Sunday, October 19, 2008

Meshes of the Afternoon


Dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid, Unites States, 1943, appr. 14min
Source: Maya Deren Experimental Film, DVD 630
YouTube: *

A hand delicately places a flower in the middle of a road; a woman’s shadow walks down and picks up the flower. She continues, catches a glimpse of a man turning further down on the road. The woman walks up some steps, enters a house, a loaf of bread on a table with a knife inserted in it, an unhooked phone on the stairway to the second floor. She walks up the stairs into a room and then down to another where she sits down for nap. The same sequence repeats, but in the following sequences we see: first, the woman (Deren) again but this time we can see her face, second Deren after a black hooded figure, third and fourth a man. At the end the man stands in front of Deren sitting on the chair surrounded by pieces of a broken mirror.

Maya Deren made it clear that her film was not surrealist; she preferred to see her work as a classicist. Others see her work as trance films or poetry films, but regardless of the label her films received she is considered by many the mother of the American Avant Gard cinema. No one, however, will debate the experimental and incongruous nature of Meshes of the Afternoon (MoA). As any other experimental film, MoA has been interpreted in many ways, but many seem to agree that the short introduces us to a woman (Deren) who falls as sleep. What differences MoA from the surrealists is that we see the person having the dream, where in the surrealist films we “are” in the dream. The idea is that we enter the trance-like state with the character and though we don’t have the character’s background, we can recognize the place even as it becomes more and more inconsistent.

In MoA, such inconsistency meshes the viewer in poetic psychodrama in which the heroine goes through a personal quest, which as Deren said is not an event that could be witnessed by other persons. It is here where, arguably, she only uses the process of surrealism and Freudian theory as vehicles to demonstrate ambivalence between actuality and the subconscious. By the end of MoA, we realize that there is a sort of narrative underlying it, that we witnessed a fatal nightmare unravel before us. Arguably, what Deren was trying to convey was the same way that our minds build upon simple events and subconsciously blew them out of proportion.

Deren’s film relays on repetition more so than other experimental films, since its duplication filled with inconsistencies are used to unnerved the audience and achieve the same state as the film’s heroine. For example, after the black hooded figure enters the house and Deren follows her, Deren begins to climb up a wall from which she looks down at herself sleeping on the chair, to then hang down from a window, and back to overlooking her self. Everything leading up to the window sequence is repeated, but once Deren reaches the top, the previously established spatial relation of the room is literally thrown out the window. This also leads to another difference between Deren’s work and the surrealists, and is that the repetitions in the surrealism were meant as metaphors and for Deren it is just a build up. The knife, the key, and the rose just accumulate their venom in each repetition.

*Note: The version in YouTube has been dubbed to “Butterfly Trilogy”, I recommend you turn off the sound when watching it. The original MoA was silent, the score by Ito was added in 1959.


Lindsay Z. said...

love this film, love maya deren (i'm thinking of posting another one of her films later in the week). i like how you point out that one of the things that sets it apart from surrealism is that we are, at some moments of the film, outside of the dream-world. that's what gives the moments of "reality" such a sharply contrasting and at times horrific feel; it especially heightens the jolt of the ending. her death is a particularly haunting image to end on because we are lead to believe that it has taken place in the real world as opposed to the dream-world.

Ben said...

Thanks for the suggestion of shutting off the sound. I found the film worked a lot better in silence. It's interesting how the music seemed to sever the director's communication with the audience instead of enhancing it.

Jeremy said...

I disagree about the music even though it was added later. I'm finding a common theme of awesome music in most of the experimental films we've seen. From Heart of the World to Are We Still Married? to this, I find it much easier to get through the experiments when I'm bobbing my head to the music.

Go ahead and experiment. Just make sure I have something to do while your concepts fly over my head.

Lindsay Z. said...

Yeah, I kind of really love the music too, even though it feels like a totally different film without it.

Drew Rosensweig said...

The first time I saw this was sans music, and to watch it again with music truly does alter the experience, to a degree. Perhaps because we devote our thought process to processing the music, or because it helps lessen our focus on the visuals, I'm not sure. I saw Dreyer's "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc" in a similar manner, with backing music specifically for the film, but I feel like that may have lessened my experience, as the film was made without that element in mind. Anyone have any other thoughts on the addition of a soundtrack to films made without one?

Pamela said...

I think adding music or sounds to any short that wasn't meant to have any changes even more the meaning of it. All these blogs prove how we (the audience) are influenced by what we know, hence, we interpret the shorts differently. And, while watching an experimental film with music might make it more "endurable", we still have to consider that perhaps the director's intention was that the films wasn't so.