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Like "Un Chien Andalou" by Bunuel & Dali, "Meshes" might appear to hold some psychological symbolism, dream imagery, hidden significances or inside jokes. Where Bunuel & Dali insisted that all they filmed was to make "no sense at all," Deren's could have a hidden commentary on the woman's role in the home; time spent alone, to be drawn out is to fall deeper into oneself. The overall look of the film (shot over several years) is one of a camera experiment; one which carries the viewer scene to scene via strange footfalls on shifting soils, stairs, paths and floors. The sense of continuity is held through reoccurring imagery, and this film uses a mask to give the appearance of multiple Mayas at a table VERY effectively. Some of the stop-action (disappearing/reappearing objects) is rough, given the complexity of her camera, but given these limitations the film is a technical feat as well. Mesmerizing, re-watchable.
Meshes Of The Afternoon Meshes, according to Deren, is "concerned with
the inner realities of an individual and the way in which the
subconscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple
and casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience."
Have you ever stopped to wonder, when you see and touch a flower, what happens inside? Unless you are in purely botanical mode, it may very likely spark off something in your subconscious. The breath of spring. The beauty and harmony of nature. Perhaps something given with affection and gentleness. Maybe even a token of romance?
Maya Deren's wildly seminal work, Meshes Of The Afternoon, begins when a rather artificial looking hand places a flower on a pathway. The hand (and attached arm) pop out of existence, immediately alerting us to the fact that this is not a work of literal storytelling. The symbols of the next 14 minutes drill holes into our subconscious, where images speak louder than words, creating one of the most famous short films of all time.
A woman picks up the flower on her way home. At her doorstep, she drops her key. Once inside, she falls asleep in an armchair. Her dream-self sees her former self approaching the house. But the flower is being carried by a hooded figure whose only face is a mirror. Giving chase brings her no closer to the hooded figure it just brings her to her doorstep. This time, when she ascends the stairs, we see her expression. No longer carefree, she is watchful, slightly suspicious.
A breadknife, previously cutting bread, lies on the steps. A phone off the hook, and the knife hidden in the bed. She sees her sleeping form and a gramophone playing endlessly with no sound. Through the cracked window she sees herself giving chase to the hooded figure and takes the key from her mouth. We look again. It become a knife with which she confronts two other images of herself. Eventually a man enters the picture.
The sight or touch of a flower reminds us that the subconscious mind works in symbols. Like images from a dream, the flower can bring certain feelings to the surface. Similarly a knife may be just an implement, or an implement with which we can feed ourselves, or hurt ourselves. Meshes Of The Afternoon soon evokes Freudian implications. Is the man coming home from work the fulfillment of her romantic dreams or their frustration? As an outside force, he can be a blessing or a threat, just as a mirror can show oneself or a reveal a hidden person. But Deren hotly denied it was surrealist. Whereas the surrealist is parodic, Deren is deadly serious. To her, their work was like doodling with symbols. Her polemics castigated surrealists for 'abnegating the agency of consciousness.' The role of the artist, she said, had degenerated. "His achievement, if any, consists in a titillating reproduction of reality which can be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort by an audience too comatose to take the exercise of a direct experience of life."
The music (by Deren's third husband, and added 16 years later) adds to the sense of rising paranoia and dread. Its ritualistic feel has persuaded some commentators to suggest that the double characters and constantly changing identities stem from Deren's interest in Voodoo (her writings on the subject are still a leading authority - she was later initiated as a Voodoo priestess). Yet it wasn't until 1947, four years later, that Deren received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship that enabled her to begin visiting Haiti to study Voodoo. More likely they are indicative of an early grasp of psychology, a deep interest of hers and one which she shared with her father.
To signify the hooded figure as the Grim Reaper is also to trivialize and pigeon hole a symbol capable of many equally valid interpretations. Some feminist readings centre on the frustration of a woman left at home all day. Yet we can also look at it in the sense of someone coming to know themselves and risking their sanity in the process.
On a technical level, Meshes Of The Afternoon, shot on a miniscule budget, has almost non-existent production values and may fail easily to engage modern audiences. It has total disregard for Hollywood convention (the word 'Hollywood' in the opening titles could even be read as frustration with the barrenness of the industry there). There is an superficial similarity with works by Shirley Clarke or the early surrealism of Bunuel. Structurally, we can see its influence in Lynch's Lost Highway, where no explanation is given or needed for one thing (or person) turning into another (though some of the explicit symbols are explored more thoroughly in Lynch's later works, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire). By understanding Meshes Of The Afternoon, such 'populist' surrealism becomes child's play. As a journey of self-discovery with deep overtones, it follows a similar (though less tragic) theme to Nina Menkes' Phantom Love.
