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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)


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Thanks to the ease of the Netflix instant viewing option, I was recently able to catch up with Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid's 14-minute experimental film called Meshes of the Afternoon. And as this film made our 2010 Top 100, I thought it worthwhile to start a thread on it.

The title seems as good a place as any to begin, as it seems to get at the heart of the film: the action takes place on what looks like a sunny afternoon, but the key term here is meshes, as in nets or traps. Deren, who stars in the film, portrays a woman trapped in the domesticity of suburban life. The opening series of images clarifies her state: a woman’s hand is seen placing a single flower in the middle of a quiet, suburban street; a woman in shadow leans toward to flower to pick it up, her feet eventually visible as she walks by; a tracking shot following the woman’s feet as she walks, the flower hanging limply toward the ground; her full body in shadow along a wall as she lifts the flower to smell it; a brief glimpse of a mysterious figure disappearing around a corner, then the woman, again visible in shadow, turns to walk up the steps into her home.

Already in these early moments, with the woman’s identity purposefully masked, the symbolic flower the only tangible connection we have to her, Deren shows us a woman not fully in the world—a mere shadow in the walled and isolated environment in which she finds herself. As she enters the empty house, that isolation is only enhanced. And by the time her man shows up, he is more a stranger or intruder than he is comfort or companion.

The surreal styling of the narrative only serves to heighten Deren’s disjunction with the world around her. She lives in a world with other versions of herself. I kept thinking there might have been some kind of schizophrenic undercurrent as more and more Deren’s filled the room. But regardless of how many came, she continued in the same loop, trapped in the same dull neighborhood, in the same dull house, with her same dull self.

I may be completely off base here, but those are a few introductory thoughts. I am interested in others—maybe we can get a bit of dialogue going about this film.

I've got a documentary on Deren coming this week from Netflix called In the Mirror of Maya Deren (thanks for the recommendation, Darren), which I suspect will provide some further food for thought and comment. I might give a few of the other short films on the instant-play Netflix disc a spin after the doc to provide some context.

I also find myself curious about Deren’s place in cinematic history. She wasn’t the first or the last experimental filmmaker, yet just the bit of reading I’ve done shows me she stands out from the pack. Not being very familiar with “the pack,” I’m curious as to how it is she has received her status.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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I also find myself curious about Deren’s place in cinematic history. She wasn’t the first or the last experimental filmmaker, yet just the bit of reading I’ve done shows me she stands out from the pack. Not being very familiar with “the pack,” I’m curious as to how it is she has received her status.

Mirror is a helpful documentary in this respect. These figures like Menken and Deren have remained household names, at least for households that are into A/G cinema, because they were such tireless promoters of a new cinema happening in America. I think there is a lot of nostalgia for this movement that Kudlacek overplays a bit in her documentaries on these figures, but hearing Mekas, Brakhage, and others tell us why Deren was so important to them is really helpful.

What I really like about Deren is the way she makes unashamedly symbolic films. She turns things like keys and cats into tokens of subconscious patterns. She broke loose from the typical pattern of expressing interior states through mise-en-scene, dramaturgy, storytelling convention, etc... She completely ignored the way cinema always tries to comprehend the exterior and interior in the same frame. What we get in Meshes of the Afternoon is a blast of pure subjective cinema that without a shred of irony accepts a woman's dream as a legitimate form of expression. We live in a post-Resnais, post-Lynch world in which we find these kinds of subjective expressions and cyclical, psychological narratives all over the place. But Meshes is from 1943. This is a whole fifteen years before Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Marienbad, which register as key films in the next wave of cinema that dealt with memory, gender, and violence with the same uncritically post-modern verve that motivated Deren. Of course it is a throwback to Cocteau and Dali, but there is something very distinctly post-war about it as well.

On repeated viewings one begins to realize that this is really concentrated cinema. In the same way that Lynch often distills the psychological terror his films into little microcosms (like the bum behind Bob's Big Boy in Mulholland Drive or the Rammstein scene in Lost Highway), Meshes is like an entire Hitchcock film distilled into this opaque little unit. And she did all this armed with a Bolex and a lit degree.

This is why I prefer the original, silent version. Its impact as a Cocteau-like commentary on cinema is even more stunning.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I watched Meshes on Netflix this afternoon, too, and was just about to check if we had a thread on it. biggrin.gif I don't have much experience with avant-garde, other than watching enough Bunuel to know I don't like him, and I'm not sure how I feel about this one, either. While I was watching it, I felt like it was moving slowly, but also that symbols were flashing by so quickly I didn't have time to digest and categorize them all. Watching it again wouldn't be too daunting, I suppose, since it's only 14 minutes long.

The title seems as good a place as any to begin, as it seems to get at the heart of the film: the action takes place on what looks like a sunny afternoon, but the key term here is meshes, as in nets or traps. Deren, who stars in the film, portrays a woman trapped in the domesticity of suburban life.

