I didn’t need to go to grad school for Film Studies; while I hoped such an undertaking would lead to a palpable career in the same way earning a degree in Nursing or Library Sciences could, I suspected all along this was not a practical, much less lucrative path to take. Even in the video store era, I could have avoided so much student loan debt by renting five or ten tapes a week and reading all the significant film theory tomes in my spare time; I might’ve emerged with a similar comprehension of, to reference the title of one of those books by Bruce Kawin, How Movies Work.
Still, I have no regrets putting in the time and money to earn what many would deem a most frivolous degree. It not only pushed me out of my hometown and forced me to learn how to live as an independent adult, it also significantly altered my worldview. The primary advantage to any arts/humanities graduate study is curation: when inspired, professors and instructors serve as guides to which art one should consume, how one should absorb it and what one can understand from it.
My second semester at Boston University played out similarly to the first. Excluding Introduction to Video Production, an elective required of anyone not in the Film Production tier of the program, the courses I took were genre-defined: one a broad survey on world cinema called International Masterworks (a loose sequel to last semester’s American Masterworks), another on Neorealism in Film (a concept that proved to be rather openly defined by its instructor) and finally, an overview of Avant-Garde Cinema. As with Neorealism, this was also broadly demarcated, though simpler to identify by default of often being short, experimental and what 99% of the public might categorize as weird.
It should come as no surprise that Avant-Garde Cinema ended up one of the more illuminating film courses I ever took. Unlike Ways of Seeing from the previous semester, this had barely anything to do with the instructor, regrettably. An experimental filmmaker herself originally from Quebec, I never questioned her knowledge of the subject; she just had no business teaching a class. Her lectures were erratic to the point of coming off as scatterbrained which proved a death knell in providing much sense of engagement (though the undergraduate male students who regularly sat in the front rows were certainly engaged by her busty figure. Not that I myself could’ve delivered a better lecture at that point, but still.)
Happily, the films she screened for us were enough. Given that experimental film in general and shorts in particular were difficult to find in that pre-streaming, pre-YouTube era (and to a lesser extent, remain so today), the cornucopia of cinema we consumed over the semester was in retrospect astonishing—a treasure trove of rarities, obscurities and stuff you couldn’t rent from local indie-friendly chains like Videosmith and Hollywood Express, much less Blockbuster. Most of it was even projected on 16mm (and occasionally 35mm) film. We’d usually watch an average of four titles per two-hour class, two times a week.
We saw so much stuff: for starters, abstract animation from Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren (the latter’s Begone Dull Care visualizing an Oscar Peterson Trio recording with colors and kinesis), the surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, the rapid montage cutting of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera and the queer pop art of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger (the latter’s Scorpio Rising practically inventing the music video.) We took in both the challenging formalism of structuralist cinema (Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow) and the more accessible, if still out-there pleasures of such one-of-a-kind auteurs as Chris Marker (best known for the short La Jetee, which inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys), Bruce Baillie, George Kuchar and Guy Maddin (who attended class in-person for a screening of his film Careful!)
For every work I found impenetrable (Snow’s Wavelength, which slooowly zooms in on a window for 45 minutes was particularly torturous), I watched another that enjoyably blew up my preconceived notions of what cinema could be. Baillie’s All My Life, for instance, was nothing but a three-minute single shot of a fence flanked by red flowers and eventually a clear blue sky, all of it accompanied by Ella Fitzgerald’s ebullient rendition of the title song. That’s it—no cuts, narration or dialogue, just a beautiful tableau presented for what it is. Like Wavelength, it roughly fell under the banner of structuralist film but in a more contained, condensed package.
While McLaren, Anger, Marker and Maddin would become some of my favorite filmmakers, the one with the most direct impact on me at the time was Maya Deren. She only made a handful of short films between her 1943 debut, Meshes of the Afternoon and her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1961; she remains obscure outside academic and experimental cineaste circles, although Martina Kudlacek’s 2002 documentary feature In the Mirror of Maya Deren surely expanded her reach, providing an eloquent summation of her life and career. One can now see most of her work on YouTube, although Criterion and Kanopy offer legal options to view some of it as well.
