It’s incredibly difficult to find an early-era female filmmaker who has contributed to the horror genre, so in honor of Galloween, this month Female Film Pioneers is going to move out of the silent era to look at the work of Maya Deren, a Ukrainian born, American experimental filmmaker, whose films have influenced the work of Roman Polanski, David Lynch and the master of suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock. History has done a pretty good job of remembering Deren compared to other women we have featured in this column, but her work still remains on the fringes. Her most famous film, Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), has been hugely influential to the horror genre, even if Deren herself is largely forgotten.
If you have never seen Meshes in the Afternoon, you should do so immediately (the full film can be found below. It’s only 15min and worth every second). It builds suspense like nothing else and is one of the most beautifully creepy films ever made.
Deren’s work has one foot in the world of the surreal and gives the viewer a bodily, visceral reaction, just like horror films do. This is probably why her work has been so influential on the genre. She is known as the mother of experimental cinema and was the first filmmaker ever to receive the Guggenheim grant for creative film making in 1946. She also spent time researching the Gods of Haiti, eventually becoming a fully initiated Vodou priestess leading to her death being surrounded by rumors of a Vodou curse.
She was the transcendent centerpiece of every red-hot village party in the late 1940′s and early 1950′s, a wild-tousled, peasant bloused 1960′s flower child before her time, s Botticelli babe in high bloom with Modligliani almond eyes and matching elongated lips, shaking her booty to Haitian Voodoo drums. –Gerald Peary
Born Eleanora Derenkowski in Kiev, Ukraine in 1917, Deren’s family fled the anti-Semitic USSR in 1922, settling in Syracuse, New York. In the 1930s, Deren attended Syracuse University where she became heavily involved in the anti-fascist and anti-war movements. In 1939, she graduated from Smith College with a Master’s degree in English literature.
After graduation, Deren began working as the assistant to Katherine Dunham, an African-American dancer/choreographer/anthropologist. With Dunham, Deren traveled throughout the segregated American south, which left a lasting impression of Deren. Through her work with Dunham, Deren developed her fascination with Haitian culture and the interconnection between dance, ritual and iconography that runs throughout it.
In 1942, Deren met photographer/cinematographer Alexander Hackenshmied (later changed to Hammid) at a party and they were married shortly after. The two bonded over their love of the materiality of photography and cinema. Deren was very taken by the photographic properties of film:
It was like finally finding a glove that fits. When I was writing poetry, I had, constantly, to transcribe my essentially visual image . . . into verbal form. In motion pictures, I no longer had to translate…and I could move directly from my imagination into film.
With this moment of revelation, Eleanora Deren became Maya after the Hindu goddess of illusion.
She began her career with documentary photography projects on California farmers and street life in LA respectively. She used photography as an ethnographic tool in her studies of Haiti and worked as a freelance portrait photographer for Vogue, Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, and Architectural Forum. However it was the medium of film that truly captured her imagination. She was fascinated by time as an ever changing and fluctuating phenomenon and used film to explore this. For Deren, the camera was magic and she used it as she thought medieval witches and magicians might, to defy time and space through the disappearance and reappearance of objects.
Daren was a true auteur. She wrote, directed, produced, stared in her own films and was one of the first filmmakers to self distribute her films. In 1943, she made her first film Meshes in the Afternoon with her husband and her as the featured performers. She continued to produce films, usually coercing friends and family to perform in them. Anais Nin described Daren as an almost hypnotic force – extremely talented, but overbearing and impossible to escape.
During the 1940s and 50s, Daren interacted with many of the great revolutionary artists working in the US. Salvador and Gala Dali and John Cage were frequent visitors to her apartment and the place was always filled with cats.
In 1947, she was awarded the “Grand Prix International for 16mm Film, Experimental Class” at Cannes for Meshes in the Afternoon, the first time the award had been given to both an American and a woman. Later that year, she divorced Hammid. In 1951 she met Japanese musician Teiji Ito. Although 18 years her junior (he was 15 at the time), the two became lovers and by 1960, they were married.
Throughout the 1950s Daren published on her anthropology work and lectured at various universities on film theory. She became obsessed with securing her position in film history, organizing her films and writing program notes so her work would not be misinterpreted.
Daren died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Friday, October 13, 1961, fueling the rumors of her death due to supernatural causes. While many attribute her death to her involvement in Haitian Voudoun ritual, the more logical biographers believe that the hemorrhage was caused by malnutrition and a fondness for amphetamines and sleeping pills.
Meshes in the Afternoon continues to be one of the most commonly shown experimental films in film courses, but the rest of her films and her theoretical work remain obscure. However, her influence on independent horror filmmakers in the 60s, 70s and 80s is very apparent. She brought an unsettling quality to her work that makes even ordinary everyday objects appear otherworldly and frightening. Her films have the ability to cast a spell and make you fear the shadows.
Films You Should See:
Witches Cradle (1943) may never have been completed, but the footage that exists is delightfully creepy, as inanimate objects take on murderous intentions.
Want to Know More?
In the Mirror of Maya Daren (2010) Directed by Martina Kudlacek
A Life Choreographed for Camera by Mark Alice Durant
The Nightmarish World of Maya Daren by Kimberly Lindbergs