The International Journal of Screendance
FA L L 2 013 • VOLUME THREE
The In T e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n c e i
The International Journal of Screendance
FALL 2013 • VOLUME 3
Douglas Rosenberg and Claudia Kappenberg
The In T e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n c e iii
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SCREENDANCE
DR. ANN COOPER ALBRIGHT
Professor of Theater and Dance
Associate Professor, Department of Modern Dance
University of Utah
DR. HARMONY BENCH
Assistant Professor, Dance Department
Ohio State University
DR. SIMON ELLIS
DR. FRANK GRAY
Director of Screen Archive South East (SASE)
University of Brighton
Principal Lecturer, Performance and Visual Art;
School of Arts and Media
University of Brighton
Independent lm and video artist
Professor of Art, Department of Art
University of Wisconsin–Madison
DR. THERON SCHMIDT
Lecturer in Theatre and Liberal Arts
King’s College London
Director, Internacional Festival de Videodanza
Buenos Aires, Argentina
DR. SARAH WHATLEY
Professor of Dance
Coventry School of Art and Design
Senior Lecturer Dance
University of Chichester
Cover and Publication Design
Barry Roal Carlsen, University Marketing, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Maya Deren Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre,
The International Journal of Screedance
University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries
Table of Contents
1 Editorial: After Deren
Claudia Kappenberg and Douglas Rosenberg
6 Maya Deren: A Prologue
12 Thresholds to the Imaginary
22 If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!: Tracing the Revolutions of Maya
Deren’s Dance in Jane Campion’s In the Cut
38 On Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity: Meshes of the Afternoon
53 Pas de deux for Dancer and Camera in Maya Deren’s Films
61 Art is Energy: Barbara Hammer Speaks with Sarah Keller about the State of
Experimental Cinema after Maya Deren
72 Ritual in Transgured Time: Narcisa Hirsch, Su Poetry, Ecstatic Dances, and
the Female Gaze
85 Seeing (Oneself) Looking Into the Camera: An Interview with Narcisa Hirsch
101 Film as Poetry
120 Touching Sound: An Interview with Jayne Parker
128 Review Essay: About Maya Deren’s Sink
133 Review Essay: Writing on the What Matters Festival, 11–15 April 2012
140 Review Essay: Beach Party Animal
144 Review Essay: Dancing Bodies, Moving Images: An Exhibition of Installed
Works at Summer Dancing, Coventry, UK, June 2012
Andrea Barzey and Polly Hudson
151 Review Essay: Screendance: Yes, And…
159 Epilogue: After Deren
af T er der e n 1
by Claudia Kappenberg and Douglas Rosenberg
There have been numerous books and articles written on Maya Deren, and of course
Deren herself left us with an abundance of writing that serves as a metric for schol-
arship based on her lm practice. Deren has been the object of much scrutiny and
occupies a raried position in the narrative of experimental lm, though less has been
written explicitly addressing her contributions to screendance. This issue is devoted to
Maya Deren, which means that for the rst time, Deren is viewed within the context of
screendance as a genre, a methodology, and a practice. Indeed, this issue explores Deren
in the context of Deren.
Maya Deren’s orbit encompasses multiple spheres of inuence and Deren herself often
seems to appear in dierent guises or manifestations. There is the actual, historical Maya
Deren, but also the utopian, perfected image of Maya Deren and the mythological Deren
encouraged by both temporal distance and the re-imagining of her via digital culture itself.
One sphere of inuence derives from thinking about Deren as contemporary —the projec-
tion of Deren ltered through the lenses of feminist theory, lm theory, Freudian analysis,
and a host of other literary and cinematic tropes and devices, each of which contribute
something to the multi-faceted crystalline gure we call Deren. The other is the lingering
shadow of Deren as both a maker of lms rich with visual references, and also as a passionate
writer of lectures, essays, and diaries that oer clues about her process and the origins of
her particular species of lmmaking.
Maya Deren (née Eleanora Derenkowskaia) is an uncontested pioneer of the American
Avant-Garde, if not its “mother”; but how American was this avant-garde, and should we
insert an “s” to signal multiple avant-gardes? Bill Nichols’s introduction to Maya Deren and
the American Avant-Garde (2001) begins with a biographical account of Deren’s origins in
Kiev (where she was born in 1917), and describes her emigration with her parents to the
US in 1922 as they ed anti-Semitic pogroms. Deren become a naturalized citizen in 1928
and later immersed herself in a European émigré scene in Greenwich Village. Eventually
she was joined by Czech photographer and lmmaker Alexander Hammid (Alexandr
Hackenschmied) who came to the United States in 1942, twenty years after Deren. Just one
year later they would make their rst collaboration, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).
Another gure in the New York émigré scene was Lithuanian poet, lmmaker, and art
activist, Jonas Mekas. Mekas arrived in New York in 1950 from Germany, where he had lived
for six years following his escape from his native Lithuania in 1944. In an interview for his
2012 exhibition in Cologne and London, he recalls that he could read English when he
arrived in New York—he had read Hemingway—but that he kept all his notes in Lithuanian
until the mid-fties, eventually writing his diaries in English by 1957. Publishing regularly
2 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
on the new American experimental lm, he quickly became a spokesperson, although his
early writings vehemently criticized the American “lm-poems” for being feeble, unintelli-
gible, and lacking in meaning and moral stance.1 In this early writing he particularly accuses
Deren of intellectual formalism, revealing not only a patriarchal attitude but advocating a
very dierent, improvisational approach to lmmaking.2
Radically changing his position, he began to advocate the new lm and formulated,
in 1960, the rst manifesto of the New American Cinema Group, a public statement
serving in part to identify the new group of lmmakers as American.3 However, this was no
homogenous group and Maya Deren was conspicuously absent from his reviews—such
as the extensive “Notes to the New American Cinema” from 1962.4 Discussing categories
such as spontaneous street lms, social engagement lms, cinematic improvisation and
the new documentary frontier, he praised above all “The Pure Poets of Cinema”: Brakhage,
Breer, and Marie Menken, the latter also a Lithuanian.5 Another signicant gure of the
experimental lm scene, who, like Deren, didn’t make it into the “Notes” from 1962, was
Kenneth Anger, an American who was strongly inuenced by the European avant-garde
and in particular by the French lmmaker, artist, and poet, Jean Cocteau. Anger shot
his seminal lm Rabbit Moon in Paris in 1950 thanks to the support of the Cinémateque
Française, which furnished him with 35mm lm stock.6 Anger identied strongly with the
European tradition; in an interview for the Guardian newspaper in 2010, he was asked if
he knew what he was doing back in 1947 in Hollywood when he made the lm Fireworks.
He replied: “Well, I knew all about French Avant-garde, so I was the American Avant-
garde.”7 By contrast, Deren, whose work is so often associated with and read through a
European lens of Surrealism and Freudian analysis, vehemently rejected these as points of
reference for her lms. Eventually, in 1963, Mekas published Imagism in four Avant-Garde
Films, discussing both Deren’s Choreography for Camera as well as Anger’s Eaux d’Artice.8
For the essay Mekas took inspiration from a reference that lmmaker Stan Brakhage had
made to the Imagists’s concept of the image as central motivation for poetry, which
Mekas thought to apply to avant-garde lm in general. Deren had of course written her
MA thesis on the Imagists back in 1939 and their ideas had been key to the theoriza-
tion of avant-garde lm which she developed in the 40s and 50s.9 Mekas’ essay of 1963
could therefore be considered as an example of the slow, deferred and oblique uptake of
Deren’s critical oeuvre.
Given the ambivalence of the American lmmakers with regards to the earlier European
lms, the naming of the New American Cinema Group can be seen both as a reference to
and a distinction from the European avant-garde. The latter was known, above all, as the
French avant-garde, a name that was just as generalizing as it in turn had been led by a
peripatetic group of artists such as the Romanian Tristan Tzara and the American immigrant
Man Ray, the émigré Marcel Duchamp and the German Walter Benjamin.
The New American Cinema Group may well have been called the émigré Cinema
Group, but its identication as an American lm movement made strategic sense in
allowing artists to signal dierences and new beginnings. In reality, the group represented
the continuity of a wide-ranging network full of intersecting lines that connected an inter-
national eld of artists and practices that collectively demonstrated a desire to forge an
identity as an autonomous cultural force. Still, at the same time, these lmmakers aspired
to share European provenance with their counterparts. This is not dissimilar to, and perhaps
af T er der e n 3
reinforced by, the complexity of cinema as an art form, which was from the very outset a
cross-disciplinary project, advanced by diverse disciplines and artists spread across dierent
This scenario of an internationally connected, multinational group of lmmakers who
were exploring a medium that was not yet established as a medium for art constitutes the
backdrop for this issue on Maya Deren and her legacy. A range of international voices have
therefore been brought together to demonstrate the wide impact of Deren’s work and
the extensive migration of her ideas. The writers featured in this issue articulate questions
from within a muddy yet vital zone of inter-, trans- and cross-disciplinary debates, oering
readings of Deren’s work while further opening up the eld of possible references. Much
like Nichols’s Maya Deren and the American Avant-garde, which grew out of a conference at
San Francisco State University in 1996, this issue of The International Journal of Screendance
builds on a Deren season at the British Film Institute in London in 2011. Curated by Elinor
Cleghorn as part of her PhD research into the relation between the body and technologies
in early lm practices, the conference demonstrated a signicant interest in Deren’s work
from UK-based lmmakers and scholars. This was complemented by Claudia Kappenberg’s
visit to Buenos Aires and discussions on Maya Deren’s inuence in South America at the
Festival Internacional de Videodanza, which suggested that an issue of the International
Journal of Screendance devoted to Deren would be very relevant for the international read-
ership. Finally, a retrospective in 2012 of the American lmmaker Barbara Hammer at Tate
Modern (London, UK) and at the Jeu de Pomme (Paris, France) with a screening of Maya
Deren’s Sink suggested a further expansion of contemporary perspectives on Deren.
Besides inviting scholars from the global community to contribute to the issue, we also
chose to prole three lmmakers—Jayne Parker from the UK, Narcisa Hirsch from Argentina,
and Barbara Hammer from the US—in order to explore Deren’s legacy in contemporary
lm practices. This focus on contemporary lmmakers was a deliberate choice in that lm
studies and histories are somewhat underrepresented in current discourses on screen-
dance. On the other hand, and despite this focus on Deren’s lms as lms, the essays in this
issue speak across art forms and seek to articulate the hybrid nature of Deren’s practice and
its many dierent roots. As the debates at the British Film Institute provided the starting
point for this issue, we invited the curator of the Deren season, Elinor Cleghorn, to be guest
editor and to work with us on bringing together scholarly research and artists’ points of
view, historical perspectives, and contemporary voices.
In this issue there are recurring references to such thinkers and theorists as Laura
Mulvey, Walter Benjamin, Georges Méliès, Judith Butler, and Renata Jackson, as well as to
conceptual frameworks surrounding proto-feminism, the body, Surrealism, and temporal
phenomenology, among many others. As Harmony Bench points out in the following
prologue, the diversity of Deren’s legacy is evident throughout the issue; indeed, in
“Thresholds to the Imaginary,” Lucy Reynolds notes that, “Despite some compelling argu-
ments, it may therefore be more productive to see Deren’s practice in relation to the wider
discussions of pre-war thinkers contemporary to the Surrealists, who were also engaged
in debating the potential, and social impact, of the new medium.” Reynolds goes on to
position Deren as a product of a fertile surrealist/n de siècle culture whose work irts with
the uncanny. Sarah Keller interviews legendary lmmaker Barbara Hammer, who cites the
synergy of practice and theory in Maya Deren’s approach to her life/work as instrumental
4 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
in her own artistic development. Hammer also notes the specicity of Deren’s medium and
the spaces in which it was situated:
If Maya Deren lived in the woods as a wild child with a video camera, with multiple
hours of recording devices, I think we’d have a dierent kind of lm. And I think
that Meshes and Ritual are really home-based works. Meshes was all shot in her
home. A lot of Ritual in Transgured Time was shot in her Morton Street home and
some of Study for Choreography for Camera was too. The interior structure of the
home means the artifacts in the home are visible as images on the screen for us
to see, even if we can’t handle them. If an artist is working in space-time relation-
ships, the space that she lived in and worked in seems to me a very interesting
primary focus of what occurs in the lming itself.
As Hammer reminiscences abut her own lms, it becomes clear that she has often appropri-
ated Deren’s fantasies, reanimating the kinetic, dancerly exuberance of Deren in the process.
