Back in 1943, a wild and highly creative woman named Maya Deren was writing and directing movies. They were horror-ish, experimental, and all really weird. Deren didn’t somehow break the still-thriving gender ceiling in Hollywood. She chose to work outside the system making bizarre films that subverted the studios and flourishing externally from the prevailing boys’ club of Hollywood.
But not being satisfied to quietly make weird movies, Deren also publically attacked Hollywood studios as being economically driven monopolies that denied artistic authority to filmmakers. Hence her famous quote: “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.”
Though she never made it to mainstream success, endless contemporary filmmakers reference her movies as being a key influence for their own work, including David Lynch who has made clear nods to Deren’s projects in many of his films. Perhaps, the most well-known and loved of Deren’s works is her short film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON.
A woman returns home and falls asleep in a chair. She is then stalked by a cloaked figure with a mirrored face. The woman (also played by Deren in the film) is visited by several other forms of herself, and eventually they try to murder each other, as well as a man who enters the house. It is unclear what parts of the film are dream or reality.
There are endless theories on what MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON is actually about, but Deren never really gave a clear analysis while she was alive. Experimental in nature, it pulls a strong note from the French surrealists of the 1920’s like Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. But while many of the early surrealist films could best be described as early mondo films featuring disturbing clips with an unclear connection, Deren’s film has a very clear plot. It is just the meaning and symbolism that is pretty hazy.
Maya Deren herself is the stuff of legends. She was a Renaissance women excelling in all forms of art including writing, dancing, photography, and filmmaking. Originally born in Kiev under the name Eleanora Derenkowsky, she later adopted the name Maya Deren. In addition to her experimental film work, she also studied voodoo, spending several years in Haiti as an ethnographer documenting voodoo practices and rituals. Unfortunately, Deren passed away in 1961 due to a brain hemorrhage brought on by abuse of sleeping pills and amphetamines.
MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON has long been something that film professors show their students to demonstrate how experimental film is by no means a new art form. Deren’s work is also included in ample gender study programs. But sadly, outside of the academic setting or “film snob” circles, Maya Deren is relatively unknown.
On a side note, when I first moved to LA, one of the “famous sites” I was most excited to visit was Maya Deren’s old house. Ok- it’s not really that famous, but still, I was excited. She used this home in MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON as well as several other works. In the film, the house looks like a modest two-bedroom bungalow, nothing grandiose or fancy. If anything, it appears small yet functional.
After some research, I found the address where MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON was filmed and headed out to find this landmark. I drove down Sunset and turned into the Hollywood Hills. I quickly realized that what was a modest bungalow in the 1940’s is now a posh Hollywood bungalow in a very desirable part of town. This house would now cost several million to purchase. And as I sat in front of this now prestigious address, I wondered if the owners even realized the stupendous film history that had taken place in their own living room.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON in its entirety below:
[Ed. Note: The original film is silent, but musicians and sound designers have added their own interpretations over the decades; this sound mix is decidedly “Lynchian” in style.]