I went to grammar school we were all crazy about those little movie books you flicked rapidly with your thumb.52

By the end of the same month, Deren, working as Dunham’s personal and editorial assistant, would be on the road with Dunham and her company as they toured Cabin in the Sky. Eventually her work with Dunham would deposit her on the west coast, in Hollywood, where she would meet Hammid and where she would make Meshes of the Afternoon. That the project Deren proposed to Dunham should have been predicated on the subject of cinema strikes me as yet another amusing foreshadowing of events. Dunham had trained as anthropologist at the University of Chicago and had conducted field work on West Indian dance. Her work spanned anthropology, dance, choreography and the elaboration of a specific pedagogical programme, taught at the Katherine Dunham performing in Cabin in the Sky, 1940. From the Katherine Dunham Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

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Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research (220 West 43rd Street in New York City), that compelled students to study not only dance and movement technique, but also linguistics, history, anthropology, history of religion, philosophy, scientific methods, psychology and music appreciation. Her school realised a goal that she had articulated in an interview several years earlier: ‘To establish a well-trained ballet group. To develop a technique that will be as important to the white man as to the Negro. To attain a status in the dance world that will give the Negro dance-student the courage really to study, and a reason to do so. And to take our dance out of the burlesque to make it a more dignified art.’53 By working with Dunham, Deren hurled herself into a world that was much more demotic than that of Trotskyist aesthetic debate, T. S. Eliot and Victor Serge: Cabin in the Sky is hardly The Waste Land. However, no sooner than this is said, the distinction feels too neat. The play’s choreographer was George Balanchine, a Russian immigrant of Georgian descent and the sometime balletmaster, under Dhiagilev, of the famous Ballets Russes, and its score was written by Vernon Duke, a popular composer, but one who had also begun his career in the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev. (Duke collaborated with Georges Braques in a ballet for the company in 1925.) Like Deren, Duke was a Russian immigrant, and had grown up in Kiev. His original name was Vladimir Dukelsky, and his family entered the US in 1921.54 Cabin in the Sky, therefore, whatever its ‘popular’ and folk elements, or its instantiation of a specifically black modernism,55 sits in a proximate relationship to the culture of transnational high modernism.56 Morever, Dunham was a notable figure in the cultural circles of the Popular Front. She had worked on a WPA-funded anthropological project on store-front religion in Chicago and had appeared in a number of productions associated with the WPA and its broadly leftist orientation. Dunham and her troupe appeared in Pins and Needles, a long-running musical revue that sought to represent through political satire the plight of workers, which was

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staged at the Labor Stage, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s (ILGWU) own theatre.57 (The original production of the play cast garment workers themselves in leading roles.) Along with artists like Pearl Primus, Dunham’s work (and public persona) synthesised a left political position, modernism and concerns particular to AfricanAmerican identity and artistic production. We can well imagine that Dunham would have been familiar to Deren precisely because their political-cultural worlds would have overlapped. Thus, while Deren’s movement into Dunham’s professional and social world seems like – and was, in fact – a departure into new territory, this was territory very firmly contiguous (and in some senses identical) with Deren’s ongoing preoccupations and commitments. Deren’s employment under Dunham put her at the vanguard of American race experience of the early 1940s. Deren acted as the chauffeur of Dunham’s car, which also carried Evelyn, Dunham’s gun-toting masseuse-cum-bodyguard, whom Deren described as ‘a colored gal, who tends to her like a baby and is with her day and night’.58 Deren was often responsible for negotiating with racist hotel managers in order to book rooms for Dunham and her company as they travelled cross-country, and her correspondence from this period describes their being refused service at restaurants on account of race. According to Hammid, Deren was also the object of racist suspicion: ‘She herself looked kind of odd, as you might imagine. She was looked on as a black trying to pass for white, so there were “problems”.’59 Her hair might have been the object of such suspicions. John Pratt, Dunham’s husband (who, incidentally, was not a big fan of Deren’s) recalls that ‘she had a lot of long, frizzy hair of which she was very proud. Miss Dunham used to make her put it up in a bun … It was a real Afro-type hairdo, you know.’60 A day spent working with Dunham might begin at noon and end at five o’clock in the morning. Deren’s work was various: taking dictation from Dunhamn, editing Dunham’s scholarly writing and entertaining Dunham’s guests and admirers backstage. Deren continued working for Dunham after the company’s arrival in Los

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Angeles, where they worked in the revue musical film Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone, 20th Century-Fox, 1943).61 During this same time Deren managed to pursue her own projects. She wrote poetry, worked on a noir-ish detective novel with her step-mother (Deren’s father had divorced and remarried by this point), and researched and wrote a four-part scholarly article on dance and religious possession. This article points back towards her MA thesis and forward both to Anagram and to her work in Haiti which culminated in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, her comprehensive first-hand account of Haitian voudoun.62 What intrigues me about this period is the mere fact of what would have been Deren’s continuous exposure to the cultural and social realities of African-American experience – exposed, indeed, to the intense material dimensions of black life in America in the run-up to World War II. Moreover, Deren was intensely involved in the business of entertainment, which was inseparable from the serious, scholarly work that Dunham had hired her to do: you pack your typewriter into the car and go off to the theater. You set your typewriter up with one leg of it in cold cream, another in the false eyelashes, a third in her box of throat pills and a fourth on your lap. Everytime you push the carriage, you hit the magenta costume which goes on in the third act. In the first half hour lapse between her changes, you try to work some more with the band pounding, Ethel Waters shouting, and the herd dancing right outside the door.63

I find it hard to shake these images of Deren: Deren typing in Dunham’s dressing room, amid the cold cream and eyelashes, Ethel Waters just outside the door; Deren, Dunham and Evelyn, the masseuse-bodyguard, being refused service at an anonymous greasy spoon somewhere in the Midwest; Deren negotiating furiously the business of show business, the labour of scholarship and the politics of race.

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5 Exile in Hollywood In case we need reminding: Alexander Hammid is not merely a source of influence on Meshes of the Afternoon; he is one of the film’s authors. Deren always spoke of and advertised the film as the fruit of her collaboration with Hammid, and Hammid himself admitted, ‘If it weren’t for Maya, I would never have made such a film as Meshes.’64 But we will still have to admit that the film clings more to Deren’s history than to Hammid’s. After Meshes, Deren continued to make films in a similar vein, films marked by her sensibility and publicised as the products of her individual authorship.65 By contrast, most of Hammid’s artistic labour was devoted to projects over which he did not exert the same authorial control that Deren did over her later films. According to Michal Bregant, apart from Hammid’s first film Aimless Walk (1930), Meshes and his documentary The Private Life of a Cat (1947), ‘everything else … was work’.66 Hammid’s selfeffacement (perhaps the most commonly remarked-upon feature of Hammid’s character by those who knew him) has probably served to undermine his recognition as the co-author of Meshes. What is clear from what Deren and Hammid both said about the making of the film is that it would never have come into being had it not involved them both. I want, therefore, to offer some information about where Hammid came from, and how he and Deren came into one anothers’ lives. Hammid was born Alexander Hackenschmied in the former Republic of Czechoslovakia. (His name change to Hammid took place following his emigration to the US.) He studied architecture in Prague in the 1920s and there began to frequent avant-garde circles, ran a cinematheque of experimental film and worked as a freelance photographer and film critic. His first film, Aimless Walk (Bezúcelná pracházka) is an astonishing piece of work – a muted, short ‘city

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symphony’ of sorts in which a man takes a tram to the dreary outskirts of Prague. Towards the end of the film, the protagonist, rising up from a nap, walks away from where he has been lying. The camera pans as he walks screen left, then pans right to reveal the same man, gazing back in the direction of what we can now only assume to be his double. The film cuts to this first retreating figure as he looks back towards the other self he is leaving behind. This sequence of shots is a startling intervention into point-of-view editing, and I will refer back to it in my discussion of a very similar play with points of view and subjective camera movements in Meshes. Hammid was strongly inclined towards documentary. His second film, At Prague Castle (Na Praszkém Hrade, 1932), is an analytical documentary of the castle’s architectural palimpsest. The film’s restless, often quite complex panning and tilting shots explore the tensions between vertical and horizontal, as well as the tensions between architectural periods, across the castle’s volumes and surfaces. His keen eye brought him to the attention of Gustav Machaty with whom he worked on Erotikon (Seduction, 1929) and Ze soboty na nedeli (From Saturday to Sunday, 1931) in the art department. He seems to have been involved in set design and construction, but also in guiding the films’ cinematography.67 In addition to other feature film work, Hammid was employed to make film advertisements for the shoe company Bata. His reputation as a photographer and film-maker was well established in Czechoslovakia when, in 1939, while working for Bata, Hammid was recruited by the leftist American documentarist Herbert Kline to work on Kline’s Crisis (1939), a film that would document the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. (Kline had already directed The Heart of Spain [1938], an anti-fascist documentary about the Spanish Civil War.) Because of the sensitive nature of the footage’s documentation of Nazi brutality during a period in which Hitler was being appeased by Western democracies, Kline was forced to smuggle the film out of Czechoslovokia and into France. Kline, fearing that Hammid would

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be in danger if he stayed on in Czechoslovakia after the film became public, arranged Hammid’s emigration first to Paris, then to London and, finally, to Los Angeles.68 Hammid continued to work with Kline in a variety of capacities, but, due to his immigration status, had difficulty finding steady work in Hollywood. Hammid, who went by the nickname Sasha, met Deren in early 1942 at a party at the Hollywood home of Meyer Levin, a writer and the former film critic of Esquire. Deren was still working for Dunham, and Hammid was haunting the margins of film production in LA under Kline’s patronage. According to both Deren’s and Hammid’s recollections, their first conversation was about film. Very soon after this meeting Deren quit her job with Dunham and moved in with Hammid, into the house he was renting in Laurel Canyon. She and Hammid frequented what art cinema there was to see in Los Angeles at the time. Hammid recalled going to see films by Ozu and Dovzhenko in the early stages of their time together. They married soon thereafter, mostly so as to secure Hammid’s US citizenship. The couple’s closest friend at this time was another European immigrant, German-born Galka Scheyer, an art dealer, collector and impresario who had studied at the Bauhaus and was responsible for publicising and disseminating the work of the ‘Blue Four’: Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Alexei Jawlensky. She is credited with greatly influencing the culture of modernist art collecting in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s.69 Deren and Hammid were introduced to Scheyer through Dunham and her husband John Pratt. Scheyer lived in the Hollywood Hills in a house designed by Richard Neutra (yet another European immigrant – from Vienna). The association with Scheyer firmly locates Deren and Hammid in the milieu of the European modernists living in Californian exile in the interwar and post-World War II period. These modernists in exile, almost all of whom fled Europe during the rise and spread of Nazism, included Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, among many others. According to cultural historian

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Erhard Bahr, it was exactly Los Angeles’s ‘lack of a cultural infrastructure’ that nourished this ‘second flourishing of Weimar culture’.70 Scheyer’s house, where Deren and Hammid were often to be found, functioned as a kind of salon-cum-gallery that housed, according to a letter from Deren, ‘the largest collection of Klees in the world’.71 Scheyer even lent Deren and Hammid a Klee for the second home they shared in Los Angeles, the bungalow on Kings Road, just north of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood where they would shoot Meshes. Placing Deren and Hammid in this context is important for understanding the proximity – indeed, even the identity – of their social, cultural and intellectual milieu with that of the most advanced avant-gardes working in the US (or anywhere) at the time. Doing so also locates the film in the context of World War II and its geopolitical displacements and dislocations. Of course, we also recall that Hollywood was not only the name of a neighbourhood, but the metonym of the industry that was both background and foreground to the modernists who were negotiating their experience of exile under the palm trees and lemon trees, inside stuccoed bungalows, all bathed in perpetual southern California sunshine. Hammid tutored Deren in movie-making and photography, and Deren took quickly to both. Hammid exhibited a solo show of photographs at the Pasadena Art Insitute in January 1943. Meanwhile Deren had, in the year previous, produced two series of documentary photographs: ‘L. A. Reportage’ and ‘Fruit Pickers’. Many of these are accomplished photographs, very much in the vein of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and other WPA photographers associated with the cultural production of the Popular Front during this period. The very fact of the subject of ‘Fruit Pickers’ testifies obviously to a continued entwinement of Deren’s political and aesthetic concerns. Together Deren and Hammid also produced a number of examples of what she called ‘experimental portraiture’. (I will have more to say about these portraits later.) But according to Hammid, his young wife ‘kind of “caught on fire” in film’,72

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and it was to film that the variety of her activities seemed to be guiding her. Curiously, the period in Los Angeles which leads up to the production of Meshes is the least well-documented period in Deren’s adult life – at least in terms of written or narrative testimonies. Perhaps because she was no longer travelling and sending letters to friends, family and lovers, perhaps because she was in love and communicating intimately and bodily with the person with whom she needed to communicate most urgently – whatever the reason, we know this period primarily through the poems Deren was writing and ‘Experimental Portrait’, 1942–3. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives

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the photographs she was making on her own and with Hammid. Lines from a poem entitled ‘He’ and dedicated ‘to Sasha’ reveal something of the tenor of Deren’s and Hammid’s erotic life on Kings Road: Embedded in the brown red moss it stretches and moves like some pale blind sea-thing. It surges to free itself and plunge into the deep places. The titanic effort forces the life out of the mouth screaming. … After your skeleton had melted and poured into me your flesh spread out within your skin. … It took the night for you to be remade. … At dawn you were once more defined: risen and stiff, and the sharp-edged outline. Opening the door to pass through where last night you might have streamed through keyholes.73

The poem’s final line admits ‘I could only impale myself upon you’. I can’t make any claims for the poetic force of these lines; the obviousness of the sexual imagery is, perhaps, a little embarrassing. But they demonstrate Deren’s and Hammid’s domestic life as an intimate, agonisingly erotic and agonistically collaborative adventure. The evocation of the body in terms of sea life and domestic space (its borders, barriers and thresholds) will also clearly reappear in Meshes. In their home in the Hollywood Hills, just a stone’s throw from the gawdiness of the Sunset Strip and from the mills of what Theodor Adorno (writing at the same time a couple of miles away at his rented house in Bel Air) would call ‘the culture industry’, Deren and Hammid established the terms of their of intimate experiment. In any number of refracted and unpredictable ways, Meshes embodies and

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extends the aesthetic and political investments that had dragged both of them across continents and oceans to exactly this place. This was a place arrived at entirely contingently, of course, but also a place that neither Deren or Hammid could have reached had they not so consistently obeyed the seriousness of their own intentions, even if they could never have known that those intentions would bring them to Kings Road.