Sophie Mayer nds traces of Deren in Jane Campion’s lms and identies Deren’s rela-
tionship to the “narrative, pleasurable and political.” Separating from the Surrealist tether that
most often is used to situate Deren’s cinematic visuality, Mayer notes that Deren’s Meshes
of the Afternoon “is an uncanny preguration of many of the preoccupations of lm noir;
indeed, it fuses suggestively three popular American genres of the 1940s: noir, the musical,
and melodrama.” She locates Deren’s anxious Jewishness, pointing out that, “The lm’s labile
atmosphere and intensely private domestic language, at once intimate and violent, can
be read as suused with specic anxieties about being a leftist Jewish immigrant in the
US in 1942,” an important observation and analytical point of view. Finally, Mayer tracks
the logical extension of Deren’s lm architecture to Jane Campion’s In the Cut. And Andrew
James notes the inuence of Annette Michelson’s On Reading Deren’s Notebooks in mining
Deren’s own writing and lm work for traces of interdisciplinarity. James treads into poten-
tially fraught territory by drawing out Alexander Hammid’s contributions to Deren’s work,
thus raising issues of authorship, genius, and embedded narratives and mythologies that
are oft-quoted tropes of modernism.
With After Deren, the journal launches headlong into current, lively debates on a lmmaker
who, for some, is the representative of screendance as such. However, Deren’s systematic
grounding of her practice in theory and her ongoing concerns with the ethical dimension of
technologies and artistic practices is not as widely known. The aims of this issue are therefore
to honor Maya Deren as artist and theorist; to examine current research on Deren; and to do
so in the context of contemporary screen-based practices that bear traces of Deren’s work.
In The Essential Deren (2005), Bruce McPherson gives a brief and humorous account
of Deren that oers insight into her free spirit and passionately inquisitive nature. Arguing
with a Central Park ocer over a permit for lming in the park, Deren gets into trouble
when she cannot describe the lm, identify its content or its purpose, or indicate why in
fact she is making it. Afterwards, reecting on the situation, Deren writes:
… after three years and ve lms I had no succinct term or formula to describe
their nature. My work has constituted an exploration of the medium of lm rather
than the fulllment of a precise goal. I am fascinated precisely by those aspects
and methods of cinema which are as yet undened and rarely exploited.10
af T er der e n 5
Even though Deren was a prolic writer and speaker, continuously advancing the theo-
rization of her practice, any writing on Deren must be mindful of her persistent quest to
develop and rene her ideas and her artform.
A journal is a form of curation that sits between the determined form of books and
other more temporary structures; it functions both as a response to a eld and as a provo-
cation or call. The dedication of a whole issue to one single artist/theorist is a curatorial
invitation, or provocation, to the dominant mode of screendance festivals and screenings,
which seldom commit the whole of their resources to a single artist and the in-depth focus
that such a commitment entails. All of the authors in this issue approach Deren not as an
untouchable icon, but rather as a lmmaker who left behind a treasure trove of research-
able and readable material, both on lm and on paper. We hope that readers will nd this
focus and detailed scholarship inspiring and rewarding.
1. Mekas, “The Experimental Film in America.”
2. Ibid. 23, 24.
3. “Shoot Shoot Shoot,” in Jonas Mekas, 181.
4. Mekas, “Notes to the New American Cinema.”
5. Ibid. 98–101. For a discussion of his friendship with Marie Menken see “Jonas Mekas on His Films: Interview
with Scott MacDonald,” 148.
6. “Rabbit’s Moon + Kenneth Anger in Conversation,” n.p.
7. Hattenstone, n.p.
8. Mekas, “Imagism in four Avant-Garde Films.”
9. Deren, “The Inuence of the French Symbolist School on the Anglo-American Poetry.”
10. McPherson, Essential Deren, 199.
Deren, Maya. “The Inuence of the French Symbolist School on the Anglo-American Poetry.” M.A. Thesis, Smith
College, 1939. Maya Deren Collection, Boston University Mugar Library Special Collection.
Hattenstone, Simon. “Kenneth Anger: ‘No, I am not a Satanist.’” The Guardian, March 10, 2010. http://www.
“Jonas Mekas on His Films: Interview with Scott MacDonald.” Jonas Mekas. London: Koenig Books, 2008. Published
in conjunction with the exhibition by the same name, shown at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2008. In English
Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-garde. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.
McPherson, Bruce R., ed. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 2005.
Mekas, Jonas. “The Experimental Film in America.” In Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 21–26.
London: Secker and Warburg, 1971.
____. “Notes to the New American Cinema.” In Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 87–107. London:
Secker and Warburg, 1971.
____. “Imagism in Four Avant-Garde Films.” In Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 187- 200. London:
Secker and Warburg, 1971.
“Rabbit’s Moon + Kenneth Anger in Conversation.” BFI London. October 15, 2009. www.b.org.uk/live/video/20.
“Shoot Shoot Shoot: Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist.” In Jonas Mekas, 181. London: Koenig Books, 2008.
Published in conjunction with the exhibition by the same name, shown at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2008.
In English and German.
6 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
Maya Deren: A Prologue
Equal parts artist, theorist, entrepreneur, and evangelist, it is dicult to measure Maya
Deren’s lingering, pervasive, and sometimes forgotten inuence on experimental
cinema, but this issue of The International Journal of Screendance tries to do just that.
With more lm projects abandoned than completed, however, it would be incorrect to
assume that Deren’s impact was exclusively or even primarily an aesthetic one. Deren was
a game-changer, to be sure, but her impact on lmmaking was felt as much through her
actions and words, which legitimated experimental cinema in an American context, as it
was felt through her lms. Deren biographer Catrina Neiman notes that Deren “put as much
eort into cultivating the audience for cinema as an art form as she did into lm-making
itself.”1 It seems that no one ever told Deren that there were things she couldn’t do, that
there were rules and protocols to be followed. Or if they did, she paid no attention. In this
way, Deren paved the way for artists coming after her, forging an American avant-garde
cinema. She gained recognition from institutions that had not previously acknowledged
lm as an artistic medium: she was the rst to receive a fellowship from the Guggenheim
Foundation for “Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures” in 1947. She lectured widely
on her lms and on her theories about lm. She screened and distributed her own work.
Just as she repeatedly used the techniques of lmmaking to open up new and unexpected
terrains for movement, splicing and juxtaposing environments across which a performer
could navigate (for example, in At Land and A Study in Choreography for Camera) in her life,
Deren made space for experimentalism in an era that favored lms of an educational, docu-
mentary, or commercial entertainment variety.
Chastising lmmakers for what she termed their “criminal negligence” of cinema’s
magical and transformative properties,2 Deren argued that the only authentic use of
lm was one that “creates a reality and itself constitutes an experience.”3 Though Deren’s
imagery seems inuenced by the visual arts world—then, as now, the eld most proximate
to experimental cinema—Deren’s aesthetic structures are undoubtedly grounded in the
poetic logics of the performing arts. Of course Deren’s lms frequently featured dancers as
well as other artists. As a result of Deren’s dance background and study of performance, she
developed a cinema that was more magical than surreal (she took great care to distinguish
her work from surrealists), more dream than unconscious, more ritual than intellectual. But
when Deren realized that she could not creatively reinterpret the danced rituals of Haitian
Voudoun (Deren’s spelling) in lm as choreographer Katherine Dunham (with whom Deren
worked in 1941) had done for the stage, Deren became an anthropologist, writing the
denitive Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti in 1953.
In her lms, Deren emphasized a choreographic aesthetic, regardless of whether or not
onscreen movement could be classied as “dancing,” and she denounced what she saw as
the typical Hollywood style of treating lm as though it were simply another stage: “In most
Maya d er e n: a Pr o l o g u e 7
dance lms the dancer, knowing little of the possibilities of camera and cutting, works in
terms of theatrical choreographic integrity…The usual unsatisfactory result is neither…
good lm nor good dance.”4 Choreographers, assuming a xed-front audience, imported
proscenium framing and spacing into the lm medium, while cameramen distorted
choreography by moving through dance ensembles. The more successful a dance was
for presentation onstage the less successful it was onscreen, resulting, Deren intimates,
in a misshapen, incoherent entity. Indeed, both Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, who had
clearly-articulated visions of how to present dance onscreen, sustained the integrity of one
art form—either cinema or dance—at the expense of the other. Berkeley, for example,
intended for his choreographies to be seen from 360 degrees, eschewing any notion of
a xed-front viewer. Adapting his theatrical style to the screen, Berkeley had his dancers
create short bits of dance material, which he then arranged according to his shooting
needs. He peered down on the dancing women in his signature overhead shots or traveled
across arrays of spread-eagle legs, indierent to choreography as such. Astaire, in contrast,
limited camera movement and duplicated theatrical perspective. He choreographed
lengthy sequences, which were generally lmed as full-body shots with few changes in
camera angle and with very minimal editing. In an interview, John Winge quotes Astaire as
saying, “Either the camera will dance or I will. But both of us at the same time—that won’t
work. A moving camera will make the dancer look like [he is] standing still.”5 Both men
rejected the hybridity that Deren sought in her own lms.
In contrast to the popular dance styles represented in Hollywood movies, Deren
turned to American modern dance, and later to contemporary ballet, when she incorpo-
rated dance in her lms. Given Deren’s insistence upon the specicity of the lm medium,
it is somewhat curious that she should welcome dance and develop an explicitly choreo-
graphic, and not merely a kinetic, approach to cinema. But she found in dance a “magical”
way of moving that interested her as a lmmaker,6 and she advocated the development
of choreographed motion specic to the lm medium: “If lm is to make any contribution
to the realm of movement, if it is to stake out a claim in an immeasurably rich territory,
then it must be in the province of lm-motion, as a new dimension altogether of move-
ment.”7 Deren’s fusion of dance and lm resulted in a form she called “lm-dance,” which,
she asserted, is “so related to camera and cutting that it cannot be ‘performed’ as a unit
anywhere but in this particular lm”8—an idea that is practically gospel in many corners of
the screendance community. Employing the lming and editing techniques available to
her, Deren interrogated the spatio-temporality of a screenic body. She reimagined the space
of dance and the time of movement, replacing choreographic repetitions with cinematic
ones, experimenting with slow motion and reverse action, and exploring the psycho-visual
import of photographic negative. She choreographed space as well as the bodies and
objects in it. She pushed the aesthetic and ontological elasticity of both dance and cinema,
encouraging if not forcing their recreation, redenition, and reevaluation. Deren discovered
a unique way to lm movement and opened up choreography as a concept to be explored
The choreographic register is not the register that resounds most strongly in this issue
of The International Journal of Screendance. This collection of essays was inspired by the
presentations and discussions that took place at the Maya Deren: 50 Years On retrospec-
tive and symposium held at the British Film Institute in October of 2011. Focusing on how
8 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
Deren’s work continues to reverberate some 50 years after her death, the authors in these
pages emphasize continuities and residual eects observable in contemporary experi-
mental cinema and the continued usefulness of Deren’s lm theory and practice. In the
six essays that make up the bulk of this special issue on Maya Deren, three main themes
emerge: Deren’s own rst principles of lmmaking and the centrality of the poetic and
magical in the structure and eect/aect of her lms; comparative analyses of Deren’s lms
and those of contemporary lmmakers; and nally, Deren’s unique modes of working and
theorizing that have been rearticulated in more recent scholarship.
Sophie Mayer discovers residual elements of Deren’s aesthetic in Jane Campion’s 2003
lm In the Cut, particularly in the “vertical” structuring of both lms and the doubling of
their protagonists. Crucially, Mayer locates Deren’s Ritual in Transgured Time historically at
the conclusion of WWII, and Campion’s In the Cut in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Read in the context of global violence, Mayer argues that Deren and Campion share what
lm theorist Elena del Rio calls a “micropolitics of the powers of aection” that allows them
to comment on “grief and vulnerability.” With Deren as a consistent touch-point, Mayer
attends to the use of dance in Campion’s lm, which, like Ritual, “unites dance and death,”
and in so doing, “grieves the geopolitical conict…and counters it.” Silvina Szperling simi-
larly discusses Deren’s inuence among South American artists as seen especially through
the work of German-born Argentinean experimental artist and lmmaker Narcisa Hirsch,
who was also interviewed for this issue of The International Journal of Screendance. Paying
particular attention to Hirsch’s 1999 lm Rumi, Szperling emphasizes the quest of each
lmmaker to render poetic and emotional states in visual form. Each lmmaker, Szperling
notes, believed that “experimental lms with their non-linear structure and dream-like tran-
sitions could visually transpose the experiential qualities of lyric poems.”
