Week 5 Viewer Post: Initial questions and insights of three Maya Deren films

1, Meshes of the Afternoon

The film is a repetitive loop that happens to the main female character. We see three same females doing the same thing at one point, only in different time orders. As P. Adams Sitney states in his book Visionary, The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), “The transitions between cycles are subtly achieved” (Sitney, 11). A lot of match cuts, the traditional editing used by Hollywood cinema to hide the cuts, were utilized to help create a sense of continuity and repetition.

There are four major elements in this film that serve as symbols although it is still not certain to me what they symbolize. The first one is flower. What comes to mind is virginity, innocence, female beauty, and seduction. The second one is mirror. This is an easy one — self-reflection and reflection of others. Sitney claims, “Deren, with her hands lightly pressed against the window pane, embodies the reflective experience, which is emphasized by the consistent imagery of mirrors in the film” (Sitney, 11). This is a heavily reflective film, as in this scene, window is another reflective element. The third one is key. Key symbolizes the idea of leading to something. This key unlocks confusion, sex, horror, and death. Keys can not only open a door, but also close it. It symbolizes the self-entrapment. At last, the knife. It is self-defense and feminine power. It shatters the mirror.

Questions: How does the protagonist die? / Why does it mean when the key and the knife changes into each other? / Is the mirror related to Lacan’s theory? / Most importantly, what exactly does this film tries to convey, beneath the surface of a dreamy drama?

2, At Land

This film’s scene transition to allude to space change is innovative at the time. The landscape of setting transition always follows a close shot of Deren’s body part. Her feminine soft body is a contrast to the harsh landscape, the hard table, or the mysterious architecture.

She seems to me to derive from the ocean and come to land with curiosity. It is an Odyssey for her. The chessboard was the role. She rebels and breaks the rule. However, she has to return to the cycle by returning that piece she loses during her journey.

Questions: Does the chess playing of The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) has anything to do with this film? / What does the scene transitions symbol? Is it related to nature and modern life? / Sitney mentions in his book that “No one seems to notice her” (Sitney, 18). Why is that, and what does it mean?

3, Ritual in Transfigured Time

I have no idea what this piece is about, but one element I noticed is the “stopping” of time in framed scenes that create photos. It is also an interesting frame at first when the whole screen is split in two by the wall in middle.

Questions: What do the deaths mean in this film? / What does the yarn symbolize?

One Reply to “Week 5 Viewer Post: Initial questions and insights of three Maya Deren films”

  1. Vico Wang

    Compared with many pieces that we’ve screened in this class, Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943) stands out for its fairly strong alignment to mainstream films with clear logical lines guided by the plot. Nevertheless, Deren’s deliberate intention to “simulate the dream experience” grants the film a sense of enigma and ambiguity, thus leading to a wide range of interpretations of it (Sitney, 11). In terms of the four major elements you’ve pointed out in the response, I agree that the flower is connected with the idea of allure, as it is the flower that initially captures the protagonist’s attention and leads her to notice the presence of the figure ahead of her, and the mirror is related with self-reflection. However, I disagree with the idea that key in the film signifies the self-entrapment. In fact, I consider the key to represent quite the opposite—the key allows the protagonist to enter the house in which she encounters and confronts multiple her selves, thence it should be considered as the guide for her self-awakening. With, my personal answer to your second question would be the interchangeability between the key and the knife symbolizes the idea that awakening a new piece of one’s identity often requires the dismantling of the old self. Lacan’s theory of mirror stage also comes into my mind and I think it is reasonable to argue that Deren has made an intentional reference to the theory as the protagonist first sees the mirror image of herself through the knife (arguably also a mirror) and then recognizes herself sleeping on the couch during the second cycle.

    In response to your question regarding the scene transitions in At Land (Maya Deren, 1944), I connect them to the concept of modernity that we’ve discussed in class. The well-established transitions between the protagonist moving her way out of the trees and crawling on the table can be viewed as the transition stage between traditional, natural life into modernity in the early 20th century. The chess board, the item the protagonist is attracted to, obtains a similar characteristic as those of machines from the Ballet méchanique (Fernand Leger & Dudley Murphy, 1924)—it represents a subtle balance of power, control, and order. Chasing the chess mirrors the attempt for one to catch up with the development of modernity in society.

    Ritual in Transfigured Time (Maya Deren, 1946) is certainly a rather abstruse piece and it is even harder to generalize. One thing that stands out for me is those exaggerated, almost choreographic-like gestures throughout the film which are amplified through the usage of slow motion and stop frame techniques. Another intriguing point that may worth our attention is the recurrence of the motif featuring three female figures—we see three women dancing together (8:24-8:30) just like the three women playing chess in At Land.


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