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6 Couples and Doubles ‘She said one day, “Why don’t we make a film?” And so we did.’74 Hammid’s recollection could not be simpler. It is also one he repeated: ‘Maya must have said casually at one point, “Well, why don’t we make a film?” … She was writing poetry always. It was one of her main ambitions. So she started with poetic images on paper, and I was visualizing them. And so we made Meshes, kind of a home movie, you know?’75 In an article written in 1947 but not published until after her death, Deren evokes the film’s genesis in similarly unproblematised terms: Meshes of the Afternoon … was made under ideal production conditions. It had the benefit of the consistently sunny California weather, it took place almost exclusively in one house, and it involved only myself and Alexander Hammid, who collaborated and photographed the film. This fifteen minute film was completed in two and a half weeks.76

The film seems to spring frictionlessly from a utopia of domestic creativity. We must take its authors at their word. However easy its collaborative production was, the film emerged after a shadow had been cast on Deren’s life. Her father, the only parent with whom she was in contact at that time, and whose intellectual achievement had been a great example for her, died suddenly on 5 January 1943, only months before she and Hammid would begin their glorious two weeks of film-making. Writing in a letter ten days after his death, Deren describes their relationship by way of a grotesque image of parthogenesis: When I think of my relationship with my father I have the image of some of those sea plants that reproduce by a growth out of themselves – not by an

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umbilical thread nor by a seed deposited. I am something that grew, like a cancer almost, out of my father’s head. I was a growth from and upon his mind and soul so that I was always a part of him. … How can he be dead and I alive since we are one thing?77

So Deren casts herself as Athena and as a cancerous tumour. Deren’s father had long been sceptical of her various career choices, ever since her decision not to pursue doctoral work at Berkeley following the completion of her degree at Smith. Her curious profession of grief rehearses the trope of the double, a trope which is elaborated (and multiplied) systematically in Meshes, but which had already appeared in a variety of places in Deren’s writing and thinking, as well as in Hammid’s Aimless Walk. In a poem written when she was only ten years old, the figure of the double appears rather prominently. You may think that you are alone, But there’s always somebody near. That somebody finds out your secrets with ease, To your drawers he has all the keys.78

The poem’s final quatrain reveals that this ‘somebody’ is ‘Almighty God’; however, the revelation of this identity does little to dispel creepiness of the poem’s conceit. Deren’s letters to ‘A. E.’ (again, her ‘Alter-Ego’) during her time at Smith are another example of her interest in doubling, as is another poem, written in 1937, entitled ‘Cinema’, the final stanza of which reads: Circumlocution on the too real wheel finds twice reflection: once upon the screen and once upon the transient, evacuated minds possessing pews.79

Other examples of the double abound in her unpublished work and letters. Given Deren’s interest in this trope, as well as its appearance

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in Hammid’s Aimless Walk, the play with doubles and doubling in Meshes is hardly surprising. It seems to have been the doubling of creative effort, however, that pushed the film into its most complex articulations of subjective and objective experience. Here is Deren, in an article published in Mademoiselle in 1946, describing her initial plans for the film: Since Sasha was working during the day, my original intention was to make a film by myself. I started out by thinking in terms of a subjective camera, one that would show only what I could see by myself without the aid of mirrors and which would move through the house as if it were a pair of eyes, pausing with interest here and there, opening doors, and so on. This beginning developed into a film about a girl who fell asleep and saw herself in her dream, and it soon became obvious that I could not both photograph and act myself, so I waited until my husband was free to develop further the concept of the film to execute it with me.80

Maybe this recognition of the limits of her sole authorship was behind Deren’s proposal to Hammid: ‘Why don’t we make a film?’ As a text written (perhaps self-consciously) for a women’s magazine, the article demonstrates – disappointingly, we might think – uncharacteristic and demure self-effacement (the stay-at-home wife, dependent on her husband’s assistance). Looked at from a slightly more oblique angle, however, this anecdote gives representation to what must have been, in 1946, the cultural oddity of this connubial artistic collaboration: a wife’s engagement of her husband’s support for an exploration, in cinema, of the instability of the domestic sphere. Meshes derives no small part of its power from its mode of subjective ambiguity, a quality that is rendered vividly by the appearance of both Deren and Hammid in the film, and by the multiplication of points of view made possible by the doubling of aesthetic labour expended by wife and husband. Meshes does emerge out of Deren’s and Hammid’s personal histories and out of the place and time in which they lived, but it also

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emerges from a history of cinema, and experimental cinema in particular. Hammid’s experience as a film-maker and as someone exposed to the cinematic avant-gardes of Europe speaks for itself. We have no record of what Hammid was exposed to in Prague in the 1920s, of what he might have screened at his cinematheque. We can imagine: Eistenstein? Vertov? Germain Dulac? Jean Epstein? Hammid’s own film-making certainly fits comfortably into the range of impressionist and expressionist films produced in Europe in this period; they speak a dialect of the same language. P. Adams Sitney says that Deren and Hammid ‘worked against a background’ of the ‘scattered avant-garde film production’.81 This background, however, was much more Hammid’s than Deren’s. Hammid was truly a man of the cinema, whereas, in the tremendous paper trail that documents her life prior to meeting Hammid, Deren makes only the scarcest and most desultory of references to cinema. According to interviews with Hammid, Deren ‘knew nothing of the avant-garde films made in France – Un Chien Andalou, the films of Germaine Dulac, or Cocteau’.82 It’s quite possible – probable even – that Hammid had seen all of these films. While any study of the ‘subjective’ camera, of film’s attempts to render psychological interiority (especially that of women) would surely want to compare the achievements of a film like Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) with Meshes, I don’t think it’s necessary to trace lines of actual influence from Dulac to Hammid’s and Deren’s film, even if, perhaps, the film were well known to one (or, less likely, the both) of them. The play with subjectivity and objectivity, and the intense rendering of interior experience that Meshes shares with avant-garde film-making of the interwar period is what it shares with the world of modernist experimentation across the arts. Rather than trace a specific genealogy for Meshes back through the ‘scattered’ canon of interwar avant-garde cinema, I would prefer that we recognise the film’s emergence inside the ambience of international modernism as it was developing across the 1920s and 30s, and on into the period of World War II when the film was made.

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7 Shadow of Girl Appears The film’s first image (which I described briefly at the very beginning of this book) presents us with an image of a road or sidewalk that mounts sinuously into the distance, banked on one side by trees and on the other by a wall over which spill (and up which grow) vines and bushes. The trees and bushes that we see are blown and shaken by the wind. This would be an entirely unremarkable image were it not for the fact that, only seconds into its duration, a large artificial poppy enters the image from the top of the frame, borne by a hand, a mannequin’s hand, in fact, and one attached to a mannequin arm (we see clearly the seam that joins hand to arm). The camera pans down, slightly, to follow this descent and rests in its movement just as the poppy is placed on the pavement. No sooner has this labour been performed by this arm (attached, offscreen, to we know not what) than the arm disappears: magic! And the flower is left amid the shadows cast on the pavement, their movement an index of the trees, whose movement we have already seen – movement that is itself an index of the wind that we cannot see except through the trees and their shadows. Nothing could be simpler than this opening sequence, and yet few opening shots of any film are so strange. What begins as cinematic realism (an image of the world, ‘as it is’) converts, within seconds, into a demonstration of cinematic artifice. Whereas we might have wondered (had we been allowed to), for instance, where this roads leads to, or where in the world this is, such (typically realist, absorbed) attachment to the image as an image of the world is undone by this mannequin arm’s intrusion. Suddenly this is an image of the world as image, as artifice, and we no longer wonder where this road is, but instead marvel at the potentiality of the film’s frame to produce this startling sensation. Once this effect been produced we

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are surprised again, this time by the arm’s disappearance in a manner that, as several writers have pointed out, is not unlike that of Méliès, the great magician of early cinema.83 I am interested in this mannequin arm, in part because it raises the stakes – right from the beginning – of the film’s play with the real and the artificial. Were this a human hand, the effect of the shot would be rather different. Not only is the mannequin itself an artificial form of realist mimesis, its descent marks the boundary of the film frame as a mode of artifice (in which ‘reality’ is nonetheless captured), and it deposits yet another piece of mimetic artifice – the poppy – onto the surface of the real. Its disappearance through the ‘magic’ of editing adds yet one more element of artificiality to the mix. This penetration of the cinematic image – that ‘mould’ into which the real seems to be poured84 – by so many agents of artifice, forces us out of a lazy habit of regarding the image as real. And yet, the image is both real and unreal. For if it were only artifice, none of this would matter. Instead, as Deren would rehearse tirelessly in the film theory that she would write after the production of Meshes: The form proper of film is … accomplished only when the elements, whatever their original context, are related according to the special character of the instrument of film itself – the camera and the editing – so that the reality which emerges is a new one – one which only film can achieve and which could not be accomplished by the exercise of any other instrument.85

What Deren is getting at is the ‘real’ unreality of cinematic representation. Her delight in cinema (which Meshes demonstrates in advance of her film theory) was informed by her belief in its ‘medium specificity’, its predication on photography, a representational medium that has the ability to produce not just a representation of something, but, seemingly, the thing itself, or at least an index of its existence that somehow (so the belief in indexicality goes) supersedes ordinary representation. Or as Deren would have it elsewhere: ‘What

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particularly excited me about film was its magic ability to make even the most imaginative concept seem real. For if the tree in the scene was real and true, the event which one caused to occur beneath it seemed also real and true.’86 This is what is happening here, in these critical first few seconds. Around about the time that Deren and Hammid were gearing up to make or were in the process of making Meshes, they produced the aforementioned exercises in ‘experimental portraiture’: a series of photographs that combined various mannequin pieces in tableaux that included themselves and visitors to their houses in Laurel Canyon and then in Hollywood. One of the most striking of these

‘Mannequin Dismembered’, 1942–3. From the Maya Deren Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

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photographs pictures Hammid, his chin resting on his hand in a pose of pensiveness, leaning against a sofa in a living room (presumably of the house in Laurel Canyon – this is not the room we see in Meshes). What seems to be late afternoon sun produces an ambiance of highcontrast chiaroscuro. On the sofa, the legs of a female mannequin. In the middle foreground of the photograph, on a small occasional table, rests a mannequin arm (quite likely the one we see in the film’s first moments), its hand just grazing a glass ball. In a vase, next to the arm, a mannequin hand rests upright. In the obscurity of the photograph’s right-hand side, under a window, a naked female mannequin’s torso and head lie prone (face up) on a piece of furniture. Another mannequin arm, bent at the elbow, hangs from the ceiling under the electric light fixture. Here is a scene of a body – or at least a cheap, manufactured version of it – in pieces. (Hans Bellmer’s horrific ‘pupées’ series comes to mind, as does the work of De Chirico.) The props of consumerist fantasy have decomposed, disarticulated themselves and seemingly decamped to take up residence in the precincts of modest domesticity. Do we sense the presence of Deren, or, in any case, ‘woman’ implied by the imitation female body parts strewn about? In a letter in which she attempted to explain her father’s displeasure at her decision not to pursue doctoral work, Deren wrote: If I am to succeed, it must be in terms of what I, as a rather individualized person am … not in terms of what objective factors would make it convenient for me to be. It is this which I can’t seem to explain to my father … strangely enough, he has a curious view of me as if I were manikin.87

Like Meshes, this photograph is much more than a document of Deren’s (or Hammid’s) biography. But the letter gives another key in which to read the signification of the mannequin parts. Here is the wreckage of subjectivity: the mannequin (like the misunderstood daughter) is the object onto which a false (ideological) version of the

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subject has been projected, for which it has been mistaken. How are we to read Hammid’s activity of averting his eyes from this scene of bloodless, plastic, plaster carnage? Is he responsible for this scene of artificial dismemberment, or has he merely happened up on it? Another of these portraits shows us Deren in front of a mirrored boudoir table. The table has three mirrors. In the central mirror we see Deren holding a flower to her face. In the two flanking mirrors we see two bald female mannequin figures, each holding a flower to her face, as well. The image suggests the splintering and (or) the ‘Experimental Portrait’, 1942–3. Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives

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multiplication of Deren’s being across the representational surface of the mirrors. The right-hand side of photograph’s foreground shows us how this image has been produced: the mannequin (there is actually only one of them, just as there is only one Deren) sits to Deren’s left; the flanking mirrors, which are hinged, have been arranged so that only the mannequin, and not Deren, appears in the reflections on either side. This photograph, more than the one with Hammid, suggests a very strong trajectory towards the formal and thematic preoccupations of Meshes. The uncanny ability of the photograph to trick us into believing in the physical mutability (and multiplicity) of Deren’s person will be a source of intense invention across the film. Deren plays the unnamed lead in Meshes. When she and Hammid were making the film she still went by her given name, Eleanora. According to her mother’s recollection, Deren had never liked her name and just after making Meshes she wanted a new name for the film’s credits. Hammid suggested Maya, the Sanskrit word for illusion. She took to it immediately.88 Because Deren herself plays the film’s central ‘character’ (one that is uncannily multiplied), it is difficult to know what name to give this character (and its multiples) when analysing the film. In the shot list of the film that Deren compiled in preparation for the addition of a score in 1959, the character played by Deren is referred to as ‘girl’.89 There is little consistency among critics with regards to the the naming of this character; some refer to her as ‘the woman’, or as ‘a young woman’, or simply as Deren.90 In the analysis that follows, when referring to Maya Deren, the co-author of Meshes, I will refer to her, as I have done thus far, as Deren. When referring to the character(s) that Deren plays in Meshes, however, I will refer to her as Maya. The name Maya is a kind of fiction and seems to have been chosen in relation to the production of the fiction that is Meshes. It seems appropriate, therefore, to refer to the character by this name. In a short film focused so intensely on one woman’s experience, the film withholds any actual vision of this body, of Maya, for an

