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A difficulty in reviewing an avant-garde short is the danger of coming from the wrong mind-set. Some films are self-explanatory with varying amounts of attention. Some aren't. My first reaction on seeing this film after falling in love with Deren's early, seemingly oneiric, stories was not very positive.
But I could have been looking at something written in a foreign language and not known it. I dismissed it as artistic scribbles. Or perhaps I am not sufficiently steeped in film-making to recognise what she tried to illustrate.
Compared to Meshes of the Afternoon or At Land, I initially found A Study rather disappointing. I couldn't see it as an abstract exercise in 'creative geography' merely a step down from something I had been able to relate to enthusiastically and immediately. I was wrong.
I take a second look at this well-regarded short some time later, when thinking about Sally Potter's ideas on the similarity of dance and film (in The Tango Lesson). Potter agonised over the moment before being, the blank slate, that hovering moment of 'becoming'. It made me think back to Maya Deren, this short film which unexpectedly sees a dancer transition through different surroundings.
Deren herself described her film as having, "the characteristic time quality of a woman." She explains it by comparison. "I think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a 'now' creature. And a woman has strength to wait, because she's had to wait. She has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness, and she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming."
There are (at least) two important features of A Study In Choreography For The Camera that make it interesting in this respect. They are interesting as part of the study which the film is eponymously intended to be (rather than, say, just entertainment). The first of these is the transitions. A dancer raises his foot in a forest and puts it down again indoors as part of the same step. He explores the museum. Then, with an intense spin, he returns to the outdoors, but without any suggestion of continuity in space. He does not leap so high physically that he escapes the walls of the museum. The outside simply is 'there' for him. The reality is that of the dancer, not of the external world. (The transitions are accomplished so skilfully that Gene Kelly was to seek her advice on how to approach them.)
"In any time-form, this is a very important sense. I think that my films, putting as much stress as they do upon the constant metamorphosis one image is always becoming another it is what is happening that is important in my films, not what 'is' at any moment. This is a woman's time sense, and I think it happens more in my films than almost anyone else's." Now, it is also possible to see the common train of thought between this and her earlier, more diegetic but equally challenging, films.
The second feature of the film which bears on time is Deren's specific decision to use slow motion. "Motion picture is a time form," says Deren. "Just as the telescope reveals the structure of matter in a way that the unaided eye can never see it, so slow motion reveals the structure of motion. Events that occur rapidly, so that they seem a continuous flux, are revealed in slow motion to be full of pulsations and agonies and indecisions and repetitions."
What better way to illustrate this than with the hidden exertions of a ballet dancer? Strength, concentration, even pain, all sublimated to look effortless and beautiful. Magnified and stripped of the illusion created by performance in normal time, the dancer becomes more like a moving sculpture. We can examine him at leisure. It is this focus which particularly separates the work from say, Shirley Clarke's A Dance in the Sun, which also explores a dancing moving through different locations but whose overall effect is to isolate energy and the state of mind of the dancer.
Like dancing, Deren's finished work appears so effortless that it is all too easy to miss its subtlety. (For a similar microscopic examination of the film-making process distributed after her death, an accompanying film, called Outtakes from A Study in Choreography for Camera, assembled 15 minutes of footage from which the final film had been distilled.)
The title points us towards yet another innovation. Instead of statically recording, the camera is an active participant (the subtitle of the film is 'Pas de Deux'). The 16mm Bolex is an equal partner to Talley Beatty, the dancer. Near the beginning, it makes some long pans. We see Beatty several times, among the trees. It is almost as if trick photography has been used, but in fact we are simply seeing him from the camera's point-of-view-as-a-dancer. The camera is not limited by space and time. Or as Deren more poetically wrote, "The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbours of distant places."
Deren has used the principles developed in her earlier films to create a window within a film. We see the dance as separate from the surroundings, in order better to study its nature.
But unless such ideas excite you, A Study in Choreography for the Camera is not going to blow your socks off. "I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick," she famously said. If however, you also harbour a suspicion that Hollywood "has been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form," then maybe it's time to take a walk or a leap into the world of Maya Deren.
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