The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and Its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) could be said to exemplify Teresa de Lauretis's idea of "the really avant-garde work in cinema and in feminism," which "is narrative and Oedipal with a vengeance, since it seeks to stress the duplicity of that scenario and that specific contradiction of the female subject in it--the contradiction whereby historical women must work with and against Oedipus" (40). Deren worked tirelessly "with and against Oedipus" as a filmmaker and activist in an otherwise masculinist avant-garde art world. The critiques she waged against the dominant representations of women were met with vehement resistance by a rabidly patriarchal, and frequently misogynist, avant-garde film culture that did not hesitate to conflate Deren herself with her films in their attacks. In this way, Deren's films do not register simply as "personal cinema," but as a form of cinematic autobiography. I want to show this by mapping the connections between Deren's first and most screened film, Meshes of the Afternoon, and Deren's own role within the history of the American avant-garde. This film's critical reception and Deren's responses to it reveal a set of autobiographical themes.

Deren is credited with making the first narrative film in the history of the American avant-garde, which up to that point had been dominated by abstract representations and formal experiments with animation. Meshes utilizes characters, setting, and a narrative temporality owing as much to film noir and to Hollywood's "women's films" as to avant-garde experimentation. Yet, the fact that this film focuses on a woman, played by Deren herself, who is never assigned a name (nor does Deren give herself film credit as actress), invites the narrative themes of the film to be interpreted as autobiographical (Soussloff 123). As Bill Nichols contends, this interpretation of Meshes influenced both its early reception and the reasons for Deren's relative invisibility in the seventies: "Deren's early reception hinged on elements of autobiography and introspection.... [T]hese fell into disfavor as film studies grew into an academic discipline in the 1970s" (13). Though perhaps out of favor in the seventies, these elements were in fact a lightning rod in the film's first wave of reception. As Nichols and the contributors to Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde show so well, today it is generally held that Deren effected "radical transformations ... in regard for the self, or subject, with her efforts to understand hysteria, trance, and ritual" (13). But the radical nature of her film's engagement with these themes originally drew critical fire because it did so in ways that were explicitly gendered.

It has been suggested that it was in fact Deren's radical engagement with the self that initiated women's autobiography in the cinema--a tradition continued in the work of Barbara Hammer, Sadie Benning, Cindy Sherman, and other women who use self-representation in their visual art. Although self-representation is not necessarily the same as autobiography, I agree with Catherine Soussloff's observation that a "slippage between the 'I' and the projected image" invites one to see "the films in which Deren appeared" as "documents" of her life (109, 124). Elizabeth Bruss argues, however, that "there is no real cinematic equivalent for autobiography," even when self-representation is involved (296). Her point is salient; film upsets "the parameters--'truth-value,' 'act-value,' and 'identity-value'--that we commonly associate with the autobiographical act" (Bruss 301). However, Bruss's taxonomy of cinematic autobiography mentions only a single woman, and gender difference is never acknowledged as a mitigating factor. Certainly Deren's films have a great deal in common with the expressionist attempts at film autobiography that Bruss names. In fact, Deren has been compared to both Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger, two filmmakers Bruss discusses at length. …