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unusual length of time. We are introduced to her indirectly, through the index of her presence that is her shadow. We see this shadow as it approaches the poppy and reaches its shadowy hand towards it. Maya’s ‘afro’ marks her shadow as peculiar. A closer shot finally gives us an image of Maya’s actual body as she bends down and reaches her hand out to grasp the flower (her hand is white). She straightens up to stand as her sandalled foot enters the shot. The movement of Maya’s body (in this sequence, always from left to right) cues some very fluid panning. We see legs in black, widelegged, loose-fitting trousers sauntering along the pavement; the poppy swings carelessly by her side. Its movement and that of the trousers absorb the displaced movement of the natural world that we had earlier glimpsed in the trees. Another shot gives us Maya’s silhouette against the wall again, in profile, from the waist up; we still have not seen her face, only its shadow. Maya lifts the flower, as if to smell it (yet we know as she must that this poppy is artificial). Her shadow lowers the flower and her head (its shadow) seems to cock itself in attention; the shadow communicates the activity of engaged looking. She has seen something. The film cuts to a long shot, down the sidewalk; shadows of palm trees score the bleached white of the pavement, and a tall (seemingly a man’s) figure disappears around the bend. This shot, we would think, belongs to the point of view of the figure who has cast the shadow. But then, the camera (still holding the shot in which the male figure retreats) pans and tilts left, rather quickly, to catch in its own gaze Maya, from the neck down to below the waist, the shadow of her head now cast behind her body. The intricacy of this sequence is crucial to an understanding of the film. We have, with the shot of the disappearing male figure in black, been given what we have taken for a subjective point-of-view shot, only to have the camera reveal to us that the subject of the shot (Maya) is in fact the shot’s object: we think we are looking ‘through’ her but then discover we are looking ‘at’ her. This is the same trick (if we want to use that word) that Hammid plays in Aimless Walk. (The thrills of this sort of slippage between subject and object will become

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a part of the formal rhetoric of art cinema of the 1960s and 70s: we think of Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, Godard, Bertolucci.) At this point – both in (film) historical time and in the time of the film – the effect is surprising. We have been given so little to go on so far: the editing pattern of shot of the shadow ‘looking’, followed by a shot of what (we assume) this subject sees had seemed to offer the security of point-of-view editing as a means of grounding us in the film’s world, an invitation to security in a film that has, so far, done so little to make us feel at home. (In fact, the film has already established a pattern of creating a false sense of security that it rapidly seeks to destroy.) The slippage between subject and object will be reiterated across the film. Writing in 1948 Lewis Jacobs complained (in an otherwise appreciative assessment of the film) that Meshes ‘skips from objectivity to subjectivity without transitions or preparation and is often confusing’.91 This skipping is, I would argue, exactly the source of the film’s formal intensity and the key to understanding its critical (political) potential. Jacobs’s description of the film’s tendency to ‘skip’, however, is entirely apt: it is the unprepared-for, the casual abruptness of these switches in point of view that make them so powerfully unsettling and engrossing as we are drawn in and then expelled from a subjectivity that we think we share. Real–unreal and subject–object name the major axes on which the film’s coordinates will be charted, and strung tight. Maya mounts some concrete steps, and next we see her shadow pass across the front door of a house; a small window with little balusters, curtained from the inside, gestures nominally in the direction of Spanish colonial architecture. Beneath the shadow of Maya’s profile, we see her hand knocking on the door. She tries the handle; it is locked. In close-up we see her, still clutching the flower, rummage in a small pocket book, from which she removes a key, held between index and forefinger. The key drops and, in slow motion, bounces at her feet. In a sequence of shots we see the key bouncing down the steps and Maya racing after it. The effect of rapid editing and slow motion makes this brief flight of steps seem much longer

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than it was when Maya ascended it just seconds earlier. Two details (both noticed by former students of mine) impress themselves on me in recent viewings of the film: 1) when Maya first attempts to open the door, the door actually gives, and gives away the fiction of its being locked; 2) when Maya withdraws the key, the extreme close-up of the shot lets us see that her fingers intentionally let go of the key. Both details testify to the economy of means at work here; these shots were probably good enough and did not warrant the expense of re-shooting. Throughout the film’s ingenious manipulation of form, little shards of the real act in a way that is not even accounted for by Deren’s celebration of the real as the portal to ‘magic’. These details are the visual indices of the film’s DIY budget. This is a film made, we should not forget, for the sum of $274.90. Whether or not Deren or Hammid noticed these little fissures in the fiction, they exist for us, in all their close-up contingency, as examples of how this film does what it can, can afford, or is willing to do, and then gets on with things.

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Meshes’s spell is cast by the shifting relation between careful aesthetic design and the exigency of an impoverished means of production. Maya manages to let herself in the house, and what follows, after a brief shot of her sandalled feet (these feet will be important) crossing the door’s threshold, is a rather luxurious panning shot (with some tilting), that moves, from left to right, across the entire surface of the bungalow’s living room. Because this is, in fact, a bungalow, there is no hallway, and Maya is able to enter immediately into this living room – the transition from outside to inside is nearly immediate. The panning shot suggests recent inhabitation: there are newspapers spread out on the floor, and as the shot pans and then zooms in on the dining table, situated in a sort of nook or small dining area, we see on the table a coffee cup and a knife poised, midslice, in a loaf of bread. The film cuts to a close-up of the bread and knife, but as it does, the knife wobbles and falls onto the tabletop. Things (keys, knives, flowers, mannequin arms) seem to have a life of their own. The camera swish-pans to the left to reveal a telephone on the bottom steps of a flight of stairs; its receiver is off the hook. Because the camera movement inside the house has been so obviously handheld – so embodied – and because it has moved in a manner that suggests the curiosity of a subjective gaze as it scrutinises the house and its contents, we have, at this point, come to assume, again, that it expresses the optical point of view of Maya, the only (so far as we know) human in this room with eyes to look in the manner that the camera does. We are, therefore, startled, yet again, to see Maya enter ‘her own’ point-of-view shot as we see her feet pass the telephone and begin to mount the stairs. Curiously, the camera’s performance of a rhetoric of curious embodiment (of looking, in other words) tends to be forgotten the minute we realise that the shot no longer belongs precisely to the character’s point of view. We don’t turn to think, although we might think we ought to, about just what this moving camera is, if it does not belong to Maya. Why doesn’t she see this person wielding this camera? Maybe s/he is the one who left the phone off the hook. Such is the fleetingness of our attention and

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our desire to make sense of a world that the film is constructing so as not to make sense, that we cannot linger on the question of the camera’s spectrality in moments like these. As Maya mounts the staircase (a short one, that pivots 180 degrees on a landing halfway up) the camera continues to play with subjective shooting as it hovers near the stairs, like a person watching her step. We enter a bedroom; dark, gauzy curtains (perhaps a literal embodiment of the ‘meshes’ in the title) flutter wildly above an unmade bed. In the room the camera pans and discovers a phonograph playing. Here the camera continues to assert the sensation of optical point-ofview editing even more than before: Maya’s hand extends into the frame, as if it belonged to the same body as the camera’s seeing eye, and turns off the phonograph. This is the sort of elaboration of point of view that Robert Montgomery will attempt in the noir feature Lady in the Lake (1947). On the floor by the bed are visible slippers – clearly a man’s – and what looks to be a robe. A pan across a jump cut brings

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us back hurriedly to the staircase – as if Maya has heard something and rushes to see what it is. We descend the staircase subjectively, the camera’s ‘head’ just missing the arch that frames the stairs. We advance towards a chintz armchair positioned in front of a large, arched picture window, reaching almost from ceiling to floor, framed by chintz curtains (not the same pattern as the chair). Again, the camera gives up subjective shooting, as the film cuts to a shot of Maya settling herself into the chair. She places the poppy suggestively right on her crotch and her hand offers her breast a mild masturbatory caress. So far we have yet to see Maya’s head or face – only the shadow of this head and face. The withholding of the face has worked so far to generate a greater cathexis of the sensation of point of view: we do not see this face because we are seeing through it. The film interrupts its own prohibition of faciality to give us suddenly an extreme close-up of Maya’s left eye, its eyelid lowering, somnolently. We cut to a shot of the view from the plate glass window, outside of

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which we recognise the sidewalk where the film began. We cut again to Maya’s eyelid, now shutting completely, as the film offers another shot of the view from the window, then of the shut eyelid, both images darkening, as if – too obviously – to suggest a shuttering of waking consciousness and a shuddering into sleep.92 This is the end of the film’s first cycle. From here it will perform variations on the theme that has just been articulated. The variations will be crucial, but I will restrain from commenting in quite as much detail as I have so far. This long exercise in visual description is necessary to help get a handle on the film’s subtle and frequent shifts in establishing subject–object relations and the formal means by

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which it does so. Pausing here – our female protagonist asleep on the chintz armchair, outside the picture window the landscape of Hollywood arrayed before her unseeing eyes – we might acknowledge that, as unfamiliar as some things seem to be, all is not entirely strange. This is, after all, ‘Hollywood, 1943’. J. Hoberman was the first critic to observe that Meshes gives us quite a few generic cues that might locate us in rather familiar scenes: Meshes seems less related to European surrealism than to Freudian flashbacks and sinister living-rooms that typify Hollywood’s wartime ‘noir’ films. Located in some hilly LA suburb, the house where Deren’s erotic, violent fantasy was filmed might be around the corner from Barbara Stanwyck’s place in Double Indemnity.93

One of the film’s very first (and certainly least sympathetic) critics, Manny Farber, notes that the film ‘takes place on a lazy California day in a stucco bungalow’,94 a comment that seems to work similarly to Hoberman’s more explicit comparison. The attempt to understand Meshes’s proximity to Hollywood as more than geographical has become something of a commonplace in analyses of the film. Dana Polan and Lauren Rabinovitz compare the film explicitly to the noir films and women’s melodramas of the 1940s. These critics, however, all make clear that Meshes is attempting, in Rabinovitz’s useful terms, to ‘literalise’ the ‘coordinates’ of these Hollywood genres so as to perform a ‘genre rewriting’.95 This context must be borne in mind if we are to understand Meshes as not merely an intervention into film history – whether that of the avant-garde, or that of Hollywood – but into film as a mode of social production. Hollywood genre film-making is not just an intertext from which this film borrows in order to deconstruct; it is also an ordering of social relations that Meshes wants to put under duress. In terms of a more general relation to history, thinking of Meshes in relation to film noir is also another way of bearing in mind the film’s relation to the larger wartime context. This was a period in which women were increasingly being compelled to labour outside the

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domestic sphere. (Has Maya just come home from work? Is she a homemaker, a wife, a mother – a bohemian Mildred Pierce?) As Maya falls into a dream state and we are given the view through the picture window, the camera also literalises this movement into a state of interiority by pulling back and into some sort of tube, as if it were withdrawing into ‘the mind’s eye’. As the camera performs this withdrawal, a tall figure shrouded in billowing black cloth appears walking up the road. It’s as if the curtains had left the bedroom and draped themselves over a human form. Is this the man we saw disappearing around the bend earlier, in the film’s opening seconds? The film cuts to a close-up of this figure as it turns towards us and, as it does so, produces the next of the film’s major frissons: where the figure should have a face it has, instead, a mirror. The figure is also in possession of the poppy. From here things are all the same, but different. We see again Maya’s shadow, hailing the figure (‘Mirror Face’ I will call it), very

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much as before. Mirror Face walks away in slow motion, as Maya (whose face we still have not really seen) runs after. The Maya we now see in this sequence is the second Maya. (Maya 2, I will call her.) Her pursuit is rendered through repetitive panning shots of her feet and legs running, intercut with shots of Mirror Face so as to generate the dreamlike sensation of never being able to catch the object of a chase. After giving up her pursuit and turning to mount the steps to the bungalow, we finally see Maya’s face, which has been withheld from us for so long. (Significantly, the face’s revelation happens inside what is the apparent dream world.) We see how wise Deren and Hammid were in this decision. Deren’s face is so striking and so strikingly unusual, that it might have undermined an attempt to enlist our allegiance to so many point-of-view shots. This face’s hieratic combination of planes and angles, the beauty of its fleshy mouth and full nose, corniced by her fringe and corona-ed by her dark, frizzy curls: we might have been too absorbed at looking at her to be able – or to want – to look through her. Deren’s unusual beauty threatens an excess of particularity which, had it not been withheld, might have acted as a barrier to the film’s invitation to share in the more ‘universal’ contours of its waking dream. We can also see her now – more completely – because it would seem that she sees herself, as the object of her own dream.96 However, as she enters the house Maya 2

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does not see Maya 1 as she surveys the living room through the now familiar pan. Instead she finds the knife, this time sitting on the stairs where last we had seen the phone. This time around the bungalow, Maya 2’s navigation up the stairs appears belaboured by way of more slow motion. Halfway up

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the stairs, the film cuts to a shot of Maya 2 being propelled into the bedroom via the window, the billowing black gauze curtains pressing up against her face. She finds the telephone, which had formerly been on the stairs, on the bed, off the hook, again. And under the sheets, the knife, which has apparently followed the telephone’s example and moved upstairs as well. After seeing her reflection in the knife’s blade, Maya 2 draws the blankets over the knife, puts the receiver back on its cradle, and then is sucked back out of the window, across an edit, and dropped off back on the stairs again. Maya 2’s bodily movement creates a tissue of continuity across edits, so that we believe in the integrity of the movement despite knowing that the movement occurs across distances impossible to cross so quickly or so seamlessly. While the editing produces a sense of sudden spatial traversal, the use of slow motion as Maya 2 ascends and descends the stairs makes the negotiation of the house’s modest distance a laborious trial. Maya 2’s descent down the stairs is made a

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terrifying journey through the use of several ‘special effects’: the upending of the camera, canted framing, an unseen fan blowing through Maya 2’s hair and the positioning of her body near the ceiling (presumably through the use of a chair or ladder) which she gropes and clutches at as she descends. We seem to share her point of view again (shots from a high angle suggest her position at the ceiling) as Maya 2 scans the room and sees, for the first time, Maya 1, asleep in her chair, the phonograph from the bedroom now beside her. (Everything wants, at some point, to be everywhere in this film, it seems.) Maya 2 reaches down from the ceiling, again, across an edit, to take the needle off the record and switch off the phonograph. We then see, for the first time, Mayas 1 and 2 in the same shot. Hammid’s artisanal ingenuity is responsible for this miracle of low-cost special effects, for this shot was produced entirely in camera. In an interview with Miriam Arsham, Hammid explained his technique, which is used again later in the film: HAMMID

Those weren’t superimposition. That’s double exposure. We covered one half of the lens with black paper, and shot the first scene. Then you rewind the film back and cover that half and shoot the other scene. The action has to be carefully timed so that it comes together.

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ARSHAM

But you have to hold the paper so there’s not a sharp edge.