The poetic remains at the fore for Sarah Keller as well, who supplements poetry with
rhythm in her account, and for Lucy Reynolds, who emphasizes the magic embedded in
Deren’s poetic onscreen transformations. Keller specically places Deren within a dance
context, noting that Deren’s exposure to dance and her work with notable dancers and chore-
ographers infused her lms with a sense of rhythm not native to the medium of lm, but
rather created where dance and lm mutually intersect with motion. Indeed, Keller argues,
rhythm can be viewed as a signal principle underlying Deren’s interests across poetry, cinema,
dance, and anthropology. But it is ultimately poetry that gives Deren’s lms their shape, in
Keller’s analysis, for it is the poetic form, which dance shares, that eschews linear and narrative
causality in favor of felt impressions linking images together in otherworldly rhythmic ecolo-
gies. Such alternate rhythms lend themselves to explorations of the marvelous, and Reynolds
encourages readers to attend to the spaces of imagination Deren’s lms open up in their rela-
tionship to lm magic. Reynolds emphasizes that Deren creates strange new worlds, which,
though magical, maintain their own internal logic. Reading Deren’s lm theories alongside
those of Jean Epstein, Reynolds suggests that Deren’s relationship to myth, ritual, and magic
situates her more closely to what Laura Mulvey calls the technological uncanny than the
psycho-sexual “shocks” of Surrealists, whom Deren rejected.
Claudia Kappenberg similarly plumbs the poetic in Deren’s lms as logical visual struc-
ture commensurate with written forms of poetry, but crucially dierent from language as
such. Kappenberg particularly examines Deren’s theorization of verticality and horizontality
in lms as they relate to time, emotion, and action. Here, horizontality refers to causality, the
Maya d er e n: a Pr o l o g u e 9
teleology of dramatic action, and the progression of a narrative. Verticality, in contrast, refers
to the suspension of action and slowing of time that enables a lmmaker to drill down
into dierent layers of emotion, coloration, technique, reection, or other considerations
that recede into the background when attention is primarily focused on an unfolding plot.
These Kappenberg likens to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s articulation of the move-
ment-image and the time-image, arguing that despite the negative reception of Deren’s
theory of form, Deleuze legitimates the structures Deren describes.
But as Andrew James notes, it was not only Deren’s lm theories that are in need of
recuperation. James suggests that Deren’s interdisciplinarity and her emphasis on collabo-
ration has rendered her less visible to lm scholarship, including feminist critics engaged
in writing women back into the history of lmmaking. When scholars do consider Deren’s
work, Alexander Hammid’s central role in Deren’s most inuential lm Meshes of the
Afternoon, and collaborators on other lms become obscured in favor of Deren-as-auteur.
To better understand Deren’s work and contributions to lmmaking, scholars must apply
the seemingly recent notions of interdisciplinary and collaboration to her artistic process.
Together, these essays go a long way to invite Maya Deren’s work to the table of contem-
porary cinematic experimentation and scholarship, but they also collectively focus on the
lms with which audiences and readers are most familiar, namely Meshes of the Afternoon,
Ritual in Transgured Time, and, to a lesser extent, A Study in Choreography for Camera and At
Land. The authors gathered here remain mostly silent on the lms Meditation on Violence,
made with Chao-Li Chi, and The Very Eye of Night, made with Antony Tudor. Much remains
to be gleaned from her unnished and/or unreleased lms as well: The Witch’s Cradle, made
with Marcel Duchamp; Medusa, made with Jean Erdman; Ensemble for Somnambulists; and
Seasons of Strangers. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, posthumously edited on
Deren’s behalf by Cherel and Teiji Ito and an important work in visual anthropology, is a
notable absence in these discussions. In the second issue of The International Journal of
Screendance, Elinor Cleghorn picked up a few of these threads and added a few others in
her article “Manus Operandi: Film, Sculpture, Choreography.”9 There, she analyzed The Witch’s
Cradle alongside Richard Serra’s experimental lm Hand Catching Lead. Both lms focus inti-
mately on the movement vocabulary of hands and ngers—catching, or attempting to
catch, in Serra’s lm, and entangling and disentangling a disconcertingly agential string
in Deren’s. Both lms are also principally informed by sculpture: Serra’s own practice as a
sculptor, and the surrealist sculptures amongst which Witch’s Cradle was lmed. Though
unintentional, dividing Deren across issues in this way is quite apropos for a lmmaker who
was a specialist in discovering ways to use bodies, motion, and cinematic magic to create
a bridge between shots. Cleghorn’s essay functions similarly, connecting this issue with the
Yet, our interest in Deren is by no means exhausted by including Cleghorn with the six
other essayists. Rather, we see more conversations opening in front of us—and, of course,
to the sides and behind, above and below. No book, journal issue, or collection can hope to
tackle all of an artist’s work. To Andrew James’s point, however, the fact that Deren moved
from poetry to lm, incorporated dancers and a choreographic sensibility into her work,
collaborated with many artists, wrote prolically, and pursued her fascination with ritual
and magic into the eld of anthropology, means that no single biographical narrative or
skillful lm interpretation will grasp the complexity of Deren’s life, aesthetics, or ideas. No
10 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
life or body of work can ever be packaged neatly, but Deren in particular was simply too
interdisciplinary to be reduced to a few lms and a couple of theories, as any attempt to
understand Deren’s lingering inuence must inevitably do. In a way, Deren’s corpus reects
the poetic realities she created in individual lms. There is no logical connection that leads
from one lm to the next, no life story that reaches its inevitable conclusion with Deren’s
premature death—only a felt connection that carries us from one to another like Deren’s
sandaled feet swinging from landscape to landscape in Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren
isolates and explores gaps in space, time, and consciousness that she straddles cinemati-
cally. But in bridging here and there, now and then, observer and participant, self and loss
of self, Deren always points to the gulf between them. It is there that Deren’s signicance
will continue to be sought out and discovered: in the in-between-frames.
1. Clark, et al., Legend Vol. 1 Part 2, 4.
2. Deren, “Cinema as an Independent Art Form,” 345.
3. Deren, “Cinema as an Art Form,” 22 (emphasis in original).
4. Deren, “Choreography for the Camera,” 220–221.
5. Winge 8.
6. Deren, “Creating Movies,” 132.
7. Deren, Anagram, 48.
8. Deren, “Choreography for the Camera,” 222.
9. The International Journal of Screendance 2 (Spring 2012): 129–139.
Clark, VèVè, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and
Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 2: Chambers (1942–47). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.
Cleghorn, Elinor. “Manus Operandi: Film, Sculpture, Choreography.” The International Journal of Screendance 2
(Spring 2012): 129–139.
Deren, Maya. An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by
Bill Nichols, 267–322. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001.
____. “Choreography for the Camera.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, edited by Bruce
McPherson, 220–224. Kingston: Documentext, 2005.
____. “Cinema as an Art Form.” In Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, edited by Bruce McPherson, 19–33.
Kingston: Documentext, 2005.
____. “Cinema as an Independent Art Form.” In The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected
Works. Vol. 1, Part 2: Chambers (1942–47), edited by VèVè Clark, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman, 345–349.
New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.
____. “Creating Movies with a New Dimension: Time.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren,
edited by Bruce McPherson, 131–138. Kingston: Documentext, 2005.
Winge, John. “How Astaire Works.” Theater Today (1950): 7–9.
Maya d er e n: a Pr o l o g u e 11
At Land (1944). Dir. Maya Deren, with Hella Heyman and Alexander Hammid. 16mm, 15:00 min., b&w, silent.
Meditation on Violence (1948). Dir. Maya Deren, with Chao-li Chi. 16mm, 13:00 min., b&w, sound.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. 16mm, 14:00 min., b&w, silent. Music by
Teiji Ito added in 1959.
Ritual in Transgured Time (1945-1946). Dir. Maya Deren and Frank Westbrook, with Hella Heyman and Rita
Christiani. 16mm, approx. 15:00 min., b&w, silent.
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945). Dir. Maya Deren, with Talley Beatty. 16mm, approx. 3:00 min., b&w,
The Very Eye of Night (1952-1955). Dir. Maya Deren and Antony Tudor, with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School.
16mm, 15:00 min., b&w, sound. Music by Teiji Ito.
Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951). Dir. Maya Deren, with Cynthia Barrett and Brian Macdonald. 16mm, approx.
7:00 mins, b&w, silent.
Haitian Film Footage (1947-1955). Released as Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985). Dir. Maya Deren,
with Haitian Voudoun practitioners. Edited by Teiji and Cherel Ito. 16mm, approx. 4 hours, b&w, silent and sound
Medusa (1949). Dir. Maya Deren, with Jean Erdman. 16mm, approx. 10:00 min., b&w, silent.
Season of Strangers (a.k.a. Haiku Film Project) (1959). 16mm, approx. 58:00 min., b&w, silent.
The Witch’s Cradle (1943). Dir. Maya Deren, with Marcel Duchamp and Pajorita Matta. 16mm, fragments approx.
13:00 min., b&w, silent.
Further Reading and Viewing
Clark, VèVè, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and
Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 1: Signatures (1917– 42). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984.
____. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 2: Chambers (1942–47).
New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.
Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren. Ed. Bruce McPherson. Kingston: Documentext, 2005.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston: McPherson, 1983.
____. “Film in Progress. Thematic Statement.” Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965): 11–17.
____. “Notes on Ritual and Ordeal.” Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965): 10.
____. “A Statement on Dance and Film.” Dance Perspectives 30 (Summer 1967): 10–13.
In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002). Dir. Martina Kudlácek. Perf. Miriam Arsham, Stan Brakhage, Chao Li Chi, Rita
Christiani, Maya Deren, Katherine Dunham, and Alexander Hammid. Zeitgeist Video. DVD.
Invocation: Maya Deren (1987). Dir. Jo Ann Kaplan. Narr. Helen Mirren. Perf. Stan Brackage, Joseph Campbell, Maya
Deren, Alexander Hammid, Hella Heyman, Teiji Ito, Jonas Mekas, Jana Sheldon, Amos Vogel, and Marcia Vogel.
Jackson, Renata. The Modernist Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren (1917-1961). Edwin Mellen
Press: Lewiston, 2002.
Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Nichols, Bill, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
12 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
Thresholds to the Imaginary
Amongst the many texts and articles that Maya Deren produced concerning the
processes and properties of lm, it is notable that she writes enthusiastically of the
suggestive potential of cinema technology to create eects that could suspend
belief. She even entitled a 1946 magazine article “Magic is New,” demonstrating that
she was not shy of using the term “magic” in relation to her practice and proclaiming:
“[W ]hat particularly excited me about lm was its magic ability to make even the most
imaginative concept seem real.”1 Surprisingly little has been written about Deren’s interest
in lm’s magical potential. Nor has the natural magic that she conjures been subject to close
critical analysis, either for its formal methods or its eects on the viewer. With the excep-
tion of Lucy Fisher’s insightful 2001 comparison to the French lmmaker magician George
Méliès,2 Deren’s appreciation of lm magic has more often been alluded to than explicitly
addressed in lm scholarship. Emphasis has tended to be placed on her use of ritual in lm
and writing, as the analyses of writers from Annette Michelson to Renata Jackson have
shown.3 In what follows here, I argue for the signicance that magic plays within Deren’s
practice, both as a lmmaker and an advocate—as her early article shows—for the potency
of the cinematic medium as a space for magic.
