At Land

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At Land
Directed by Maya Deren
Written by Maya Deren
Starring Maya Deren
Alexander Hammid
John Cage
Parker Tyler
Cinematography Hella Heyman
Alexander Hammid
Release date
Running time
15 min
Country USA

At Land (1944) is a 15-minute silent experimental film written, directed by, and starring Maya Deren. It has a dream-like narrative in which a woman, played by Deren, is washed up on a beach and goes on a strange journey encountering other people and other versions of herself. Deren once said that the film is about the struggle to maintain one's personal identity.

The composer John Cage and the poet and film critic Parker Tyler were involved in making the film, and appear in the film, which was shot at Amagansett, Long Island.


At the beginning of the film, a woman is lying on a beach as if she has been washed up by the ocean. She climbs a tree with some difficulty, but when she finally reaches the top, she finds herself at the end of a long dining room table during a bourgeois dinner party. All the guests ignore her as she drags herself on top of the table and pulls herself across it, trying to reach a man (played by graphic designer Alvin Lustig) at the opposite end who looks deeply concentrated on a chess game. When she finally gets to the man, he stands up and leaves the table; she looks disappointed and hopeless.

The chess pieces begin to move by themselves, and one of the pawns falls on the floor. It floats down a waterfall and down a river. The woman chases it, climbing down the hill she had already passed. She then finds herself walking down a forest path; she begins talking and walking with a man, who in total is replaced four times by four different men (the first one is the American surrealist poet, Philip Lamantia at age 17; the second man is Gregory Bateson; the third is artist and composer John Cage; and the last one Deren's real-life husband, Alexander Hammid).

She follows the man into a house where all the furniture is covered with white blankets. She opens many doors, and in one room finds a bed on which a man is lying covered in a white blanket as if laid out in death. They stare at each other for some moments; then a cat leaps from her arms, and she turns her back and leaves. After walking through several doors, she finds herself on a hilltop, and climbs down to a dune field.

Walking down the beach, she picks up stones, finding it hard to carry all of them at once. Then she finds two of the women who were at the dinner party in the beginning of the film playing chess on the beach. They are gossiping, having a good time while playing. The woman gets closer and watches them. She caresses their heads gently, making them lose their attention on the game. Then she takes a pawn from the game and runs across the dunes with her arms raised. While she runs, we see other versions of herself, at earlier stages in her journey; her other selves all glance at her. The film's final image is of the woman running down the beach, leaving her footprints behind her.


The chess game shown at the beginning and the end is Anderssen - Kieseritzky, proclaimed as the Immortal Game.

Influences on popular culture[edit]

The scenes of Deren on the beach, and of the chess games are referenced in the music video for the band Garbage's 2012 single "Blood for Poppies".[1]

The Herb Ritts directed music video for Madonna's 1989 single "Cherish" is largely inspired by At Land.[2]


Further reading[edit]

  • Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1995.
  • Turim, Maureen. "The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren's Challenge to the Cinema", in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, ed. Bill Nichols, Berkeley University of California Press, 2001.

External links[edit]