HAMMID

That’s right. Close to the camera, so it’s out of focus. The two outof-focus edges blend so that it’s invisible. In one shot, if you look very carefully, you see a little jiggle. But only in one of them, the first one.97

The shot is a model of shoestring virtuosity. Despite its ‘jiggle’, it exactly illustrates Deren’s theoretical interest in film’s production of the ‘invented event’ that ‘borrows reality from the reality of the scene’.98 Mayas 1 and 2 are both visible in the film because they both really were in front of the camera. Their co-habitation of the same frame is materialist magic: materialist because, even without the jiggle, Deren and Hammid knew that we would know that this is unreal, and therefore do not need to erase every trace of the film’s faktura – the evidence of its own making – but they also knew that we would want to believe in the real unreality of the shot and that, in a way, we would be correct in doing so. Maya 2 approaches the plate glass window (Maya 1 asleep behind her). Again the view from the window gives us Mirror Face, advancing rapidly, and yet another Maya (Maya 3) racing to catch her. After showing us this (what we assume, of course, is the point of view of Maya 2’s vision), the film grants us the shot that has become the most famous of all its images and, in fact, may be the single most iconic image in the history of American avant-garde film-making and one of the most famous images in the history of modern art. This is the so-called ‘Botticelli’ shot, about which much has been written in the scholarship on Meshes and on Deren herself.99 Abstracted as a still from the film, the image was used frequently by Deren to publicise screenings, lectures and the general distribution (handled by Deren herself) of the films. As Maria Pramaggiore has noted, ‘There is no doubt that the Botticelli photograph played a particular role in creating Deren’s persona and perpetuating her singular status in avantgarde film history.’100

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At the moment at which it appears in the film, the image operates somewhat like the fulcrum of a chiasmus, with versions of herself before and behind her. But it is the rhetoric of the image’s compositional elements that seems to contribute to its availability as metonymic signifier for the film’s project as a whole. Here is the woman (who in this case happens to be the co-author of the film, as well), pressed up against the skin of domestic containment: the window is a glass wall that mediates her relation to the outside world and her relation to the spectacle of her own artistic fecundity. It feels almost too obvious to point out the metaphorical resonance between the window’s framing of the woman’s image and the work of cinema. The image would not be half as forceful were it not for the fact of her hands pressing up against its surface. The window’s transparent skin is so much in the foreground of the image that it, in turn, seems to press up against the skin of the cinematic image itself. This is an

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image of the sensual intimacy granted to us by cinema, but it also embodies Stanley Cavell’s understanding of the cinema as medium that severs us from the world that it screens, makes us strangers to as well as intimates of that world. (In Cavell’s terms the cinema ‘screens me from the world it holds – that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me – that is, screens its existence from me.’101) This is an image of insideness pressed up against outsideness. Perhaps it is an image of containment or entrapment, but it invites and encourages our participation in a world that has been pictured by Deren and Hammid in a particular way. For what Maya 2 sees is yet another instance of Maya 1’s generative, spiralling dreamscape, made available to us through an exploration of the limits and possibilities of windows, frames, doors and thresholds. Just after Maya 3 gives up the chase and turns to climb the steps to the house, Maya 2 sticks out her tongue to withdraw a key from her mouth and offer it towards the camera on the palm of her right hand. Maya 3 then enters the house; a pan suggests the obligatory survey of the living room, only this time Mirror Face is making his/her way upstairs. Maya 3 follows, as all the Mayas have done before, only this time her way is made to seem even more laborious by slow motion, canted framing and the camera’s tilting from side, all of which combines with Maya’s violent movement to make it seem as

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if the world had begun to wobble on its gravitational axis, or else as if the San Andreas fault that runs beneath Los Angeles had suddenly opened up. This time Maya 3 does not make into the bedroom, but must watch as Mirror Face places the poppy on the bed and then – exactly like the original bearer of the poppy, the mannequin arm – disappears through a trick of editing. A series of jump cuts makes Maya 3 appear standing at attention at different points on the staircase – almost as if her body has become infected by the formal logic of jump-cutting that effected Mirror Face’s disappearance.102 Next, we have a close-up of Maya 3, her face luminescent against a background completely black, her gaze cast downwards in an attitude of absorbed looking. It is difficult to tell where she is in the house. In the same shot, she begins to lift her head, and, as she does, the film cuts to an upwards-tilting shot that seems to mimic the movement of her head, thus bringing us back into her optical point of view. What we see in this shot is the knife on the bed, but the tilting reveals the bed’s position next to Maya 1, still asleep in the chintz armchair. Maya’s point of view has collapsed and condensed the spaces of upstairs and down. Such collapse is of a piece with the film’s radical condensation and compression of its symbolic economy. Maya 3 approaches the window, so as to glimpse Mirror Face making his/her usual haste, Maya 4 behind him. This will be the final

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iteration of our multiplying Mayas. Maya 3, her attention directed to the familiar goings-on outside, extracts, for the second time, the key from her mouth, extends it on her palm, but this time a jump cut replaces it with the knife, which we see immediately afterwards being wielded by Maya 4 as she enters the door. Instead of surveying the living room, Maya 4 looks towards the armchair and the window, but then directs her attention immediately towards the dining nook where Mayas 2 and 3 are taking their places. (It is never clear to me where Maya 2 has been in the last few moments, nor is it clear if we are to imagine Mayas 2 and 3 ever seeing Maya 1 asleep when first they enter the house, but this is taking things not a little too literally. The funny thing is that the film’s magic is so literal that, in Anaïs Nin’s words, a ‘curious prosaic quality is imposed on the imagination’,103 and thus we do, in a sense, entertain Mayas 1, 2 and 3, the knives, telephones and so on as if they actually were travelling from one part of the house to the other,

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always somewhere even when we don’t see them.) With the Mayas assembled around the table – an image made possible by Hammid’s ingenious in-camera effect – the film begins the most bravura sequence of its various artful permutations. Maya 4 places the knife on the table, rather ceremoniously. A jump cut turns the knife back into the key; Mayas 2 and 3 look to Maya 4 with muted curiosity. Maya 4 nods her head to indicate the initiation of a response from the other two. Mayas 2 and 3 take turns in slowly reaching for the key. Each Maya, in reaching for the key, allows her right hand to draw slowly across her body, as if reiterating Maya 1’s masturbatory caress when first she settled down to dream

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the world we are in. Each time, after Mayas 1 and 2 take the key, it reappears stubbornly on the table. Maya 4 finally reaches for the key, only this time, when she turns her palm to face up, so as to exhibit her possession of the key, the key is there, but her palm is black, as if blackened by shoe polish in preparation for some act of minstrelsy. The key then turns to the knife. Mayas 2 and 3 shield their faces in shock; one of them seems to glance worriedly in the direction of Maya 1, whom the film cuts to briefly and whose head is moving in restless sleep. Maya 4 turns to face in the direction of the sleeping Maya 1. We are surprised now to see that she is wearing a pair of mirrored goggles, like two Christmas tree baubles stuck onto eyeglass frames. She is wielding the knife aggressively, its blade turned

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downwards, as if in preparation for attack, and rises, to approach Maya 1. A cut on movement displaces Maya 4 from inside to outside; she is suddenly amid bushes and flowers, and her goggles and the knife reflect the strong exterior sunlight as she begins to walk, left to right. Now, however, the film cuts, again on action, to Maya 4’s sandalled feet. We see the right foot fall on a sandy beach, surf breaking in the background, cut to the left foot falling on loose dirt, cut to the right foot falling in the middle of some wild grass, cut to the left foot falling on concrete, cut to the right foot falling on carpeted floor, and we are inside the bungalow once again. Maya 4, in mirror goggles, towers above Maya 1, asleep, and begins slowly to plunge the knife down her sleeping double’s throat.

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This sequence is the most notorious in the entire film, and Deren would never tire of rehearsing its formal qualities. In an article that she published in 1960, Deren offers an explanation of the sequence that she hoped would ‘shock’ her readers ‘into a refreshed awareness and respect for all “obvious” things’. Deren describes the shot sequence in some detail and then summarises it thus: ‘It is an extremely symbolic statement of the vast psychological distances which lie between people who may be in close physical proximity.’104 Deren goes on later in the same article to express some embarrassment about the sequence’s cumbersome heavy symbolism; however, it was an interpretation that she had already articulated in a letter to James Card in 1955: ‘What I meant when I planned that four [sic] stride sequence was that you have to come a long way – from the very beginning of time – to kill yourself.’105 But ultimately for Deren (who, as we shall see, was allergic to symbolic interpretation of her own work) the sequence was remarkable because of what it promised formally, not thematically. She would go on in the same letter to Card to write: It was like a crack letting the light of another world gleam through. I kept saying to myself, ‘The walls of this room are solid except right there. That leads to something. There’s a door there leading to something. I’ve got to get it open because there I can go through to someplace instead of leaving here by the same way that I came in.’106

In fact, the formal procedure that enables Maya 4 to travel cross country while trying to get from the dining table to the armchair became one of the chief formal preoccupations of the films she made immediately following Meshes: At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945–6). (Meditation on Violence [1948], the documentary footage she would shoot in Haiti, and her last completed film The Very Eye of Night [released 1959] have rather different formal concerns and, in fact, flirt with a kind of formlessness – albeit of a very formalised

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nature.) Deren’s evocation of the sequence as an architectural form whose boundaries were necessary insofar as they acted as permeable thresholds to another world expresses in nuce not only the possibilities-within-limits of the film’s location, Deren’s and Hammid’s bungalow, but the work of the entire film itself. As the knife is plunged into her throat, Maya 1 suddenly opens her eyes, startled, awake at last, in an extreme close-up. The reverse shot, another close-up, shows us a man (Hammid), his head rising after having laid a kiss on the sleeping Maya’s lips. As he takes hold of her hands and pulls her up from her chair, we assume that we have left the dream world of multiple Mayas, restless objects, suspiciously peripatetic Mirror Faces and the like. As the man mounts the stairs, we notice he carries the poppy. He pauses to put the telephone receiver on its cradle. The telephone is in the place we first saw it, on the stairs, before the dream began. The man’s actions serve to ground us securely in the waking world that we had inhabited so briefly and unsurely before the film’s oneiric serial repetitions began. Before following him upstairs Maya casts a quick glance at the dining table: no Mayas there! And the knife lies next to the loaf of bread. Maya mounts the stairs – perhaps surprised how easy it is now to do so. Hammid lays the poppy on the bed, and Maya lies down on the bed, the poppy alongside her reclining head. He caresses her and leans in

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for a kiss, but as the film cuts to Maya’s face, a jump cut turns the poppy into the knife. Maya reaches for it and smashes it against Hammid’s face, only the surface of his body is but a reflection in a mirror. Through the rough cavity that opens behind the broken glass of his reflection we see the ocean. The film cuts to shards of mirror falling onto the beach; waves wash over them. So the dream continues, we think. But next, with no fanfare or formal device to announce a shift in register (like the camera’s earlier, rather belaboured, withdrawal into the cylinder at the outset of the dream cycle), the film cuts to the familiar high-angle shot of the pavement below the picture window. Given that we have so often seen this through the Mayas’s point of view, we might wonder ‘Who sees this?’ But no point of view has been established; no close-up of Maya looking out the window has framed our view of the sidewalk. The shot would seem to belong to no one. Into this image walks the man, jauntily, who turns without hesitation and mounts the steps to the house. At the top of the steps he collects the poppy, and we see his shadow and that of the flower cross the door, as Maya’s had done at the film’s very beginning. We see his feet, in close-up, cross the threshold, then a close-up of his face. Next, the accustomed rhythm of the panning shot: the formal sign of the subjective inspection of the room. We see first the familiar disorder: the newspaper spread out on the carpet. But as the camera pans we notice shattered glass about the armchair and what looks like sea kelp. Tilting as it pans, the camera discovers Maya in the chair, large shards of shattered glass in her lap, her body entwined in sea kelp, sea kelp across her throat, wrapped around her head. The film cuts to a close-up of her face: her eyes are open, and what looks like a drop of blood rests on the corner of her mouth. This is the film’s last image. Rabinovitz, one of the film’s most acute interpreters, takes the sequence in which Maya shatters the man’s image to signify the destruction of ‘the objects governing a woman’s sexual reflection, the man who is both male sexuality and a mirror for narcissistic female

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sexuality’. Maya has ‘literally reached out to control the definition of her self’.107 The second of the film’s ‘double endings’,108 is, however, and as Rabinovitz is keenly aware, a rather more ambiguous affair: ‘Is it … that her desire is so excessive the only closure possible is her death? Or is it the result of her revolt against the cinematic structures of containment? Or is her death dramatically signifying her end as a construction within his dream world? Her dream world?’109 These questions are worth entertaining. The film’s sudden explosion into full-scale gender warfare begs them be asked. (The man seems never to be aware that he is at war, but such ignorance, of course, is the luxury of having hegemonic privilege on one’s side.) All of these questions, as well as many others pertinent to understanding the film’s contribution to feminism, should be explored. However, the question about the ‘excessive’ nature of Maya’s ‘desire’ seems to run up against (or be nullified by) the subsequent question regarding ‘her’ rebellion against ‘cinematic structures’. (I place her in inverted commas only because the pronoun seems to collapse Deren and the character she plays. The latter, it seems to me, cannot rebel against cinematic convention.) For if there is a rebellion against ‘cinematic structures’ (and I think the film does stage such a revolt), then surely this rebellion would be against the filmic construction of psychologically ‘deep’ characters to whom we are invited to attribute the possession and/or experience of ‘excessive’ desires. The film seems to invite and cancel such questions through its persistent summoning and rejection of character subjectivity. Reading the film with an eye towards understanding how it satisfies questions about female agency runs the risk of producing answers that are too readyto-hand. The sheer proliferation of the questions raised by the film – and especially by its ambiguous ending – constitutes the strongest evidence of the film’s embodiment of a feminism (as well as a mode of art making) that creates utopia out of the real by refusing the merely possible. In making Meshes Deren and Hammid worked with and through the materials they had to hand, but in a way that did not

