The figure of Maya Deren (1917-1961) looms large in the history of avant-garde cinema; to those of us for whom she has remained primarily a name in the textbooks, this new documentary provides the invaluable service of showing us her work. And it’s well worth it: Deren’s dreamlike black-and-white studies in motion are strikingly poetic and emotionally suggestive.
For her very first short film — Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) — Deren won a major award at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival. In the film, Deren watches herself chase a third, enigmatically hooded figure up a tree-lined path. The hooded figure does a three-quarter-turn toward the camera, and reveals, as its face, a flat mirror. As the title of this documentary — In the Mirror of Maya Deren — suggests, Deren’s art was inner-directed, and the mirror is its proper symbol. But Deren’s mirrors were not those of the narcissist; they were those of the religious explorer. In her next short, At Land (1945), the image of Deren merges with that of the ocean; the truth she sought there was the mirror of that in the depths of her own soul.
The excerpts from these and other Deren works are the highlight of this documentary, but director Martina Kudlácek has also done an above-average of job of lining up witnesses to the artist’s life; as a result, the strictly biographical segments of this film rarely drag. Deren came to the U.S. from Ukraine when she was five; after a brief stint in Hollywood, where Meshes in the Afternoon was made, she moved to New York and became a Greenwich Village celebrity. Some of the most remarkable material covers her visits — totaling about 21 months — to Haiti, where she studied the practice and theology of voodoo; as part of her investigations, she was ordained a priestess herself.
Lest this suggest that she was reaching the further end of crankery, the film points out that she named her cat after one of the gods of the voodoo pantheon; and — as one of the film’s commentators notes — this would have been an unthinkable act of impiety for any literalistic voodoo believer. Deren’s was a sophisticated effort at transcendence, of the kind that mythologist Joseph Campbell would later popularize. (Indeed, Campbell was an adviser to Deren on the book she wrote summarizing her Haitian research.)
The Deren that comes through in this film is a lovely, robust personality utterly devoted to the act of creation — both in dance and in cinema (which she viewed as a new form of dance, in which the observer, i.e., the camera, moves no less than the performers). As befits a paean to sound and motion, this film also boasts a fine original score (by avant-garde composer John Zorn).