Some commentators have cast doubt over whether Deren was the primary artistic force in the film, saying it is largely the work of her husband Alexander Hammid. Deren's biographers disagree. Certainly it is her most famous, complex and mature piece of cinema, although her next film, At Land, maintained some of the enigmatic structure of Meshes Of The Afternoon. Later, her works would focus more on dance-film (except, perhaps, for her documentary on Voodoo, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti). But whoever was behind Meshes, there are few segments of 14 minutes that remain so disturbing, so infinitely re-watchable, and so influential to this day.
Laden with symbolic imagery, this short film focuses on the struggle of a
woman to find her identity independent of men, emotional baggage and
societal expectations. Constantly chased by a doppelganger, Maya is
confronted with the many aspects of herself at the dinner table. One of
personalities must commit murder to free her. Is she saved from the flower
of womanhood or die without expectations?
I suggest watching the movie a few times through to catch all of the imagery and keeping Freud in mind when distilling the symbolism. This film is very interesting and beautiful independent of theme. Definitely worth a look!
Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon" is an amazing 15 minute journey into the subconscious. It's like "Un Chien Andalou" seen through the eyes of a woman. In the film it's hard to tell when Maya's character is awake or dreaming. This film is chock full of bizarre and creepy surrealist images. The protagonist drops her key and it bounces like a ball. A knife moves from a loaf of bread, then the key turns into a knife. She carries a flower with her, which she holds upside down. She sees death, who where's a black hood and has a mirror for a face. She see's herself dreaming. In her dream she seems to foresee her own death. Deren seems to have a subconscious fear of knives, or being killed by a knife. This is one crazy little short film that almost puts you in a hypnotic trance with it's creepy Avant-Gard sounds and images. It's very poetic and disturbing, as nothing is what it seems. This is a must see for fans of David Lynch and Bunuel.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Postwar American experimental cinema was primarily founded on the
creative endeavors of Maya Deren. Her psychodramatic narratives highly
influenced works of the era and continue to influence contemporary
Deren and her husband, Alexander Hammid, collaborated in making MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943, written by Deren), the preeminent experimental film of the day (and arguably today). With a "nonrealistic spatial and temporal continuity"* and an innovatively skewed narrative, Deren and Hammid produced a film radically different from the traditional Hollywood narrative, forcing viewers to defamilarize themselves with perceptions of what movies "should be" and delve into the vast unexplored terrain of unconventional cinematic expression.
Unlike most surrealist or avant-garde films that present many unconnected images and non-linear strings of events, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON wields a solid narrative despite repetitions, temporal lapses, and ambiguity. While the images and events in the film are indeed subjective, the film unfolds whilst producing cumulative meanings.
Topically, the film might appear pretentious and self-indulgent; however, when looked at closely, it presents rich commentaries on the duplicity of persona, self-reflexivity and the constraints of femininity as a nameless woman (Deren) travels through various subjective interludes. These interludes build off each other and are understood in their entirety when juxtaposed with what was seen previously (like a narrative). For example, two props are continually displayed, a knife and a key. Upon deeper (psycho)analysis, one might see the knife-like phallus as a symbol of power, and the key an object that is "stuck" into a hole to "open" something a symbol of discovery. The woman's manipulations of these two objects can be seen as her frustrations with her reality as a wartime woman where the privileges of power and discovery were limited by the default of gender. The eventual death of the woman at the end of the film is her penalty for experimenting with forbidden masculine privileges, a scenario reminiscent of the systematic exclusion of women from the work place after men returned from the war. Deren's almost prophetic understanding of this situation is brought to light in MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON.
Deren's experimental narrative approach to film-making is arguably one of the most commonly explored facets of cinematic experimental possibility. When it is realized that these types of films were virtually non-existent in the United States prior to the 1940s, the magnitude of influence Deren imposed upon American avant-garde film-making is understood in its entirety.
*Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film History: an Introduction. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The concept of using cinema to reflect dreams isn't very new; the
concept of cinema as "dream-vision" is a little less well known, but
still has a strong impact upon critical writings involving film; many
avant-garde and cult filmmakers from Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali to
David Lynch and Robert Altman have attempted to create dreamscapes in
one or most of their films; still, one thing filmmakers have been
mostly unable to do is to provide the sense of motion that occurs
Except Maya Deren. Maya Deren's experience with dance combines with a rich visual sense in all of her films, but it gets no better than in Meshes of the Afternoon, a movie that literally moves with the same form of surreal contemplation as a body moves through dream space. The visual/symbolic elements of the flower, the mirror-faced figure, the blade, the key, the windows, and the door themselves are all aspects of association which have been highly regarded in Deren's film, but even things as simple as the slightly slow-motion shot of Deren walking up the stairs has a strongly dreamlike impact.
