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Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.


Meshes of the Afternoon

Maya Deren
(American, 1917–1961)

1943. 16mm film (black and white, silent), 14 min.

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.”1

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.2 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.

Maya Deren, quoted in Sally Berger, “Maya Deren’s Legacy,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 303.
Maya Deren, quoted in Sally Berger, “Maya Deren’s Legacy,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 306.
Maya Deren, “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,” OUTCAST, no. 9 (1946): 6, https://monoskop.org/images/3/31/Deren_Maya_An_Anagram_of_Ideas_on_Art_Form_and_Film.pdf.

A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression; a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

The person who sets up both camera and lighting for each shot in a film. The cinematographer has major influence over the look and feel of a shot or scene and is often held in as high esteem as the director. Cinematography is the art of positioning a camera and lighting a scene.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

The shape or structure of an object.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

Not Hollywood: Maya Deren Charts A New Course
Despite unkind critical reception of Meshes of the Afternoon and her other early work, and the challenges of navigating a male-dominated field, Maya Deren forged a career that made her a preeminent voice of avant-garde cinema. She toured, lectured, and distributed her own films, establishing a lasting model for independent film production. She regarded experimental cinema as a low-cost, creative, and ethical alternative to the linear dramas produced by Hollywood—a format she refused in her own work. In Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren began developing the tropes and techniques that set her films far outside of industry norms. Film is “an art form, sharing with other art forms a profound relationship to man, the history of his relation to reality, and the basic problems of form,” she asserted.3