She was the trancedance centerpiece of every red-hot Village party in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a wild-tousled, peasant-bloused 1960s flower child before her time, a Botticelli babe in high bloom with Modigliani almond eyes and matching elongated lips, shaking her booty to Haitian voodoo drums. Pre-Beat generation, nobody in New York was more mesmerizing than Maya Deren, the mother of American underground cinema, the filmmaker and star of Meshes in the Afternoon, At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and other silent-cinema 1940s experimental masterworks.
What was not so alchemic was Deren's plebeian voice. Having imagined it as lush and otherwordly, I was surprised hearing it for the first time on sound recordings in In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Martina Kudlucek's documentary feature about the filmmaker. Deren speaking on tape? She sounds flat and nasal, not unlike Lucille Ball.
A child of wealthy White Russian-Jewish emigres (she was born in Kiev), Deren (1917-1961) went to NYU, and, as a Trotskyist activist, got a master's degree at Smith College. Traveling west as a member of the Katherine Dunham modern dance troupe, Deren in LA met and soon married a handsome Czech cinematographer named Alexander Hammid.
The rest is film history: they collaborated on key experimental works, beginning with the transformatory 1943 Meshes in the Afternoon, a still-startling 16mm work of surrealism and feminism, akin to, in its female-based paranoia and death-wish longing, Charlotte Perkins Gillman's late 19th century The Yellow Wallpaper. Floating gorgeously through the film was Deren herself, and who, male or female, seeing Meshes, hasn't been smitten by Maya's rescue-me-the-suffering-princess, slow-mo beauty? Deren:"Slow-motion reveals the structure of motion: pulsations, agonies, indecisions, repetitions."
More eros for 1944's At Land, in which Deren is a creature from the sea crawling into cramped, claustrophobic society, her mermaid-out-of-water slithering among well-dressed city types going about their business, looking through her nymph-self without noticing. As in a spooky nightmare.
Said underground film programmer, Amos Vogel, interviewed for In the Mirror: "I felt in the presence of a new kind of talent, who had absorbed the 20th century revelations in terms of dream theory."
Documentarian Kudlucek is to be commended for tracing down aging survivors from Deren's production years, including choreographer Dunham and a now-ancient Hammid. Deren divorced him in 1947, he then married Hella Heyman, who had been their closest friend and photographed some of Derens's intimate work. Is "Sasha" Hammid today beyond being asked the hard questions, missing from the film, about he and Maya's day-to-day life, and about their estrangement? Is it credible, as Stan Brakhage has suggested in writing about Deren, that Hammid was really the one responsible for the vision of Meshes in the Afternoon, that Deren, the dynamo, hogged all the credit?
Brakhage tells here of his crashing at Deren's pad in his 20s, and about her ferocious temper. He also staunchly defends Deren's later films, including the formal and mythological The Very Eye of Night (1952-59), which never connected with audiences the way of her Freudian work. For Deren: a drop-off in her confidence and productivity. She made four trips to Haiti between 1951 and 1952 and came home with endless footage of voodoo rites. What she had shot overwhelmed her: Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti, a 54-minute sound film, was edited after her death by Cherel and Teiji Ito. The latter, 18 years younger, was a Japanese drummer whom Deren married in her New York days. When she died at 44, he scattered her ashes on the side of Mount Fuji.