For me, Deren’s creative displacements of time and space share the properties of the
“natural magic” rst articulated by the sixteenth-century scientist Giovanni Battista della
Porta. In his book Magiae Naturalis he describes how, in a portent of cinema, the mechanics
of early optical technology associated with the camera obscura and parabolic mirrors
could conjure the presence of illusions both terrifying and marvelous from the environ-
ment around them. Thus was opened up the potential for optical technology as a tool for
suggestive spectacle as well as scientic study, through what Tom Gunning has referred
to as the “creation of new relations between the perceiving eye and the power of light.”4 If
della Porta relied on the technological refraction and distortion of the world around him
to create monsters, so Deren took the viewer’s belief in the truth of the lmstrip’s photo-
graphic inscription as a starting point from which belief might be suspended. Through
the camera mechanics of slow motion, reverse, and stop-frame, and her precise use of
montage, photographic certainties thus coalesce with her deft manipulation of cinematic
time and space to create bodies and places that appear to transcend the laws of natural
gravity—whether to multiply oneself in Meshes of the Afternoon, to take ight across space
in A Study in Choreography for Camera, freeze statue-still in Ritual in Transgured Time or
become a celestial body moving stately among the stars in her last lm, The Very Eye of
Night. For Deren’s enthusiastic writings on the attributes of cinema technology could be
seen to share something of della Porta’s desire to communicate the unparalleled proper-
ties that his optical devices oered, and the illusions they could eect. Her suggestions for
how the amateur lmmaker might manipulate lmic time and space employ the simple
Thr e S h o l d S T o T h e IM a g In a ry 13
sleights of hand familiar from the lms of early cinema masters such as Georges Méliès
or Mack Sennett. She explains, for instance, the temporal interpositions of the stop-frame
technique with the example of the running gure across the sand dunes in her lm At Land:
“that the running can be interrupted at any moment, and resumed on the same frame …
[A]nd so the girl, who started out so near us, has, in a magic way, become rapidly distant.”5
This is not to suggest that she courted the knowing thrill and delight in illusion which the
magician hopes to draw from his audience, and which relies as much on the revelation,
and appreciation, of his trickery as it does upon the incredulity it rst engendered. As Lucy
Fisher rightly asserts when she compares Deren and the lm magician George Méliès: “for
Méliès, magic is fundamentally a ‘trick’, for Deren it constitutes access to the ‘marvelous.’”6
Thus Deren might be understood as a dierent kind of showman from either Méliès or
forbears like della Porta and the magic lanternist Athanasius Kircher. The key to her dier-
ence lies in Fisher’s emphasis on the term “access.” For the mode of perception which Deren
sought from lm was not a trick of the eye, but the means to create a threshold to an inner
space, where the realms of the imaginary might be shaped into material form. As she put
it: “The creative eort should be directed not at making a thing look like itself, but at using
the capacity of the camera to make it look like what the audience should feel about it.”7
Deren’s intent that a thing should “look like what the audience should feel about it”
implies a desire for the camera to act as a device for psychic projection, where once familiar
objects and situations—a telephone o the hook, a cocktail party—take on strange, often
uneasy, dimensions, which prompt associations in the mind of the viewer. Deren’s games of
defamiliarization can be traced back to the Surrealist’s earlier acknowledgement of cinema’s
inherently transformative “modern magic.” For them, as Paul Hammond describes it, lm
had the power to “confer a dignity and poetic value on common objects, to render them
into what Freud called ‘thing-representations,’ indices of the unconscious.” As Hammond
suggests, the new signicances that cinema aorded to the banal was conferred by its
power of focus: “In isolating objects, magnifying them and recombining them in new ways,
things were revealed—and reveiled, as [André] Breton demanded—in all their fulsome,
hieratic mystery.”8 Thus, as Louis Aragon would have it: “a bottle that on occasion becomes
a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime, a typewriter that’s the horizon of a desk.”9
Deren’s own writings also share this recognition of lm technology’s power of meta-
morphosis, and appreciation of the unique potential of the medium. Yet, at the same time,
she was categorical in distancing her practice from that of the Surrealists. Indeed, as the
programme notes that prefaced her early screenings declared:
Under no conditions are these lms to be announced or publicized as surrealist or
Freaudian [sic ]. This is not only a serious misrepresentation of the lms, but also
confuses the audience by inspiring a false interpretation of the lms according to
sustems [sic] to which they bear no relation. The preoccupation with conscious
control of form which is involved … is obviously at variance with the Sur-realist
esthetic of spontaneity.10
Deren’s emphatic disavowal suggests that she perceived a fundamental dierence between
herself and the Surrealists at the level of control asserted over the construction of the lm
form, setting her own careful orchestrations of lming and editing in contrast to the chance
operations seen to be practised by the latter. However, a shared methodology, and desire to
14 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
access the subconscious, has certainly been identied between Deren and the practices of
the Surrealists. Ute Holl observes that: “Deren’s cinematic tricks that associate, condense, and
displace the visual material actually correspond to what Freud described as the processes
of dream work and to what the Surrealists called expressions of the subconscious.”11 For
Holl, the dierence between Deren and the approach of the Surrealists—already hinted
at in Deren’s programme note refutals—was their belief that these cinematic eects were
inherent to the workings of the subconscious, whereas Deren understood them as the
result of the artist’s own subjective vision and technological manipulations, or as Holl puts
it, “consciously applied eort.”12
George Amberg’s contemporaneous comments illuminate an additional dierence of
emphasis which might enlighten us further about Deren’s view of Surrealism in relation to
her practice. For him, the undermining tactics of the Surrealist “shock eect” were designed
to “destroy condence in the validity of the world which they create and frustrate the
potential participation of the spectator in it.” In contrast, Amberg perceives in Deren’s lms
a “powerfully convincing reality” of overarching and cohesive logic where the images are
“chained to each other on the level of emotional, visual and logical implication.”13 It is telling
that Deren places Amberg’s text within her rst serious essay on her lm method, “Cinema
as an Independent Art Form” (1945), for it presages a subject she returned to throughout
her writing.14 In agreement with Amberg, she saw her lms as evincing what she often
referred to as a “classical structure,” where the disjunctures of time and space explored were
less concerned with eliciting visceral reactions in her audiences through a series of shock
images, than building a persuasive and all-encompassing world, however strange, into
which the viewer is slowly initiated.
Deren may have been understandably defensive that her lms were judged in rela-
tion to an earlier European avant-garde rather than on their own merit as contemporary
works. However, her unnished rst lm, Witch’s Cradle, further complicates the question by
implying an alignment to the very art worlds she dismisses. Set in the Museum of Modern
Art’s “Art of This Century” galleries, her camera pans over the sculptural works of artists asso-
ciated with Surrealism, such as Hans Arp and Magritte, as well as other pre-war European
artists such as that most iconic gure of the pre-war avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp,
depicted tangled within his own string sculpture.15 On the other hand, this rst foray into
lm also provides glimpses of the interests in game-play and ritual that would come to
inform Deren’s later work: for instance, the arcane symbols painted upon the central gure
of a young woman, whilst the title of the lm alludes to Deren’s burgeoning interest in the
occult and the supernatural, as well as positing the rst of the female protagonists who
would dominate her lms.
Despite some compelling arguments, it may therefore be more productive to see
Deren’s practice in relation to the wider discussions of pre-war thinkers contemporary to
the Surrealists, who were also engaged in debating the potential, and social, impact of
the new medium. For example, in his famous 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin uses the concept of the unconscious to delin-
eate the unique and intrinsically modern mode of perception that cinema opens up to the
viewer. Although there is no evidence from Deren’s writings that she knew of Benjamin’s
discussions of cinema, his description of an “optical unconscious” bears relation to Deren’s
belief that cinema was “the most propitious and appropriate art form for expressing, in
Thr e S h o l d S T o T h e IM a g In a ry 15
terms of its own paradoxically intangible reality, the moral and metaphysical concepts of
the citizen of the new age.”16 Deren’s observations, for example, about “The ideas of conden-
sation and of extension, of separateness and of continuity, in which it [lm] deals,”17 might
also be seen to echo Benjamin’s own observations that the “resources of the camera” such
as slow motion, close-up and other mechanistic operations opened up in familiar actions
and objects an “unconsciously penetrated space” and “dierent nature.”18 Indeed, Benjamin’s
descriptions bring to mind the opening sequence of Meshes in which the door key that falls
from Deren’s hand is caught in ominous slow motion and close focus as it bounces down
the steps, assuming a signicance disproportionate to its size and mundane function.
Deren was certainly aware of other pre-war theories of cinematic perception, and in
An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, her ambitious 1946 treatise on lm theory and
aesthetics, she mentions how she had just received the French lmmaker and poet Jean
Epstein’s book I’Intelligence d’une Machine. Deren clearly felt him a kindred spirit, writing of
how the implication of the title, and his “poetic, inspired tone” led her to believe that they
shared “a profound respect for the magical complexities of the lm instrument.”19 No further
references to Epstein exist in Deren’s writings, but a comparative reading of their theories
on cinema reveals a shared recognition of lm technology’s extra-ordinary abilities, which
for Epstein was the “cinematic property of things, a new and exciting form of potential.”20
Like Deren, Epstein privileged the potential of time relations in cinema, writing of how the
camera was capable of “making immensely more supple the play of temporal perspec-
tive.”21 However, it is Epstein’s notion of photogénie which seems particularly signicant to
Deren’s understanding of cinema technology’s power of evocation, or “magical complexi-
ties,” for he suggests that the camera might open up, not only a new mode of perception
to the viewer, but might also expose the very soul, and “inner nature of things.”21 The much
debated dierence between the Surrealist understanding of cinema and Deren’s gains
a further dierence of emphasis beyond that of Amberg’s professed distinctions, when
read in relation to Epstein. For the latter argued for the profound potential of cinema to
expose the essence of an object or person, rather than simply allow for the surfacing of
the subconscious. This comes much closer, I would argue, to Deren’s understanding of the
alternate, interior worlds which cinema technology could unlock; perceived by Epstein as
“untrue to everyday reality just as everyday reality is untrue to the heightened awareness
of poetry.”22 Deren also writes with admiration in Anagram of the “economy of statement”
to be found in Jean Cocteau’s lm The Blood of a Poet (1930), and later cites his eective
use of reverse motion and negative image in Orphée.23 Like Deren, Cocteau also conjured
spaces of bewitchment by utilizing the simple cinematic trickery beloved by Méliès
or Sennet, such as the use of slow, reverse and stop-frame motion to suggest dierent
registers of gravity within a space, or as a means of investing the protagonist with magic
powers. These eects often occur once a threshold has been crossed, or a portal opened,
such as when Orphée passes through the mirror into Cocteau’s shattered underworld, or
Deren crawls from beach to rowdy dining table in At Land. Often misleadingly associated
with the Surrealists,24 Cocteau’s interest in the supernatural worlds and beings associated
with mythology are well documented in his poetry, artwork and his lms. These might be
compared with Deren’s own fascination with the structures of myth and fable, which was to
nd its most overt expression in her nal lm, The Very Eye of Night, in which dancers assume
the identity of the mythological gures who populate the night sky as the stars of the
16 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
zodiac. Furthermore, as the occult symbolism in Witch’s Cradle already suggests, the notion
of myth in Deren’s work cannot be disconnected from her understanding of ritual. A domi-
nant theme of her lms and wider philosophy, she takes care to explain her understanding
of ritual in Anagram, after establishing that her denition looks beyond, yet encompasses,
the specic rites and ceremonies with which anthropology associates the term, including “a
specic magical purpose.”25 Rather, ritual for Deren posits a morally-inected and collective
sense of consciousness, which acknowledges the authority of myth and “man’s relationship
with deity.”26 Much analyzed in relation to her ethnographic practices in Haiti, and in the
examination of theoretical texts such as Anagram, as well as through close readings of the
lm themselves, her notion of ritual remains compelling, yet often elusive—determined by
the changing concerns of Deren’s art and her interests.27 It is as if each of her lms explores
dierent ritualized forms: the occult of Witch’s Cradle; the game of chess so central to the
protagonist’s journey in At Land; the social rituals of marriage in Ritual in Transgured Time;
or the trance possessions within which she participated in Haiti. Like Cocteau, several of
her lms overtly depict a ritualized threshold space requiring certain actions for access: a
repeated unlocking of the door to the house in Meshes, a chess piece as a guide in At Land,
or the doorways from one dominion into another depicted at the beginning of Ritual in
Transgured Time, with Anaïs Nin as their imposing sentinel. Deren’s experiences in Haiti
brought into another register her belief in the ritual power of rhythm and movement,
which signals less a subjective state of being than a form of collective embodiment, charac-
terized by Moira Sullivan as “the element of a depersonalized individual within the dramatic
whole.”28 For Deren, this allowed the dancer, or initiate, to become “part of a dynamic whole
which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endows its parts with a measure of its
However, it is important to stress that Deren’s understanding of ritualized form was
intimately connected to lm form. For she believed it was through the unique “creative
time-space relationships” of cinema technology, that she could most eectively create a
sense of the dynamic whole which she sought. Indeed, as Holl argues: “her understanding
of ‘ritualistic’ is not a (pseudo) primitive one but refers to the media aspect of art: artforms, as
she will further elaborate in Anagram, are historical techniques of transmission that produce
reality.”30 The social and religious ceremonies which she presents in Ritual in Transgured
Time, for example, reach a level of ritual signication only possible through her manipu-
lations of lm technology. Here, lm’s printing processes eect a transformation at once
scientic and alchemical, when Rita Christiani’s widow’s weeds becomes a bridal gown
through the simple action of silver nitrate chemicals reversing positive to negative image.
