“The Creative Use of Reality”: Peter Valente on Mark Alice Durant’s Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera

While reading Mark Alice Durant’s loving portrait of Maya Deren, I was reminded of all the days and nights I spent as a teenager at Anthology Film Archives where I saw all of Maya Deren’s films. She was important to me when I started making short experimental films with a small point and-shoot Canon camera. I used myself or friends in my films. I often wondered why is it that with the widespread availability of video cameras filmmakers still yielded to the temptations of Hollywood and forsook the personal adventure of the small experimental film? I think Maya Deren would agree with following sentiment by the actress and writer, Cookie Mueller: “On small films you get to know the whole cast and crew in a day, and all of these people are much more inventive because of the limited budget; they create effects that wouldn’t have been born if there was more money. Necessity is the mother of invention; this is true.” 

Experimental filmmakers in the 60s worked to dismantle the influence of the Hollywood film which stood for popular entertainment, inflated budgets, hackneyed plots, and behind it all a faceless director orchestrating his puppet show. These filmmakers created films in opposition to what they saw as an attack on personal freedom, on the self. They galvanized around the idea of the inviolability of the self. The small personal films of Jonas Mekas were called film diaries; Stan Brakhage emerged from the lyrical film to become an essayist of the ontological; Kenneth Anger explored the spiritual nature of the self in his own films and through his exploration of the works of Aleister Crowley; Harry Smith revitalized the art of animation in films which also contained mystical and occult symbols and he was also a disciple of Aleister Crowley; Bruce Connor legitimized the use of found footage with his politically charged yet undidactic interpretation of current events. One also thinks here of Marie Menken’s wit; Joseph Cornell, whose work is entirely created from found footage; Carolee Schneeman’s feminist cinema, which included the films Meat Joy and Interior Scroll, in which she explored the body, sexuality and gender; and the great erotic force of James Broughten’s films. But towering above them all, because she was the first to theorize about and make experimental films, is, of course, Maya Deren. Stan Brakhage called her the “mother of us all” by which he meant that Deren, with her seven completed films, her countless essays on experimental film, her lectures and workshops, her forays into finding distribution for experimental films, as well as her interest in ritual, and the nature of the cinematic image, did more than anyone else during her lifetime, to promote and expand the interest in experimental film.

She was born Eleanora Derenkowsky (April 29, 1917, in Kiev, Ukraine – October 13, 1961, in New York City). The Derenkowsky family fled the Ukraine, because of the Russian Revolution, and arrived in Syracuse in New York State in 1922, where they stayed with relatives. An important woman that Eleanora met, early in her life, was Katherine Dunham, an American dancer, choreographer, author, anthropologist, and social activist, who had one of the most successful dance careers in African-American and European theater in the 20th century, and for many years directed her own dance company. As a young woman, Deren worked for her. What she learned was invaluable for a young woman in the 1940s; Durant writes:

In Katherine Dunham, Deren discovered a model for her own ambitions. Dunham was a woman, artist and scholar, someone who could hold her own in the halls of academia, on the Broadway stage, and in the struggle for civil rights.

Deren had been an ardent socialist in the 1930s; there is a photo in the book of her marching and protesting for the socialist cause. Through various connections stemming from the initial meeting with Dunham, Eleonora met the Czech film director Alexander Hackenschmied, later Alexander (Shasha) Hammid, and they were married in 1942. She acquired a used 16 mm Bolex camera from her father’s inheritance in 1943, which she used for all her films. Her first film, made with Hammid’s help, was called Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and is her most famous film. It is considered one of the best and most influential of American avant-garde films. Upon its completion, she took the first name Maya.

The importance of “Meshes of the Afternoon” cannot be overstated. At first she showed the film to friends at her Morton Street apartment in Greenwich Village. Through parties that she gave at her apartment which were legendary, she would meet many of the important artists of the avant-garde of the 20th century, such as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and a young John Cage; she also met Hella Heyman, a cinematographer and actress, who helped her make At Land (1944) and Ritual in transfigured time (1946), as well as the dancer Talley Beatty, who was the subject for her film, A Study in Choroeography for Camera (1945). Anaïs Nin would write about Meshes of the Afternoon and an early cut of At Land:

We saw several of Maya Deren’s films. Truly unconscious dream material, better in some ways than the early surrealist movies because there are no artificial effects, just a simple following of the threads of the fantasy … I see the influence of Cocteau, except that she will not resort to any symbolism or artifice to present the dream. The dream resembles realism … A curious prosaic quality imposed upon the imagination.

It is a perceptive remark. Deren wanted to distance herself from Surrealism, from the dominant theories of the “pope” of the movement, André Breton. Her films were not automatic games, Freudian tricks, or overloaded with symbolism. For Deren, the films had a logic all their own. They were carefully made, with attention to the image: a film was a series of images in time. The camera itself was the centerpiece, the magical tool that could transform reality.

A Study in Choroeography for Camera is interesting in this respect. Deren films the dancer, but in the way she uses slow motion and quick cuts, she creates a film that is essentially about movement and longing. But this is not something that could be seen on a stage: “In this film, I have attempted to place a dancer in a limitless, cinematographic space. Moreover, he shares, with the camera, a collaborative responsibility for the movements themselves. This is, in other words, a dance which can only exist on film.” The magic is in the use of the camera and the editing; it was Deren in conversation with the dancer. In this way, the primacy of the act of filming was given back to the filmmaker, the magician, and her use of the camera, with which she creates a new poetic language, and shows how film can be an art form in itself, not subservient to plot, dialogue, and dramatic action.  In developing her ideas, Deren spoke of the distinction between a “vertical” and “horizonal” approach to filmmaking:

Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience. The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by a ‘poetic structure’), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a ‘vertical’ investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with that it feels like or what it means … I would call this the ‘vertical’ attack, and this may be a bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the horizontal’ attack of drama, which is concerned with the development, let’s say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling.

