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Maya Deren: Experimental Film and Artistic Identity Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 10th, 2021

The current research paper deals with the analysis of interconnections between experimental current in cinematograph and artistic subjectivity of directors, scenarists and other people who are engaged in the creative process of film-making.

The generalizations and analysis produced in this research paper are based on avant-garde director Maya Deren who made a great contribution to experimental film and the development of cinema theory as well. We will try to track the interrelation between her artistic, social, esthetic and other parameters of her subjectivity as they are embedded in her experimental films. There is no denying the importance of the fact that the interrelation between form and substance is always dialectic and hence Deren’s esthetic and social mindset would be deeply transformed by experimental endeavours and forms and the opposite is also true.

As Melissa Rigney based on careful analysis of Sadie Benning artistic activities suggests, Benning’s artistic identity, as well as the esthetic and philosophic mindset, was deeply reflected in her film production techniques. As Rigney claims, “Benning’s videos can be described in a variety of ways, including autobiography, ethnography, personal films, diary-films, and stories of coming out. Thematically, her films consistently condemn homophobia, racism, and sexism while concerning themselves with the perspective of young people and women” (Rigney, 2003).

This example vividly shows the interrelation between experimental film practices and approaches and the ways of their interaction with a stable set of subjective beliefs, ideologies and representations of certain artists. This will serve as a map for understanding the evolution of Deren’s artistic identity.

The contours of experimental film production

As Mekas claims, experimental cinema and film is a marker for a certain range of directing and filmmaking styles which are often different from the dominant practices within the mainstream of documentary and commercial filmmaking. Experimental video is often described by its advents as ‘avant-garde’ which of course serves as another factor for confusing early avant-garde movement with experimental film in general (Mekas, 1970, p. 22-23).

Formal characteristics of the experimental film show that it is strongly opposed to dominant trends in the mass culture industry including popular music and ‘big studio’ films. It is reasonable to think that this counter-cultural orientation of experimental film’s formal elements is something that makes it attractive to talented people who are interested in a nonstandard approach to vision and representation of reality, those who still see filmmaking as video art. This results in many people describe the experimental film as underground production as it is structure is not easily recognizable by the public (which is needed for commercial success) and needs a deep and long reflexive process (which is not desirable in the mass culture industry)

As Manvell claims, ‘experimental film is characterized by a wide spectrum of practices and approaches which are unique to its structure. For instance, unlike mainstream films, experimental films avoid linear narrative and utilize various abstract practices and techniques (such as painting on film or scratching on it, rapid editing, making out of focus effects) (Manvell, 1949). Often the directors of experimental films and Maya Deren is one of the most notable examples thereof prefer using asynchronous or non-diegetic sounds or sometimes as in her early films avoid using soundtracks (Deren, 1961). One of the other important characteristics of experimental films which deeply affect the realization of artistic identity is their goal which is to place viewers in a more reflexive, thoughtful and active relationship with the film’s contents which is difficult and requires real artistic talent. This approach was a conscious answer of experimental films on the absurdity and ‘false objectivity of mainstream films which started to predominate in the early 60s. There is no denying the importance of the fact that experimental videos are more fruitful ground for the realization of the subjectivity of an artist which is now often buried under the debris of passive form.

Besides this, it should be noted that many experimental directors as Maya Deren use various poetic and impressionistic approaches which open the spiritual dimension of our daily life and their subjective position on different things. Therefore, together with Manvell, we can claim that ‘the story of an experiment in the is the history of imagination applied by single individuals who have often worked alone, subjecting their technicians entirely to their purpose, or who have built around them teams which understand their individual styles and manner of work” (Manvell, 1949, p. 15).

Maya Deren was one of the pioneers of experimental film

As Rees claims, the role of Deren in experimental film development is immense as she was one of the first directors to create new practices and techniques which allowed transforming understanding of film production (Rees, 1996, 537).

To understand Deren’s artistic identity one should take into consideration the fact that she was not only a director but poet, writer, dancer, photographer, choreographer. There is no denying the importance of the fact that choosing these activities was a form of artistic self-realization which was impossible in a repressive society where the rights of women were often neglected and they sought shelter in art. Her professional and artistic activities described above created a perspective artistic mixture which was later realized in her films1.

Her artistic experience which she acquired in these professions was deeply realized in her famous film Meshed of the Afternoon which was made in close collaboration with Hammid in 1943. This film expresses a widely used technique in experimental films – it’s silent and impressionistic. In Meshes of the Afternoon, there is evident a feminist perspective that runs through Deren’s artistic identity and film’s content. As Nichols shows, Maya Deren deeply expresses the contradiction which is met by female subjects in her daily life. This film can be described as Deren’s critique of the dominant representation of women in ‘patriarchal’ films (Nichols, 2001). One of the other characteristics of this and other Deren’s films is that they are made in form of cinematic autobiography as she plays the role of a woman in this film herself. Hence, the narrative structure of the film can be described as autobiographical. Among other things, it proves our assumption that Deren’s films are the products of her artistic identification and are deeply intimate unlike the majority of modern blockbusters which belong only to their crude formal elements. It should be noted that Deren was interested in various Haitian rituals and cultural traditions which were embedded in her artistic representation of trance, rituals and other ‘pagan’ elements. However, she deeply transformed them and made them a unique element of her artistic ideas.

