Meshes of the Afternoon
|Meshes of the Afternoon|
Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon
|Produced by||Maya Deren|
|Written by||Maya Deren|
|Music by||Teiji Ito (added in 1959)|
|Edited by||Maya Deren|
Meshes of the Afternoon is a 1943 American short experimental film directed by and starring wife-and-husband team Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. The film's narrative is circular and repeats several motifs, including a flower on a long driveway, a key falling, a door unlocked, a knife in a loaf of bread, a mysterious Grim Reaper–like cloaked figure with a mirror for a face, a phone off the hook and an ocean. Through creative editing, distinct camera angles, and slow motion, the surrealist film depicts a world in which it is more and more difficult to catch reality.
In 1990, Meshes of the Afternoon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going into the registry in the second year of voting. In 2015 the BBC named the film the 40th greatest American movie ever made.
A woman sees someone on the street as she is walking back to her home. She goes to her room and sleeps on a chair. As soon as she is asleep, she experiences a dream in which she repeatedly tries to chase a mysterious hooded figure with a mirror for a face but is unable to catch it. With each failure, she re-enters her house and sees numerous household objects including a key, a knife, a flower, a telephone and a phonograph. The woman follows the hooded figure to her bedroom where she sees the figure hide the knife under a pillow. Throughout the story, she sees multiple instances of herself, all bits of her dream that she has already experienced. The woman tries to kill her sleeping body with a knife but is awakened by a man. The man leads her to the bedroom and she realizes that everything she saw in the dream was actually happening. She notices that the man's posture is similar to that of the hooded figure when it hid the knife under the pillow. She attempts to injure him and fails. Towards the end of the film the man walks into the house and sees a broken mirror being dropped onto wet ground. He then sees the woman in the chair, who was previously sleeping, but is now dead.
Directors Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid portrayed the role of the woman and the man respectively.
Background and production
The film was the product of Deren's and Hammid's desire to create an avant garde personal film that dealt with devastating psychological problems, like the French surrealist films of the 1920s such as Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930).
Deren and Hammid wrote, directed and performed in the film. Although Deren is usually credited as its principal artistic creator, filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who knew the couple, has claimed in his book Film at Wit's End that Meshes was in fact largely Hammid's creation, and that their marriage began to suffer when Deren received more credit. Other sources claim that Alexander Hammid's role in the creation of Meshes of the Afternoon is mainly as cameraperson. Maya Deren made extensive storyboards for all of her films including camera movements and camera effects. She wrote about these techniques in professional filmmaking magazines. The ideas and execution of the film are mostly attributable to Deren. Hammid also acknowledged Deren as the sole creator of Meshes of the Afternoon.
Deren explained that Meshes "...is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience."
Lewis Jacobs's discussion
Further in his discussion of experimental cinema in postwar America, Jacobs says the film "attempted to show the way in which an apparently simple and casual occurrence develops subconsciously into a critical and emotional experience. A girl comes home one afternoon and falls asleep. In a dream she sees herself returning home, tortured by loneliness and frustration and impulsively committing suicide. The story has a double climax, in which it appears that the imagined, the dream, has become real.”
Deren uses specific cinematic devices in this film to convey deeper meaning. In a particular scene, Deren is walking up a normal set of stairs, and each time she pushes against the wall, it triggers the camera to move in that direction, almost as if the camera is part of her body. As she pulls herself up the last stair, the top of the stairs leads her to a window in her bedroom, which completely breaks the expectations of the viewer. In doing so, Deren completely destroys normal sense of time and space. There is no longer a sense of what the space is that she is in, nor for how long she was there. Deren constantly asks the viewer to pay attention and remember certain things by repeating the same actions over and over with only very subtle changes. In Meshes of the Afternoon, repeated images are of the knife in the bread, the phone off the hook, the key, and the record player as Deren goes about performing the same actions. Deren uses familiar images to trigger memory.
A recognizable trait of Deren’s work is her use of the subjective and objective camera. For instance, shots in Meshes of the Afternoon cut from Deren looking at an object, to Deren’s point of view, looking at herself perform the same actions that she has been making throughout the film. This conveys the meaning of Deren's dual personality or ambivalent feelings towards the possibility of suicide. It is Lewis Jacobs' view that "the film is not completely successful, it skips from objectivity to subjectivity without transitions or preparation and is often confusing." An example of Jacobs' comment would be when Deren cuts to her point of view, which normally is an objective shot, but in this POV shot she is watching herself, which is subjective. The viewer cannot expect Deren’s POV shot to contain herself.
Joseph Brinton's discussion
In Joseph Brinton’s 1947 essay, "Subjective Camera or Subjective Audience," he states that "the symbolic picturization of man’s subconscious in Maya Deren’s experimental films suggest that the subjective camera can explore subtleties hitherto unimaginable as film content. As the new technique can clearly express almost any facet of everyday human experience, its development should presage a new type of psychological film in which the camera will reveal the human mind, not superficially, but honestly in terms of image and sound."
