Maya Deren on Film 

The avant-garde pioneer's work at LACMA

Thursday, Mar 22 2012

Maya Deren's best-known achievement, her remarkable 1943 dream-poem Meshes of the Afternoon, was just the beginning of a too-brief career. Her output would extend from experiments in psychodrama, like Meshes and Witch's Cradle, a fascinating, barely edited collaboration with Marcel Duchamp made during Deren's short period in Hollywood; to highly personal dance studies such as Meditation on Violence (1948). All the above screen tonight at LACMA as part of a tribute to Deren, tied to the exhibition "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States."

Deren was a focal point of postwar avant-garde filmmaking, one of the first such artists to exhibit her own work, an act that directly inspired Cinema 16, Amos Vogel's "subversive" film society. Deren also was a pioneer of the dance film, a proud, matter-of-fact feminist and a lucid writer on cinema. Her time studying the Voudoun religion produced heaps of tantalizing rushes, as well as a highly distinguished book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

One of the first films to explore cinema's ability to represent subconscious, nonliteral space, Meshes remains extraordinary, a magical portal between cinema and the unknown. The dance films are intimate in a different way. Deren's camera allows the viewer to assume the perspective of a partner in the cinematic ballet, moving with a single filmed dancer. Her final completed film was the strange, mythic The Very Eye of Night, in which Greek gods dance across the heavens.

click to enlarge Maya Deren in At Land
  • Maya Deren in At Land

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The second half of the program, Martina Kudlácek's 2002 documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren, takes us chronologically from Deren's early childhood in Kiev through her various filmmaking adventures and friendships to the deep studies of voodoo. Bountiful audio survives of lectures and conversation, in which she reveals herself to be passionate, and doubtless unstoppable when she got her wind up: Talking head Stan Brakhage recalls seeing her throw a refrigerator across a room. Vogel, dancing mentor Katherine Dunham, ex-husband (and co-director of Meshes) Alexander Hammid and others are also on hand to reminisce and analyze. There's a wealth of rare footage and photographs, but most fascinating is the copious material Deren shot in Haiti of rituals and dance. Her death at age 44 cut short a lifetime's work devoted to the truly transportative in movement and trance.

DANCER IN THE DARK: MAYA DEREN ON FILM | Friday, March 23 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org

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