directed by Maya Deren, 1944
approximately 15 minutes
I was happy to see Pamela's post earlier this week on Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon." On a blog about short films, we'd be remiss not to mention Deren. She's an undeniable master of the form, and a filmmaker linked pretty much inextricably with it since she never made a feature in her career. Deren was at home in the short. For her, it was an inherent escape from the feature's expected conventions; it was an avenue for making daring, inexpensive and uncommonly personal works of art.
"At Land" is my favorite of Deren's shorts. The plot is as follows: a woman (Deren, who cast herself in many of her films) seems to have washed up on the beach. She explores her surroundings, climbs up a large rock and finds that it leads to a long dinner table at a stuffy party. She crawls across the table on all fours, finds a chess board at the end and, as one of the white pieces falls down into a pool of water, she begins to follow it. She takes a walk with some men, and one of them leads her to a house where a man is on his deathbed. Then, she walks through a door and finds herself back on the beach, where she spies two women playing chess by the water. She joins them, distracts them by playfully stroking their hair, and then when they're off guard, she grabs a white chess piece from their board. But we soon find that it was not "her," but one version of her; the rest of the Mayas look on as the one with the chess piece gleefully runs towards the horizon.
It's hard to reduce a film like this to its plot when there's so much more to it. Deren was trained as a dancer, and her eye for rhythm certainly plays a part in her unique editing style. There is something hypnotic about movement in her films; it is often exaggerated and strangely graceful, like her climb across the table or her exploration through a maze of door's in the dying man's house. Many consider her shorts a kind of visual poetry, and this unique attention to movement certainly heightens that sense. Her films were often dubbed "trance films," another experimental sub-genre that seems better fit to shorts than features. One can imagine a trance lasting 90 minutes might, in some cases at least, become a bit tedious. I like "At Land" because of the freedom it allows the viewer. Even moreso than "Meshes of the Afternoon," the symbols in the film evade a hard and fast meaning. You are able to read your own ideas into the film without Deren forcing you to echo her ideas completely.
Deren's biography is fascinating: born in the Ukraine, came to America to study, got swept up in socialism, toured the country with the Dunham dance company, met and married photographer Alexander Hammid, made some incredibly influential films, won the first Guggenheim grant for filmmaking, used the money to travel to Haiti, became a high priestess of voodoo, divorced Hammid and married a much younger man, became (allegedly) dependent on amphetamines prescribed by her doctor and was dead of malnutrition at the age of 44. But analyzing Deren's colorful life in this way is about as reductive as analyzing "At Land" simply for its plot. There's a great documentary called In the Mirror of Maya Deren that fills in many of the blanks nicely. A particular high point is a story that Stan Brakhage tells about witnessing Deren, in a supposedly voodoo-induced fit of rage, throw a refrigerator across a room.
The short film's form was a perfect fit for Deren's message. She once said, "I am not greedy; I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films." The bold imagery and uncompromising point of view expressed in Deren's films are impressionable enough that now, almost 60 years after some of them were made, they remain almost impossible to forget.