Jacobs’ critique that "the film is not completely successful, it skips from objectivity to subjectivity without transitions or preparation and is often confusing," represents one point of view. However others take the film's approach to be a direct representation on the character's thought patterns in a time of crisis: "Such a film should indeed endow the cinema with a wholly new dimension of subjective experience, permitting the audience to see a human being both as others see him and as he sees himself."
Museum of Modern Art
In the Museum of Modern Art retrospective (2010), it was suggested that the pieces of the mirror falling into the ocean waves set up At Land (1944) as a direct sequel, while Deren's last scene in the latter film (running with her hands up with a chess piece in one of them) is then echoed by a scene in Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) with that character still running.
The dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere of Meshes has influenced many subsequent films, notably David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997); Wendy Haslem of the University of Melbourne's Cinema Studies department wrote about the parallels:
Maya Deren was a key figure in the development of the New American Cinema. Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to Meshes of the Afternoon in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters and in the incorporation of the “psychogenic fugue,” the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.
Jim Emerson, the editor of RogerEbert.com, has also noted the influence of Meshes within David Lynch's film, Inland Empire. Meshes also had a clear influence on Lynch's film Mulholland Drive with dual roles, a mysterious figure, winding Hollywood road, a dream within a dream, a woman viewing her own body in a dream, and iconic objects such as a key and a telephone.
In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit that dealt with Deren's influence on three experimental filmmakers: Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, and Carolee Schneemann as part of a year-long retrospective on representation of women at the MoMA. Su Friedrich conceived her short film, Cool Hands, Warm Heart (1979) in direct homage to Meshes of the Afternoon, and used the flower and knife motifs similarly in that film.
Kristin Hersh's song "Your Ghost" is inspired by the film, and the song's music video uses several motifs from the film, including a spinning record, a telephone, and a key on a woman's tongue. Likewise, Milla Jovovich's video for "Gentleman Who Fell" reproduces other motifs such as the mirror-faced figure, the reappearing key, the knife, and the shifting staircase effect.
Meshes of the Afternoon resembles a French film called Blood of a Poet (1930) by Jean Cocteau. The film is a representation of the subjective point of view of the Cocteau's mind in which he grapples with the concepts of inner and outer reality. Meshes of the Afternoon and Cocteau's film share the same imagery in many instances, however, Deren repeatedly claimed to have never seen the film and denied any influence by Cocteau. After seeing Blood of a Poet for the first time, she actually became fond of Cocteau.
In the fall of 1945, Deren wrote to Victor Animatograph Corp. that she had seen the film multiple times now and expressed interest in publishing a commentary on it. The article was never written.
Dali and Buñuel
The surrealist background of Dali and Bunuel is a question of influence because of the surreal nature of Meshes of the Afternoon. Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou (1928) is one of the premier examples of film representing the structure of the subconscious.
Deren detested this comparison because of the surrealist movement's interest in the entertainment value of its subject more than its meaning. The form of Meshes of the Afternoon does not compare to Un Chien Andalou either.
Freud and Jung
Psychoanalysis of Meshes of the Afternoon from a Freudian viewer or Jungian viewer attempted to decode the symbolism in the film to uncover what Deren was saying about identity and sexuality. Deren adamantly objected her film undergoing analysis for its symbolism because for Deren, the objects in the film were just that, objects "whose value and meaning ids defined and confirmed by their actual function in the context of the film as a whole". Deren wanted her audiences to appreciate the art for its conscious value and spent a lot of her later career delivering lectures and writing essays on her film theory.
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- "The 100 Greatest American Films", BBC Culture, July 20, 2015.
- Clark, VeVe A.; Hudson, Millicent; Neiman, Catrina (1988). Melton, Hollis (ed.). The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works (Volume 1 Part Two ed.). New York City: Anthology Film Archive/Film Culture. ISBN 0-911689-17-6.
- Haslem, Wendy (12 December 2002). "Great Directors: Maya Deren". Senses of Cinema (23). Retrieved 19 June 2011.
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- Jacobs, Lewis (Spring 1948). "Experimental Cinema in America (Part Two: The Postwar Revival)". Hollywood Quarterly. 3 (3): 278–292. doi:10.2307/1209699. JSTOR 1209699.
- Brinton, III, Joseph P. (July 1947). "Subjective Camera or Subjective Audience?". Hollywood Quarterly. 2 (4): 365. JSTOR 1209531.
- Claes, Colleen. "Janelle Monae: Avant-Garde Film Geek ('Tightrope' Video)". Open Salon. Archived from the original on 6 July 2012. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- Haslem, Wendy (December 2002). "Maya Deren". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
- Emerson, Jim (2007-01-25). "Inland Empire Movie Review & Film Summary (2007) | Roger Ebert". Rogerebert.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2015-08-24.
- "Oh, by the way...: 'Meshes of the Afternoon". Ohbythewayblog.blogspot.com. 2010-08-01. Retrieved 2015-08-24.
- "Meshes". Who Sampled. Retrieved on 2017-06-22.
- Clark, VeVe A.; Hudson, Millicent; Neiman, Catrina (1988). Melton, Hollis (ed.). The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works (Volume 1 Part Two ed.). New York City: Athology Film Archive/Film Culture. ISBN 0-911689-17-6.
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