Born as Eleonora Derenkowska in Russia, 1917, she and her family emigrated to the United States at age five. After studying literature at New York University and Smith College, she spent a few years amongst the bohemian elite in Greenwich Village before moving to California where she met Czech-born photographer Alexander Hammid. They married in 1942 and moved to Laurel Canyon where, the following year, they’d co-direct and star in a silent, 14-minute, black-and-white experimental film.
Meshes of the Afternoon wasn’t anything like the massive, big budget productions incessantly churned out at various studios in adjacent Hollywood. It had no stars or dialogue. The locations used were primarily inside and around the filmmakers’ own home along with some footage at a Pacific Ocean beach. The plot, such as it was, resembled not so much a straight line with a discernible beginning and end as it did a loose thread forever unraveling and occasionally turning back in on itself. In fact, the whole thing eschewed the kind of logic one would find in a traditional narrative; instead, it played out like a dream, a visualization of themes and ideas made all the more personal by the notion that the primary figure and closest thing to an audience surrogate was Deren herself.
Although she appears in nearly every shot, for the first four minutes or so, she’s an elusive figure, offering only glimpses of parts of herself. It opens with her arm reaching down from the top center of the frame, gently laying a poppy-like flower on the ground. Subsequently, while alternating with point-of-view shots, she reveals a leg, her feet, her hand dropping a key. Her silhouette, betraying her short stature and wild mop of curly hair practically glides along other surfaces. It’s nearly as edifying as an extreme close-up of her eye but even that pales next to the moment we finally see her entire face, exposing her inquisitiveness and somewhat exotic, undeniable beauty—not a pin-up or a glamour girl one would see in a studio film but a figure that can’t help but exude charisma even though she’s not actively courting the camera’s attention. She’s the protagonist here, but this is her dream, her perception of the world, not yours.
As with multiple objects, the aforementioned key reappears throughout: Deren uses it to open a locked door, as one does with a key, but in another scene, she pulls it out of her mouth—how it ended up there is never explained. Later, the key returns but with the help of simple optical effects (the sort dating back to Georges Méliès’ groundbreaking silent cinema from four decades before), it turns into a knife before our very eyes—the same knife stuck in a loaf of bread that Deren discovered much earlier in the film.
Speaking of optical effects, there are multiple shots with multiple Derens, including one with her witnessing herself sitting in a chair and another where she steps into her home to find two more of her at a kitchen table; the clones regard her as if to say, “What are you doing here?” There’s also a sequence where Deren attempts walking up the home’s oft-seen staircase, but either she’s swerving back-and-forth like she’s drunk (or forcibly pulled against her will), the camera’s imitating someone doing the same, or both are happening simultaneously. Additionally, there’s a static shot where she quickly rematerializes in different positions along the staircase as if instantly teleporting among them.
Often in Meshes and experimental film in general, the emotion elicited by what images are placed next to each other is more important than whether they make any sense or result in some sort of resolution. The film’s most daring and perhaps startling sequence occurs about ten minutes in when Deren, suddenly wearing these funky globular goggles, knife in hand, takes a series of steps. After the first shot, we only see her foot, but in each of the following shots, it’s a jump cut to different terrain: a sandy beach, then soil, grass, pavement, and finally, a wooden floor inside the house. In five quick shots, is as if she’s traversing the world, or at least the one she has access to.
Meanwhile, another figure wearing a black cloak with a mirror-for-a-face surfaces throughout. At one point, Deren wakes up to see this figure standing over her, only for the latter to suddenly change into Hammid, her husband and co-director, who offers her the poppy from the opening shot. Eventually, Deren hits Hamid’s face with the knife, only for it to instantly turn into a mirror, now in shards scattered all over the previously seen beach. Is Hammid interchangeable with the cloaked figure, or is Deren in such an altered state that she is unable to discern between them? The ending further muddies this notion, as Hammid (face intact) comes across Deren sitting in the same chair as before, only she’s now dead, covered in shards of broken grass, seaweed (from the beach) and blood.
