Maya Deren: The Priestess of Surrealist Cinema


The unique representative of American independent cinema, innovative director Maya Deren inspired the famous David Lynch, who is the direct carrier and successor of her style.

Maya Deren was able to create her own cinematic language, becoming one of the founders of American avant-garde cinema. She was a theorist and critic of Hollywood.

Her short films are similar to those surreal, frightening, but at the same time exciting dreams that we later enthusiastically talk about and try to understand the symbols in them (like the symbols we see at, but don’t have much time to look and analyze).

Maya Deren’s real name is  Eleonora Derenkowska. She was born on April 29, 1917 in Kiev, Ukraine.

In 1922, her family moved to the United States.

After emigrating, Eleonora’s father decides to shorten the family name to Derena. And the name Maya was later given to Eleanora by her second husband, Czech avant-garde photographer and director Alexander Hammid, thanks to whom Deren got acquainted with the principles of cinema.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is Deren’s first and most famous film, shot with the help of Alexander Hammid.

The black-and-white short film takes place in the Los Angeles home of the couple. All the roles were played by Maya and Alexander.

This film is full of various symbols, thanks to which the 14-minute hypnosis becomes even more impressive.

Meshes of the Afternoon lacks the traditional narrative element. The unpredictable plot develops not horizontally, but vertically. Characters and emotions mix, as a result of which the tension reigning every second grows and reaches its peak. By the end of the film, the dream turns into reality.

Sharp editing transitions create the impression of movement in space and time. And the alternation of slow-motion and regular shooting techniques gives the frame a special rhythm.

Thanks to the aforementioned abrupt transitions, the heroine of the film finds herself on the seashore with one step, on the ground and grass with the next, in the grass with the third, the fourth brings her to the threshold of the house where the actions are taking place, and with the fifth the woman is already inside the house.

The aesthetics of Meshes of the Afternoon influenced David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Lynch has repeatedly noted that he considers himself a student of Derain.

The Cinema Language

In total, Maya Deren has made seven films. The first work is followed by two more “film-dreams” – At Land (1944) and The Witch’s Cradle (1944). In these two those sharp editing transitions that disrupt the normal course of time and space are again noticeable.

Deren then moved on to choreographic films, the first of which she presented in 1945 under the title A Study in Choreography for Camera. In this film, the camera not only captures the dancer in the frame, but also becomes his partner.

In three other Maya Deren works, dance has become a strong expressive element.

Maya Deren was experimenting with the concept of Subjective Camera. This term is used when the camera becomes the gaze of any of the characters, and the actions of the film are portrayed by its eyes.

The camera is not a third person or a stranger following the development of events.

Deren frequently employs sharp editing transitions to demonstrate the importance of editing in the film’s aesthetic expression. This is most noticeable in the film At Land (1944).

Speaking about Deren’s innovations, it is worth noting that  she’s one of the first filmmakers to experiment with shooting angles, alternating sharp optical angles.

The fundamental purpose of Deren’s films appears to be to deceive and hypnotize the audience.

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