There have been numerous occassions already during my short stint in Seoul when I have been totally overjoyed at finding some really good shows which I wouldn’t neccessarily have expected to see. The Maya Deren retrospective at i-gong in Hongdae is one such case. Since reading about this somewhat obscure and exciting avant garde film maker, writer, dancer, poet and theorist of the 1940′s and 50′s in my rapidly distancing under-grad days, I’d only managed to watch her most famous short film, ‘Meshes of the Afternoon,’ (1943-59). It certainly made an impression on me, which is why I was so excited to see it again along with her other short films, Martina Kudlacek’s 2005 documentary on her, and some contemporary international short films which drew influence frorm her absolutely beautiful, thoughtful and symbol laden films, which magically weave together themes of time, a post modern fragmentation of the self, upset equilibriums, rituals and classical forms.
I watched the documentary ‘In the Mirror of Maya Deren’ after watching all of the films that Maya had directed. It’s a sensetive portrayal of a passionate, serious and determined woman with candid interviews from former friends, her first husband Alexander Sasha Hammid who collaborated with her on some of her early films and her old employer, dancer/ anthropologist, Katherine Dunham of Katherine Dunham Dance Company fame. The film reiterated themes I had picked out from her films and consolidated them. It also contained audios of Maya speaking about her work and a really cool recording of her singing a bluesy song that just went, “I got stones in my head, I got pebbles in my bed…” in her syrupy seductive purr, that has been stuck in my head ever since. I really got the sense of how she had an almost bewitching effect on many people who came across her, and now I too, even through the misty veils of second hand experience, feel enraptured by her spell!
All of her films were shot in black and white, and there is no spoken word in any of them. ‘At Land,’ (1944), ‘A Study In Choreography for the Camera,’ (1945) ‘Ritual and Transfigured Time,’ (1946), and ‘Private Life of a Cat,’ (1947), are silent, emphasising the graceful forms depicted, which are commonly depicted through the medium of dance. Movements are often slowed down, paused or reversed in an effort to reveal the structure of motion, which are full of what she describes as “pulsations, agonies, indecisions and repititions.” Her hommage to Classical Greek forms is made most blatantly in ‘Ritual…’ where four performers dance their own steps which are occassionally paused mid movement, in a garden amongst perfectly sculpted statues.
Maya Deren, 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' film
”Meshes of the Afternoon,’ (1943-59), ‘Meditation on Violence,’ (1948), and ‘The Very Eye of Night,’ (1952-9) all have ritualistic tribal sounding musical accompaniments, emphasising her preoccupation on voodoo and ritual which she explored fully during her four visits to Haiti. The cinematic fruits of these visits were edited by her second husband and musical collaborator, Teiji Ito, to make ‘Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti,’ (1985). The musical accompaniments themselves are wonderful and are works of art in their own right. They provide intrinsic rhythm to what’s happening on screen whether it be a bang of a drum to signify a short but confusing jump in time, as in ‘Meshes…’ or a flute played on an Eastern musical scale to emphasise the perfect balance and inner calm of the Wu Tang theories as physically demonstrated in ‘Meditation…’
Her films have a nervous, confusing air to them, and she takes a lead from Duchamp and his allies in conveying fragmented and disjointed dream-like, or even nightmarish narratives. In ‘Meshes…’ Maya is caught up in a distorted cycle of trying to catch up with a hooded figure, going back into her house and up the stairs and falling asleep, until three Mayas all sit round a table, suspiciously eyeing eachother up, before her husband reveals himself as the hooded figure. In ‘At Land…’ Maya awakens on a beach, pulls herself up and over some driftwood into another realm where a dinner party is taking place. She drags herself down the long table and follows some fallen chess pieces back down onto the beach. At one point in this film, as she runs, a close up is shown of her feet. Three steps are shown; one in a house, the next in some grass and the last back in the dinner party, upsetting depictions of time and space.
Maya Deren 'The Very Eye of Night,' film still
‘The Very Eye…’ was her last finished cinematic effort, and the one which I remember most vividly. It could be described as a sort of celestial ballet; white negative forms of ballet dancers float across a blackened screen with sparkling stars, in and out of shot. It is thoroughlly enjoyable as a simple abstraction of graceful and fluid shapes on a black background although it is much more than that. It sums up most perfectly in my mind what Maya wanted; not to recount a story, but to leave the viewer with images or even auras of the films.
Maya Deren prided herself on the fact that she made her films for what Hollywood spent on lipstick. Repelling from the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis type actresses, she chose to make films which celebrated the human body but embraced abstraction, and echoed the unsure, anxious feelings of modern times which can still be related to today. She had started out as a poet but felt that she expressed herself much better through the medium of film. Personally, I’m so glad that she made this shift and that we still have some of the most influential films to come out of the 20th century to enjoy. Thank you so much to i-gong for bringing Maya into my life!
i-gong will be showing a Yoko Ono retrospective next! Hooray!