Deren’s use of slow-motion and freeze-frame throughout the lm brings an intensity to the
interactions between the protagonists, exposing the nuances of their encounters as they
are frozen into a series of attitudes and postures, as if, in mythological allusion, turned to
stone. In the lm’s most notable use of slow-motion, Deren herself acquires a psychotic,
even malevolent, aspect as the muscles of her smiling countenance, lmed in close-up,
appear to perceptibly ap and stretch into grotesque form as she turns her head. This
unnerving close-up shows the enchantment that she weaves with her lm camera is not
necessarily of a benign nature, being deeply connected to the rituals and myths of life and
death. Holl surmises, Deren’s “dangerous yet promising adventures” investigate “archaic and
modern ritualistic forms” in order to “extend the visual horizon of perceivable selves.”31
Thr e S h o l d S T o T h e IM a g In a ry 17
And what better medium to choose for her explorations than a technology that holds
the power to breathe life into the inanimate and resurrect what is past? For despite Deren’s
insistence that the eect of her lms springs from her “conscious control” of lm form, I
would argue that her careful temporal spatial manipulations shape an evocative power
already latent in lm, the profound role of cinematic time as an agent of resurrection, to
summon the once dead into spectral on-screen form. Prefaced by its mirror-faced harbinger,
lm’s powers over life and death resonate in the ambiguous interplay of waking, dreaming
and death that repeat themselves throughout Meshes of the Afternoon, and become almost
literalized in Rita Christiani’s ghostly white form as she appears to rise up through the nega-
tive lm image at the end of Ritual in Transgured Time.
Cinema’s technological power to raise apparitions returns us rstly to della Porta’s
natural magic, where incredulity at the eects of his optical devices encouraged people to
believe that they saw visions, eliciting a return to the superstitions and irrational beliefs of
more archaic times. Laura Mulvey terms this uneasy mixture of wonder, fear and disbelief,
where science and superstition collide, “a technological uncanny,” where “the most rational
mind experiences uncertainty when faced with an illusion that is, if only momentarily, inex-
plicable.”32 Mulvey cites Freud and Wilhem Jentsch’s famous texts on the uncanny to make
a case for the innately uncanny qualities of lm, which, like della Porta’s parabolic mirrors,
might produce what Freud referred to as “that species of the frightening which goes back
to what is once well known and had long been familiar.”33 Mulvey suggests that this confu-
sion of technology and science with the supernatural arises in cinema from the “indexical
uncanny” of the photographic inscription at the heart of the lmstrip, which carries its own
imprint of technologically induced reality and of time arrested. The particular presentiment
of death—a sensation which André Bazin referred to as photography’s “embalmed” time—
is brought into a register of further uncanny dimensions when movement is returned to it
by the agency of the lm projector, bringing an unnatural veracity to the images on screen.
Here, Mulvey notes an enchantment in cinema which goes more profoundly into questions
of perception than a sleight of hand, when she writes that: “This is not the mystery of the
magic trick but the more disturbing, uncanny sensation of seeing movement fossilized for
the rst time.”34
Cinema’s acute sensitivity to the power of passing time, which enables it to conjure
life, or imprint death, in the frame, produces a sense of the uncanny that emanates strongly
from Deren’s lms. It is apparent, for instance, in the unheimlich spaces of the house to
which she repeatedly returns in Meshes of the Afternoon, their familiar dimensions inexpli-
cably made strange. It also manifests in the deathly signicance of the double in her lms,
most vividly as she multiplies her own self in Meshes to become a coven of four, playing
a ritual game with knife and key—familiar objects which themselves assume a talismanic
power. Deren conjures these “familiars” (to evoke the word’s ritual context) through an
experimental application of techniques similar to those used to establish narrative conti-
nuities in ction cinema. Here the eyeline match is applied, not to delineate the space of
narrative diegesis, but as a mode of multiplication across spaces, as one Maya turns to
look across the sand dunes in At Land to another, who occupies the edge of the table, or
struggles through a thicket of leaves. In Ritual this exercise of suture extends to an uncanny
shift of identities, where by cutting on the movement of a turn of the head, or the gesture
of an outstretched arm, Christiani metamorphoses into Deren.
18 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
Citing Otto Rank’s denitive study on the subject, Freud connects the form of the
double with: “mirror-images, shadows, guardian spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the
fear of death.”35 As he asserts, the double was once seen as a magic insurance against
death, evident in the egies and paintings in the tombs of Egyptian kings, the rst expres-
sion of the “immortal soul.” But in another example of the familiar becoming the demonic
other, its role is now reversed to signify instead “the uncanny harbinger of death.”36 In
Meshes, the double assumes its most ominous shape, going beyond the role of harbinger
to become the instigator of death as she grasps the knife, inging it through the mirror.
However, amongst the many selves pictured, who is guilty of the crime? And who is dead?
The double becomes here a means through which an additional layer of ambiguity is
added to this already beguiling lm. Maureen Turim perceives these multiplications as
reections of the woman’s relationship to “the other, to her various selves.” This “splitting
of the subject” implies the fragmentation of female identity, as well as “a multiplicity of
positions, fragmentations, and transformations that appear to be seeking a location in
domestic violence.”37 As a reection of the trauma of patriarchy, it is a compelling reading,
oering the same interpretative power as Lauren Rabinovitz’s assertion that Meshes
resembles the structure and iconography of lm noir, with its portrayals of the powerful
and ultimately dangerous female. The materialization of Deren’s four counter-selves could
be seen to represent the dierent aspects of her psyche, taking us back to Freud’s reading
of the uncanny double as a disturbance or disassociative disorder of the ego. Deren’s own
programme notes for Meshes appear to arm this reading, when they speak of the lm’s
concern with “the inner realities of an individual and the way in which the sub-conscious
will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and causal occurrence into a
critical emotional experience.”38
Freud recognizes that, whatever the cause, the pervasive sense of ill ease and fore-
boding attached to the appearance of the double remains powerful and rooted in very
ancient urges, both culturally and in the psychological development of the individual,
belonging, as he puts it, to “a primitive phase in our mental development, a phase that we
have surmounted.”39 Through her elegant sutures on the turn of the eye, Deren is thus able
to materialize multiple selves that articulate not only the fragmentation of the female body
and identity, nor the workings of the subconscious, but also the more profound and inex-
plicable fear associated with the “terror” of the double with its uncanny portent of death.40
Furthermore, as Freud has pointed out, the sensation of the uncanny hinges on the
conict between belief and doubt, where an object, person or place appears simultane-
ously familiar and yet somehow awry. He gives special attention to the uneasy perceptual
slippage which occurs “when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when
we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary,
or when a symbol takes on the full function and signicance of what it symbolizes, and so
forth.”41 Applied to cinema, this eacement occurs when, through the agency of photo-
graphic inscription onto celluloid, the imaginary worlds caught in movement on screen
appear to take on the guise of the real. Deren would refer to this uncanny dialogue between
the real and the illusory as the “controlled accident” when the “innocent arrogance of an
objective fact”42 presented by the photographic image might be held in “delicate balance
between what is there spontaneously and naturally as evidence of the independent life of
actuality, and the persons and activities which are deliberately introduced into the scene.”43
Thr e S h o l d S T o T h e IM a g In a ry 19
Deren achieves this uncanny through a careful edit on the movement and gesture of
the body, which nds its most elegant resolution in A Study for Choreography in Camera. In
this short lm, the limbs of the dancer Talley Beatty become unnaturally elongated, vaulting
impossible distances, through the appearance of a continuous pan on movement which
leads the eye seamlessly from forest to mountain, interior to exterior, on the tip of a toe. At
the same time, emanating from the body in motion on the lm screen—even when it is
subordinated to the logical ow of narrative—there is always a whisper of the mechanical
presence of the apparatus which is its progenitor, such as the camera and projector which
bring animation to what Mulvey terms “an inorganic trace of life.”44 As Mulvey’s contradic-
tion implies, cinematic movement produces a doubled and paradoxical experience of the
uncanny, where the spectral inscription of the body that was once alive in front of the camera
merges with the technological bodies of the machines that capture and regenerate it as a
projected cinematic illusion. Mulvey relates this uncanny motion to “the uncanny of mecha-
nized human movement”45 and the automata that both Freud and Jentsch refer to in their
studies of the uncanny, whose jerky movements approximate life, whilst also betraying their
mechanical origins. She cites Benjamin’s eloquent observation of Chaplin, the avant-garde’s
epitome of cinema’s mechanical modernity, producing “the same jerky succession of tiny
movements, which applies the law of lmic sequence to that of human motorics.”46
Whereas Chaplin’s exaggerated jerky movements might be seen as an overdetermined
embodiment of cinematic technology, the uid gestures of Beatty, Christiani, or Deren
herself, as I have already argued, function to suture disparate spaces, creating the logic of
a “relativistic universe” through a “purely cinematic coherence and integrity.”47 This is the
uncanny propagated by the unique conditions that Deren recognized in the lm medium,
where the body moves to the technological rhythms of temporal spatial manipulation, not
the syncopations of the cinematic apparatus. If Benjamin recognized in Chaplin’s step the
sequential movements of the lm strip through the projector, so we might recognize in
Deren’s moving bodies the rhythms of her edit and her manipulations of cinematic time
and space. Therefore, rather than Chaplin’s comic echo of automation, the movements
of Deren’s protagonists reveal their technological origins through the “cinematic coher-
ence” of slow motion, the freeze-frame and the body sent in motion backwards as well as
forward. Their movements describe worlds working to a stranger gravity than the machine:
a somnambulist rhythm that evokes the spectral and explains why the notion of trance has
so often been attached to Deren’s lms.
Yet whilst the movements of Beatty, Christiani and others act as points of juncture
across lmic space, at the same time their bodies bear the scar of this celluloid severance—
an injury of the cut sustained beneath their seamless act of suture across space, which
accentuates the inhuman uncanny of the lmic body that animates, while it destroys, their
on-screen semblance. In this sense, Deren’s lms resonate with an uncanny consciously
conjured as a ritual magic from the agencies of the lm form. Writing in 1946 about making
At Land, she describes how she was “anxious to develop the idea of cinematic magic in
terms of space and time.”48 This magic is at work throughout her lms, and the beguiling
worlds that she creates. As I have argued, more sorcerer than showman, Deren summons
magic that does not intend to delight through illusion, nor to deploy the Surrealist tactics of
humor and shock, but to oer a darker and often dicult passage into the more profound
questions of the rituals of life and death.
20 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
Aragon, Louis. “On Décor” (1917). In The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writing on the Cinema, edited by Paul
Hammond, 55–59. Polygon: Edinburgh, 1991.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). In Walter Benjamin:
Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 217–251. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Deren, Maya. An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film. In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya
Deren, edited by Bruce R. McPherson, 35–109. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 2005.
____. “Cinema as an Independent Art Form.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, edited by
Bruce R. McPherson, 245–247. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 2005.
____. “Magic is New.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, edited by Bruce R. McPherson,
197–206. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 2005.
Epstein, Jean. “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie” (1923). In “Bonjour cinéma and Other Writings,” translated
by Tom Milne, 23. Afterimage 10 (1981).
____. “Magnication and Other Writings.” Translated by Stuart Liebman. October 3 (Spring, 1977): 9–25.
Fisher, Lucy. “The Eye for Magic.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nicols, 185–204.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny (1919). Translated by David McLintock. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Hammond, Paul, ed. The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writing on the Cinema. Polygon: Edinburgh, 1991.
Holl, Ute. “Moving the Dancers’ Souls.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nicols, 151–177.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Mannoni, Laurent. The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema. Exeter: University of Exeter, 2000.
Michelson, Annette. “Poetic and Savage Thought: About Anagram,” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde,
edited by Bill Nicols, 21–45. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Mulvey, Laura. Death 24 X a Second. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.
Rees, A.L. A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: BFI, 1999.
Sousslo, Catherine. In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nicols, 105–129. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2001.
Sullivan, Moira. “Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Haiti.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde,
edited by Bill Nicols, 207–234. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Turim, Maureen. “The Ethics of Form.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nicols, 77–102.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
1. Deren, “Magic is New,” 202.
2. Fisher, “The Eye for Magic.”
3. See, for example, Ute Holl, “Moving the Dancers’ Souls”; Annette Michelson, “Poetics and Savage Thought”;
Renata Jackson, “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren”; and Annette Michelson, “On Reading Deren’s Notebook.”
4. Mannoni, The Great Art, xxii.
5. Deren, “Creating Movies,” 137.
6. Fisher, “The Eye for Magic,” 187.
7. Deren, “Magic is New,” 202.
8. Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadow, 8.