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limit itself to what either of them knew in advance to be possible. In making the film – a film whose meaning remains, if we treat the film honestly, incredibly opaque – Deren and Hammid suspended themselves between intense artistic intentionality (think of the precision of Hammid’s in-camera effects) and a kind of intentionless ignorance about what they were up to (think of Deren’s proposal: ‘Why don’t we make a film?’).110 The result of this suspension was unpredictable. What we take from it should be unpredictable, as well. One of the film’s strongest tendencies is to posit an inside that becomes an outside, or an outside that becomes an inside. Its reversibility makes it an intensely seductive object for interpretation. This reversibility itself, is, however, the film’s most powerful lesson: it expresses the difficulty of escaping – as a spectator or as a social actor – the horizon of the generic and the presupposed. The question of what the film might mean is something that, as I will explain below, unsettled Deren. It seems to me that the film becomes less interesting the more we push at any of its images or set of images as ‘meaning’ this or that. The flower might connote female sexuality, the mirrors might connote narcissism, the man might stand in for patriarchal authority, but Meshes will become a very uninteresting film if we imagine we can ‘read’ it via some master symbolic code. The film’s grounding in and foregrounding of a woman’s experience make femininity and feminism necessary and generative horizons of interpretation. But we would not want to limit the film’s meaning – its connotative reverberation and resonance – to these registers alone. The film’s melodramatic mise en scène does not merely ground it in a set of generic contents, rather it alerts us to a more structural relation to the melodramatic. Melodrama is not merely a genre, it is a mode characterised by insuperable binary contradictions and the inscription of ineffable meaning and interiority on the surface of the visible.111 Meshes gives us a world in which interiority is constantly revealed as – or displaced onto – another exteriority. In the film’s world, objects do not speak, though we feel they want to in their nervous shudderings and constant

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disappearances and reappearances. Only, we do not know what they would say if they could speak, for the interiority (that of Maya) that they might express remains stubbornly opaque. Similarly, the film’s traffic in potentially vulgar symbols (flowers, mirrors, knives, the sea) is less a mode of conveying some encrypted meaning through symbols and more an enactment of the abstracting properties of symbolisation itself – hence, the vulgar obviousness of the choice in symbols. Deren said of the strides her cinematic self takes across varying geographic terrain: ‘You have to come a long way … to kill yourself.’ Her language here alerts us to the possibility that Meshes intends itself as an enactment of the extinction of personality that Eliot described in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and that mattered so much to Deren. The film’s spiralling structure does not, ultimately, take us deeper and deeper into some reservoir of knowable interiority. Rather, the structure is a mode of serial repetition of the sort that would characterise some of the most intensely desubjectivising tendencies in modernism. Here we might think of Arnold Schoenberg (also exiled in Hollywood at the time Meshes was made) and his twelve-tone method of musical composition. Or we might think of Samuel Beckett’s novels in which a grounded-ness in the subjectivity of the narrator becomes the means by which the access to subjectivity is made strange, if not impossible, or at least impossibly arbitrary. Meshes offers us an unusual experience of seriality because it so consistently offers us a body, with seeing eyes, as a point of identification that ought to anchor us securely in a mode of interiorised subjectivity. And yet the same devices that produce this identification are used serially to undo it. As Rabinovitz argues, Meshes ‘adopts the dominant visual vocabulary’ of film noir’s melodramatic tendencies and ‘displaces’ it onto a narrative of subjective ‘fragmentation’.112 This displacement, however, does not move us into the depths of subjectivity. Rather, through the film’s serial repetitions, a radically depersonalised experience is wrung out of materials that would seem to have promised an intensely satisfying immersion in subjectivity.

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Meshes of the Afternoon articulates, or enacts in cinematic language the ‘ritual’ aesthetic form that Deren would theorise in her Anagram. Deren’s understanding of art as ritual proposes that art’s ‘distinction’ ‘is that it is neither simply an expression, of pain, for example, nor an impression of pain, but is itself a form which creates pain’.113 In other words, the interest of a real work of (cinematic) art, for Deren, consists less in any set of contents that it contains, or any feeling it might convey, and more in the force of the artwork’s form. Knowing that Meshes tends in the direction of ritual aesthetic should not bar us from taking the film’s melodramatic mise en scène seriously. I prefer to see the film as performing a series of solemn formal improvisations in which the elements that are arranged and rearranged carry with them not only the weight of cinema’s indexicality, but also that of film history’s strategies for the representation of female experience. The film pulls in two ways: its contents and its play with point-of-view cinematography and editing all promise the pleasures of subjective identification, of genre. But its serial repetition undermines such pleasures and forces the viewer to endure the shock of each repetition as just that – a repetition, and not as a point of access to subjectivity. To emphasise this tension between a subjectively gratifying experience and a serially alienating one in which the film presents itself as a purely objective set of relations is not to diminish its significance as a feminist film (or a film that is productive for feminism). Rather, this tension is entirely congruent with feminist theory’s attempt to grapple with ‘woman’ as both object of (stereotypically male) desire and subject of thought and action, as the object and subject of historical forces, and as the objective universalising name for the manifold concretely particular experiences of individual women. Meshes’s serial modernism and its melodramatic feminism share the same ground of operation.

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8 The General Audience and the Particular Film-maker Meshes of the Afternoon has been the site of a struggle for meaning ever since it first began to be shown in cinema clubs and to small audiences, and later in larger venues and university classrooms. As anyone who has graduated from a film studies programme can confirm, Meshes will always figure as compulsory screening, and one rarely escapes a seminar discussion of Meshes without someone volunteering a one-to-one comparison of the film to the structure of the Lacanian mirror stage. Given her allergy to such methods of interpretation, had her body been buried rather than her ashes scattered on Mount Fuji, Deren would be forever spinning angrily in her grave. In her numerous presentations of Meshes and others of her films to audiences in the 1940s, 50s and up until her death, nothing annoyed Deren more than what she called a ‘Freudian’ interpretation of the film. Hammid recalled how her aversion to vulgar psychoanalytic interpretation might erupt: I remember we had over once a person who was a psychoanalyst, I don’t know of what school, and showed Meshes, and when the hand with the flower appeared, this person said ‘ah-ha’ … and this was like a dagger to Maya. She saw this person sort of analyzing image by image, you know, and she hated that, because she wanted it to be taken as a whole, as a poetic expression, not as a bit by bit vocabulary of translation.114

Her aversion to psychoanalysis is probably best identified with her aversion to the ‘symbol’ as ‘visual cliché’ which she explains in Anagram. According to Deren’s argument, when we respond to the image of a visual symbol like the cross ‘we imagine that we enjoy a

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visual experience’, but in fact we are not interested in ‘the visual character of the cross proper, but to the crucifixion’.115 Her objection here has something to do with her allegiance to the notion of cinematic specificity: her belief that a film’s ‘elements … are related to the special character of the instrument of film itself’. The real film director should try to express in film a ‘reality’ ‘which only film can achieve’.116 The psychoanalytic critic, Deren seems to fear, would approach Meshes with a lexicon of borrowed meanings that could be fixed to the film’s images while ignoring the special character of these images as film images and miss, moreover, the ‘reality’ that they produce as such. The other danger, although Deren only implies this, is that the ‘Freudian’ reader will miss the film’s contingency. An article published in the New York World-Telegram in 1949 (after Deren had achieved some notoriety and had, apparently, become used to fending off psychoanalytic interpretations) tells us that ‘[t]he citizens who really mess things up for Miss Deren are those who saddle every experience with a Freudian explanation’. Deren recollects the means by which the large poppy (surely an object ripe for symbolic interpretation) came to be used in Meshes: ‘I needed a large flower because a large flower photographs better than a small flower. I needed an artificial flower because I had little money and was unable to buy a large fresh flower each day. Consequently, I went to the nearest five and ten and bought the largest flower in the store. ‘That just happened to be a poppy – ’ … ‘But oh,’ she sighed. ‘What complicated reasons the Freudians gave for that poor old poppy. What elaborate and involved analysis they did of me, explaining the deep and hidden motives that drove me to select, from among all flowers, an artificial poppy.’117

While she is obviously objecting to vulgar ‘symbolic’ interpretation, I think her defensive posture here simply expresses the most famous of

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her one-liners: ‘I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.’118 We could be forgiven for thinking, as Anaïs Nin did, that Deren’s ‘obsession was to employ symbolic acts but to deny that they had symbolic significance’.119 But to concentrate on the interpretation of these symbols might mean missing the gloriously impoverished contingency that had made them appear onscreen in the first place.120 Deren’s fixation on this problem of ‘symbolic’ interpretation, however, could strand her in a kind of aporia. In a later retelling of the poppy story, Deren claims that the choice of the poppy, its size and so on, had to do merely with two things: 1) that the flower needed to be big ‘in order to register graphically’ on film and 2) that in ‘the nearest five and ten’ ‘the largest flower that they had was a poppy’. Deren pretends amusement at the fact that ‘much was made of just that’ – that is to say, it was over-interpreted – when ‘in the film it was used as a flower in a general abstraction, not particularly as a poppy, whatever that might mean’.121 Deren is trying here to have it both ways, and in doing so she reiterates the tension that traverses her thinking and her artistic production – the tension between particularity and universality. On the one hand, the story of the poppy’s purely contingent appearance in Meshes would seem to bar an impulse towards abstraction, towards the ‘much [that] was made’. On the other hand, the poppy is meant to be ‘a general abstraction’ that is not involved in the particularity of the poppy itself. Why can Deren admit the ‘general abstraction’ but not like the ‘making much’ of interpretation? Deren could be said to pretend to a language of pure particularity as the means of claiming the image of the flower for abstraction, but this claim is meant to parry any counter-claim that the image ‘represents’ an abstraction. In a sense, she wants this poppy to stand in for abstraction itself: for a process of abstraction in which the particularity of the thing clings to its material surface as it is translated into ‘flower’, and yet this abstraction, ‘flower’, cannot be permitted to name anything other than abstraction itself. The problem that Deren is trying to negotiate rather clumsily in her

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narration of this anecdote is one that is better treated in her films. The real unreality of a film like Meshes extends out of its coordination of the particular manifestation on film of this object, or this person and the abstracting potential of cinematic manipulation in which the ipseity of this object is involved in larger generalities. We would not bother with understanding (any of the many things) that Maya’s striding across disparate terrains edit by edit might mean were we not at once fascinated by the particularity of those feet in those sandals and by the way the editing lifts that particularity into a level of critical generality. Deren was just as annoyed if someone should suggest that the film was ‘surrealist’, and her evangelism to get her films shown ran up against the need, as she felt it, to control the film’s reception and limit such comparisons. Deren changed several times the heading under which she would show her films. Each rubric was meant, she felt, to control to some degree the manner in which the films would be taken up by their audiences. She first exhibited Meshes, along with At Land and A Study in Choreography for Camera at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in New York’s Greenwich Village on 18 February 1946 as ‘Three Abandoned Films’. The title of the screening Deren borrowed from Paul Valéry’s comment that ‘A work is never completed, but merely abandoned,’ which she quoted on the flyer she made for the screening. The reference to Valéry clearly connects this moment back to her immersion in Symbolist literature at Smith, while her decision to screen the films at the Provincetown Playhouse, a venue associated with the theatre work of the Popular Front (the venue had been home to the Federal Theatre Project from 1936–9), provides yet another material link between her film work and her earlier Socialist formation. By October of the same year she was re-presenting the same films, along with the newly completed Ritual in Transfigured Time as ‘Films in the Classicist Tradition’. ‘Classicist’ imported a term borrowed from Hulme and Eliot, one that had already informed her graduate work at Smith. Cueing spectators’ responses to these

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Courtesy of the New York Public Library

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From the Maya Deren Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

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films as ‘classicist’ would, she hoped, prevent them from identifying the films with either Romanticism or its latter day successor Surrealism, a movement, whose ‘triumphant achievement’, according to Deren, ‘consists in eliminating altogether the functions of consciousness and intelligence’.122 Deren even circulated discussion notes with the rental copies of her films; the point of the notes was to ‘minimize … those preconceptions and visual habits which may prevent the audience from perceiving the films themselves’.123 Towards the end of her life, Deren was publicising her films as ‘chamber films’, a term that expressed for her the values of ‘austerity and economy’, but also structure, lyricism and control.124 The score that Teiji Ito, Deren’s third husband, composed for Meshes with Deren’s support and collaboration (and which is usually played nowadays when the film is screened) was intended, according to Ito, as a means of controlling specators’ interpretations: ‘I felt that certain things in Meshes of the Afternoon were not clear, because everyone was not getting it … [T]he music was composed in order to set things straight … and not leave room for misunderstanding.’125 Deren’s promotional material for the premiere of the new, scored version of the film, complains of the general audience’s ‘tendency towards personalized, psychological interpretation’. The flyer proclaims that the new score’s ‘impersonal, mythological character underscores and illuminates the original intent of the film itself’.126 It is not entirely clear to me that the score accomplishes what Deren describes, but it is a haunting and impressive piece of composition on its own terms and marks a serious moment in the history of the film score. Ito’s score coordinates wind, percussive and stringed instruments in an extremely spare combination. For the most part it avoids over-determined, ‘mickey-moused’ relations between music and action onscreen. However, there are a number of times – such as when Maya drops and then chases the key down the steps or when the film withdraws into Maya’s dreamworld via the odd cylinder – at which there is a strong coincidence between music and the movement of the camera or of bodies onscreen. Deren’s and Ito’s desire ‘to set

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things straight’ might be felt, we see, as a violation of the silent Meshes’s own plasticity and indeterminacy. However paranoid she might be about the film’s reception, Deren relentlessly put herself and her films in front of as many people as she could. The film’s initial semi-public screening was at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with Iris Barry, the first curator of film at the Museum, in attendance. Hammid remembered the screening as ‘a complete flop’ in terms of enlisting Barry’s support.127 Eventually MoMA would purchase a copy of Meshes in 1955. Deren refused to sell the Museum copies of all of her films for fear that they would encroach on her distribution business. Deren’s screenings at the Provincetown Playhouse in the spring and autumn of 1946 were huge successes and actually generated income for Deren, as well as publicity. James Agee gave the first screening a decidedly mixed review in The Nation: ‘At worst, in fact, they are solemnly, arrogantly, distressingly pretentious and arty. Nevertheless, I think they are to be seen, and that there is a good deal in them to be liked, and enjoyed, and respected.’128 Deren was traumatised by this review. She was enraged, however, by Manny Farber’s snide, condescending review in The New Republic, in which he accused the films of being ‘Freudian-toned, lesbianish, freezing, arty, eclectic, conventional and safe’. Elsewhere he complains of her films’ ‘pansyish composing and lighting’. About Meshes in particular, Farber said it was ‘cluttered with corny, amateurishly arranged symbols and mainly concerned with sex’.129 Heroically, Deren’s letter to the editor of The New Republic, published two weeks later, straightforwardly attacked Farber for his homophobic bluster.130 (Deren’s challenge to Farber has a tonic resonance today in an era in which estimations of Farber’s criticism are uniformly uncritical.) Deren and Hammid left Los Angeles almost as soon as Meshes was completed. Hammid was offered work at the Office of War Information in New York. Since he had experienced continued difficulties finding work in Hollywood, there had been nothing to keep them in California. In their flat on Barrow Street in Greenwich

