MAYA DEREN (b. Eleanora Derenkowsky, Kiev, Russia, 29 April 1917, d. 13 October 1961)
One of the most important women in American experimental cinema, Maya Deren emigrated with her parents in 1922 to the United States, where Eleanora developed a keen interest in the arts that launched her into a varied early career, including a stint touring with Katherine Dunham’s dance company. In 1941, while with the company in Los Angeles, she met and married filmmaker Alexander Hammid. In 1943 Deren adopted the first name Maya (Hindu for “illusion”) and made Meshes of the Afternoon, a psychodrama rife with symbolic, fascinating repetition that rejuvenated the American avant-garde.

Deren’s love of dance manifests itself in the films following Meshes. At Land (1944) is a dream of female empowerment that foregrounds Deren’s own graceful movements, while A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) is a portrait of dancer Talley Beatty as he moves from repose to a vigorous, ballet-like jump. Meshes, At Land, and A Study are unified by Deren’s signature editing strategy: flowing motions that bridge abrupt cuts between different locales. In A Study, for instance, Beatty’s single leap travels through a room, an art museum, against a backdrop of sky, and then ends in the woods, as he falls into a crouch and stops moving.

The combination of real-life incident and artistic manipulation is, for Deren, the essence of cinema. In her essay “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality” she argues that photography and cinema is the art of the “controlled accident,” the “delicate balance” between spontaneity and deliberate design in art. Deren further extends the notion of the controlled accident to include those formal properties—slow-motion, negative images, disjunctive editing—that shape and alter the images of real life provided by the film camera.

Deren’s other films are the Meshes -like Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the dance film Meditation on Violence (1948), and The Very Eye of Night (1958). In 1946 Deren divorced Alexander Hammid. In the late 1940s she became passionately interested in Haitian religion and dance, and traveled three times to Haiti to do research that resulted in the book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953) and hours of footage of Haitian rituals (some of which was edited into the video release Divine Horsemen). Deren became a legend in New York City’s Greenwich Village, both for her practice of voodoo and for the assistance she provided to younger experimental filmmakers. The Creative Film Foundation (CFF) was founded by Deren to provide financial help to struggling filmmakers; Stan Brakhage, Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer, Shirley Clarke, and Carmen D’Avino received CFF grants.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation on Violence (1948 )

FURTHER READING

Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, vol. 1, part 1: Signatures (1917–42). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984.

Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, vol. 1, part 2: Chambers (1942–47). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.

Deren, Maya. “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 187–198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

(Craig Fischer, Film Encyclopedia)