9. Aragon, ”On Décor,” 57.
10. Deren, qtd. in Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, 68.
11. Holl, “Moving the Dancers’ Souls,” 163.
13. Qtd. in Sousslo, “Maya Deren Herself,” 118.
14. See, for instance, “Creating Movies in a New Dimension: Time” (1946), which she ends with the advice: “But
remember—whatever the technique, it must serve the form as a whole, it must be appropriate to the theme
Thr e S h o l d S T o T h e IM a g In a ry 2 1
and to the logic of its development, rather than a display of method designed to impress other movie makers.” In
Bruce R. McPherson (ed), Essential Deren, 138.
15. Deren wrote of her admiration for Duchamp’s lm Anemic Cinema in An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and
Film. See McPherson, 98–99.
16. Deren, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” 127.
17. Ibid., 126.
18. Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 237.
19. Deren, An Anagram, 102.
20. Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” in Bonjour Cinema and O ther Writings, trans. Tom Milne, 21.
21. Epstein, “Magnication and Other Writings,” 9.
22. Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” 23.
24. Cocteau and the Surrealists were contemporaries in Paris in the pre-war period but perceived their practices as
very dierent. As A.L Rees asserts, Cocteau was “scathingly attacked by the ‘ocial surrealists in his own time.’” Rees
goes on to assert that his form of “classicist ‘return to order’” could be more rmly linked to the work of Georges
Franju and post-war French Art Cinema, and credits Cocteau with inaugurating the avant-garde lm genre of the
psychodrama with which Deren is so often associated. See A History of Experimental Film and Video, 47.
25. See Deren’s “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” in McPherson, 121.
26. Deren, An Anagram, 57.
27. Ibid., 58.
28. For more in-depth discussions of Deren’s use of ritual see Moira Sullivan, “Deren’s Ethnographic
Representation of Haiti,” 207–234; and Annette Michelson, “Poetic and Savage Thought: About Anagram,” 21–45.
Both in Nicols, Bill (ed), Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde.
29. Sullivan, “”Deren’s Ethnographic Representation,”” 209.
30. Maya Deren, An Anagram, 58–9.
31. Holl, “Moving the Dancers’ Souls,” 167–168.
32. Ibid, 171.
33. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 42.
34. Freud, The Uncanny, 124.
35. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 36.
36. Freud, The Uncanny, 142.
38. Turim, “The Ethics of Form,” 90.
39. Deren, “Cinema as an Independent Art Form,” 246.
40. Freud, The Uncanny, 143.
41. It could also be argued that Freud’s implication of the double as a folk memory, or product of a cultural
consciousness, could also be seen as the point at which the notion of the uncanny touches on Deren’s
articulation of ritual. She writes in Anagram of how the “deep recesses of our cultural memory release a
procession of indistinct gures wearing the masks of Africa, or the Orient, the hoods of the chorus, or the
innocence of the child-virgin … the faces always concealed, or veiled by stylization—moving in formal patterns
of ritual and destiny” (55). For Deren, the ritualistic form revealed in these patterns of societal initiation— from
song to procession, which “exist simultaneously in unrelated cultures”—were of great importance, revealing
“the moral problems which have been the concern of man’s relationship with deity, and the evidence of that
privileged communication” (58).
42. Freud, The Uncanny, 150.
43. Deren, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” 117.
44. Ibid., 118.
45. Mulvey, Death 24 X a Second, 175.
47. Ibid., 178.
48. Deren, “Magic is New,” 205.
22 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!:
Tracing the Revolutions of Maya Deren’s
Dance in Jane Campion’s In the Cut
Movement is the qualitative multiplicity that folds, bends, extends the body-
becoming towards a potential future that will always remain not-yet. This
body-becoming (connecting, always) becomes-towards, always with. I move
not you but the interval out of which our movement emerges. We move time
relationally as we create space: we move space as we create time.
— Erin Manning, Relationscapes 1
If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!
In 1990, radical feminist writer and performer Kathy Acker called for the development, in crit-
ical theory, of “the language of the body” to shift “[t]he Anglo-Saxon adoption and adaption
of deconstruction [which] had depoliticised its theories.”2 Writing as the subject of censor-
ship for obscenity for her full-on representations of both female sexuality and feminist rage,
Acker insists that the language of the body be recognised as political because it includes
“ux … wonder … contradict[ion] … scatology … languages of play [through which] the
life of the body exists as pure intensity.”3 Acker’s insight pregured by three years feminist
critic Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight, a book that crucially drew attention to the disappear-
ance of the body as both material and political eld in psychoanalytic feminist theory. Since
Bordo, feminist and queer cultural theorists have emphasised performance and embodiment
in live performance and cinema. In doing so, both theorists and artmakers have revisited an
earlier utopian imaginary, that of the American Jewish anarchist feminist Emma Goldman,
who in her 1931 autobiography, Living My Life, recounts the anecdote that gave rise to the
paraphrased quotation attributed to her: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!”4
Goldman, who emigrated from what is now Lithuania to the United States in 1885, was
deported to Russia for political reasons in 1917, the year that dance lmmaker Maya Deren
was born in Kiev. Deren(kowskaya, as was her birth name) and Goldman never met, as, after
her deportation, Goldman was unable to return to the US, where Deren’s family emigrated
in 1922. While their paths did not cross physically, it is both possible and productive to
imagine that Deren discovered Goldman’s writing during her literary studies and political
activism at Syracuse University in the early 1930s. As Renata Jackson argues, Deren’s direct
political activism ceased after her divorce from Gregory Bardacke in 1939; or rather, it was
transgured by dance. Goldman’s insistence on the dance of revolution, and revolutionary
possibility of dance, echoes in Deren’s post-graduate employment with African-American
dancer Katharine Dunham. In dance, Deren appears to have located a model of anity,
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 23
collaboration, and transformation that both drew on Trotskyite socialism—to which she
had been committed as a student—and also took further Trotsky’s arguments for the revo-
lutionary potential of the arts. Deren’s casting of dancers of colour from Dunham’s company,
including Trinidad-born dancer Rita Christiani, in leading roles in her lms, demands to be
read politically—and in doing so expands political readings of dance and lm to include,
and indeed be predicated on, “the language of the body.” Thus, Deren’s lms oer a model
for reading the implicit, and often-ignored, politics of embodiment in feminist lmmaking,
on which her inuence is pervasive.
Dance theorist Erin Manning, who inventively entwines the language of the body with
the language of deconstruction in her writing, stands as epigraph to this essay for her idea
that the reciprocal movement of dance “extends the body-becoming towards a potential
future that will always remain not yet.”5 This extension and potentiality is evident in Deren’s
dance lms, and particularly in Ritual in Transgured Time (1946). Made the year after the
United States ended the Second World War by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, Ritual in Transgured Time is not a capital-P political lm. It focuses on the internal
and aective drama of womanhood through ve danced acts: a stylised exchange in which
Christiani helps Deren wind wool, watched by a cicerone played by erotic writer Anaïs Nin;
a social dance party that becomes nightmarish through repetition, as Christiani attempts
to move through the party; an outdoor ballet in which a statue (Frank Westbrook) comes to
life and dances with Christiani and Deren; and a sequence of stylised movement in which
Deren and Christiani run into the sea, and then appear to be drowning, surfacing and ying
all at once.
In each danced scene, Deren employs a specic cinematicity to translate the move-
ment: slow motion for the wool-winding encounter between Deren and Christiani; graphic
matches and loops in the social dance; jump cuts for the modernist pas-de-trois; and nally
negativisation. Christiani—who is veiled—and Deren appear as white gures against a
black background. Fusing the nun, the mourner and the bride, Christiani is at once a gure
of life and death, of mourning and marriage. The coda expands through “the language
of the body,” connecting the domestic (melo)drama of becoming-female and its rituals
and contortions, via the trope of the “angel in the house” to the role of women in war, as
mourners on the home front, victims on the battlefront, and—as in the Angel of Verdun—
muses of militarism. Falling/rising as a cloud of white, Christiani registers as a visual echo of
the atomic cloud. The violence of domestic politics and enforced feminisation is imagisti-
cally connected to the violence of international politics through the dancing body, in a way
that Goldman would have understood.
Combining rigorous choreo-cinema with a ritualized narrative structure, Ritual forms
a mirror to Deren’s most celebrated lm Meshes of the Afternoon (1942); read together,
they book-end American involvement in WWII. A dark fantasia on a sunny afternoon in
Hollywood, Meshes is an uncanny preguration of many of the preoccupations of lm
noir; indeed, it suggestively fuses three popular American genres of the 1940s: noir, the
musical, and melodrama. Murderous actions and impulses pulse through the short lm,
embodied in key gestures with a knife, a key, and a kiss. Deren appears in the lm as a
woman returning home, repeatedly and with some anxiety. Her then-husband, and the
lm’s co-director Alexander Hammid, plays the woman’s partner, who returns at the end
of the lm to nd her asleep—and then returns again, to nd her dead. Anxiety focuses
24 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
on the shifting, risky boundaries between outside and inside, as the window, the door, and
the internal stairs are repeatedly traversed and dislocated.6 The lm’s labile atmosphere and
intensely private domestic language, at once intimate and violent, can be read as suused
with specic anxieties about being a leftist Jewish immigrant in the US in 1942.7
Deren’s oblique politics are what dance-lm theorist Elena del Rio calls a micropolitics
of the powers of aection: that is, a body politics that suuses the body politic.8 Del Rio’s
argument reframes Michel Foucault’s idea of a biopolitics (political eects at the level of
embodied experience, and even genetic life itself) to suggest that “powers of aection”—a
phrase she takes from Gilles Deleuze to describe the complex intertwining of sensory data
and emotional response—could be politically ecacious because they act on the body at
the cellular, neuronal and haptic levels. This is particularly important as an intervention into
large scale (or capital-P) Politics: a recognition that what queer theorist and philosopher of
the body Judith Butler names “frames of war” act not just at the level of the nation-state, but
body-to-body.9 Like Meshes and Ritual, Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003) is a lm made within
a “frame of war,” as the rst lm to be granted an ocial permit for shooting in Manhattan
after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Campion’s study of
individual grief, centred on Franny, a female professor of literature, at the epicenter of the
ever–Decreasing circles made by a femicidal serial-killer, is—like Ritual —an oblique but
powerful comment on national and transnational grief and vulnerability. While powerful
readings of the lm by Sue Gillett and Lucy Bolton have identied many critical ways in
which Campion brings together verbal, visual and gestural languages,10 no attention has
been given to the lm’s use of dance—nor how its insistence on everyday embodiment,
of moving sensually through the world, both grieves the geopolitical conict in which it is
located, and counters it.
Both Ritual and In the Cut speak in “the language of the body”—which unites dance and
death—at similar socio-political moments in US history, described by feminist sociologist
Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream. After national traumas, argues Faludi, the US mainstream reca-
pitulates the myth of the frontier, with its archetypal gures of the powerful, isolationist, and
violent male protecting the vulnerable, domesticated female. Westbrook’s spinning throws of
his two female partners in Ritual imply the coercive violence towards women that (re)surfaces
in the body politic at such historical junctures, while both lms explore women’s possibilities
of escape.11 Deren’s female protagonists choose death over domesticity every time; by Ritual,
that death has become richly symbolic of ight to another mode of being within ecstatic
religious ritual. Campion’s protagonists often pass through a death-like experience—such
as Ada’s near-drowning in The Piano or Ruth’s hallucinatory experience in the desert in Holy
Smoke —before choosing a transformed life; In the Cut’s Frannie is no dierent. In In the Cut,
as in Ritual, the possibility is extended through relationality: specically, a relationship with
another woman who is both herself and the protagonist’s double. In Ritual, as described, this
doubling which is not one takes place between and across the gures performed by Deren,
the white Russian Jewish immigrant, and Christiani, the black Trinidadian immigrant. In In the
Cut, the physical identication is closer, but the union still occurs through dance, as Frannie
and her half-sister Pauline compare their separate (and separated, by their mutual father’s
indelities) adolescences while dancing in Pauline’s apartment.
This echo of foundational feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One is
deliberate: questions of binaries and dualities are crucial in feminist theory, and perhaps
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 25
crucial too with regards to dance. In Darren Aronofsky’s lm Black Swan (2010), to take
a high-prole example, schematic misogynist dualities between masculine and feminine
and within femininity are troped through associations with (feminised) dance and perfor-
mance, despite forty years of feminist dance and dance lm. Irigaray’s generative language
of doubleness and repetition-with-a-dierence oers a potent framework for reading both
Deren’s and Campion’s lms as they mimic, but alter, the misogynist noir genre, and as
their protagonists try to break out of the spiral of repetition of gendered violence. This is
the primary political work of the dance in both lms: asserting the biopolitical power of
the active, aective body as, in Manning’s words, dance “folds, bends, extends the body-
becoming.”12 It is this becoming—this extension to a potential future that refuses the
femicidal narrative logic of the genre—that unites Ritual and In the Cut, and is unfolded
through this essay.
