A Life Choreographed for Camera

Maya Deren in a scene from Meshes of the Afternoon


Drama and myth framed the life and death of Maya Deren. She was born Eleanora Derenkowski in Kiev in 1917 – during the early days of the Russian Revolution – and died forty-four years later in New York City, with whispers of a Vodou curse veiling the circumstances of her death. During her brief life she established herself as a pioneering experimental filmmaker and crusader for independent film, received the first Guggenheim grant ever awarded for creative filmmaking (1946), and in 1953 published the book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The aura that suffuses Deren’s biography emanates partly from the enigmatic power of her films, but it has been magnified by her bohemian glamour and visionary intelligence, edged with a hint of tyranny.

Escaping anti-Semitic pogroms and the general chaos of the nascent USSR, the Derenkowski family immigrated to the United States in 1922 and settled in Syracuse, New York.  During the mid-1930s Deren attended Syracuse University, where she became deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-war activities on campus. She later enrolled in a graduate program at Smith College, earning a master’s degree in English literature in 1939.


Deren in anti-fascist rally, New York City, 1939


Deren went on to become the personal assistant to Katherine Dunham, an African-American dancer/choreographer, and anthropologist whose fieldwork concerned Afro-Caribbean culture. Deren traveled with Dunham’s dance troupe as they toured around segregated America; the racism she witnessed during those trips left a deep impression. It was Dunham who also introduced her to the interwoven relationships among dance, ritual, iconography, and metaphysical transcendence in Haitian culture.

In 1942, Deren met Alexander Hackenshmied (later Hammid), a Czech émigré. Their first encounter was at a party in Los Angeles, and they were married not long after. An accomplished photographer and cinematographer, Hammid had a sophisticated and adventurous visual sensibility, developed while making both experimental and documentary films in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Film stocks and cameras, light and shadow, frozen moments and moving images, the very materiality of photography and cinema were the dowry of their union, and provided the essence of Deren’s new identity. In a biographical from 1953, she wrote: “It was like finally finding a glove that fits. When I was writing poetry, I had, constantly, to transcribe my essentially visual image . . . into verbal form. In motion pictures, I no longer had to translate…and I could move directly from my imagination into film.” Recognizing this moment of transformation, she asked Hammid to give her a new name – and so Eleanora became ‘Maya,’ after the Hindu goddess of illusion.


John Cage photographed in Deren’s studio, c. 1944


Immediately adept with a still camera, Deren produced several confident documentary projects about California farm workers and street life in downtown Los Angeles.  Photography would remain an important tool for the rest of her life, but was never her central medium: she simply found it useful for ethnographic documentation in Haiti and for earning money as a freelance portrait photographer for such magazines as Vogue, Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, and Architectural Forum.

Though still and moving images share elemental characteristics, their fundamental difference is of course between stasis and change. In Martina Kudlacek’s 2002 documentary film In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Deren proclaims: “The still photograph is concerned with the isolation of the moment.  The moment is stayed, composed within a stable frame.  Films are concerned with the way in which a moment passes and becomes the next. This metamorphosis cannot be composed within the frame, but only through frames, from one frame to the next.”

Deren often spoke of the concept of time not being a fixed phenomenon, but something that was essentially subjective and unstable.  She adopted Einstein’s notion of the ‘relativistic universe’ to describe the idea of constant metamorphosis – of becoming as opposed to being.   For Deren, the spatial and temporal plasticity of moving images was perfectly suited to conjure this phenomenon.


Scene from Meshes of the Afternoon


Deren’s best-known film is her first, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Shot in twelve days in and around her tiny bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, the film takes place in a haunting, circular dreamscape in which Deren and Hammid are the actors. The film’s symbolism is hardly oblique: a key, a knife, a mouth, and a hooded figure with a mirrored face. Yet it is worth suspending skepticism for works that transcend their contrivances, as this one does: Meshes of the Afternoon’s radical yet elegant use of film language still has the power to mesmerize.

Soon after completing Meshes, Deren and Hammid moved to New York and took up residence on Morton Street in Greenwich Village, where Deren would live for the rest of her life. (It is a testament to her youthful audacity that even before she had unpacked her bags in New York; Deren recruited Marcel Duchamp to appear in Witches’ Cradle – a film she never completed.)  That apartment served as studio, office, occasional film set, and gathering spot during the 1940s and ’50s. Dylan Thomas, Anais Nin, Salvador and Gala Dali, Ralph Ellison, and John Cage were just a few of the luminaries that trudged the four flights up to the garret apartment that Deren shared first with Hammid and later with her third husband, musician Teiji Ito – and always with a multitude of cats.


Hammid and Deren on fire escape on Morton Street, c. 1944


Meshes was followed in quick succession by At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). While Meshes is an intimate collaboration between husband and wife, Deren became more independent with each successive film – although she often demanded that friends and acquaintances act or provide other services for her projects. In her diary entry for May 1946, Anais Nin grumbles: “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.”