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Village, where they took up residence shortly after their arrival in New York, Deren and Hammid ran a rambunctious bohemian salon. This is the flat we see in some of Deren’s films that she made in New York, including A Study in Choreography for Camera. Deren collaborated with Hammid on his documentary The Private Life of a Cat. But by the autumn of 1947 Deren and Hammid were divorced, and Deren was embarking for Haiti on a Guggenheim grant – ‘the first grant ever awarded for creative work in motion pictures’;131 her plan was to make a film about Haitian dance ‘combined (in montage principle) with various non-Haitian elements’.132 By that time she had completed three more films: A Study in Choreography for Camera, At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time. The Witch’s Cradle, which was to have been her first solo effort at film-making and featured Marcel Duchamp in front of the camera, was left unfinished. Hammid married again, to Hella Heyman, who was introduced to Hammid and Deren by Galka Scheyer and who had worked as the cinematographer for Deren’s films that followed Meshes. The real story of the years that followed the production of Meshes was, in addition to her ongoing film production, the evangelical road show that Deren took to numerous colleges, cultural institutions and private homes in order to show her films and rouse interest in the possibilities of cinema as a truly independent and creative medium. In 1945 there were eighteen public screenings of Deren’s films, in various parts of the country. In 1946 there were forty-seven such screenings, and for the next four years, according to Deren’s records, there were anywhere between forty and fifty screenings of Deren’s films each year. Many of these screenings were accompanied by Deren as lecturer. By 1951 her films had been acquired by cultural and educational museums, as well as private collectors in the US, Canada and Great Britian, but also in Denmark, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, Uruguay, South Africa and Pakistan.133 Meshes consistently proved to be the film of hers most in demand for purchase. She organised the distribution of her films entirely on her

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own, as a small, extremely independent distributor. In 1947, on income derived mostly from film rentals, sales and lecturing fees, she was able to clear a profit of $1,020.24.134 This was a considerable sum, especially if we consider that Deren’s entire operation was run from the tiny flat on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Sadly, the business did not remain remunerative; Deren spent much of her life in the 1950s scrounging for money not only to support her film-making, but simply to feed herself and Ito (and her cats, of which she kept many). Deren’s premature death at the age of forty-four is often attributed to her addiction to amphetamines (an addiction that developed over time and as a result of medical treatment for chronic physical ailments), but also to malnutrition due to poverty. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Deren was a martyr to her art, and to the art of other film artists whose work she made possible by example and by the furiousness with which she promoted the interests of experimental film-making.

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9 Reflections and Shadows I have chosen to say relatively little about the films that might have influenced the production of Meshes of the Afternoon in part because I think that Hammid’s immersion in modernist film culture is too obvious and Deren’s lack of serious interest in cinema before Meshes too incontrovertible to make such a tracing of influence a very rich or interesting line of enquiry. I believe, however, that there is much more to say about the films that Meshes itself has influenced – whether directly, as a source of visual inspiration, or indirectly, as an example of experimental poeisis. Meshes is not only Deren’s first film, it is also the one film whose authorship she shares with another film-maker. These facts make it seem rather odd that Meshes should be the film for which she remains the most recognised. Not only does the film often function as a metonymic signifier for her entire life’s work, it is also often used as a metonym for the entire project of American avant-garde (‘personal’, ‘experimental’) cinema. Even more powerfully, the film acts as a metonym for women’s film-making as it articulated itself in the context of second-wave feminism and after. In addition to Deren’s indefatigable promotion of her film-making efforts and those of other experimental film-makers associated with what became known as the ‘New American Cinema’, two developments that took shape in the years following her premature death in 1961 did much to consolidate her position inside cultural history and film history: 1) the rise and expansion of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s; and 2) the development of film studies as an academic discipline in the same period. As Catherine M. Soussloff has argued, Deren’s career: assumes dimensions unlike that of any other film-maker of the second half of the twentieth century … because it responds in form and content to the

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burden of criticism placed upon it in the early 1970s; a weight, we could say, determined by two separate but interrelated projects – one of them aesthetic, the definition of an avant-garde cinema, and the other political, the establishment of a place for the ‘woman artist’ in this avant-garde.135

These developments converged on Deren as a figure (often, in quite hagiographic terms) and on Meshes. Writing in regards to a retrospective of Deren’s work in New York in 1978, J. Hoberman felt able to make the claim that I cited at this book’s beginning – that, ‘Un Chien Andalou aside’, Meshes of the Afternoon was ‘probably the most widely seen avant-garde film ever made’. The accuracy of Hoberman’s casual claim (and I do believe he’s right) consists in the fact that Deren had toured her work so extensively and that she had done so primarily at universities and colleges, many of whom acquired copies of her films that then became part of the audiovisual reserve of film studies curricula that began to be established in the late 1960s and early 70s. As for feminism: a journalist for the L. A. Times, writing a year after Hoberman and in a similar vein, chirruped that ‘[n]o festival of women’s films seems complete without … [Meshes’s] study of a woman’s subconscious recognition of the latent violence within marriage’.136 The informality of these remarks reveals that by the late 1970s Deren’s and Meshes’s places in the occasionally overlapping pantheons of film studies and feminism had been made thoroughly secure. The interest of this story does not consist in the mere fact of Deren’s installation in the canons of film history and feminist history. It consists rather in the effect of these canonisations: because of Deren’s ubiquity in lecture halls and feminist film festivals, her films were seen by countless budding film-makers, intellectuals and activists on whose aesthetic and political sensibilities the film’s shadows, doubles and unhappy objects and subjects would leave their indelible traces. The film has been central to the rise of Deren’s influence as not just the author of Meshes, but also as theorist of film and an activist for the cause of independent and experimental media.

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As I have said, the film is commonly understood as metonymic of her work as a whole and as paradigmatic for the entire project of both women’s film-making and experimental media practices. In the metonymic merger of Meshes and Deren as shorthands for larger projects and totalities, Hammid’s contribution to the film, though almost always acknowledged nominally, tends to be occluded – occluded not by historical projects like The Legend of Maya Deren, but by the legend of Maya Deren. I find that this legend expresses itself most forcefully in some of the more ephemeral of its iterations. For instance, in the programme notes for a screening of Deren’s work organised at Circles Women’s Film and Video Distribution in London in 1984, the organiser Judith Higginbottom (herself a film-maker and activist for women’s media) writes: ‘The concepts of female personality, sexuality, and specific experience expressed in many mythologies are being re-examined in light of feminist work and theory. Maya Deren was one of the initiators of this process.’137 Before she was that, however, Deren’s influence was felt more directly on the world of American avant-garde cinema that is frequently assumed to have emerged as a direct result of her activities as film-maker and activist. In an article published in Playboy in 1960, a year before Deren’s death, Arthur Knight felt entirely comfortable asserting that film ‘experimentalists’ who were ‘unabashedly claiming that film is an art form in its own right, and the form that gives them utmost for self-expression’, owed their freedom to Deren who was, in Knight’s opinion, the ‘catalyst of this postwar avant-garde’.138 Not only did Deren invite aspiring film-makers like the young Stan Brakhage to camp out in the Barrow Street apartment, Deren founded the Creative Film Foundation in 1954, a non-profit organisation that she hoped would help to fund the work of emerging film artists. In Bill Nichol’s estimation: ‘Deren formulated the terms and conditions of an independent cinema that remain with us today.’139 It is hard to separate the force of Deren’s general influence from the force of Meshes (a film whose authorship, we should remember,

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she shares with Hammid). In the spheres of experimental film and video, I think we sense Meshes’s influence less in terms of direct or indirect allusion or imitation of formal patterns, but more in the sense of possibility for which it so boldly threw open the door. Meshes exemplifies the potential to produce radical form, sensual delight and political critique out of the most impoverished means. One of the first films to exhibit the influence of Meshes is surely Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947). This oneiric, sadomasochistic gay fantasy was shot, like Meshes, in a modest Los Angeles domestic interior and also stars its maker as its dreamerprotagonist. Anger’s use of low-tech but extremely disturbing ‘special effects’, its meditation on thresholds (architectural and psychic), its too-overt symbolism and its oscillation between intensely subjective and depersonalised experience all pay homage – both directly and indirectly – to Meshes.140 The influence of Meshes is felt very distinctly in the early psychodramas of Stan Brakhage (for instance, The Way to Shadow Garden [1954] or Reflections on Black [1955]) and most powerfully in Anticipation of the Night (1958), a crucial film that connects Brakhage’s early and mature work and that ends on an ambiguous note of suicide. To some extent, Anticipation might be understood to exorcise some of Deren’s influence on Brakhage’s early work. We note what seem to be direct allusions to Meshes in a film like Su Friedrich’s Cool Hands, Warm Heart (1979) in which a large flower is offered to a woman in open air broad daylight, or in her Damned If You Don’t (1984) in which a woman pursues another elusive figure (a nun) dressed in black. Barbara Hammer has made her debts to Deren even more explicit both in writing and in her film-making.141 For instance, in I Was/I Am (1973) Hammer, acting in her own film, pulls a key from her mouth, only this key is the key to Hammer’s motorcycle, not her front door. We might see in Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), with its emphases on doubling, death and female subjectivity, all staged in the confinement of a domestic space, some broad affinity with Meshes. We see a similar affinity or relatedness

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in the work of Sadie Benning, whose videos, made with the cheapest of materials and in the confines of her own bedroom, demonstrate how the most intensely personal material can be translated into commentary on much wider political concerns. But we also feel the influence of Meshes in a film like Peggy Ahwesh’s cheap ‘horror’ film, The Scary Movie (1993) or, more significantly, in Nocturne (1998), a film in which an ambience of ritual, violence, radical female jouissance and domestic unease all pulsate breathingly in a chiaroscuro mixture of black-and-white 16mm film stock and the decomposing pixels of a child’s video camera.142 Here there is no direct reference to any scene, image, or editing pattern in Meshes, but one has the sense that, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, Meshes is that which Nocturne knows.143 The same can be said for all of these experimental feminist film-makers, for whom knowing Meshes has been a fundamental part of what is to be known about making, and about the (gendered) politics of making.144 Deren’s work has also resonated inside contexts closer to the Hollywood to which Meshes’s credit sequence (‘Hollywood, 1943’) makes sardonic reference. David Lynch, a successful mediator of Hollywood ‘entertainment’ films and experimental narration, might be said to pay homage to Meshes in his Lost Highway (1997), a film in which the status of subjectivity and objectivity, dream and reality are disturbingly and consistently confounded. The grainy black-andwhite video surveillance tape whose appearance (like that of the poppy in Meshes) initiates the serial complexities of Lost Highway actually seems to imitate quite closely Meshes’s subjective exploration of Deren’s and Hammid’s modest Los Angeles home, not unlike the one inhabited by the characters played by Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman in Lynch’s film.145 (Lynch’s Mulholland Drive [2001] and Inland Empire [2006] could also be said to pay debts to Meshes.) An earlier example of Meshes’s possible influence on industrially produced narrative (art) cinema is Robert Altman’s film Images (1972), in which the boundaries of subject and object are explored through the experience of a woman writer in the close confines of

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domestic architecture.146 Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (I965) is another such feature film that plays with the same material. The elaborate play with doubles in the context of female artistic production staged by Black Swan (Darren Aronoksky, 2010) is only the most recent instance of Hollywood film-making that owes more than a little to the example of Meshes. The point in all of these cases consists not in being able to identify with any certainty cases of influence, homage, or imitation. Rather, it is more interesting that Meshes is the point towards which we inevitably want to return as a means of describing or naming the formal and psychological terrain that these films explore, whether their makers were aware of Meshes’s example or not. (I think it likely that they were.) We might want to entertain that, in excess of the film’s direct influence on certain films or film-makers, there is a certain ‘Meshes effect’ that these films participate in and extend. This effect belongs as much to reception as to production: Meshes is a part of the critical vocabulary we use to make sense of films that traffic in contents and forms similar to its own. Some of the most literal traces of the film’s influence are found in the realm of the music video. Milla Jovovich is a model-singeractress born, like Deren, in Kiev and who emigrated to the US, like Deren, when she was six. The video for her single ‘Gentlemen Who Fell’ (directed by Kae Garner, 1994) is a thoroughly comprehensive pastiche of Meshes.147 In a manner that might have dismayed Deren, the video combines its homage to Meshes with shots that clearly reference Un Chien Andalou. Kristin Hersh’s video for ‘Your Ghost’ (also from 1994) rehearses some of Meshes’s most often-cited visual motifs (the stairs, the telephone, the key withdrawn from the mouth). These tributes to the film, however affectionate, effective or clever (and I especially like the Jovovich video), run the risk of mining Meshes as if it were a standing reserve of the ‘artiness’ that the film’s first unsympathetic critics accused it of exemplifying.148 Jovovich’s mixing of effects borrowed from Un Chien Andalou, with its sustained imitation of Meshes, bears witness to the accuracy of

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Hoberman’s pairing of the two films as ubiquitous signifiers of avantgarde film-making. Because Meshes wears its effects on its sleeve and seems to flaunt its mode of production, watching it is an education in making it, or something like it, and therefore it lends itself to imitation, and simulation: as if essaying a remake of it were the film school equivalent of practising one’s scales, or experimenting with the sonnet or the first-person short story. The fact that the film itself meditates on and mediates part–whole relations imparts a strange – and not entirely gratifying – dimension to its use as absolute signifier and over-determined metonym of experimental film-making.

