Movie Screen Mirror

A daring documentary reflects the remarkable work of its subject

In this age of celebrity and relentless hype, it's hard to recall a time when dedicated, internationally renowned artists often lived and worked apart from the media's gaze. That certainly was the case of Maya Deren, an influential filmmaker whose dreams had a profound influence on experimental cinema in the Forties and Fifties, but whose career was known only to cognoscenti: Like the films she made, Deren was appreciated chiefly by a select few. The story of her colorful life and work is the subject of a feature-length documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001), by the Vienna-born, Czech-trained filmmaker Martina Kudlacek. Drawing from the recollections of many artists who knew her as well as footage from Deren's striking films, Kudlacek traces the tale of a free spirit whose use and understanding of the film medium remains a unique vision.

Deren was born Eleanora Derenkovskaya in 1917, just as the Russian Revolution erupted. Her impoverished Jewish family fled to the United States, but when her parents separated, young Eleanora was sent to schools in Europe. Back in America by sixteen, she was quickly drawn to film and began her life's work. In her early films Deren explored both physical time and space and the world of dream imagery. Her first acclaimed film, Meshes of the Afternoon, is a silent, spooky short filled with haunting images of flight and pursuit.

She went on to create poetic, daring film experiments, gaining recognition at Cannes and the support of artists, filmmakers, and cultural scholars, from Stan Brakhage to Joseph Campbell to Margaret Mead. Shooting in black and white with a hand-held 16mm Bolex, Deren created carefully planned productions that pursued specific aesthetic and thematic subjects. She was fascinated by water, mirrors, and the images of women, especially herself. An exotic, wild-haired beauty with movie-star looks, Deren made her own image the object of the camera's gaze in almost every film she shot. Her predilection for peasant blouses and granny glasses, her bountiful mane of curly hair, her physical sensuality and expressiveness were an oddity in the repressed era -- in retrospect she seems like a Sixties rebel living before her time.

Deren never pursued fame or fortune; instead she sought personal understanding. Her films were either entirely nonlinear or featured fragmentary narratives that relied on choreography. She was so intrigued by movement that she joined the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham, the legendary African-American choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist, who led Deren to an appreciation of folk cultures, especially Afro-Caribbean traditions.

Later Deren made several trips to Haiti to explore the mysteries of vodou. As she struggled with financial and health woes, Deren's fire appeared to dim as she entered her forties, and she died of a brain aneurysm in 1961 at the age of 44.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren adopts Deren's moody, evocative style to tell her story. On-camera recollections from her many friends and lovers transform into visual collages, as the memories in voice-over float over images of Deren and sequences from her films, abetted by John Zorn's meditative score. The documentary wisely centers on examining the artist, not her résumé. But Deren's work was basically an extension of her life, which was her central exploration. Her own metamorphosis, from foreign refugee child to acclaimed New York artist, never left her consciousness. Transformation and process became primary preoccupations. The notion of change also seemed to unify her interests in choreography, women, and film itself. The documentary captures some of Deren's pointed opinions in her own clipped, no-nonsense voice, an interesting contrast to her dreamy, romantic looks: "The strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are now creature[s]. Woman has strength to wait. Because she's had to wait. She has to wait nine months for ... a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becoming."

Becoming was Deren's stock in trade. But while the artist's ceaseless explorations are traced by Kudlacek, they are not explicated. The artist's financial conflicts, her struggles with ill health and aging, are given short mention. Her several marriages and liaisons are noted, but why she moved from relationship to relationship is unclear. Deren remains as mysterious and elusive as her own film image. Which perhaps is altogether fitting for an artist whose art was her life.

 
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