Meshes and Mirrors: In The Mirror of Maya Deren

If the terms “experimental film” or “avant garde cinema” send you running to a holiday weekend movie marathon on TNT or the USA Network, you probably won’t easily warm up to the work of Maya Deren. But, for those curious but hesitant to sample the genre, you could do worse than start with her. She only made a handful of short films between 1943 and her death in 1961. All are in black and white and without dialogue or synch-sound; most don’t have sound at all. The films, however, are decades ahead of their time, innovatively and enticingly exploring memory, movement, similarities between dream and waking states, and rearrangements of space and time. Her best, “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “At Land”, placed her at their centers, pioneering film psychodrama, a sort of fictional autobiography.

Deren herself was also inarguably a woman not of her time. She left an indelible impression in both her films and her life. Her unconventional beauty (short Russian émigré with long, unkempt curly hair) and outspoken demeanor make her a fitting and inevitable subject for a documentary. With “In The Mirror of Maya Deren”, director Martina Kudlacek has made a striking one, recounting Deren’s life and work with a creativity and ingenuity that its fascinatingly eccentric and strong-willed subject might have almost approved of. Kudlacek mixes interviews with Deren’s colleagues (ex-husband Alexander Hammid, fellow experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, archivist Jonas Mekas), actors who appeared in some her films, and modern film historians. Most of them illuminate various aspects of Deren’s life (Brakhage’s expressive account of her hurling a refrigerator across a room is a highlight). Still, a part of her remains as elusive as ever, especially the more intimate details of her relationship with Hammid, who contributed vitally to her early films.

The films themselves are as intriguing and puzzling as ever. Many of them are shown nearly in their entirety, and they’ve lost none of their power to seduce or stimulate. They haven’t been overplayed through the years, still waiting for many to discover them. There is also a welcoming abundance of rare voodoo ritual footage Deren shot in Haiti for a project that was never completed, and it’s fun to see the parallels between it and her completed films. What really lifts Kudlacek’s film beyond most documentaries is that same sense of wonder and exploration Deren always conveyed. Shots of archives packed with 8mm and 16mm film cans and reoccurring images of water (often a significant symbolic presence for Deren) and a young girl operating a hand-run projector are interspersed throughout. Working beautifully with John Zorn’s understated score, it all makes for an appropriately eloquent study of one of film’s most important and generally, little known female artists.