Meshes leaves the viewer with much to unpack and I could write a whole book about everything it contains and suggests. Instead, as with that first viewing in Avant-Garde Cinema, I’m more interested in what feelings it provokes: the mysteriousness of the house where persons and objects keep transforming or multiplying, the disquiet of having no soundtrack* to guide one’s perception, the lyricism achieved by near-constant movement (whether it’s Deren, the camera or even just the wind), the shock and terror of an act of violence.
Like Deren herself, Meshes now both seems ahead of its time (given her strong physical resemblance, it feels like a silent Kate Bush music video) and entirely out of it. There are few indicators of its era, whether purposely or not: it contains no city streets, no interiors apart from the filmmakers’ simple, mostly minimalist-designed home. It exists in a space that, while identifiable, is meant primarily to reflect the mind state of its creator. In this way, it helped to invent the psychodrama as a film genre where the creator’s psyche and/or collective unconsciousness is the key (so to speak) to understanding its themes and resolution (or lack thereof.)
It’s no wonder that the Criterion edition of Meshes begins with titles that, among other things, call Deren the “Mother of Underground Film”. One can spot Meshes’ influence on so much personal, handmade, experimental film that followed, from Anger’s focus on such obsessions as bike boys and the dark arts to Maddin’s later proclivity to name his primary characters after himself which hits a feverish peak with 2007’s “docu-fantasia” feature My Winnipeg. And while Meshes has its own antecedents such as Jean Cocteau’s Blood Of A Poet which similarly utilized its creator’s subjective point of view, it’s groundbreaking for placing the female gaze front and center—a lineage that arguably stretches through the decades to other filmmakers like Carole Schneemann and Su Friedrich or even those who took a more commercial path like Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay or David Lynch (Laura Dern’s character in Inland Empire would likely relate to Meshes.)
All of Deren’s shorts have something to offer, even if only her second one, At Land, feels particularly close to its predecessor’s spirit. While Meshes established her as a film artist, the following years up to her early death were tumultuous. She’d soon split with Hammid, later marrying Teiji Itō (a Japanese musician 18 years her junior) and spend a fair amount of time filming Vodou rituals in Haiti for a project she never completed. Kudlacek’s documentary fleshes out such travails with great anecdotes (such as Brakhage recounting that one time she hurled a refrigerator across a room, possibly under a Vodou spell) and, in lieu of any surviving filmed footage of her with sound, plenty of archival audio recordings where her speaking voice resembles Lucille Ball’s, of all people.
Meshes and the Avant-Garde Cinema course were talismans I’d never think to seek out on my own at that age. For a while, whenever asked if I’d use my graduate degree to actually make my own films, I’d respond that if I were to do that, they’d be experimental shorts like the work of Anger or Deren. I never actually made my own films, feeling content enough just to watch and write about thousands of titles from every genre, era and country I’d encounter over the next few decades. In time, I even secured employment tangentially related to my field of study. Still, it was the thrill of discovery, of opening those new doors that encouraged me to pursue Film Studies in the first place. Meshes and other strange, obscure shorts like it vindicated that leap of faith I took in making film central in my life.
*That first screening of Meshes in class actually had a soundtrack composed by Itō more than 15 years after its initial release. Additionally, one can see (illegal) uploads of the film on YouTube with different soundtracks composed over the years. However, it is productive if not entirely decisive to see Meshes silent (as it is of this writing on The Criterion Channel) as Deren and Hammid originally intended it to be. In this case, the lack of accompaniment forces one to focus entirely on imagery and it’s enough to leave one feeling satiated.
Essay #7 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #6: Safe.