In the Mirror of Maya Deren

 

With a filmography of only six short, experimental films and four uncompleted works, one wouldn’t think that Maya Deren would be such a monumentally important figure in cinema worthy of a feature length documentary whose total runtime nearly equals the totality of footage ever shot by Deren; but they’d be wrong. One could argue that Deren was film’s most important avant garde film-maker. Not it’s most consistent and productive, that title would probably go to Brakhage, not its most diverse, that title would likely go to Anger, and not its originator, as that title would likely go to Bunuel. But even if we were to take into account Deren’s output from 1943 to 1946 we’d still find ourselves in the presence of one of cinema’s most creative, original, and influential voices that has influenced the work of all of the above, plus the likes of David Lynch and probably any other director who has ever used dream logic, surrealism, and symbolism.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren explores the life of this elusive, poetic woman in the only appropriate way, and that’s by being elusive and poetic itself. Mirror is hardly a conventional documentary, and while it does contain copious interviews, clips from Maya’s work, and plenty of background information it also has an incredibly loose feeling to it. It’s vaguely structured to move through her career, with her films acting as that structural anchor, but the film frequently digresses from that work to take glimpses into her life. This is where the interviews with the likes of her collaborators and those who knew her well frequently come in. Perhaps most interesting is Stan Brakhage who seems to know Maya as a person as well as he knew her as an artist and director. But there are also interviews with her dance teacher, the son of her first husband, and even Chao Li Chi who starred in Deren’s Meditation on Violence.

For those who know a bit about Deren, one of the most important things in her life was her interest in Haiti and especially Haitian Vodou (voodoo). When Deren was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship it helped finance her ethnographic trip to Haiti. Deren had intended to shoot the people of Haiti and produce a documentary, but the work was never completed by her. However, her second husband, Teiji Itō, edited and produced it posthumously, entitling it “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which was the same name as the book that Deren wrote on the subject. If mirror concentrates on one aspect of Derren’s life above others it’s in her interest in Haiti, and the film contains a large amount of footage from her trip, as well as going into her spiritual beliefs that derived from there. Brakhage even tells a fascinating (if even a bit terrifying) story about how Maya, during a party in a kind of trance, picked up a refrigerator and hurled it across the room.

Over time, the film paints a picture of a woman and an artist who was paradoxically mysterious and reserved, yet quite open and brilliant. The photographs of Maya, almost always dark and distant, somehow seem to clash against her voice that we frequently here recorded from lectures. There’s certainly no doubting Deren’s cinematic creativity in which she managed to experiment with time and space, with symbolism and surrealism, with nightmarish dreams and waking rituals, but it’s even more surprising to find out Deren’s thinking process behind these experiments. As one interviewer said, she could take a single concept like slow-motion and break it down to minute degrees, discovering every single possible expressive use for the technique. Deren was also a poet and choreographer, and the film wonderfully explores her interest in both, especially revealing when Deren says that her failure as a poet was because of her inability to translate the images in her head into words, and her discovery of cinema was like coming home.

The film is aided tremendously by an atmospheric score courtesy of John Zorn. It’s quit evocative without being intrusive. Mostly consisting of a few instruments and minimalistic melodies, Zorn’s music meshes well with director Kudlácek’s poetic editing. But more than the technical aspects of the documentary itself, it’s primarily Maya herself that emerges as the haunting, poetic figure that seems so perfectly in tune with her haunting, poetic films. While this documentary doesn’t necessarily lend piercing insight into her films or even Maya herself, what it does is suggest that the woman and her work were nearly one and the same; a perfect marriage between visionary artist and groundbreaking artistry.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

One Response to In the Mirror of Maya Deren

  1. Ryan Silva says:

    Psst. My retrospective of Deren is better

    Love,
    Ryan

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