Moving and Moving
Compositionally, albeit not traditionally choreographically, Campion’s lm clearly signals its
inheritance from Deren, and in particular Deren’s theory of poetic lm’s “verticality.” Whereas
Deren used dance to thread the stacks of her vertical, associative montage, Campion makes
dance scenes one of the associative tracks or stacks through In the Cut. Each danced scene
is constructed with both explicit and implicit references to Deren’s associative and rhythmic
editing, her juxtaposition of real and imagined spaces, and her non-linear temporal signa-
ture. But it is their associative repetition-with-a-dierence across the lm that creates a
structural verticality that strings the lm together, like the bridges across which Frannie
travels to reach Pauline’s apartment, which connect Manhattan to its outer boroughs, and
to the rest of the U.S.
As Frannie travels home from the George Washington Bridge in the very north
of Manhattan (where her quest to discover the serial killer ends), to her apartment in
Washington Square in the south (following the track of Broadway), a series of associative
edits moving her across the city suggests the famous sequence in Meshes, in which Deren
steps from beach to garden to interior across straight cuts. As Manning comments, “when I
take a step, how the step moves me is key to where I can go.”13 The step is the key signature
of Campion’s lm, as it is of Meshes. Frannie, too, is frequently shown walking up (and down)
stairs, often with the use of expressionistic camera angles and slow motion. Like Meshes, In
the Cut is a daylight anti-noir that uses the tropes of the genre (including the knife and the
key) to critique femicide, to tell, in Yeats’s words, the dancer from the dance—that is, to take
the femme fatale, whom Janey Place reads as an intelligent, forceful female protagonist able
to articulate her own desire, and separate the femme from her fatality.14
Famously, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” proposed an
anti-narrative counter-cinema to do that work. Yet Deren’s lms, which inuenced counter-
cinema dancer-lmmakers such as Yvonne Rainer and Sally Potter as well as Campion, are
not anti-narrative, but rather foreground dance as a counter-strategy that, like narrative,
moves through time and moves the body. They use dance to foreground the female body
not as an object of the gaze, but in the manner argued by feminist performance art theorist
Jill Dolan, as a subject “know[ing], intellectually and psychophysically … how to control
the seductions inherent in the frame, and how to speak the language so that authority,
26 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
seduction and language mean something dierent about the status of women in culture.”15
Similarly, Deren’s lms use dance in the same way that Mulvey suggests that conventional
Hollywood narrative cinema uses the close-up of the female face: to delay, disperse and
defer the narrative thrust.
Like Deren, Campion uses dance to disrupt narrative logic without recourse to the
reifying force of the close-up. Instead, she oers medium long shots of bodies in move-
ment; as Lucy Bolton notes, Frannie is rarely still.16 She walks incessantly around New York;
even standing on the subway, she moves and is moved, both by the forward motion of the
subway car, repeated by the handheld camera, and by the Poetry in Transit placards that
cause her to move her mouth, reading to herself. This repeated scene of Frannie engaging,
bodily, with an artwork in a rectangular frame, repeats and draws attention to Campion’s
imagining of the viewer’s experience of cinema. Film theorist Noël Carroll described dance-
lmmaker and choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s work as “moving and moving.”17 That is,
screen movement (co-composed of gesture and cinematography) engages the viewer
aectively because the viewing body responds to movement.
Campion’s earlier lm, The Piano, was crucial to the development of feminist lm
phenomenology, a theory that extended Carroll’s insight to explore exactly how screen
media aect the viewing body. Its pioneer, Vivian Sobchack, devotes a chapter in Carnal
Knowledge to reading the opening moments of The Piano, in which the viewer appears
to be looking through Ada, the protagonist’s, ngers. In In the Cut, Campion experiments
with other images of women’s self-touch in relation to the female gaze, including a scene
in which Frannie masturbates. Yet she is unable to climax because her foot cramps. Later in
the lm, after Pauline’s death, this bare foot becomes a sign of vulnerability and mourning:
she loses her shoe in the police station; then on the stairs of her apartment building when
she goes to welcome a student who subsequently attacks her; after the attack, her lover—
the detective investigating the murders, Giovanni Malloy—bathes her and washes her feet.
When she nds a clue that suggests he is the murderer, she ees down the stairs and into
Washington Square barefoot, returning the same way the following morning.
Sally Banes titles her book on post-modern dance Terpsichore in Sneakers to suggest
the contrast between the traditionally feminine, atemporal, eet-foot image of the dancer,
and the multiplicity, dynamism, athleticism, and creative juxtapositions of the form’s rein-
vention. Yet Frannie’s barefoot movements are far from indicative of a nostalgic return to
Mount Helicon. Instead, as viewers, we become aware of the sole of the foot as a sensi-
tive, even erotic, surface of touch, like Ada’s (piano-playing) ngers in The Piano, so that
what Laura U. Marks calls our “haptic visuality” is solicited.18 The vulnerability of Frannie’s
feet makes us feel (texture) and feel (emotion). Feet yoke agential forward motion and the
dilatory eects of dance. They also draw attention to the ground Frannie stands on: New
York, whose traumatic recent history is the counterpart to many other historical strands,
including immigration via Ellis Island (Giovanni Malloy’s name suggests his heritage from
both Irish and Italian immigrants), as well as counter-cultural practices from Deren’s days
in Greenwich Village to the radical dance innovations of Judson Church described by
Banes. Like the sneaker-clad dancers of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, Frannie’s barefoot ights
blur the boundaries between dance and the everyday, drawing attention to all of the
gestural language in (the) lm as choreographic. Although there are only a handful of brief
scenes that could formally be designated as dance in In the Cut, Frannie’s feet moving and
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 27
moving—nevertheless mark Campion’s inheritance from Deren, not least her repetition-
with-a-dierence of Deren’s danced intervention into lm noir.
Dance of the Seven Veils
Femmes fatales don’t dance. As Richard Z. Santos notes, despite its nocturnal urbanity and
erotic overtones, noir rarely employs dance, with only mannerist, pastiche noirs Bande à
Part and Pulp Fiction containing notable dance scenes.19 Richard Dyer suggests that dance
would allow the viewer to know the femme fatale on her own terms, and that this would
undermine the conceit of the genre, in which the male protagonist is knowable, stable and
thus our point-of-view character, while the femme fatale is mysterious to both the (anti)
hero and the viewer. He notes of Gilda:
No other femme fatale dances … The use of dance as “self-expression” as instanced
by Fred Astaire was also available to and used by [Rita] Hayworth (though always
in a less developed form than Astaire’s). Although “self-expression” is a problematic
concept in relation to the arts, as a notion informing artistic practices, and espe-
cially dance, it is extremely important, and especially in the context of a character
who is generically constructed as having no knowable self.20
Santos points to the contrasting example of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series
Twin Peaks, which features dance as a polyvalent expression, oscillating between a potent
symbol of female sexuality (culminating in the ridiculous Miss Twin Peaks pageant chore-
ography) and a dangerous expression of male madness (the Man from Another Place’s shoe
shue, Leland Palmer’s dancing); either way, it marks alterity and the disruptive power of
Santos does not include In the Cut in his article, and critics have failed to note the way
in which dances similarly pervade In the Cut, focusing instead on the lm’s engagement with
literature and verbal language. Frannie teaches creative writing at a community college, and
is writing a book about street slang. Yet there is a verbal connection between these two
cerebral activities that also connects them intimately to her body. She is teaching Virginia
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and among the rst lines of dialogue in the lm is an exchange
about one of the slang words she has pinned to her wall, when she explains to Pauline that
“virginia” means “vagina, as in ‘he penetrated her virginia with a hammer.’” The coolly-delivered
grotesque violence, emerging as it does from a dreamy credit sequence in which Pauline
walks through early morning Manhattan, is startling. Campion’s lm is insistent on both the
grace and the vulnerability of embodiment, on how being open to the sensual world also
leaves one open to the invidious violence of those who are threatened by openness.
As in Ritual and Meshes, a woman’s entry into the world risks the equal and opposite
entry of the world into the woman: this can be consensual or violating. The interchange in
In the Cut between verbal language, visual language, and gestural language is highlighted
by Frannie’s absorption in the Poems in Transit on the subway. When Malloy is similarly
stimulated to read aloud a quotation from Pablo Neruda that Frannie has pinned to the
wall in her home oce, we are alerted to their simpatico and his feminine openness. “I want
to do with you / What spring does with cherry trees,” he reads, wiping his hand across his
moustache, as Gillett observes.21 When a white blossom pastes itself to Frannie’s leg as she
28 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
climbs the stairs barefoot and grieving, this quotation returns to mind, again connecting
poetic language to physical movement, and particularly the Terpsichorean gure. It is by
harmonizing her poetic insights and her kinetic embodiment that Frannie is “[anti ] generi-
cally constructed as having [a] knowable self.”
Barbara Kennedy, reading the feminist potential of neo-noir, argues that “the eroto-
genics of the lmic experience … articulates more than just the pleasures of scopophilia
and voyeurism. Identities and subjectivities are experienced, created or negated through
wider aective or sensual frameworks outside the notions of vision and the gaze.”22 It is
through the mediation of dance that Frannie’s poetics of the body becomes actualised,
and/as it is her poetics that lifts the lm’s dance. As in Meshes, the use of eccentric framing,
slow motion, extreme close-up, canted angles, and the contrast between exterior and
interior light adds to the lm’s expressionistic dreaminess, and its insistence on femme-
inity as a challenge to the hard-boiled, hard-bitten noir genre encoded. It is this reframing,
which reinforces the dilatory temporality of danced movement, that in both lms not only
troubles but completely reappropriates the voyeuristic scopic regime apparently incited by
the focus on the female protagonist as erotogenic subject. Through choreo-cinema, they
articulate an answer to Clare Whatling’s question: “Can the femme lesbian articulate, just by
looking, that she is both object and subject of that look?”23 Both lms suggest that looking
needs to be embedded in movement and the haptic to achieve that articulation.
Both Frannie and her half-sister Pauline are decidedly femme in their self-presen-
tation: both have, as various men in the lm note, long hair, and they exchange dresses
and jewellery. Unlike the hard-bodied heroines of post-feminist lms such as Thelma and
Louise (1991) or Blue Steel (1989), which rewrite the narrative of the thriller by making the
female protagonist(s) physically aligned with the action hero, Frannie is an accidental hero,
embroiled in a murder mystery by chance when a woman’s body parts are found in the
garden beneath her window. Frannie nds herself a key witness, complicated by having
seen the woman alive shortly before her murder, and further complicated by becoming
sexually involved with the investigating detective, Malloy, whom she suspects of being
the killer. Although Frannie’s relationship with Malloy unfolds across the course of the
lm, Pauline is Frannie’s primary relational gure. Campion and co-screenwriter Susanna
Moore, adapting her own novel, transposed Frannie and Pauline from best friends to half-
sisters. This adds both biopolitics, through their genetic connection, and, as Bolton argues,
an Irigarayan female genealogy. She notes “a tender, gentle scene in which the intimacy
between the women is portrayed by their clothing, their gestures, and their palpable aec-
tion … [which frames] the discussion of their mothers as women.”24
The palpability of their aection is presented through dance. They are in Pauline’s
apartment, which is a mass of sensory stimuli that blurs the auditory, visual and tactile:
beaded curtains, textured fabrics, and the women’s own bodies in conversation. The use
of close-ups, attention to small sounds, muted colours combined with sparkle, and natural
light, all leading into the dance, combine to
make experiential musicality felt as a sound-moving-with and a moving-with-
sound. This creates an amodal relay that distributes sound throughout the
sensing body in movement as both the eect of movement and the instigator of
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 29
experiential space-time. We experience this sound-movement tonally, aectively,
through a rhythmic re-invention of the environment’s sensory dimensions.25
When Frannie and Pauline dance, it is as if they have been led into the dance not only by
the song on the radio and the intimacy of their conversation, but by the sonorous, reec-
tive, tactile kinesis of the apartment and the cinematography.
Their dance is tactile, languorous, unforced, suggestive of a shared adolescence—the
shared adolescence that their conversation reveals they didn’t have, as Frannie’s father left
her mother for Pauline’s mother, whom he didn’t marry, but also abandoned. “In the Cut
has been read as a Freudian essay on the feminine Oedipus complex—both Pauline and
Frannie, deprived of paternal love and familial security, are driven to ‘Wait in Vain’ for their
phallus.”26 As they talk, Annie Lennox’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Don’t Wanna Wait in Vain
for Your Love” plays on Pauline’s radio, suggesting a typical chick ick, in which women
talk only about men, and perform only for men—specically, for a man who will probably
come between them, causing jealousy and separation. Ritual dramatizes this separation
in the violence of Westbrook’s partnering and the impossibility of an equal pas-de-trois,
as his appearance separates Deren and Christiani even as, and because, he dances similar
sequences with each of them.
