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Breaking the Mirror: The Films of Maya Deren

Dancer, ethnographer, philosopher, and “visual poet” Maya Deren (1917–1961) gave birth to the American avant-garde film movement of the postwar era in America, and her work remains key to our understanding of the modern cinema. Born Eleanora Derenkovskaya in the year of the Russian Revolution in Kiev, Ukraine, she emigrated as a child with her family to upstate New York, where her father shortened the family name to Deren and set up his psychiatric practice. A student activist in college, Deren was briefly married to a socialist student of Russian origin. Her interest in dance led her to join the company of Katherine Dunham, the choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist whom she accompanied, as secretary, on a national tour. In Los Angeles with Dunham, Deren met the man who was to become her second husband: Czech emigrÈ filmmaker Alexander Hammid. With his help, Deren turned to film and began her career with a modest, black-and-white psychodrama that would become the founding text of a new American cinema.

As filmmaker Robert Gardner has noted, “Deren’s wide sensibilities included interest in such plastic forms as dance and sculpture; and she excelled in the literary arts.” No less important was her remarkable activism on behalf of an emerging poetic cinema, which she nurtured through her writings, cross-country lecture-screening tours, and even a few combative sessions with less committed gatekeepers of the arts—most famously, an all-male panel that included the playwright Arthur Miller and poet Dylan Thomas. Deren’s advocacy and the example of her own productions were catalytic to the critical recognition of experimental cinema in this country and to the emergence of an entire generation of young practioners who, through the vitality of their work, expanded her singular vision and passion. This retrospective includes a nearly complete survey of Deren’s completed work as well as a new feature-length portrait of the artist.


February 14–19 (Friday–Wednesday) 7 pm

In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Directed by Martina Kudlacek
Austria/Czech Republic 2002, 35mm, b/w and color, 103 min.

Martina Kudlacek’s portrait of Deren is not so much a biography as a thoughtful introduction to the artist’s mesmerizing body of work. Using footage from Deren’s stunningly beautiful films of the 1940s—including the seminal Meshes of The Afternoon, At Land, and RitualiIn Transfigured Time—along with archival audio interviews and observations from contemporaries such as experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, actress and Living Theatre cofounder Judith Malina, and critics Amos Vogel and Jonas Mekas, Kudlacek provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind and life of this groundbreaking and influential artist.

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February 4 (Friday) 7 pm
February 5 (Saturday) 9 pm

DEREN FILMS PART 1

Meshes of the Afternoon

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1943, 16mm, b/w, 14 min.

In the striking psychodramas Deren created in the early 1940s with her cameraman husband, Alexander Hammid, she often placed herself in the frame, navigating a path through anxiety-laden Freudian environs, dreamscapes of the seemingly unphotographable. In this first and most famous work, a woman (Deren) dreams within a dream about suicide, about a phallic attack by her mate (Hammid), and about inanimate objects that assume threatening aspects. Finding innovative means to render states of mind visually and kinesthetically palpable, Meshes of the Afternoon drew upon an earlier, European artists’ cinema and created the groundwork for a distinctly modern, personal, and proto-feminist film practice in America.

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February 14 (Friday) 9 pm
February 16 (Sunday) 9 pm
February 18 (Tuesday) 9 pm

At Land

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Japan, 1995, color, 110 min.
With Esumi Makiko, Naito Takashi, Asano Tadanobu
Japanese with English subtitles

This experiment in time and space features Deren as an alienated figure, unable to integrate with the social milieu that surrounds her. Like Meshes of the Afternoon, it is an oneiric tale that exhibits the marked influence of Surrealism and its symbol-laden, dreamlike portrayal of psycho-sexual anxiety.

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Ritual in Transfigured Time

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1945–46, 16mm, b/w, 15 min.
With Maya Deren, Anais Nin

Deren’s exploration of female sexuality and the human psyche is given form here through figures inspired by Greek mythology. This elaborate “choreography for the camera” transforms everyday movements into dancelike passages with the assistance of slow-motion effects.

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February 16 (Wednesday) 9 pm
February 18 (Friday) 7 pm

A Study in Choreography for Camera

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1945, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.
With Talley Beatty

A dancer unfurls his body, runs, and leaps into the air. Through Deren’s ingenious camera work, this simple gesture becomes a testimonial to the glory of movement.

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The Very Eye of Night

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Japan, 1994, color, 78 min.
Japanese with English subtitles

In the final film Deren completed before her untimely death, the night sky comes to life as dancers from the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School reenact the ancient dramas of constellation mythology. The Very Eye of Night features a mesmerizing soundtrack by Japanese composer Teiji Ito, the director’s third husband.

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Meditation on Violence

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1948, 16mm, b/w, 12 min.
With ChÌao Li Chi

This lyrical film chronicles the ritualistic training exercises of three increasingly aggressive styles of Chinese boxing—Wu-Tang, Shao-lin, and Shao-lin with a sword. To emphasize the gradual shift from tranquility to violence, Deren’s soundtrack and editing patterns grow ever more frenetic.

DEREN FILMS PART 2

February 15 (Saturday) 9 pm
February 17 (Monday) 9 pm
February 19 (Wednesday) 9 pm

The Private Life Of A Cat

Directed by Alexander Hammid
US 1944, 16mm, b/w, silent, 22 min.

This charming depiction of the romantic encounter between a male and female cat who decide to take up housekeeping together was made by Deren’s second husband, Alexander Hammid.

Witch’s Cradle

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1944, 16mm, b/w, silent, 12 min.
With Marcel Duchamp, Pajarito Matta

This unfinished film, shot at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery (the prime exhibitor of Surrealist works in New York), was inspired by both the architecture of the space and the art works it contained. Deren used her camera to delineate the magic of what she called these “cabalistic symbols of the twentieth century.”

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Directed by Maya Deren
US 1947/1977, 16mm, b/w, sound, 54 min.

Filmed by Deren during successive visits to Haiti between 1947 and 1951, and completed posthumously by Cherel and Teiji Ito, Divine Horsemen began as a study of Haitian dance but expanded to embrace what Deren’s friend and legendary historian Joseph Campbell described as “manifestations of rapture.” The study led to her immersion into the religious practices of voodoo, which Deren referred to as “The White Darkness.”

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