Reflections of Maya Deren at the National Gallery of Art

Anyone who was searching for a comprehensive look on the life and films of Maya Deren certainly got their fair share during Saturday’s afternoon-long film program at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.

The program started with a feature-length documentary about the famous avant-garde filmmaker. Many of Deren’s short films were subsequently screened in their original format of 16 mm.

“16 mm was the medium that most of the independent filmmakers were using in the middle of the 20th century,” Margaret Parsons, the curator of the film program at the National Gallery of Art, said. 16 mm film was cheaper and the cameras were lighter than the 35 mm equipment being used by commercial filmmakers in Hollywood.

Screen capture taken from Meshes of the Afternoon.

Austrian director Martina Kudlácek’s 2002 documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren opened the program. The film featured compelling interviews with friends and artists who worked with Maya Deren—all of the people who knew her best.

It chronicles Maya Deren’s short life: her birth in Kiev in 1917,  her family’s relocation to the United States when she was 5 years old,  her various marriages and relationships, her exotic interests, her art and, of course, her untimely death at the age of 44.

Frankly it’s lucky Kudlácek made this documentary when she did; many of the important people in Deren’s life, like her second husband Alexander Hammid and dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham, passed away not long after the film was made.

The stories Deren’s friends and colleagues shared illustrated the type of person Maya really was. With her peculiar style and wild hair, she was reminiscent of a 1960s hippie flower-child—only she was dressing that way in the 40s. She was possessed by rhythm, drums, dancing and endlessly curious in trances, spending years in Haiti studying voodoo traditions.

Interviews also revealed negative aspects of her life: extreme emotions and a reliance on dangerous drug cocktails prescribed to her by the infamous Dr. Max Jacobson.

After learning so much about her life, it would only make sense to immediately watch her life’s work.

The first of Maya Deren’s own films screened after the documentary is likely her best known: Meshes of the Afternoon. Made in 1943 in California with her second husband Alexander Hammid, this film operates purely on dream logic and exhibits quite a bit of surrealism. The film’s creepy cloaked figure with a mirror for a face almost made my list of Halloween Costume Ideas for Cinephiles.

The film was originally silent, but the print screened included a soundtrack that Deren’s third husband Teiji Ito later composed.

The next film shown was probably my favorite of Deren’s films: At Land, which was released in 1944. Like Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren appears as the main character in this short. In At Land Deren washes up on a beach, crawls across a long table at a dinner party and chases a chess piece flowing down a river. So, once again, dream logic.

Parsons says that surrealist French filmmakers of the 1920s likely inspired the symbolism of the chess game here, but that Deren’s use of it in At Land was a direct inspiration to many later filmmakers and artists.

The next two films shown, Ritual in Transfigured Time and Meditation on Violence still retain dream-like qualities but appear to have a greater focus on capturing the essence of movement.

Dancers’ movements are slowed down and frozen as they prance around, surrounded by statues in Ritual in Transfigured Time.Martial artist Chao-Li Chi’s movements are edited and reversed in Meditation on Violence to show the constantly changing flow of his body as he performs.

The next film, The Private Life of a Cat, seemed to be the audience favorite. Directed by Alexander Hammid, this film was shot in Deren’s apartment and follows Deren’s cats as one of them gives birth. This was the most narrative-driven and straightforward film shown; instead of being governed by complex symbolism, it’s literally about how cute kittens are.

After one more avant-garde, experimental art short, Witch’s Cradle, shot in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in Manhattan, the final film of the day was shown: Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

This film, completed years after Deren’s death, used footage of voodoo rituals that Deren shot during her time studying Haitian culture in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s not hard to see why Deren was so fascinated by these rituals; the emphasis on dance, trance and symbolism correspond so closely to her own work as an artist.

Though she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1961 and never made films that were suitable for the mainstream, commercial market, her work nevertheless made a huge impact on American independent cinema.

“She really believed that film should have the same status as painting and sculpture and the other major art forms,” Parsons said.

With her work being so important to countless filmmakers and artists even to this day, I think it’s safe to say that she now resides in the upper echelon of American artists of any form.

Featured Photo Credit: Screen capture taken from Ritual in Transfigured Time.

WritersBloc_Headshots_05Matt Kubisiak is a senior broadcast journalism and film studies double major. He can be reached at

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