• K.E. Berringer

Maya Deren

Meshes of the Avant-Garde

Maya Deren was a director and actress, best known for her work as an experimental filmmaker. She has often been credited as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century and her influence is seen in film today.

Maya Deren, likely around the 1940s or 1950s.

Early Life

Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowsky on April 29, 1917. She was born in Kyiv, Ukraine and came from a well-regarded Jewish family, of which she would be the only child. Her father, Solomon David Derenkowsky -- who had been convinced that Deren would be a boy -- was a psychiatrist and her mother, Marie Fiedler, had studied music. Both of her parents were great lovers of the arts, and she was named after Italian actress Eleanora Duse.

Deren around 1921.

Less than two months before Deren's birth, the Russian Revolution had begun. Deren was born in Ukraine in a time when the country was under the control of Russia, just after the abdication of the Czar, but before the Bolshevik takeover. During the first five years of Deren's life, Ukraine would experience many changes, though none of these would directly affect her family's safety.

Ukraine would become an independent country on the 22nd of January, 1918. The end of the first world war brought the formation of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and Ukraine would become a constituent republic of the USSR in 1922. After this, Deren and her parents were forced to flee Ukraine. Not only had her parents had some political ties with Leon Trotsky, but pogroms were also on the rise. Soon, the family found themselves targets in the organized mass killings of Jews. With no other choice, they left for America.

In 1922 the family would settle in Syracuse, New York, where they lived with Deren's paternal uncle. There, her father enrolled in Syracuse University in order to re-earn his psychology degree, and Deren and her mother would move to Ohio to be with other members of her family. Her father would later be appointed to assistant physician at the Syracuse State School for Mental Defectives.

Deren, likely pictured in the 1930s.

In 1928, the family became naturalized American citizens, and officially shortened their name to Deren. Her parents later separated and would divorce in 1930, after which Deren would be sent to Geneva, Switzerland to attend the Ecole Internationale de Geneve. This school was run by the League of Nations. There, she studied French, German and Russian, but her courses primarily focused on the humanities, and it led to her discovering a love for writing. Throughout this time, she would privatley write poetry and short stories.

In 1933, Deren returned to Syracuse and enrolled in Syracuse University, where she studied journalism and political science. While in university, she became heavily involved in various antiwar and antifascist movements. However, she focused most of her time on the growing socialist movement among the students. She joined the Young People's Socialist League, an organization influenced by Trotsky's ideas. While being involved in the movement, Deren found herself following her father, who had become agnostic. Still, she retained a love for Judaism, and the treatment of Jews would influence much of her later idealogy.

Near the photograph's middle, Deren can be seen participating in an antifascist rally in New York City in 1939.

While participating in the Young People's Socialist League, Deren met fellow student Gregory Bardacke. They began a romantic relationship and bonded over their similar pasts. Bardacke, like Deren, came from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Before Bardacke was born, his family had left Russia and moved to Harbin, China before immigrating to the United States. In 1935, Bardacke and Deren were married and moved to New York City. In New York, Bardacke became a union organizer while Deren transferred to New York University in order to complete her final year of university.

In 1936, Deren graduated from NYU with a degree in journalism and political science. After graduation, she became interested in photography and film. She would later enroll in Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she planned to study literature.

Deren and Bardacke's marriage would last only a few years, and they would divorce in 1938. The year after, Deren received a second degree, this time earning a Master's Degree in literature.

Early Career

Deren began a job with a publishing company after finishing her education. There, she worked as an assistant to various writers and publishers but she continued to privately write her own works.

Deren's heart did not lie in the publishing industry though. Instead, she had become increasingly interested in modern dance. In 1940, this interest would lead to her becoming a secretary to choreographer Katherine Dunham. Dunham was head of a modern dance troupe and was planning a cross-country tour. Not only was Dunham a choreographer, but she was also an anthropologist, having studied the culture around dance in Haiti. Deren's studies and the lessons Dunham gave her on her anthropological examination would inspire Deren to write her own essay while on tour with the company. She would subsequently publish an essay entitled Religious Possession in Dancing.

