Thursday, April 10, 2008

meshes of the afternoon, by maya deren

This week, Film Club watched a program of Maya Deren's short films. As a follow-up to Jean Cocteau, it worked pretty well: like Cocteau, Deren is interested in using the fundamental grammar of cinema to make us experience things we cannot experience through any other art form.

The most famous shot in Deren's entire body of work is this:

This shot appears in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and it's the one you're likely to see in any film textbook that discusses Deren. It's also the cover image of the DVD release of Deren's films that Mystic Fire put out, and it's also in the recent "film issue" of The Believer, as part of a brief photo-essay on "people looking out of windows."

That last appearance raises a good point: in and of itself, this shot is not that unusual or unique, and similar shots have appeared in any number of different films. Ultimately it does little to inform us about what's special about Meshes.

It is, however, a reaction shot, and I don't think I've ever seen it accompanied by the point-of-view shot that immediately precedes it, which is this:

A woman hurrying up the street? OK, also not that illuminating out of context. However, this woman is also Deren herself, and what we're seeing transpiring (from Deren's point of view up here at the window) is something that we've already seen transpire in the film (from Deren's point of view down there at the street). Deren has taken advantage of one of the fundamental facts about film—that, psychologically speaking, we tend to arrange the events we see in a film into a linear, temporal narrative—and exploited this fact to cause us to have the subjective experience of being entrapped in a time loop. Startling, which makes Deren's calm, dreamy expression in the reaction shot all the more memorable and striking.

We've already been on this street not once but twice before in this film: Deren keeps using point-of-view tricks to move us/herself back down there, going through the same basic routine (proceeding up the street, into the house, up the stairs) with new, disorienting variations introduced each time the cycle repeats.

It's not that different, ultimately, from the scenario we see play out in Groundhog Day (1993), although where Ramis and Murray play it (mostly) for laughs, the overall feeling in Meshes is one of mounting dread. For the loop appears to be inhabited not only by Deren and her duplicates but also by some frankly terrifying mirror-faced presence that Deren pursues but can't ever quite catch:

and the flickering, unstable presence of a knife implies that this error in the universe is going to work itself out in violence:

The film only lasts 14 minutes, but it's memorably hypnotic and disorienting. And so Deren's work reveals just how effectively the cinematic apparatus can be used to create deeply unusual effects: because the techniques of cinema are so effective at creating a convincing psychological illusion of "reality," even gently tweaking these techniques can create heretofore unrealized subjective experiences that are profoundly interesting, far more interesting than the use of cinema to tell a straightforward, realistic "story."

Sadly, even though cinematic effects are more, uh, effective than ever, this sort of frontier still remains relatively unexplored, still relegated to the domain of the "experimental" rather than the commercial. Perhaps the most effective purveyor of these kind of experiences practicing today is David Lynch: his three most recent films (Lost Highway (1997), Mullholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)), with their emphasis on duplicates, repetition, sinister forces, and unsettling domestic environments all owe deep debts to Meshes of the Afternoon. Paint the key blue and this shot could fit comfortably in Mulholland Dr.:

However, it looks like next week we'll be thinking more about the early avant-garde and the grammar of cinematic technology: we'll be watching Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929).

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