Her feminist orientation on critical women’s autobiography can be also explained by her socialist sentiments in the early 40s when the film was created and she was against all forms of human discrimination including gender ones.

Rose shows that themes of sexuality and psychoanalytic frameworks are often utilized in Deren’s films and the political motives are realized through the personal dimension of her protagonist. Hence, it should be said that Deren realizes a wide spectrum of her personal artistic identities in her endeavours and make them understandable for the spectators (Rose, 1986).

Another point of application of Deren’s artistic identities and worldview is her critique of the Hollywood film industry. She claimed that Hollywood institutionalized political, artistic and economic monopoly in American cinema. She once ironically said, “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”, and added that Hollywood “has been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form”. (Johnston, 1979, p. 136). Her critique of Hollywood goes in line with avant-garde and counter-culture ‘dissatisfaction with culture’ which was best exemplified in the theoretic efforts of T.W. Adorno. Hence, her artistic identity developed in opposition to dominant Hollywood practices and approaches.

Another Deren’s contribution which vividly exemplifies her artistic identity is her 15-minute experimental film At land with May Deren starring. It is an impressionist narrative where a woman is washed up by the sea on the beach and then goes on a very strange journey where she encounters other people. These encounters represent different visions of a woman as she represents herself in her imagination. This film is definitely about a woman’s struggle to maintain personal identity and Deren once said similar words about her film.

To sum it up, Deren’s contribution to the experimental film is crucial due to her theoretical and technical innovations. But the issue that was central to this research paper is the interconnection between experimental film and artistic identity. Using Deren’s own filmmaking practice, its products and her social and artistic background we showed that experimental films are attractive as an artistic domain for developing counter-cultural and protest cultural products as they offer a wide spectrum of approaches and techniques which are opposite to dehumanizing effects of mass industry. The experimental film allows realization and expression of artistic, social and subjective reflections and positions and provides spectators with fruitful soil for reflection.

Deren’s own artistic identities were realized through her directing practices in avant-garde cinema where she artistically expressed her ideas of the free female subject, social solidarity, impressionistic and surrealist approaches.

References

Bruss, E. W. 1980, ‘Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film’ Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 296-320.

Deren, M. (Winter 1965), ‘The Making of Movies: Burglars and Triggers’, Village Voice 1 June 1961. Rpt. Film Culture 39 55-56.

Deren, M. (Winter 1965), “Movie Journal.” Village Voice 25 Aug. 1960. Rpt. Film Culture 39, 53-55.

Deren M., (Winter 1965), “Program Notes on Three Early Films.” Film Culture 39 1-2.

Deutsch, J., Nichols, Bill, Ed., 2004, “Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde.” American Studies International 42.1: 132

Geller, T. L., 2006,“The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and Its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-Garde.” Biography 29.1, 140.

Egan, S., 1999, Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Heck-Rabi, L., 1984, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception. New Jersey: Scarecrow.

Johnston, C., 1979, “Woman’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema.” Sexual Strategems. Ed. Patricia Erens. New York: Horizon, 133-43.

Kastner, J., 2006, “Michel Gondry: Deitch Projects.” Artforum International,: 295-315.

Kruger, B., Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face). 1985-1987. Collage.

Manvell, R. ed., 1949, Experiment in the Film. London: Grey Walls Press.

Mekas, J., 1970, “The Experimental Film in America.” Film Culture Reader. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. New York: Praeger, 21-26.

Mulvey, L., 1996, “Film, Feminism, and the Avant-Garde.” The British Avant-Garde Film, 1926-1995: Anthology of Writings. Ed. Michael O’Pray. Luton: U of Luton P.

Neiman, C., Hodson M., and Clark V., 1988 “Thresholds.” The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 2. New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 275-417.

Nichols, B, 2001 ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: U of California P.

Rabinovitz, L., 1991. Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant- Garde Cinema 1943-1971. Urbana: U of Illinois P.

Rees, A. L., 1996, “Avant-Garde Film: The Second Wave.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 535-44.

Rose, J., 1986 Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso.

Rees A. L., (BFI, 1999). A History of Experimental Film and Video.

Rigney M.2003, Sadie Benning, Web.

Sitney, P. A., 1974, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, New York: Oxford UP.

Thompson, K, and Bordwell D., 1994, Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turim, M. “The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren’s Challenge to the Cinema.” Nichols 77-102.

Footnotes

  1. In fact, we do not have a record of Deren having any professional career in dancing but it is known that she for a long time worked as the personal assistant of Kathryn Dunham – writer and dance director.
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