Dunham's company was made up of primarily African-American dancers, and Dunham herself was black. This made it quite difficult when the troupe entered areas of America that were segregated. During this time, Deren witnessed the racism the company faced firsthand, and it deeply affected her and her opinion of modern social movements. Later, these themes would pop up in her work.

In 1941, Deren was living with her mother in Los Angeles while the company was on a break. While there, Deren met Alexandr Hackenschmied (later known as Alexander Hammid and sometimes credited as Sasha Hammid), a Czechoslovakian immigrant ten years her senior who had moved to America after fleeing the Nazis.

In Czechoslovakia, Hackenschmied had been an accomplished photographer and cinematographer and had worked on several documentaries and experimental films in Europe. Now living in Los Angeles, Hackenschmied worked as a motion picture photographer for The March of Time newsreels. Derens interest in films and filmmaking became more intense while living in California, and she and Hackenschmied would bond over their mutual love for the craft.

Deren and Hackenschmied pictured in 1943.

Film Career

This mutual love soon culminated in Deren and Hackenschmied's marriage in 1942. Deren decided to leave Dunham's company, with intentions to focus on her writing. In Los Angeles, Deren would write and publish her poetry, short stories, essays and newspaper articles. With instruction from Hackenschmied, she also began to pursue photography, occasionally working as a freelance portrait artist and even having her pictures published in magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Around this time, Hackenschmied convinced Deren to change her name from Eleanora to Maya. Hackenschmied felt it suited her better, seeing as Maya means illusion in Sanskrit and is a name shared by both the Hindu goddess of illusion and Buddha's mother.

In 1943, Deren's father would die. Amidst her devastation, Deren was grateful for the small inheritance he left for her. With this inheritance, she was able to buy a secondhand 16mm Bolex film camera.

Deren in a still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon'.

Using this camera, she was able to make her first and most famous movie, Meshes of the Afternoon. It was only fourteen minutes long, fully black-and-white and silent, and was created on a budget of $275. It had been filmed inside of Deren and Hackenschmied's home in only twelve days, and Deren would star in the main role, with Hackenschmied playing a small role, as well as serving as cinematographer.

Deren would be a driving force in the film's creation, having been the one to conceptualize it. However, while it was once thought that Deren had done most of the directing, it is generally agreed upon now that Hackenschmied was actually responsible for directing the majority of the film, due to its similarity to his previous works and its distinct European style. Though, this should not discredit Deren's role in the film. Deren's protege and friend, Stan Brakhage, once said that Deren was "the real force of the film" and that it "came from Maya herself."

Despite the amateur nature of the film, the film received high praise and impacted the world of film. Meshes of the Afternoon brought attention to the untapped potential of experimental and underground cinema and more would be produced in the years to follow. These were films that otherwise would not have been given a chance but, because of Deren, were brought to theatres across the world.

Deren and Hackenschmied sitting on their fire escape in their New York apartment.

Later in 1943, Hackenschmied and Deren moved from Los Angeles to New York City. They moved into an apartment on Morton Street in Greenwich Village, where Deren would stay for nearly twenty years. During that time, the apartment would host some of the greatest minds of the time, including Salvador and Gala Dalí, Ralph Ellison, John Cage, and Anaïs Nin, not to mention Deren's many cats. Deren was, at the time, considered the most important figure of independent film and attracted other intellectuals towards her, not only because of her status but also due to her outgoing personality.

As soon as Deren arrived in New York, she began planning for her next film, hiring several actors and crew members. The film was to be called The Witch's Cradle, though it would never be formally finished. According to those involved, had the movie been finished, it would have been among the most disturbing movies ever made.

Deren's attention would instead turn from The Witch's Cradle to a different project titled At Land. This film would be made and released in 1944. With At Land, Deren would officially make her directorial debut. Deren would again appear as the movie's protagonist and several of her friends would also appear in the film, including Cage and poet Parker Tyler. While At Land would receive some praise, its success was subdued compared to Meshes of the Afternoon.

A still from 'The Private Life of a Cat' in which Deren is pictured holding one of her cats in her apartment.

