Thursday, October 4, 2012

An Ode to Maya Deren

I’ve combined and manipulated my photographs and Maya Deren’s most famous 
still image[1] into a dream vision of her looking out my office window:
Is she my patient, my therapist, my lover, or my muse?
We were lucky enough to see three of Maya Deren’s experimental silent films from the 1940s at the West End Studio Theater[2] last Sunday in Portsmouth. Although Russet was familiar with her work, I wasn’t.   What a discovery… for me it was love at first sight.

As Gerald Peary so aptly gushes in his blog: “She was the transcendent centerpiece of every red-hot Village party in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a wild-tousled, peasant-bloused 1960s flower child before her time, a Botticelli babe in high bloom with Modigliani almond eyes and matching elongated lips, shaking her booty to Haitian voodoo drums. Pre-Beat generation, nobody in New York was more mesmerizing than Maya Deren, the mother of American underground cinema, the filmmaker and star of Meshes in the Afternoon, At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and other silent-cinema 1940s experimental masterworks.” [3]

Deren’s first name, Maya, adopted by her in 1943, resonates with me. Maya is not only the name of the mother of the historical Buddha but maya is also the Buddhist term used to name the illusory nature of reality. Perfect for a postmodernist!

While she was best known as an actress – particularly for the famous still (see image above) of her looking through a window ­– what people have forgotten is that Deren was also a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer. In the cinema she was a director, writer, cinematographer, editor, performer, entrepreneur and pioneer in experimental filmmaking in the United States. Like Jean-Luc Godard and Sergei Eisenstein, Maya Deren was both a film theorist and a filmmaker. Unlike these luminaries, Deren’s writing remains relatively obscure in film theory and her films are rarely screened outside of experimental or feminist film courses. [4]

There appears to have been no limits of Maya’s talent. For instance, she was acclaimed for her work in anthropology and myth by Joseph Campbell who encouraged her to write Divine Horsemen, Voodoo Gods of Haiti,[5] based on her years spent studying, participating in, and filming indigenous rituals in that country.

I’ve just scratched the surface. I’m not sure if I am more impressed by her hypnotic, dreamlike early films, capturing so exquisitely our heightened subconscious fears and insecurities, living as we do in the modern age. Or her writings about film and myth and what it means to be human.

To see Part II of My Ode to Maya Deren: importance of the visual metaphor click here.
To see Part III on Maya: facts and fictions of the mind chick here

[1] © public domain
[2]  Georgetown cellist and composer Kristen Miller participated in “Maya & Me,” a concert included in the ACT ONE festival at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth, N.H.
[5]  Divine Horsemen, Voodoo Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren with preface by Joseph Campbell. Chelsea House Publishers: New York. 1970.

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