An Austrian documentary charts how a Ukrainian refugee from Kiev's pogroms managed to become the goddess of the New York experimental film scene. Andrei Khrenov takes a look.
The construction of an artist's personal myth in the esoteric domain of New York experimental filmmaking doesn't differ drastically from the production of the glitz and glamour of celebrities in Hollywood's dream factory. The myth of Maya Deren, one of the founders of American experimental cinema after the Second World War, stipulates that she had achieved a "cult" celebrity status with her gorgeous, exotic demeanor, extravagant lifestyle and mysterious occult aura. This status is maintained even nowadays (for example, in the exquisitely edited music video of Milla Jovovich, herself a cult model, actress, and now a song writer).
A recent full-length biography, In the Mirror of Maya Deren, (2001) filmed by a Vienna-based documentarist, Martina Kudláèek, (which sometimes echoes its sole predecessor, the British-made 1997 Invocation: Maya Deren, by Jo Ann Kaplan) is a long-overdue tribute to the Ukrainian-born poet, dancer, ethnographer as well as film artist and theorist, lecturer, publicist and entrepreneurial promoter of the avant garde. Kudláèek's portrait works against the grains of the "Voudoun priestess" myth, skillfully weaving original film footage, occasional commenting intertitles and intimate recollections of Maya's personality by her friends and collaborators, rare family photos and authentic voice recordings.
A woman and her time
The film's structure and imagery evoke the cultural tropes of femininity: autobiography, introspection and "woman's time" ("unlike man, a woman has strength to wait; she's raising a child—time is built into her body", says Maya). It privileges subjective psychological responses, therefore modeling a fluid, oscillating, constantly metamorphosing film collage.
These responses, as essential elements of the collage, reveal an amazingly ambivalent personality with a delicate balance between, on the one hand, Maya's forceful and sometimes intimidating presence (so necessary for an early master of media self-promotion, who toured the universities and art centers and established the "Creative Film Foundation"), her verbal and sexual domination, her love of being the center of attention (mentioned by both her husbands—a Czech, Alexander Hammid, and a Japanese man, Teiji Ito) and, on the other, her anxiety and vulnerability, the feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Stan Brakhage, another brilliant American visionary filmmaker who (alongside Kenneth Anger) was fascinated with her personality, recalls that she was "someone who was forcing herself into the human arena from a sense of extreme vulnerability..."
The documentary tries to find the origins of these lonesome feelings in Deren's early childhood cultural displacement at the age of five, when her family fled the anti-Semitic pogroms and the civil war in Kiev, Ukraine in 1922 (the film contains a spectacular panorama of contemporary Kiev) and settled in New York. Maya's interest in trance, hypnosis, and possession—which strongly influenced her dream-like experimental shorts—evolved through her father's studies, Dr Salomon Derenkowsky, a child psychiatrist who graduated from the Bekhterev Institute (where Dziga Vertov had conducted several self-experiments in 1916).
The film shows that Maya's quest for self-identity, her attempts to resist loneliness through being part of a large whole, of a great cause, resulted in her infatuation with leftist activism, a piece for the Young People's Socialist League (the Trotskyite YPSL), and with experimental choreography and dance when she worked for Katherine Dunham, America's first "dancing scholar" who studied Haitian rituals. That later helped Deren to form her "choreocinema" out of "non-dancing elements."
Dunham, Judith Malina (who founded the "Living Theater") and cine-club director Marcia Vogel describe Maya's rebellious nature, her mesmerizing appearances, her flamboyant, curly hair and European-style handmade clothes ("She was dressed like a "flower child," but that was in the 40s, not the 60s!", recalls Marcia Vogel). All that fitted well in bohemian Greenwich Village where Maya and her second husband, Alexander Hammid, rented an apartment in the late 40s. Ironically, Hammid involuntarily contributed to Deren's cult myth by (as he claims in film) choosing the name Maya—in honor of the Hindu goddess of sorcery and illusion—for his spouse, born Eleanora, and beautifying her in the famous "Botticelli shot" from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).