For Maya Deren the vertical approach to filmmaking explored the image, in terms of its poetic resonance or the psychological and even mythological depth. In this way, her films resonate with a much larger world, not simply reduced to the materialistic, though that formed a part of it, but encompassing the divine or spiritual nature of the universe, instead of the narrow range of feeling often portrayed  in Hollywood films.

Deren began as a poet, but she didn’t consider herself a good poet; when she picked up the camera, she felt that she had arrived home. In other words, she found in filmmaking a way to express her vision without the need for words. The linear story, with its character development, its narrative arc, and clearly defining setting, was something from the 19th century novel. Deren writes, speaking of her film, At Land: “The ambition of this film is to eliminate, as far as possible, any literary-dramatic line and literal symbolic meanings, and to evolve, instead, a purely cinematic coherence and integrity.” In a late text, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” Deren elaborates on this idea:

If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century.

Like literature, Hollywood films were interested primarily in a linear story, with drama, action, cheap thrills, and often a damsel in distress that needs a man to save the day. For Durant, “Deren sought to create a cinematic language free of the bonds of theater and literature.” Furthermore, Durant writes, speaking of Ritual in Transfigured Time, that in “undermining the illusory naturalism of film, Ritual’s slow motion reveals film’s seamless unfurling to be an accumulation of still images – a hallucination produced between the mechanical apparatus of cinema and the physiological limitations of human vision.”

Deren was interested in Einstein’s theories of the universe, in which space had the ability to bend time. She would explore this in her films. For example, there is a scene in At Land (she had observed that she had done something similar in a sequence towards the end of Meshes of the Afternoon), where she is crawling on a dinner table, oblivious to the dinner guests on either side of here. As she crawls across the table, we see her face moving in an alternate space, among leaves and branches, as if she is moving in a forest. Through Deren’s editing, she is made to move simultaneously in two separate spaces. Linear time breaks down. Therefore time isn’t fixed. In Einstein’s theory of relativity, this is called time dilation. She would explore these ideas further in terms of a space where gravity was affected, and where the dancers move freely as disembodied beings, in her film, The Very Eye of Night (1958). For Deren, the image, and its relation to space and time was central and her camera itself, was the magic tool that would allow her to creatively alter the nature of reality. For her, “the idiom is the visual and the instrument is the camera.”

Deren was interested in ritual and magic; she was also interested in depersonalization and the transformation of the cinematic image. She writes in her chapbook, An Anagram of Ideas on Art Form and Film:

The ritualistic form treats the human being not as a source of dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalized element in the dramatic whole. The intent of such a de-personalization is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension, and frees him from the specialization and confines of ‘personality.’

Deren was not interested in creating characters, with defined identities, that act out their destinies on a movie screen; instead she saw the people in her films as acting under the influence of a kind of external force which could be thought of as gods, though she never exactly defined them. Later, when she visits Haiti, she will experience this sense of “de-personalization” when she was possessed, surrendering herself to the Haitian spirit, Erzulie.

The alternative culture of these filmmakers also has its alternative spirituality: the I-Ching, the works of Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavatsky, the ritual taking of drugs. Before these ideas and processes become popular in the culture, there was Maya Deren and her interest in Haitian Voodoo, which led her to visit the country on several occasions, in the late 40s; these trips resulted in a book, The Divine Horseman, a reference to the Haitian spirit, Iwa, that rides a person who is possessed like a horse. Having shot a lot of footage of sacred ceremonies during her time in Haiti, she eventually decided not to make the film: how to document a religious ceremony? What to include and what not to include? Is there any way to do this without being subjective, and yet being faithful to what it is your filming. How not, for example, to appear racist, in the depiction of the Other, in the framing of another culture? She is dealing with a problem that Godard would face years later when he attempted to make a political film about the Palestinians in Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere). Despite Deren’s extensive research, and hours of filming, she writes:

How can I say to these people that I am not an outsider, that I, too, am of the race of those whose bodies are ravaged by invisibles, by Gods, which are ideas too large for the human frame? That I, too, with the other artists, have known such agony, such loss of balance, such sense of the skin bursting with not being able to contain something more than human. And to whom could we cling until the last tremor had ceased and we were returned to ourselves again.

Her decision not to make the film was an ethical choice. She found it more satisfying, to gain the trust of the Haitian priests, and to engage in the various dances and rituals, during which she writes that she was possessed by one of the spirits. This was a pivotal moment in her life; she writes, as a result of the possession she felt: “No fear, on contrary, sense of having known all this. Terrible peace, of being reclaimed. Sense, here of belonging to the elements and of surrender. And the voyage to nowhere. Between those realities, nothing real. Heart stretching to encompass its love.”

Mark Alice Durant’s compulsively readable biography of Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera, with its many photos and film stills, including some of Deren’s own photographs, will certainly excite those people with knowledge of her films. But this book is also for the average reader with an interest in film and it is my hope that it will make new fans of her work, who will seek out her films and books. As she once said: “I am not greedy. I do not seek to possess the major point of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.”

Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera, by Mark Alice Durant. Baltimore, Maryland: Saint Lucy Books, July 2022. 350 pages. $35.00, paper.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. His most recent books are a collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022). Forthcoming is his translation of Antonin Artaud, The True Story of Jesus-Christ (Infinity Land Press, 2022), a collection of essays on Artaud, Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud (Infinity Land Press, 2022), and his translation of Nicolas pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).

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