Grid of film stills assembled by Deren from Meshes of the Afternoon, Choreography for Camera, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time


It is plain that Deren owed much to her precursors in experimental cinema, especially those concerned with altered states of consciousness – Robert Weine’ Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet or Orpheus,  all come to mind. But Deren deflected any reference to those who came before her, and rarely cited the works of other artists as influences. Clearly, she wished to be understood as sui generis – at having arrived at the shores of cinema as magically as she does in the opening scenes of At Land, tossed up by the undulating surf.  And yet, even while cultivating this image of herself as a lone and singular visionary, Deren fixedly pursued a concept of ‘depersonalization’ in her films: she was staunchly opposed to the romantic idea of ‘individualism’ that so dominates Western art, especially in the confessional and biographical manner of Hollywood film.


Rita Christiani in Ritual in Transfigured Time


Ritual in Transfigured Time is considered by many film historians to be Deren’s most fully realized film; it is also the last in which she herself appears. Dancers Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook are in the lead roles, and Anais Nin is also prominently featured. Initially flattered by her involvement, Nin increasingly perceived Deren’s interest in depersonalization to be antagonistic to her own highly cultivated subjectivity. Furthermore, after seeing the completed film, Nin complained that Deren made her look severe and aging in the film – and indeed, Nin is often shot in harsh light, while Deren herself appears in soft focus.  According to Deren this was simply part of an effort to portray a world in flux and metamorphosis, but Nin saw it as a betrayal and it ultimately led to their permanent estrangement.

Deren’s films, although experimental in nature, tend to be loosely narrative and representational. Ritual in Transfigured Time is a story of a woman attempting to navigate personal, social, and mythological threats. The film utilizes repetition, slow motion, stop motion, and negative footage to thicken the fabric of its mysteries. The cocktail party scene is like a modern day Watteau painting, full of exaggerated mannerisms and desperate, brief embraces. Draped in black and holding three calla lilies, Christiani forges through a crowd that freezes into a series of minor tableaux, in which all the subtle gestures clotting the frame can be discerned before the moment is released back into animated flow. It is as if Deren were attempting a dialectical dance in which truth might be found between the stops and starts of cinematic illusion.


From Ritual in Transfigured Time


In 1947, Deren made use of her Guggenheim funding to travel to Haiti.  A motif that runs through her work, from Meshes of the Afternoon to the groundbreaking work she made in Haiti, is the idea of the body in an altered state, entranced, moved by unseen forces.  Film’s hypnotic influence seems ideally suited to revealing the realities of spiritual possession, but although Deren made several pilgrimages to Haiti, living there for about 18 months in her combined trips, and shot many hours of religious ceremonies, she never completed her film. (The edited footage, titled Divine Horsemen, was released posthumously.)  It is curious that the moving image failed Deren in her attempt to represent a real-world phenomenon of depersonalization; she was concerned that the footage of Haitians dancing and writhing in the state of ‘possession’ would be sensationalized and misunderstood.  This was, in a sense, a blessing in disguise because this ‘failure’ inspired her to write her incredible book on Haitian culture, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

Deren published and lectured regularly throughout the 1950s, but she would complete only one more film, The Very Eye of Night (1952-59), before her sudden death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1961. She spent most of her last years struggling financially and attempting to secure her place in film history. Wary of being misinterpreted, she carefully labeled and relabeled her films and rewrote program notes for her audiences.  Over the years she divided her body of film work – six shorts with a cumulative running time of just over an hour – into three categories: ‘Abandoned Films’ (after Paul Valery’s notion that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned); ‘Films in the Classicist Tradition’ (that is, constructed with a rigorous formal structure); and finally ‘Chamber Films’ (because she valued economy over elaboration to achieve a precise austerity in her films).

As the 1950s wore on, the taste for Deren’s careful, literary, Old World aesthetic was overshadowed by less formal approaches to experimental film, such as the irreverent Pull My Daisy (1959) by Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Jack Kerouac. Such films were anathema to Deren’s work. In both words and pictures, she did not indulge in casual spontaneity; it is as if, to borrow her phrase, she choreographed her life for camera.


Haitian Bed, c. 1947-52


It is apparent, looking through the photographic shards of her archive, that she wasted few frames on ephemeral or peripheral moments. Snapshots of life in Greenwich Village are scarce, but there are hundreds of hand-printed film stills collected in manila folders: evidence of her involvement with the humble act of making her own film posters and distribution materials. While her observations of the cosmology of Vodou are exactingly recorded and analyzed in her book Divine Horsemen, there is very little documentation of her quotidian experiences in Haiti. What did she eat? Where did she walk? Who, if anyone, were her lovers?

The public image that Deren built during her lifetime, which has been fortified by successive generations of admirers, is so carefully constructed that it is difficult to see beyond it. A few atypical still images from Haiti have floated to the surface: an unmade bed; a boy contemplating a ferocious downpour; a hazy street scene, perhaps in Jacmel. In this last image are gathered a random simultaneity of gestures, a rare demotic moment in which a boy embraces another from behind, a woman balances a bundle of kindling on her head, and an elegantly dressed man glides across the wet street. Perhaps because Deren is not burdened with representing herself or her vision, the relaxed portraits of dancers, writers and musicians that she made for magazines have a similar openness. This rare informality is like throwing open the windows to a long-shut attic, which is the set piece of her legend.


Haitian Street Scene, c. 1947-52

Originally Published in Aperture, No. 195, Summer 2009