Vol. 2, Issue #13 July 20th - August 2nd, 2007

DVD Review: Maya Deren: Experimental Films
/ Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
(Mystic Fire Video)
By: Wilhelm Murg

Through she only completed six short films, all of which are on the “Experimental Films” DVD; Maya Deren (1917-1961) is one of the towering figures in the pantheon of experimental cinema. Her work connected the early 20th century avant-garde films of the European Surrealists and Dadaists with the later American Experimental films of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. The self-financed structure of her small productions proved to be a useful model that would later be used by the Independent film movement. Her experiments with dance on film were groundbreaking, as was her documentary footage of Haitian Voodoo rituals that would become the posthumously completed “Divine Horsemen.” And, of course, this was all achieved at a time when women filmmakers were few and far in between.

The eighteen-minute “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943-1959,) made in collaboration with her first husband, Alexander Hammid, is the most important and famous film of the group. Deren used what were then unorthodox techniques, like slow motion (decades before Sam Peckinpah’s slow motion gun battles in “The Wild Bunch,”) flash edits (years before the French New Wave,) multiple images of herself, and she even extends time. The film uses symbolism in the same vein as Luis Buñuel’s films, but while Buñuel tended to be absurd and blasphemous, “Meshes” is hypnotic and psychological. The film exists in a dream state where Deren runs after a cloaked figure with a mirror where it’s face should be, but she never catches up to it. The house rocks as she falls out of windows and climbs stairs, showing the deterioration of her mental state, and it all ends in suicide. This disc features the haunting music of Teiji Ito, her third husband, on the soundtrack – the film was initially released silent.
Other great moments in her films includes the dancers in the a garden jumping on pedestals and turning into statues in “Ritual in Transfigured Time” (1945-1946,) the silent ballet, cut for camera continuity, though on different sets, “A Study in Choreography for Camera” (1949,) and “Meditation on Violence” (1948,) where Chinese master Chao-Le Chi performs Tai Chi; halfway through the film is reversed to create a loop. The disc also includes Hammid’s rarely seen “Private Life of a Cat,” which follows a litter of kittens from birth through early adulthood, which was conceived by Deren (1947).

In 1936 Deren won a Guggenheim Fellowship that financed her travels through Haiti. She not only filmed hundreds of hours of voodoo ceremonies, but participated, became a convert to the religion, and wrote the definitive book on the subject, “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” (1953). The film of the same name, released separately from her other titles, was completed by Ito and his wife in 1981. While it is a straight ahead documentary on the rituals, complete with animal sacrifices and possessions, the footage is especially astounding for it’s sense of Cinéma vérité.

These two discs beautifully give the entire breath of the beauty and mystery of Deren’s vision. She remains one of the true masters of cinema. Visit MysticFire.com for more information.

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©2007 NONCO Media, L.L.C.