I was thinking of "meshes" in the sense of things combining or blending together, but this definition works better.

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What I really like about Deren is the way she makes unashamedly symbolic films. She turns things like keys and cats into tokens of subconscious patterns. She broke loose from the typical pattern of expressing interior states through mise-en-scene, dramaturgy, storytelling convention, etc... She completely ignored the way cinema always tries to comprehend the exterior and interior in the same frame. What we get in Meshes of the Afternoon is a blast of pure subjective cinema that without a shred of irony accepts a woman's dream as a legitimate form of expression. We live in a post-Resnais, post-Lynch world in which we find these kinds of subjective expressions and cyclical, psychological narratives all over the place. But Meshes is from 1943. This is a whole fifteen years before Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Marienbad, which register as key films in the next wave of cinema that dealt with memory, gender, and violence with the same uncritically post-modern verve that motivated Deren. Of course it is a throwback to Cocteau and Dali, but there is something very distinctly post-war about it as well.

This is especially helpful, Mike. The issue of interiority is a good lens through which to see the film. I think particularly of the objects--the flower, the key, the knife--the latter two of which have specific functions in the "narrative" but which are so clearly meant to be considered on a symbolic level.

In considering the film's use of dream logic, I found myself recalling Dreyer's Vampyr, which when I watch it am always less interested in what's going on and more interested in the mood and the atmosphere he's bringing to bear on the character's life. I think something similar is going on here with Meshes. There's a mood--one of fear, terror even--resulting from isolation and the continued fracturing of her mental state.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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I was thinking of "meshes" in the sense of things combining or blending together, but this definition works better.

Yeah, but I wouldn't totally discount the blending idea either, Tyler. It seems to me that a film like this resists an overly-simplistic categorization.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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There's a mood--one of fear, terror even--resulting from isolation and the continued fracturing of her mental state.

This is why I think it is a good addition to the list. You get some of the same fear and terror in Kenneth Anger, early Brakhage, Baillie, and others. But in Meshes this disassociating, blending, isolating fear is more gentle and exploratory. I get to the end of an Anger film and can feel the many of the motivations for his cinema, but then what? This isn't to say that mere expression isn't valuable, but Meshes is a bit of a parable about the expressiveness of cinema (and its dangers) that has often tutored me through the films of directors like Denis or Hitchcock.

So for people who have watched it so far, do you like it as an addition to the list?

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I noticed this thread last night and used it as an excuse to watch Meshes again. (As an aside, how crazy is it that we live in an age when I can watch a Maya Deren film on a whim, by streaming it online through a wireless network to my 52" HDTV?! I wish Bazin and Langlois were still alive to see it.)

I was struck on this viewing by how well made Meshes is. It's been a long time since I watched the documentary, and I can't remember if it discusses at length how she made the film, but I assume it must have been carefully storyboarded. Even something relatively small, like the seamless, whip-pan cuts when her shadow is chasing the woman with the mirrored face, must've been incredibly difficult to accomplish with just a Bolex.

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(As an aside, how crazy is it that we live in an age when I can watch a Maya Deren film on a whim, by streaming it online through a wireless network to my 52" HDTV?! I wish Bazin and Langlois were still alive to see it.)

There really is no good excuse for not seeing this. Especially, for instance, in my case: I've seen most of it in the documentary anyway. I'll get around to it one of these days...

It is funny though. Saturation moves us from what we thought we wanted to watch to what we are either talked into watching (in places like this) or finally decide it is something we simply want. For whatever the reason. But it's hardly ever any longer what we thought we wanted to watch (but can't).

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Persona wrote:

: There really is no good excuse for not seeing this.

Well, Netflix doesn't work outside the U.S., and the local public library doesn't seem to have a copy. Videomatica seems to have both a documentary about her as well as a disc that has a few of her films, though ...

I'm a bit surprised, BTW, to discover that this film is only 14 minutes long, or whatever. That automatically ought to rule it out of consideration for the A&F Top 100. Or, alternatively, the A&F Top 100 list of nominees should have had way, way more short films than it did.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Re: the length of films, I think short films should be eligible and should be treated individually. Actually, I think all films should be treated individually. I still don't get why Three Colors, The Apu Trilogy, and the Brakhage collection get one vote. And if The Decalogue counts as one film, I want to nominate season 3 of The Wire.

But anyway . . .

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Darren H wrote:

: I still don't get why Three Colors, The Apu Trilogy, and the Brakhage collection get one vote.

This is only a partial answer, but I think at least two of those items were "grandfathered" in from previous lists, so any debates about nominating trilogies collectively or as single films would have taken place while compiling the earlier lists.

: And if The Decalogue counts as one film, I want to nominate season 3 of The Wire.

