A nonnarrative work, Meshes of the Afternoon is a key example of the “trance film”—a work in which a protagonist is in a dreamlike state, and where the camera conveys his or her subjective focus. The central figure, played by Deren, is attuned to her unconscious mind and caught in a web of dream events that spill over into reality. Symbolic objects, such as a key and a knife, recur throughout the film; events are open-ended and interrupted. Deren explained that she wanted “to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than to record the incident accurately.”
Meshes of the Afternoon is one of the most influential works in American experimental cinema. Made by Deren with her husband, cinematographer Alexander Hammid, it established the independent avant-garde movement in film in the United States, now known as the New American Cinema. It directly inspired early works by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and other major experimental filmmakers. Beautifully shot by Hammid, who had been a leading documentary filmmaker and cameraman in Europe (where he used the surname Hackenschmied) before he moved to New York, the film made new and startling use of standard cinematic devices such as montage and matte shots. Through her extensive writings, lectures, and films, Deren became the preeminent voice of avant-garde cinema in the 1940s and early ’50s.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Maya Deren conceived, directed, and played the central role in Meshes of the Afternoon, her first film and a work that helped chart the course for American experimental cinema. It was shot without dialogue or sound (a soundtrack by composer Teiji Ito was added later, in 1959) and in black and white. It runs for only 14 minutes. But within this relatively spare format unfolds an unsettling, fully realized narrative which blurs the barrier between the projections of the mind—thoughts, urges, emotions, dreams—and the external, waking world. Working with her then-husband Alexander Hammid, a leading documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, Deren sought to make a film that would portray “the inner realities of an individual and the way in which the subconscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.”
Hammid’s cinematography infuses Meshes of the Afternoon with a sense of foreboding, and the opening scene of a slender mannequin arm descending into the middle of the frame to place a flower on the sidewalk introduces an uncanniness that grows as the story progresses. The protagonist (Deren) approaches, enters, and surveys her home, finally sinking into a chair in the living room to take an afternoon nap. As she slumbers, we see her repeating this journey multiple times, encountering a slightly altered and increasingly menacing home each time. At last, she appears tripled and seated around her dining room table, her multiplied selves playing a kind of Russian Roulette with the housekey. They each pick up the key from the center of the table and display it in the palm of their hand. When the last one flips her palm, it appears painted. And then the story crests to its harrowing conclusion: the protagonist’s self with the painted palm kills her napping self.
Deren once said that “a truly creative work of art creates a new reality”—an assertion she realizes in Meshes of the Afternoon. Though dream logic guides the film, its elegant structure and the everyday, familiar places in which its drama unfolds make its narrative feel plausible, even convincing.