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10 Particularly Universal And yet, the part–whole relationship continues to be the source of the fascination of Meshes of the Afternoon. This relation is also the source of its continued relevance and vitality – not only as an aesthetic artefact or piece of film history, but as a political document, as well. In the penultimate sentence of An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, published three years after the production of Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren tells us: ‘It is not presumptuous to suggest that cinema, as an art instrument especially capable of recreating relativistic relationships on a plane of intimate experience, is of profound importance.’149 This sentence wants to tell us that cinema is important. If cinema is important, this sentence tells us, then its importance will inhere in its mediation of ‘relativistic relationships’ and ‘intimate experience’. In the former term, Deren refers to cinema’s abstracting potentiality; in the latter, its inevitable (indexical) attachment to concreteness. In other words, cinema will matter because, in Deren’s medium-specific account of its power, it will, according to its nature – and if it is manipulated with serious intention – engage us in the mediation of the universal and the particular. In her letter to James Card, which, we remember, was sent to accompany the copy of Meshes that he had acquired, Deren evokes the sequence of Maya 4 striding across beach, grass, dirt, pavement, rug. ‘You have to come a long way … to kill yourself,’ Deren says about this sequence. The sequence is nothing other than a series of Deren’s own feet. These images of feet – each entirely particular to itself – are bound together by their movement, and the movement they imply through the combination of their movement with the activity of editing. The parts ground the articulation of the whole,

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and the whole grants meaning to the parts; neither part or whole would be remarkable without the other. Things become ideas by way of what Alison Butler has elegantly termed the ‘progressive abstraction of movement from the particularities of its execution’.150 We remember that, in the same letter, Deren says of this sequence: ‘It was like a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.’ By ‘prying’ at this crack, Deren says, she ‘came to the world where the identity of movement spans and transcends all time and space’.151 Just a little bit later in the same letter, her thoughts compelled as a result of her meditation on this sequence, she dilates on this new world she has discovered: This principle – that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else – than any changes of matter … I mean that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter – that, in fact, it creates matter – seemed to me to be marvellous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself, which I did in Study in Choreography for Camera.152

This three-minute film stars Talley Beatty, one of Katherine Dunham’s dancers. In it he repeatedly extends his leg out of the film frame; as he does so, the film cuts and his foot re-enters the frame, but in a different location. Deren has taken the striding sandal sequence from Meshes and elaborated it as the premise for an entire film. (We note that she has cast a trained dancer to perform here the labour she undertook in Meshes.153) Of this film Deren says, again, in the letter from which I have been quoting: ‘The movement of the dancer creates a geography, in the film, that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbors of distant places.’154 Deren speaks in terms that are about both film form and geopolitics at one and the same time. The particularity of these feet (Deren’s or Beatty’s) perform their labour of movement in symbiotic concert with the labour of the film’s editing in order deliver us into an

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experience of universality. In Stefan Jonsson’s useful terms, universality is ‘a human potentiality that can never be ultimately inscribed in particular identities, for it resides precisely in the human ability to exceed whatever identity the subject is allotted’.155 For Deren’s film actor/dancer, the exertion of his body coupled with the manipulation of film form makes ‘the world itself his stage’.156 Here Deren rehearses a cliché in which the film actor becomes worldhistorical subject: the part becomes the whole, the particular the universal. I would like to entertain this cliché seriously. Deren began her young adult life as an active participant in Socialist politics. She was committed to the cause of the whole, the universal. At the same time she also maintained – as writer and as scholar – a commitment to modernist experimentation, an ongoing engagement with how the unique poetic voice – the particular – might be a means of apprehending the universal. My intention has been to show that her passage from Young Socialist activism to the study (and production) of modernist literature to her turn to cinema was not a declension of political commitment. It was a translation out of explicitness to a kind of codedness, perhaps, but modernism remained for her a means of mediating the value of personal experimentation’s contribution to social emancipation. This mediation continues in her work in cinema. What connects all of these spheres of activity together in their uneven continuity is Deren’s consistent – indeed, obsessive – meditation on this mediation. Ernesto Laclau has written that ‘the universal is incommensurable with the particular, but cannot, however, exist without the latter’. This relation is an irresolvable ‘paradox’, but more important than the fact of the paradox, for Laclau, is his contention that the ‘non-solution’ of this paradox is ‘the very precondition of democracy’.157 Democracy – which we might read as but one empty signifier for radical social emancipation – will consist in the endlessly laborious task of deciding, in a world of competing particularisms, which particularism will assume the place of a necessarily provisional and incomplete universality.

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Cinema, for Deren, enacts this public melodrama of the part’s relation to the whole. We might see her movement from an explicit engagement in party politics to cinema as a movement from the manifest language of politics to the ontology of the political as such. This movement, I think, is responsible for the generative political possibility of her film-making, a possibility which is intensely distilled in Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren bequeathed more to our common struggle for emancipation by becoming a film-maker than she would have done had she continued sending reprimanding letters to wayward party members in her capacity as party secretary. (In claiming this, I do not at all intend to impugn or belittle party politics, which are absolutely vital to the cause of democracy. I simply believe that Deren – in particular – had more to offer politics by way of cinema.) Let us say that the particular film that Meshes is gives us the particularities of woman living disharmoniously with her husband in an LA bungalow. This domestic scene becomes but one register of a provisional universality – here, that of the feminist emancipation. Of course, we can assume that Deren would have stubbornly resisted the claim that the film was ‘about’ this. It was, for her, something much more abstract. And yet, the new reality, the ritual form that this film creates would always depend on cinema’s attachment to the particularities of the real. The paradox of the relation between the universal and the particular is the ground of Meshes’s importance, why it still matters to us and continues to matter to so many of us in so many different ways. In fact, the film’s and Deren’s interest in the unifying of separateness explains why it has been so valuable a resource for the articulation of feminist criticism, theory and practice – for feminism itself has been marked by its own struggle to mediate the claims of universalising essentialism and those of particularising anti-essentialisms. *

*

*

Meshes of the Afternoon teaches us many things and it lends itself to many uses. Its influence and example have been absorbed, reused,

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instrumentalised, parodied, reverenced and revered. It is that which we know. Even though we have come to feel ourselves familiar with it, the particularity of its obdurate strangeness endures. We know that when we should expect a face, we will look into the abyss of the mirror; that the Mayas will haunt the house with their accustomed puzzled solemnity; that the key will become knife; that the foot that lands on sand will be followed by the foot that lands on grass; that the mirror’s abyss will be shattered to reveal the abyss of the sea beyond; that all will end in seaweed, and that the end is no conclusion but a question. We know this and yet we start at every trick that – by dint of its familiarity – should no longer surprise. The film’s first images still hail us to travel down the sinuous road, across the threshold and into the house, ‘around the corner from Barbara Stanwyck’s place’. We know its fiction, and yet its fiction is all really there, in the matter and materiality of the film’s medium. We know that no one strides across the world in five simple steps, and yet we know, by the film’s example, that, in some sense, someone does. In a question and answer session after a screening in 1951, Deren said, ‘Art is the only educational medium. It changes the organism which experiences it. It doesn’t add to it, take away from it, but it is directed toward a qualitative change in the organism.’158 Meshes of the Afternoon has become that which we know; each time it is known – by new spectators, in new historical moments – it, too, changes. In being changed by it, we change it. Its work, therefore, is forever incomplete: shadow of girl appears.

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Notes Bibliographic note TLOMD (I:1 and I:2) refers to The Legend of Maya Deren, V. A. Clark, M. Hodson and C. Neiman (eds), Volume I, parts 1 and 2 (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1985 and 1988). MDC refers to The Maya Deren Collection, Howard Gotlieb Research Center, Boston University. Numerical references refer to box number, then folder number. For instance: MDC, 1/2 refers to Box 1, Folder 2 in the Collection. 1 ‘Production Costs’, document compiled by Deren, MDC, 8/28. 2 Maya Deren, ‘Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality’, Essential Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson and Co., 2005), p. 119. The essay was originally published in Deadalus vol. 89 no. 1 (1960). 3 ‘ “Meshes of the Afternoon” Shot List’ (made by Deren in 1959), TLOMD I:2, p. 85. 4 J. Hoberman, ‘The Maya Mystique’, The Village Voice, 15 May 1978, p. 54. 5 David E. James, The Most Typical AvantGarde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 176. 6 Deren, quoted in Douglas Gilbert, ‘Pioneer in New Film Art Makes Camera Part of Her Pictures’, New York WorldTelegram, 17 April 1946 (found in MDC, 6/4). 7 I am punning – not a little obviously – on The Legend of Maya Deren, of course. 8 TLOMD I:1, p. 102.

9 Diary entry, 8 February 1931, MDC, 1/1. This is quoted from a typed diary (from school days in Geneva) that runs from 15 January to 29 February (NB: This typed manuscript seems to have been typed up by Deren sometime much later. The actual journal pages, written in longhand, are found in MDC, 1/2.) Other pages from Deren’s diaries during this same period are reproduced in TLOMD I:1, pp. 69–74. 10 Coursework essay dated 21 April 1931, MDC, 1/8. 11 Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (Yonkers, New York: Alicat Book Shop Press, 1946), p. 30. It has recently been reproduced in its entirety in facsimile as an appendix to Bill Nichols (ed.), Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). It is also republished entirely, but not in its original layout and pagination, in Essential Deren, pp. 34–109. 12 TLOMD, I:1, p. 185. 13 TLOMD, I:1, p. 181. 14 TLOMD, I:1, p. 188. The quotation is from another letter to Shirley Lyons (dated 1 November 1934). 15 TLOMD, I:1, p. 139. These comments are made in yet another letter to Shirley Lyons. 16 TLOMD, I:1, p. 233. 17 Ibid. 18 TLOMD, I:1, pp. 259–71, passim. 19 TLOMD, I:1, p. 274. 20 TLOMD, I:1, p. 277. 21 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997), p. 427.

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22 TLOMD, I:1, p. 343. Hal Draper also recalls this meeting and Deren’s and Eastman’s paper in a phone conversation that is summarised in TLOMD, I:1, pp. 284–7. 23 TLOMD, I:1, p. 185. 24 Alan M. Wald claims that ‘most’ of the New York-based Trotskyists ‘defended the modernist avant-garde, even if they felt strong allegiances to other traditions’. Cf. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 7. 25 Annette Michelson, ‘On Reading Deren’s Notebook’, October 14 (Autumn 1980), pp. 49–50 26 TLOMD, I:1, p. 395. 27 Letter to Anne Draper (20 August 1938), TLOMD I:1, p. 382. At this point in time Smith observed – like many other Ivy League universities and colleges in the Seven Sister consortium to which Smith belonged (and like many universities and colleges throughout the US) – a policy of numerus clausus, a quota system that limited the number of Jewish students who could be admitted to a given institution. Observance of such quotas declined in the post-World War II period. Cf. Marcia G. Synott, ‘Numerus Clausus (United States)’, in Richard S. Levy (ed.), Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), pp. 514–15. 28 TLOMD, I:1, p. 304. This translation seems never to have made it into print. A translation by Richard Greeman was published by Doubleday in 1975. This

translation has recently (2010) been republished by NYRB Classics. 29 Letter to Anne Draper, op. cit. The WPA was the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that offered employment in public works projects during the Great Depression. A number of artists and writers were employed by the WPA during this period. I don’t know whether Deren actually ever actually considered or sought employment in the WPA or worked in a department store. 30 Letter to A. E. (23 September 1938), TLOMD I:1, pp. 386–7. 31 Ibid., p. 386. 32 A work that must have influenced Deren’s thesis is René Taupin’s L’influence du Symbolism Français sur la Poésie Américaine, de 1910 a 1920 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1975). The book was originally published in Paris in 1929. 33 ‘The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry’, p. 4, MDC, 1/15. Hereafter referred to as Influence. 34 T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, The Sacred Wood (London and New York: Routledge, 1989 [first published 1920]), p. 49. 35 Ibid., p. 55. 36 Ibid., p. 58 37 Influence, pp. 23–4. 38 Ibid., p. 12. 39 Ibid. 40 ‘Pound and Eliot are equivalent to the French Symbolist school in the same sense that the Imagists were equivalent to the Parnassiens’, Influence, p. 117.

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41 Influence, p. 76. 42 T. E. Hulme, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme, ed. Karen Csengeri (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 62. Hulme influenced Deren’s thinking greatly, especially as it took shape in Anagram in which she abuses Romanticism in terms that are clearly drawn directly from Hulme and from Eliot. Renata Jackson has usefully traced the genealogy of Deren’s thinking in her essay ‘The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, pp. 47–76. See also Jackson’s book, The Modernist Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren (1917–1961) (Lewiston, NY, and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002). 43 See Hulme, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, p. 66. 44 Influence, p. 162. 45 Letter to Eda Lou Walton, 21 May 1939, in TLOMD, I:1, p. 393. 46 Influence, p. 282. 47 Addendum to letter to A. E., 21 September 1938, MDC, 1/4. 48 Leon Trotsky, from Literature and Revolution, in Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, ed. Paul N. Siegel (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp. 31–2. Literature and Revolution was written from 1922 to 1923. The first translation into English was published in 1925. Elsewhere Trotsky often sounds like nothing so much as T. S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. We might compare Trotsky’s contention that ‘[a]rtistic creation … is not a raving, though it is also a deflection, a changing and a transformation of reality, in

accordance with the peculiar laws of art’ (p. 34) with Eliot’s claim that ‘the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways’ (p. 56). Eliot’s essay remained important to Deren; she alludes rather forcefully to it (but, oddly, without naming or citing it) in her Anagram. 49 Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 32. 50 Wald, The New York Intellectuals, p. 78. Harvey Teres has explored the significance of Eliot to left criticism of this period. See ‘Remaking Marxist Criticism: Partisan Review’s Eliotic Leftism, 1934–1936’, American Literature vol. 64 no. 1 (March 1992), pp. 127–53. James Joyce’s work functioned similarly in the period. Cf. Jeffrey Segall, ‘Between Marxism and Modernism, or How to Be a Revolutionist and Still Love “Ulysses”’, James Joyce Quarterly vol. 25 no. 4 (Summer 1988), pp. 421–44. 51 IBDB (Internet Broadway Database), www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=1025 (last consulted 26 August 2010). 52 TLOMD, I:1, p. 433. 53 Dunham, quoted in Frederick L. Orme, ‘The Negro in the Dance, as Katherine Dunham Sees Him’, in VèVè A. Clark and Sarah E. Johnson (eds), Kaiso!: Writings By and About Katherin Dunham (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), p. 194. 54 This is according to Harlow Robinson in Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofoiev, ed. Harlow Robinson (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), p. 141.