Heck, you mean: "If The Decalogue counts as A FILM, period, and not just as a TV show..." :)

FWIW, I am not necessarily opposed to short films being in the Top 100. But my goodness, if we had all known that the list wouldn't be restricted to feature films, then I daresay we would have nominated many, many more short films than we did.

Turning back to Meshes of the Afternoon, it turns out there is no need to look for a Canadian equivalent to Netflix in order to view the film online. Here 'tis, in two parts (neither of which I have seen yet, but I will once family duties don't beckon so much):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPi9i3gfSAM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiNyxt71RZs

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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You know I jest--but only somewhat. I've never heard of Deren before this iteration of the Top 100. But I found myself checking the time slider at minute mark 7:30 (and every two minutes after that). I can appreciate that she did this in 1943, but it felt a little like a pretentious student film.

Look! The house is wobbling! Look! The old hag has a mirror for a face! Look! Its infinite Flickr! That's what I felt throughout.

Maybe I don't have the A.G. gene--I don't like Andy Warhol either.

You know, at 14 min, this would be a good chat-function film. Where those that have ears to hear can share with the popcorn junkies like me.

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Got a chance to see the Deren documentary tonight, which brings some helpful context to her work. One of Deren's recorded statements that makes it into the film was insightful into her overall body of work: It is what is happening that is important rather than what is at any particular moment. Seeing Meshes in this light, as a movement, a change, a metamorphosis, or a becoming is really helpful to me in trying to understand what the film is able to accomplish in such a short space. In four or five short vignettes, filled with much repetition and a few differences, we're able to see a progression in Maya's character. There really seems to be a great deal going on in such a short space--kind of like a dense, two-page chapter in a book.

So for people who have watched it so far, do you like it as an addition to the list?

This is a question I am still undecided about. In principle, I would answer yes, as I like the idea of Christians grappling with the abstract, the experimental, and the avant-garde, and finding meaningful ways to talk about it. That we put Deren on the list seems to acknowledge the importance of that pursuit.

That said, I am still in what I would consider a stage of infancy here. I like the idea of the abstract on our list, but I don't yet have the heartbeat for it. The goal at this point is simple: I want to understand what makes Meshes such an acclaimed film, but to do so in more than just an intellectual sense--to really get it. The doc helped move me in that direction. This discussion is certainly helping. Getting all the way there will require me setting aside some time here and there to grapple with experimental cinema in general, I suspect.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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I think that, given the time and the context, this is a stunning achievement. I can see where Lynch got his inspiration from.

I don't know much about avant garde film. But I found the imagery to be riveting. Some it this I can figure out: women are trapped in society's expectations, in a male-dominated world. Some of the symbolism throws me for a loop. But I think Maya Deren was really onto something: the essence of pure cinema, and the strange and often confusing depths of the psyche.

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Someone ought to write a blurb for this for the Top 100. Trust me, you don't want me writing the blurb for this one.

Might be kind of cute. :)

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Edited to add: I don't think Deren intended to be pretentious... and I really think Meshes... would work better as a silent film. The soundtrack is much too literal/obvious (for the most part).

It originally was a silent film. The soundtrack was added many years later.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I can see what she was trying to do, to some degree. My thought is that they're very much of their time, but kind of dated now.

Isn't that the problem with artists that work on the margins? They discover things and pioneer new techniques, but as soon as those discoveries become mainstream, their initial forays begin to look so clunky that they become "dated," "derivative," the stuff of student films.

But I think artists that are willing to suffer the future indignity of being dated are brave. There is a bravery in committing your work to the vicissitudes of planned obsolescence. The avant-garde at its best is all about courage.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I don't know, M. (re. "artists on the margins"). as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the imagery she used in Meshes... was already a bit "dated." (Coming from Surrealist works of the 20s and 30s - paintings, sculptures, movies.)

Well, we would have to disagree with some real heavyweights in American filmmaking to claim that Deren was derivative or dated or however one would be inclined to describe Meshes. It is a jaunt through the surrealists, and she didn't exactly make that a secret. Filmmakers jaunt through influences all the time. If Meshes is dated, then so was Mulholland Drive.

These short films from the 40s and 50s aren't just influential because of what they looked and felt like (no one else used the Bolex anyway). They produced a culture of filmmaking that kind of changed what American cinema did with the camera. They also made filmmaking a viable tool of the new avant garde.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 8 months later...

That was the longest fourteen minutes of my life.

So that was basically the nightmare of a mentally sick lady that drove her to suicide? Definitely nightmarish. Add to it, Teiji Ito's 1959 soundtrack and it was 14 minutes of hell.

I'm working my way through everything on the current Top 100 list that I can get access to. It's work, but it's something I can take joy in. These films are stretching me and I appreciate the work that has gone into making these recommendations. On the other hand, Meshes of the Afternoon leaves me completely cold.

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  • 4 years later...

Some choice images from Flicker Alley's upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release: Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970. This is the best looking transfer of Meshes I've ever seen!

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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