Maya Deren: An Underrated Auteur

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By Jerome Reuter

The world of film has always been a male dominated industry. It seems whenever a successful female filmmaker emerges on the scene, she’s labeled as just that—a female filmmaker. More often than not, emphasis is placed upon gender, rather than accomplishments and capabilities. Which brings me the works of Maya Deren, the godmother of experimental film. Although she’s highly regarded in some circles, I feel she hasn’t received the full credit she deserves.

Her work has a very unique visual style, somewhat similar to the early works of Jean Cocteau. Much like Cocteau, she had a gift for applying new elements to celluloid. Cocteau’s greatest contribution, in my opinion, was the application of the mechanics of poetry to the screen. Many of the editing techniques he utilized in films such as Blood Of A Poet, can be found in Deren’s works. However, I feel Deren took things in a bold new direction for the time. (Mid 1940’s-early 1950’s.)

Aside from applying poetry to her work, she also utilized her skills as a choreographer. The majority of her works were filmed on 16mm silent film. Any silent filmmaker will tell you, it’s more of a challenge to show, not tell. She utilized her talents for movement to create a psychological dream like aesthetic, one that I’ve never seen duplicated.

At a time where the Hollywood studio system dominated the landscape, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She was always extremely critical of the major studios, and championed the cause of the independent filmmaker. Every independent filmmaker today owes Maya Deren a large debt of gratitude. She was once quoted as saying: “What a Hollywood film spends on lipstick, I spend half as a much to make a film.”

Two films I’ll recommend are Meshes In The Afternoon, and At Land. I feel they’re not only essential works, but also two of the most influential.

At Land is a statement in my opinion, of being a woman in a male dominated landscape. Her talents as a choreographer come through in this work. Deren herself, plays the films lead. So much of this film represents an artist going against convention, to follow his or her own path. The films conclusion also served as a huge inspiration to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Meshes In The Afternoon is nothing short of brilliant. Deren again plays the lead, and demonstrates her talent for editing. Deren utilized the style pioneered by Jean Cocteau, and made it her own. Aside from that, she adapted the psychology of Freud to celluloid. Which is something you won’t see today.

In this day and age, filmmakers are filmmakers. Maya Deren was an artist, and a visionary. We’ll never see another one like her again. Her works are timeless and inspiring, even today.

I for one, feel she needs to rank alongside the other great auteurs, as one of he most influential in history. She doesn’t deserve the title of being one of the greatest female filmmakers of all time. She deserves the title of one of the greatest filmmakers, of ALL time.

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