An established filmmaker, Hammid taught her the basics of cinematography, and her search for feminine identity and critique of contemporary ritual (mostly in social gatherings) as a set of bourgeois conventions was expressed in her early film works. The absurdity and alienation of routine social choreography is revealed through such "trance"-like, surreal devices as slow-motion, stop-motion and careful editing of dance movements. Kudláèek's documentary collage quotes the trance scenes from Meshes of the Afternoon, where the identity of a young woman is radically dissected; she's obsessed with her doubles and in the end she's shown bleeding amidst the fragments of a shattered mirror.
A journey through time and space
The clichés of traditional narrative language are challenged in Deren's concept of "creative geography," first applied by the pioneering Soviet director Lev Kuleshov and used by Maya either to represent inner emotional states—fear, sadness, or joy—during the sole female protagonist's journeys through a symbolic landscape, or to show elasticity of space and time.
Vast fragmented expanses of time and space are unified by the gestures of lonesome Maya crawling, climbing, walking from seashore sand to weed to pavement to a banquet table and back to the sea in a surreal At Land (1944), by the dancer Talley Beatty who "leaps" from the Egyptian Hall of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, passes through the Greenwich Village apartment and lands at the rocky cliffs somewhere in California in A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), or by the meditative, contemplative movements of a Shao-lin boxer in Meditation on Violence (1948) (now a Tai Chi instructor in California, Chao-Li Chi exquisitely performs his dances once again in front of Kudláèek's camera).
In Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), a black dancer, Rita Christiani, plays Maya's alter ego; she wanders around an alienating party scene and finally escapes—together with Maya—by plunging into the sea. The primeval, powerful forces of nature find their visual equivalents in the recurrent "oceanic" images of the documentary: the waves stroking the beach, the feminine contours of the seashells, the beached mermaid images both in Maya's shorts and in her phosphorescent, luminous paintings in the Greenwich Village apartment.
Maya's iconic mermaid characters (though not a feminist in the modern sense, she never gave herself credit as an "actress") are fluid subjects of the spiritual, of the unconscious, of the ever-changing, metamorphosing, "protean" realm. For Deren, this spirituality could be found in rituals of exotic cultures. Like Sergei Eisenstein, who two decades previous had investigated "sensual thought" in his unfinished Mexican film project, "Que Viva Mexico!", immediately following his Hollywood fiasco, Maya Deren turned to the investigation of archaic ritualistic forms, writing an ethnographic study, "Divine Horsemen", producing around 20,000 feet of film and 50 hours of audio recordings during her four trips to Haiti on a Guggenheim grant.
The film was never completed, although a compilation documentary "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti" was made by Teiji and his new wife, Cherel, in 1977. The first half of Maya's work is focused on Voudoun rites as practiced by Haitian villagers who, as all the interviewees of the film agree, generously opened themselves to an American filmmaker. The involvement with the ceremonies, where the individual (or the possessed) becomes part of a larger collective consciousness, had an obvious positive therapeutic effect on her—temporarily curing her loneliness.
Mirror interviews, among other Haitians, the painter Andre Pierre, who draws Maya's portrait as goddess Erzulie (the goddess of love whose identity Maya had chosen). Kudláèek stages brilliantly filmed recent ceremonies—dances for the god of the sea Agwe. It also includes an original episode intended to be the final act if the film—like "Que Viva Mexico," it ends with a huge costumed parade in Port-au-Prince.
Magic and ecstasy
Stan Brakhage claims that her premature death at the age of 44 was a result of these supernatural powers she was possessed by in Haiti. But Mirror provides a more obvious reason—the treatment of Dr Max Jacobson, a man who prescribed medicine mixed with amphetamines and other harmful "cocktails" for his artistic clientele, turned out to be lethal for her.
The vital and humorous cameos of Jonas Mekas, the founder of the Anthology Film Archives and another immigrant from eastern Europe who inherited Maya's entrepreneurial energies in establishing the canon of underground cinema in the US, provides a modernist (or "bracketing") angle to this fascinating portrait. The piece is interspersed with recurring shots of piles of film stock cans on the archival shelves potent with new avant-garde "magic and ecstasy", as Mekas puts it. Maya's fate and artistic career is just one of the possible discoveries made due to the Anthology Film Archives in New York, once a rebellious avant-garde headquarters and now a resourceful cinematheque.