Between 1944 and 1945, Deren worked with Hackenschmied to co-direct The Private Life of a Cat. It was her longest movie yet, clocking in at around half an hour. Again, it has been suggested that her role in the making of the movie was minimal, though Brakhage insists it was far from it. The film would never reach the same fame as Meshes of the Afternoon -- or even At Land -- despite the positive reviews it received.

Deren's next film in 1945 would be A Study in Choreography for the Camera. It was a two-and-a-half-minute film about dance, co-directed by friend and choreographer, Tally Beatty.

The next year, in 1946, Deren made another dance-centred movie. This movie, Ritual Transfigured in Time, would feature her in her last starring role but would also feature Nin. Though, Nin would write in a May 1946 diary entry that her experience working on the film was less than pleasant. She felt that all Deren had succeeded in over the making of the film was in alienating her friends. Nin wrote, "We gave [Deren] our time, our energy, and even our money [...] We believed in her as a filmmaker, we had faith in her but we began to feel that she was not human [...] We were influenced, dominated by her, and did not know how to free ourselves."

Deren's quest in making another big film only intensified as the years went on. She soon figured that one of the reasons her films were not receiving as much attention was because she had trouble distributing them. So, in 1946, she rented the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village for several nights. During that time, she used the playhouse to screen three of her movies: Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land and A Study in Choreography for the Camera. She called this series the Three Abandoned Films. Along with that, Deren also set up a business from her apartment which distributed other experimental films.

At the same time Deren was gaining attention for her films, she continued to publish her essays. Like her films though, these tended to stay only in underground groups, but the underground press was abuzz with her work. Particularly, her essay An anagram of ideas on art, form and film had managed to capture attention.

Also in 1946, Deren would become the first filmmaker to ever be awarded the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures. With this, she was able to travel to Haiti, where she would remain for 18 months. There, she would fully immerse herself in the culture. Though she had gone to study primarily dance, she became interested in traditional Voodoo rituals and Voodoo's place in dance.

Deren working with some of her tapes.

Though her intentions upon returning to America was to make a movie from the footage she had shot in Haiti, she never would. Probably because in the end, she had shot over 18,000 feet of film. For context, a two-hour movie shot on 16mm film amounts to around 4000 feet of film. With that much footage, it was simply too intimidating for Deren to edit. Another concern Deren had was that she would not accurately portray the Haitian people. Many Americans already had false beliefs about Haiti, and she did not want them to misunderstand the meaning behind her movie, especially when her prior films had all centred on themes of depersonalization and misrepresentation.

In 1947, after returning to New York, Deren and Hackenschmied divorced after five years of marriage.

Later that year, Deren travelled to Cannes, France to present Meshes of the Afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival. She won the Grand Prix in the category of 16mm, Experimental Film. This marked the first time the award was given to a film produced in America. It also marked the first time any of the awards were given to a female director.

In 1948, Deren completed the film Meditation on Violence, which would be the last film she completed for almost seven years.

Ito and Deren pictured together.

Later Career

Around 1950, Deren met Teiji Ito, a student interested in the world of the Avant-Garde. He was 15, and she was around 33, but despite the 18 year age gap, they began a relationship. They quickly moved in together and would eventually marry ten years later in 1960. Ito would later become a composer and would compose music for Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land, as well as several of Deren's other films.

In the early 1950s, Deren would travel to Haiti four more times, getting more footage for her uncompleted film. She did, however, complete a detailed anthropological study on the Voudoun religion under the supervision of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Her study, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti was published in 1953.

When she returned to America again, she returned with a strong interest in Voodoo practices. She continued to explore the practice of it, though much of this time in her life is unclear and is drenched in myth and legend. Among these myths is the belief that she performed regular dance rituals in her apartment. She even apparently performed a ritual at the wedding of actor Geoffrey Holder, which sent her into a deep trance that included violent outbursts.

Throughout the 1950s, Deren travelled throughout Canada, America and Cuba, promoting experimental films. In the late 1950s, she would establish the Creative Film Foundation, which provided cash awards for experimental filmmakers. She also intended to start another foundation, The Haiku Film Project, but it never made it past the planning stage.

