Avant-Garde Filmaker Focus of Documentary

Michelle Herrick

Michelle Herrick

It’s rare to find a woman filmmaker from the 1940s and especially one as progressive as Maya Deren.

Deren was both director and actress, usually starring in the films she directed. Her films were startling both in their imagery and in their meaning.

The South Dakota Art Museum will show a documentary on Maya Deren’s life called Invocation: Maya Deren Thurs. at 7:30 p.m.

Deren was born in 1917 in Kiev, Ukraine, and her family immigrated to the United States in 1922, during the Russian Revolution.

She studied literature and poetry in college and got into film when she moved to Los Angeles and met Alexander Hammid. The two were married and collaborated on films together where they both directed and acted.

In the beginning Deren’s films were judged for their artistic, avant-garde cinematography and it was only later (in the 1970s) when her films were critiqued more closely for their portrayal of women. Deren uses novel and interesting cinematography to film women from a woman’s prospective.

Her first film, Meshes in the Afternoon, is a narrative about a woman who becomes destabilized and shook up within her own world (the household). It begins with a woman walking up the steps of her house. The camera flashes to her shoes, her hands, her keys, her purse; but it never shows her full body. She enters the house and examines such mechanical devices as a phonograph and a telephone.

You start to feel the constraints of time, of space and of the household. It shows a woman who is confined by her everyday life and in effect by society’s stereotypes of her.

When a man enters the room, instantly the scene changes and it is his perspective that dominates. The camera angles are now all from his eyes instead of hers. For example, when the woman lies on the body the camera traces the outline of her body from the angle of the doorway where he stands.

In classic film noir (Farewell, My lLvely, Laura and Double Indemnity), awoman’s image is that of a temptress who becomes more and more of a sexual threat (a threat that must be contained so as to restore order.)

In other films, the woman is simply a housewife going about her duties.

In both cases, the films are shot from a male perspective and the female actress plays a very specific role. In Deren’s films, she puts the camera as the female mind’s eye, which displaces the viewer’s idea of a woman.

Deren went on to make six other film;, three were on choreography and dance and the other three were women’s discourse films similar to Meshes in the Afternoon.

In 1946, she was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and in 1947, she was awarded the Grand Prix International for 16mm Film, Experimental Class for Meshes at the Cannes Film Festival.

In her articles, books and public lectures, Deren complained that Hollywood movies were big on expanse, but were small in artistry.

It’s interesting to note that she wasn’t out to change the patriarchic language of films in Hollywood, but to make them more of an art.

It was only later that her films were considered a feminist analysis.