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55 This term might be typically understood in relation to the context of the Harlem Renaissance. See Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). For an essay that links the question of black modernism to performances by Ethel Waters and Katherine Dunham, see Shane Vogel, ‘Performing “Stormy Weather”: Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham’, South Central Review vol. 25 no. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 93–113. See also Susan Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), for an understanding of the relationship between these terms in dance and dance history. 56 I generally don’t like the term ‘high modernism’, if only because it is so often used as a stick with which to beat modernism, the greatest achievements of which were often impure, hybrid and which drew directly from ‘low’ forms of entertainment, and not entirely with the view of sublimating the low into the high. T. S. Eliot took enormous inspiration from the music-hall performances of Marie Lloyd, to name only one famous example. 57 Cf. Denning, The Cultural Front, pp. 295–309. See also Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance. Dunham makes significant appearances in both of these books, especially in Manning. 58 Letter to ‘Darling’, 2 April 1941 (from the Hotel Barlum, Detroit), MDC, 4/4. 59 TLOMD, I:2, p. 27. 60 Interview with John Pratt, 23 May 1977, TLOMD, I:1, p. 466. Herbert Kline

also recalled: ‘She wore her hair rather frizzy, you might say “Afro” nowadays’, TLOMD, I:2, p. 30. 61 Cabin in the Sky was made into a film in 1943 at MGM and was the vehicle for Vincente Minelli’s directorial debut. Lena Horne starred as Georgia Brown, the role that Katherine had made famous on the stage. 62 See Deren, ‘Religious Possession in Dancing’, TLOMD I:1, pp. 480–96. Only the first three of the article’s four instalments were published, all in Educational Dance in 1942. TLOMD I:1 reproduces the article in its entirety. See also Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson and Co., 2004). Originally published by Thames and Hudson in 1953. 63 Letter to ‘Indian’, 1 April 1941, TLOMD I:1, 436. 64 TLOMD, I:2, p. 115. 65 This is not to say that Deren did not credit her collaborators on her later films. She also referred occasionally to her Choreography for the Camera as a collaboration between herself and the film’s performer Talley Beatty. 66 Michal Bregant, ‘Alexander Hammid’s Czech Years: Space and Time of His Early Films’, in Michael Omasta (ed.), Tribute to Sasha (Vienna: Synema, 2002), p. 39. 67 Bregant, ‘Alexander Hammid’s Czech Years’, pp. 32–3. Bregant claims that Hammid had influenced the overall look of both films. Hammid characterises the experience thus: ‘My collaboration with Machaty amounted more or less to a kind of kibitzing

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around the daily shooting in the studio, mainly around the camera (angles, lighting, etc.) on Erotikon and Ze Soboty na Nedeli’ (Michael Omasta and Alexander Hammid, ‘“… The Rest is More or Less Routine Stuff”, Michael Omasta in correspondence with Alexander Hammid, Vienna/New York (Sept 2001–Jan 2002)’, in Omasta, Tribute to Sasha, p. 162. Hammid is credited with working on Machaty’s infamous film Ecstasy (1933), starring Hedy Lamarr, but Hammid denies having worked on the film (see Omasta and Hammid, p. 162). 68 See the interview with Kline in TLOMD, I:2, pp. 21–6. 69 So says Erhard Bahr in Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 24. 70 Ibid., p. 19. 71 TLOMD, I:2, p. 48. 72 TLOMD, I:2, p. 29. 73 TLOMD, I:2, p. 70. The poem is dated March 1942. 74 Alexander Hammid, speaking in Aimless Walk (Martina Kudlácek, 1996). This film is distributed by Sixpack Film: www.sixpackfilm.com 75 TLOMD, I:2, p. 77. 76 Deren, ‘Planning by Eye’, Essential Deren, pp. 156–7. This article was first published in Film Culture vol. 39 (1965). 77 Letter to Herbert Passin, 16 January 1943, TLOMD, I:2, p. 73. Interestingly this letter is also written just after Hammid’s solo show of photographs. It was a dense period of time for the couple.

78 MDC, 1/8. The poem is dated 1927. This poem and a few other of Deren’s unpublished poems were published recently in World Picture vol. 4 (Spring 2010): www.worldpicturejournal.com 79 TLOMD, I:1, p. 360. 80 Deren, ‘Magic is New’, Essential Deren, p. 203. 81 P. A. Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–1978, 2nd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 6. 82 TLOMD, I:2, p. 102. This is not a quotation from Hammid but a summary of the interview that the editors of TLOMD conducted with him. 83 See Lucy Fisher, ‘“The Eye for Magic”’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, pp. 185–204; Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 184–91; Tom Gunning, ‘An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film’, John Fell (ed.), Film Before Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 355–66. 84 Here I am invoking the film theory of André Bazin. See ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, What is Cinema?, Volume I, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 9–16. Bazin’s article was first published in 1945. 85 Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, in Essential Deren, p. 89. Anagram was first published in 1946 by the Alicat Book Shop Press in Yonkers, New York. Facsimiles of the original

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publication can be found in TLOMD, I:2 (pp. 550–602), and in Nichols’s Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde as an appendix. 86 Deren, ‘Magic is New’, Essential Deren, p. 202. 87 TLOMD, I:1, pp. 399–400. 88 I mentioned the name change to a Belarusan friend who immediately assumed it to have been a Soviet reference to 1 May, International Worker’s Day. Women in the Soviet Union were often given or assumed new names associated with the Revolution. Lenina (from Lenin) is one example. 89 See TLOMD, I:2, pp. 85–94. 90 See Maureen Turim, ‘The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren’s Challenge to the Cinema’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, pp. 77–102; Lauren Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avantgarde Cinema, 1943–71 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 55–65; Sitney, Visionary Film, pp. 7–19. 91 Lewis Jacobs, ‘Experimental Cinema in America (Part Two: The Postwar Revival)’, Hollywood Quarterly vol. 3 no. 3 (Spring 1948), p. 279. 92 In an interview with Robert Steele Hammid had this to say about the film’s obviousness movement into a dream or trance state: ‘[T]hat’s the one too obvious thing in the film. The moment when it comes to the closeup of her, closing her eyes and a sort of veil falls over the eyes, the suggestion is made that from then on the film is a dream.

That’s a little too literal.’ ‘As Known by Alexander Hammid’, MDC, 18/9. 93 J. Hoberman, ‘The Maya Mystique’, The Village Voice, 15 May 1978, p. 54 94 Manny Farber, ‘Maya Deren’s Films’, The New Republic, 28 October 1946. I will turn later to Farber’s hostility to the film and Deren’s indignant response. 95 Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, p. 61. See also Dana Polan, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 10–11; Maureen Turim, ‘The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren’s Challenge to the Cinema’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American AvantGarde, p. 91; Julian Wolfreys, ‘Meshes of the Afternoon: Hollywood, the AvantGarde and Problems of Interpretation’, CineAction! (Winter 1987–8), pp. 38–41; Theresa L. Geller, ‘The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-Garde’, Biography vol. 29 no. 1 (Winter 2006), p. 140. Even Sitney suggests Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as an influence on Meshes. See Visionary Film, p. 15. Teiji Ito recalls Deren being fond of Citizen Kane in an interview with Robert Steele (MDC, 18/9). The best discussion to link the film to its Hollywood counterparts is, to my mind, that of David E. James. Cf. The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 169–76. 96 Rabinovitz comments: ‘Only after the woman subject’s point of view becomes the dominant means of

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ordering vis-à-vis the dream sequence is her face finally made visible.’ Points of Resistance, (p. 63). 97 TLOMD, I:2, p. 97. Arsham is a film editor and was a close friend to Deren and Hammid. She worked with Deren on The Very Eye of Night (1959). 98 Deren, ‘Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality’, Essential Deren, p. 119. Originally published in Daedalus vol. 89 no. 1 (1960). 99 See discussions in TLOMD, I:1, pp. ix–xvi; Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 11; Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video & Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 34; as well as two articles by Maria Pramaggiore: ‘Performance and Persona in the US Avant-Garde: The Case of Maya Deren’, Cinema Journal vol. 36 no. 2 (Winter 1997), pp. 17–40 and ‘Seeing Double(s): Reading Deren Bisexually’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American AvantGarde, pp. 237–60. 100 Pramaggiore, ‘Performance and Persona in the US Avant-Garde’, p. 24 101 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 25. 102 Hammid said about this sequence of cuts: ‘It doesn’t make much sense … It seems like a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning.’ TLOMD, I:2, p. 97. 103 The Diary of Anaïs Nin, quoted in TLOMD, I:2, p. 103. 104 Deren, ‘Adventures in Creative Film-Making’, Essential Deren, pp. 168–9. The article was originally published in Home Move Making in 1960.

105 Letter to James Card, 19 April 1955, Essential Deren, p. 192. There are, of course, five strides in this sequence, not four. James Card was the founding curator of the Motion Picture Collection at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The letter accompanied a copy of Meshes that Eastman had purchased from Deren for the collection. 106 Ibid. 107 Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, p. 64. 108 Sitney uses this term in analysing the film, especially with regard to what are, in his estimation, its similarities to Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) (Visionary Film, p. 14). Late I will briefly discuss Deren’s phobia about her films being construed as ‘surrealist’. 109 Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, p. 65. 110 My thinking here – and the language in which I propose it – is strongly influenced by two books by Alexander García Düttmann: Between Cultures: Tensions in the Struggle for Recognition (London: Verso, 2000) and Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). 111 See Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). 112 Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, p. 56. 113 Deren, Anagram, Essential Deren, p. 54. Italics in original. 114 Hammid in interview by Robert Steele, MDC 18/9. 115 Deren, Anagram, Essential Deren, p. 91. 116 Ibid., p. 89.

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117 ‘Poetry in Motion Is Really Visual Bebop’, New York World-Telegram, 21 January 1949 (no author or page number available). Copy of article found in MDC 6/4. 118 Deren is quoted as saying this in an article by Gilbert, ‘Pioneer in New Film Art Makes Camera Part of Her Pictures’. 119 The Diary of Anaïs Nin, quoted in TLOMD, I:2, p. 106. 120 It might also miss the way in which the film performs the work of displacement and condensation (through similarity and contiguity) that Freud theorised as the operations of dreamwork. See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon, 1998 [1900]). 121 TLOMD, I:2, pp. 106–7. 122 Anagram, Essential Deren, p. 39. 123 TLOMD, I:2, p. 626 124 Programme notes for ‘Chamber Films’, a presentation of Deren’s work in 1960, reprinted in Essential Deren, pp. 250–4. 125 Teiji Ito interviewed by Robert Steele, MDC, 18/9. 126 Promotional flyer for rentals of Deren films (produced in 1959), Maya Deren Files, Anthology Film Archive, New York. 127 Hammid interviewed by Robert Steele, MDC, 18/9. This story is also related in TLOMD, I:2, pp. 240–1. 128 James Agee, ‘Films’, The Nation, 2 March 1946, p. 270. 129 Manny Farber, ‘Maya Deren’s Films’, The New Republic, 28 October 1946 130 Maya Deren, Letter to the Editor, Re: Maya Deren’s Films, The New Republic, 11 November 1946.

131 TLOMD, I:2, p. 236. 132 Deren, ‘Author’s Preface’, Divine Horsemen, p. 5. 133 ‘Screening of the Films’ (typescript document), MDC, 8/11. 134 Maya Deren’s distribution ledgers, 1945–51, MDC, 8/10. 135 Catherine M. Soussloff, ‘Maya Deren Herself’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, p. 109. 136 Mitch Tuchman, ‘Deren: Probing a Woman’s Soul’, L. A. Times, 17 June 1979, p. M37. 137 Judith Higginbottom, programme notes for ‘Maya Deren: a programme of films representing her work selected by Judith Higginbottom & Felicity Sparrow’, Circles Film & Video Distribution, Roman Road, London (1984) (found in Maya Deren Collection, Anthology Film Archives). The cover still for the programme was, of course, the ‘Botticelli’ shot of Maya at the window in Meshes. 138 Arthur Knight, ‘The Far Out Films’, Playboy (April 1960), p. 50. The article’s first page is dominated by the ‘Botticelli’ still. 139 Bill Nichols, ‘Introduction’, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, p. 6. 140 David E. James has called Anger, along with Curtis Harrington and Gregory Markopoulos, one of ‘Deren’s acolytes’: see The Most Typical AvantGarde, pp. 180–7. 141 Barbara Hammer, ‘Maya Deren and Me’, in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, pp. 261–5. 142 These and many of Ahwesh’s other films and videos are collected in a DVD box set entitled Pistolary! Films and

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Videos by Peggy Ahwesh (2006) and can be purchased and/or rented through the Video Databank (www.vdb.org). 143 Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, p. 52: ‘Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ 144 As I write this, a screening series tracing Deren’s influence on experimental feminist film-makers has just concluded at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: ‘Maya Deren’s Legacy: Women and Experimental Film’ (15 May–July 23, 2010). The programme limits itself to Hammer, Friedrich and Carolee Schneemann. 145 Wendy Haslem makes some of these connections in her biographical entry for the Senses of Cinema ‘Great Directors’ database: www.archive. sensesofcinema.com/contents/ directors/02/deren.html (last consulted 1 September 2010). 146 I would like to thank Hugh Manon for drawing my attention to Images in relation to Meshes. 147 Jovovich’s website offers some very brief information about the video’s production: www.millaj.com/ music/tdc.shtml (last consulted 1 September 2010). Martina Kudlácek brought this video to my attention.

148 See Agee’s review, quoted above. 149 Anagram, Essential Deren, p. 109. 150 Alison Butler, ‘“Motor-Driven Metaphysics”: Movement, Time and Action in the Films of Maya Deren’, Screen vol. 48 no. 1 (Spring 2007), p. 11. 151 Deren, Letter to James Card, Essential Deren, p. 192. 152 Ibid. 153 I am currently at work on an article that explores the raced embodiment of Deren’s cinema with special attention to this film. The essay tries to make greater sense of Dunham’s influence on Deren’s work. 154 Ibid. 155 Stefan Jonsson, ‘The Ideology of Universalism’, New Left Review vol. 63 (May–Jane 2010), p. 117. For Jonsson, this excess of identity is elaborated as a mode of ‘negativity’. 156 Deren, ‘Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality’, Essential Deren, p. 126. 157 Ernesto Laclau, ‘Universalism, Particularism and the Question of Identity’, in Emancipations (London and New York: Verso, 2007 [1996]), p. 35 158 ‘New Directions in Film Art’ (lecture delivered at Cincinatti Museum of Art, 1951 and published in Film Culture vol. 29 [1963]), Essential Deren, p. 219.

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MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON

Credits Meshes of the Afternoon USA 1943 Made by Maya Deren Alexander Hammid Score (added in 1959) Teiji Ito Los Angeles, California 16mm Running time: 14 minutes

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