Deren with her 16mm film camera.

Around 1955, Deren began work on her final film, The Very Eye of the Night. Deren independently directed this film, with Ito composing its score. Once production had ended, though, it was not able to premiere in New York as intended. Due to a financial dispute with the producer of the film, it would instead premiere in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1955. Four years later, in 1959, it finally premiered in New York.

Another myth states that the producer, John Latouche, would fall victim to Deren's Voodoo rituals. Since the two were at odds with each other, some suggest that Deren placed a curse on him. Latouche did end up dying soon after this alleged curse was placed.

Final Years

The last few years of Deren's life, unfortunately, did not show her the same success that she had previously seen. She struggled financially and was concerned with securing her legacy. She was afraid that she and her work would be erased, or at least misinterpreted by future filmmakers and critics. Deren would go back and edit her previous films, along with separating them into categories. There were three categories; Abandoned Films, Films in the Classicist Tradition and Chamber Films, each named after different schools of thought in art and film.

In 1961, soon after Deren and Ito were married, Ito's father fell ill and passed away. The couple travelled to New England in order to claim Ito's inheritance. However, his family attempted to stop him and Ito and Deren were forced to fight a stressful court battle.

Deren soon began to show signs of a stroke, which would lead to a cerebral hemorrhage. Deren would fall into a two-week coma, which she would not wake up from. On October 13, 1961, Deren passed away. She was only 44.

There are many different suggestions as to what caused Deren's death, considering she was relatively healthy and had previously shown no obvious signs of a stroke. Some suggest that the stroke that led to the hemorrhage was caused by Deren falling into a Voudoun trance while others suggest it was a counter curse from Latouche's friends.

It is more likely that it was caused by stress from the court battle and other personal difficulties. It is even more likely that it was caused by the so-called 'vitamin shots' that Deren was receiving, which contained large amounts of amphetamine, as well as the large amount of sleeping pills she had been prescribed.

Ito would later spread Deren's ashes over the side of Mount Fuji.

Legacy

Deren left behind five unfinished films. Among these were her extensive footage on Haiti. It was offered to many other filmmakers, but no one wanted to take on the large project. In the 1980s, Ito and his wife, Cherel, set out to finally complete it. They completed the film, with a score by Ito, before his own death in 1982. In 1985, the finished film, Divine Horsemen, was released.

Also in 1985, Deren's legacy received acknowledgment when the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award for Independent Filmmaking. Along with that, Anthology Film Archives in New York established the Maya Deren Theatre, which seats 66 people for various film festivals.

Now, Meshes of the Afternoon has regularly been acknowledged as one of the greatest American films. Along with this, Deren's work is studied in many film schools and is seen as some of the most influential Avant-Garde films.

Conclusion

Deren was a pioneer, not only for experimental filmmaking but also for women in film. Deren paved the way for those who would otherwise never be taken seriously, and she spent her time proving how worthy she was of the praise she received. Without her, some of today's movies likely would never have been made. Genre-bending art like Black Swan, Donnie Darko, Twin Peaks and Rosemary's Baby may have never seen the light of day. Notable directors who have been influenced by Deren include Darren Arnofsky and David Lynch, who otherwise may never have been pushed to create their art without Deren and those like her.

Yet, she was much more than just a filmmaker. Deren was a writer, an activist, an anthropologist, and someone who wanted to show the world the underground culture of the Avant-Garde.

Perhaps her ambition to be so many things in her short life is the reason people have overlooked her legacy; it was simply too much to keep up with. Perhaps she was simply too ambitious, surpassed too many men, or opened a new world to too many women. After all, we know from Hollywood now how unkind they can be to female filmmakers, and that was the same Hollywood Deren had to deal with.

No matter what it was, the world of cinema is forever bettered because of Deren and her magnum opus, Meshes of the Afternoon.


Further Resources

  • In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a documentary on the life of Deren.

  • Invocation: Maya Deren is a 1987 documentary that explores Deren and her work, and also includes interviews from several of her colleagues.

  • Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers is a book about eight different filmmakers written by Stan Brakhage, Deren's friend and protege, and prominently features Deren.

Sources

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