Maya Deren

By: Annie Nocenti
April 29, 2010

A pioneer of what could be called trance films, MAYA DEREN (1917-1961) created two significant bodies of work. Her experimental fictions are drenched in ritualized action, cryptic symbols, repetitive narratives, altered states, and voyeurism. They foreshadow her inclination for and the mise-en-scène of her second big project: filming the hypnotic ambiance of the Vodou ceremonies in Haiti. In Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, made with Alexander Hamid) a flower is placed by a disembodied hand as if to begin a ritual. In Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti hands precisely inscribe vévés; designs etched in the ground to call forth gods. In Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) dance inspires entrancement, much as how in Haitian Vodou ritual, movement is a prerequisite to possession. Deren shot nearly twenty thousand feet of footage in Haiti from 1947 to 1951, which was edited posthumously into the classic Divine Horsemen. She found it difficult to make any edits at all. A film theorist, she wrote that editing the ceremonial footage was: “… pushing together shots which would not marry…. the creative act fundamentally unreasonable and irrational . . . whenever I tried to stop a moment, to isolate it from its context it projected an impression which was not at all what the Haitians meant.” The dull, explanatory voiceover in Divine Horseman was taken from Deren’s writings and added posthumously — watching the film with the sound off is more powerful and perhaps closer to her intention. Deren’s circle of influence included Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, John Cage, and Anaïs Nin, and the ethnographic choreographer Katherine Dunham. Deren’s films seem driven by dance, entrancement and dream. She disdained the traditional “dream factory” of Hollywood: “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” She died young, wasting away from malnutrition.


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