This week on the Female Filmmaker Friday podcast writer and Surrealism researcher Sabina Stent joins me to talk about the work of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (and cats!).
Lately I’ve become more and more frustrated with the various “best ever” lists that have been released because they rarely feature films by women, or if they do it’s usually one or two films. I think this is more a reflection of those who are polled for these kinds of lists, as well as a compounding of history on itself. For so long films by men have made up the bulk of the film canon and I think people are afraid to add new films to these revered lists. I also think many people haven’t seen very many films by women, or if they have it’s always the same handful of films. In an attempt to create a better, more inclusive list of great films by women, I polled over 500 critics, filmmakers, bloggers, historians, professors and casual film viewers, asking them to tell me what films directed (or co-directed) by women are essential viewing. Some people only responded with as little as five votes, others submitted hundreds of films. In the end, I received over 7,000 votes for 1,100+ different films. After tallying up this data, with ties factored in, I then had a list of 103 essential films directed by women.
I’ve been wanting to write about Maya Deren for a while now. She’s an interesting figure in the 1940s and 1950s American experimental and avant-garde film scene. She’s a filmmaker I’m sure has inspired lots of contemporary psychological filmmakers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Deren is interesting for a couple of reasons, but one of the things I love the most about her story is how “American Dream” it is. She immigrated with her parents in the 1920s, attended various schools (including NYU and Smith), where she received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in literature (in the 1930s!), then became part of the émigré art scene in Greenwich Village before eventually moving to Los Angeles. There really ought to be a biopic about her already! Meshes of the Afternoon is a personal film in many senses; it was filmed on a 16mm camera Deren bought with some inheritance after her father died and it tells of female subjectivity, loneliness and confusion. Deren was a woman who embraced her artistic and political freedoms in a time when this was still frowned upon by much of society (all the 1930s were much better for women than the post-war 1950s). There’s some debate as to whether this project was equally created by wife and husband, or if more of the credit should go to her husband Alexander Hammid. Filmmaker and friend Stan Brakhage claims the film was mostly Hammid’s creation and that part of why their marriage fell apart was because Deren got most of the credit. I find that interesting because if it is true, it really speaks to fragility of the male (and artist’s) ego. But I also doubt it’s as much Hammid’s creation as Brakhage claims, partially due to how similar it is to the rest of Deren’s solo work, and partially because the ideas embedded in the film feel so intrinsically female. I’m not going to dissect all the symbolism in Meshes of the Afternoon, but rather embed the film below and let you watch it for yourself (it’s about 13 minutes). If you enjoy it, you can find most (if not all) of Deren’s work on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
After you watch the film (srsly, it’s 13 minutes so you have no excuse), let me know what you think!