Editing is another aspect of Deren's film-making which has rightly received praise. She literally takes the rhetoric of "Un Chien Andalou" one STEP further by changing the surreal transitions from cuts between different rooms to cuts between footsteps. The land and space traveled both outdoors and indoors in "Meshes of the Afternoon" can be felt the same way dream-motion can be felt in an oddly extrasensory way.
Many films have been based off of the filmmaker's dreams, but Maya Deren actualizes her dreams like no other. "Meshes of the Afternoon" stands as one of the most successful avant-garde films of all time, and is a must for anyone interested in cinematic topics or form.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had the pleasure of watching Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon
just minutes after watching Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou. And
although Buñuel's movie is the most famous and most influential of the
two, I not only enjoyed Deren's more but I also found it more
intelligent and better made.
Although Buñuel's movie rejects any narrative and interpretation, Deren's movie is a little narrative of a nightmare, plunging the viewer deep into a dark, intimate world full of symbols, scary figures and elliptic storytelling. All in all, it's much more dreamlike than Un Chien Andalou.
A hand leaves a flower on a pathway. A woman picks it up. Enters a house. Objects are out of place. She falls asleep. The narrative begins anew, with small differences. Then it starts again, each time oddly familiar but always with differences. At one point the viewer asks himself if the woman isn't just dreaming about herself in an endless loop? Maybe she is, maybe she's not. The movie doesn't explain anything, it merely presents a situation and invites the viewer to think about what it means. The tone of the movie is depressing and austere, and was originally made without sound. I enjoy weird movies, and I can say I've seldom seen one that so easily captured the nature of a nightmare, by being terrifying without really showing anything terrifying. Like a painting by Escher or a short-story by Jorge Luis Borges, Meshes of the Afternoon is a work of art that transcends reality and touches the viewer on a level above language and reason.
While the opening sequence of a woman following a faceless figure with a flower is persistently repeated, images of key and knife intensify their vividness, and then dream and reality permeate into each other's realms. Maya Deren's first and probably best film, Meshes of the Afternoon, is an amalgam of traditional narrative and European-imported surrealism. It is also one of many triumphs in the film history that fearlessness and youthfulness conquer the lack of expenses and experiences.
'Meshes of the Afternoon' is the first and best-known film of
experimental film-maker Maya Deren, whose surrealist tinged movies
explore time, space, self, and society and have had a lasting influence
on American cinema. 'Meshes
' begins with a hand reaching down, as if
from Heaven, leaving a flower on a pathway which a woman (Deren) picks
up on her way to her house. When she arrives she ascends some stairs,
gets her key out, unlocks the door and enters the house. Already an
ominous absence is present, and a subsequent tour of the house shows us
a bread-knife, a telephone off the hook, and up another flight of
stairs we see an empty bed. After the woman falls asleep, these
domestic objects' double life as Freudian symbols is revealed and
charged with increasing potency with each repetition of the cyclical
narrative until the films catastrophic denouement.
In using Freudian symbology and a cyclical narrative, 'Meshes ' certainly has a dream logic which is reminiscent of surrealist films likes Cocteau's 'Blood of a Poet' as well as Dali and Bunuel's 'Un Chien Andalou'. However, Deren actively rejected the "Surrealist" tag and the difference between 'Meshes' and these seminal surrealist works is marked. Firstly, despite the repeating narrative, objects suddenly transforming into something else, and a lead character that splinters into four, the dramatic structure of 'Meshes ' is quite tight and even though the viewer is challenged in regard to interpretation it struck me as quite straightforward compared to some of her later films. Secondly, the dreamscape of 'Meshes ' is not a celebratory realm liberated from reason, but rather a more claustrophobic and sombre world inhabited by a Grim-Reaper like image with a mirrored face, and the splintered identities of the protagonist who at one point congregate around the kitchen table.
Since it was made, the film has had an immense impact both cinematically (in inspiring a new generation of film-makers to pick up the camera) and culturally given that the most favoured interpretation is that it is a feminist commentary on gender identity and sexual politics in an era when the role of women was changing dramatically. One might think that, in an era when David Lynch is mainstream and woman are arguably liberated, 'Meshes ' would feel dated. However, this is not the case, and remains fresh and engaging to a modern viewer in addition to its (deserved) status as a fascinating and influential piece of early experimental film.
There really wasn't a true "Avant Garde" film until Maya Deren forged a new path and formed what we now know today as the art film. Sure we had art films from the likes of Luis Bunuel and Dali, but nothing quite like Meshes of an Afternoon. Deren and Brakhage are the two quinesstianl artists that have molded the many avant garde films of today. Deren focuses on the exact details of objects, learning them and then filming them, as if painting a glorious canvas with each movement an exact yet at the same time spontanious venture. Often explaining avant garde films to people can become a very tiresome process...So, I always direct them to Meshes of an Afternoon, and let the artist explain away.
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