Yet Frannie denies that chick ick trope. Instead of arguing about men, she quotes poet
Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the eect that she is “of this human heart a-weary.” When the
song changes, she jumps up and pulls Pauline into a dance, saying of “Just My Imagination,”
“This is my song,” a phrase that is suggestive both of romantic relationships culminating in
marriage (“They’re playing our song”), and the strip bar downstairs from Pauline’s at, where
the workers may lay claim to, or be scheduled by, particular songs. Yet, as Frannie would
know, the phrase could also be Coleridge’s, and thus stand outside these gendered forms, as
he theorised “imagination” as the generative power of creativity, which could be read as an
abrogation of female reproductive capacity.27 Thus Frannie lays claim—my song, my imagi-
nation—just after Pauline has told her she thinks she should have a baby, for their mothers’
sakes. Pauline later gives her a charm bracelet with a baby-in-a-carriage charm that becomes
a clue in her identication of the killer. Dance, with its aective knowing, will end up saving
Frannie’s life—as it re-unites (or merges) and saves Deren’s and Christiani’s in Ritual, as they
are transgured from drowning to ying. The nal union makes good on the initial encounter
between Deren and Christiani within the house, winding wool, and repairs the damage done
by the pas-de-trois. Frannie and Pauline’s dance resonates far beyond its brief length because
of the discussion of their mothers—which extends the lm’s duration back in time beyond its
rst scene to Frannie’s mother’s engagement to her father—and because Frannie claims “her
song,” her knowable self expressed through music and movement.
Dancing in Circles
Frannie’s claim to her song layers the aect of this scene across the lm, almost as a mani-
festo, so that both previous scenes—specically, her interactions with Malloy (which are
the subject of discussion before she and Pauline dance—and future scenes—specically,
the encroachment of the serial killer, who acts on/out his warped “imagination”—are
embedded in this casual dance. Both the use of dance and its centering of a spiral that
30 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
exists in productive tension with the linear drive of the thriller point to the inuence of
Deren’s work on the lm, and particularly to Ritual. Whereas Deren worked with the lyric
intensity of short lms, Campion uses Deren’s strategies to structure a narrative feature that
takes on the fatalistic (il)logic of noir, using dance both to delay noir ’s tight temporality, and
to illustrate, for both the viewer and Frannie, the ways in which embodied repetition can
become a dierence, preventing fatality.
Dismantling the romantic narrative often associated with the dance lm (although Sue
Thornham argues otherwise28), and of which noir is the cynical obverse, In the Cut counter-
poses the intimacy of the sisters. It does so through a series of resonating danced scenes,
centred on Frannie and Pauline’s dance, whose spiralling interconnection echoes the multiple
modes of social dance that are Deren’s rituals to transgure time. As in Deren’s lm, the dances
span from quasi-adolescent homosocial “bedroom dancing” to the highly public and coercive
rituals of heteronormativity, when Frannie enters the classic neo-noir scene of the (Looking for
Mr. Good) bar on a date with Malloy. This association is made explicit in the climactic scene,
when the serial killer who has been stalking Frannie asks her, at knifepoint, to dance. This
confrontation echoes both Rituals and Meshes: the violent pas de trois of the former, with
Pauline, the killer’s previous victim, as an absent presence between the dancing pair of
Frannie and Rodriguez; and the alternating homicidal encounters of the latter, as we think
Frannie has been murdered, then—after a reverie—we learn she has killed the killer. Deren,
making lms in the 1940s as both feminism and socialism were curtailed by the war and then
by post-war normativisation, can nd only ambiguous solutions; Campion, making lms after
post-feminism and 9/11, returns to those solutions but allies them to feminist experiments in
narrative, particularly the retelling of myths and fairy tales.
This is most apparent in a second associative cascade, also connecting Frannie and
Pauline: an imagined dance, shown in sepia vignettes, whose coloration and costuming
link In the Cut to Campion’s costume dramas The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996),
and Bright Star (2009), which investigate women’s resistance to the coercive gendered
asymmetry replicated by canonical literature.29 The rst vignette appears in the opening
sequence, and shows a beautiful young woman whose ice-dance on a frozen pond solicits
the gaze of a handsome older man, who skates up and proposes to her. Frannie is awak-
ened from this dream by Pauline arriving to describe the petal shower she had danced
in, which Frannie had thought was the snow seen in her dream. This vignette repeats as
Frannie dances languidly with Pauline, and retells this story of her mother’s engagement to
their father. It recurs again, changing its details towards a horric realisation, after Frannie’s
dance with the killer: it is what interrupts, and then restarts, the scene of the murder in its
doubling. The reconguration shows Frannie’s mother’s legs being severed by the show-o
skater when she refuses his oer of an engagement ring (as Frannie has refused the killer’s
oer of a ring); grotesque and grand guignol, red blood spurts into the sepia tint. Campion
uses this violence, as Deren does in Meshes, to uncover the violent premise of submission
secreted at the heart of the costume drama and of the heteronormative partner dance.
Dancing in the Ashes
Both Meshes and In the Cut engage, via danced embodiment, with noir ’s deathliness as both
an analogy for, and a paradigm of, the fatalistic national American myth of male violence
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 31
in defense of the victimised female/feminised victim described so precisely by Faludi. Noir
is particularly powerful as an analogy that problematises this model because, as Rebecca
Stott argues, the femme fatale is not the simplistic gure of the feminised victim, but “a
sign, a gure who crosses discourse boundaries, who is to be found at the intersection of
Western racial, sexual and imperial anxieties.”30 Like Meshes, In the Cut uses the home as a site
of dangerously porous boundaries to posit a dual meaning of “domestic” that conates living
space and nation-state at moments of crisis. Within that domestic space, the crisis of invasive
violence disrupts the cohesive self, so that experimental techniques, including embodiment
as danced, become psychically and empirically “realist,” moving us into what Gilles Deleuze
would describe as the molecular experience of a particular (and particulate) subjectivity.
Deren, preguring Julia Kristeva and inuenced by Henri Bergson, describes her lms as “the
lms of a woman.… Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness…. I think that
my lm is putting the constant stress on metamorphosis … this is a woman’s time sense.”31
This emerges signally in dance, as suggested by Manning. The repeated, hieratic movements
of dance also introduce ritual or festival time; as described by Mikhail Bakhtin, this resonates
with Deren’s idea of the vertical lm, in that ritual time, through repeated performances
linked to the cyclical calendar of the seasons, lifts the festival out of historical horizontal time,
stacking it vertically with all other occurrences of that festival. Thus dance is again gured as
a disruption of the linearity that produces the violent vengeance of cause/eect narratives, as
they structure US foreign policy as well as noir.
It is thus suggestive of the origins of theatrical performance in the Greek mysteries,
which involved ritual dances by women, to be performed away from the male gaze.
Mystery comes from the Greek root muēin, meaning “to close one’s eyes.” In the Cut uses the
close-up to stage a micro-dance of the eyelids, opening and closing: the lm opens with
Frannie drifting in and out of sleep while dreaming of her parents’ meeting, and ends with
her awakening fully from the nightmare of the ice-dance that is her primal mystery. As Sue
Gillett notes, the lm is replete with references to Medusa, and thus to the Freudian primal
mystery of the mother’s (castrated) genitals.32 Countering this, however, the disarticulated
heads left by the killer could be read as evoking the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with
Frannie gender-transposing the role of the grieving poet as she ascends and descends stairs.
The Orphic mysteries borrowed from those of Demeter, whose search for her daughter
Persephone in the Underworld was commemorated at Eleusis, outside Athens. It was one
of the few occasions when women were allowed to leave the classical city-state without
chaperones, providing an all-female space that was also public and political. In the context
of post–9/11 America, this is deeply suggestive, as the Eleusinian mysteries were rituals of
civic mourning performed only by women, grieving for the dead and reincorporating them
into civic life as beloved memory. They allowed the city to mourn: that is, to move on, to
accept the reality of death, to accept that, as Butler argues in Precarious Life, even the most
powerful city-state can be undone, and is always vulnerable.
The lm positions Frannie as Korē, the gure of the Girl as always being abducted by
Death, as three women, including Pauline, are in the lm; it also, however, suggests her as
an inverse-Demeter, searching for her mother, and later for Pauline. On one of her subway
journeys, she sees a bride on the platform, a vision that will recur to her when she is in
the car with the killer towards the end of the lm. Both Eurydice and Persephone, and
also Alcestis who died on her wedding day to save her husband’s life and was returned to
32 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
life by the hero Theseus, the bride encodes marriage as murder and mourning, reecting
the serial killer’s modus operandi of proposing engagement to his victims. She is also an
ambiguous but utopian sign to Frannie: as well as warning her of the serial killer’s MO, she
invokes Alcestis’ and Persephone’s possibility of return from the underworld—not erasing
it, but surviving it. Reading the end of In the Cut, Elisabeth Bronfen argues that “waking up
and walking into the dawn of morning might just as well mean preserving the dialectic
between night/day rather than insisting on a violent repression of the nocturnal side of
the psyche. It might well mean focusing on the partial darkness inevitably accompany all
hopes and anticipations connected to love, on the partial light illuminating all sense of
vulnerability and anxiety.”33
Such a reading could also be applied to Meshes and Ritual. Deren wrote to James Card
in 1955, “What I meant when I planned that four stride sequence [at the end of Meshes]
was that you have to come a long way—from the very beginning of time—to kill your-
self.”34 Frannie’s repetition of Deren’s stride in her dawn walk suggests such a death as
both a gure of transformation, and “a preservation of the dialectic between night/day.”
Deren sought and found such a dialectic outside mainstream American culture: rst in
Dunham’s dance, and then later—following Dunham’s own work as an anthropologist—in
her anthropological work in Haiti. In Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Deren writes
of her identication with, and possession by, Voudoun goddess Erzulie, the goddess of love
(and its shadow side, jealousy) and imagination: the arts, and especially dance, fall under
her sway. Erzulie, as an archetype, is absent, suppressed or distorted in Graeco-Roman and
Judaeo-Christian mythology, hence Bronfen’s reappropriation of the Queen of the Night
from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and Campion’s of Demeter/Persephone: at the heart
of these gures, in their movement in particular, is the kernel of a pre-patriarchal feminine
power that Deren found in Erzulie.
The Dance of Death
Bronfen reads the Queen of the Night as an the uncanny guration that condenses female
power and the occult, rather than emphasising “positive representation.” The medieval
image of the woman locked into the Dance of Death, of which the femme fatale is but the
latest iteration, is predicated on female reproductive sexuality, which both by its sinfulness
and its temporality entraps women in the mortality of the body. Frannie’s dance with death
ends with her shooting Rodriguez with Malloy’s gun; she had snatched up his jacket after
nding the baby-in-the-carriage charm from Pauline’s gift bracelet, while looking for the
handcu key. Mistaking the charm for the key to the identity of the killer, she also nds—at
exactly the moment she needs it—his gun. So the danced logic of the lm, which led her
through aective contact with Pauline to trust Malloy, reverses the dance of death. It is
Frannie’s generative immersion in the temporality and sensuality of embodiment—which
rst emerges in contact with Pauline—that saves her.
In In the Cut, dance marks a model of women’s time whose embodied presentness
insistently carries traces of the genealogical past; from that remembering, which is also
grieving, there emerges a potential future. This is both personal and political, as in the nega-
tivized coda at the close of Rituals, where Christiani’s survival by merging with Deren is
a riposte to racism and warmongering. Similarly, Frannie’s dance with Pauline forms the
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 33
fulcrum of two vertical series that draw on her lived experience with Pauline in order to
initiate her survival of Pauline’s fate. It’s part of the sisters’ physical and aective closeness
in urban movement, walking around lower Manhattan near Frannie’s apartment holding
hands and talking, and also of their intimacy in domestic space: moving and moving. They
also move between, and thus link, spaces: they spend time in Frannie’s apartment at the
start of the lm, and then—after Frannie’s apartment is tainted by Angela Sands’ murder,
and then by a mugger who takes her keys—Pauline’s. Pauline’s apartment is above a strip
club, where both Frannie and Pauline hang out, chatting with the sta. On one occasion,
Frannie watches part of a dance, whose exaggerated eroticism and muscular virtuosity is
in contrast with her dance with Pauline, and yet whose vigorous female embodiment (and
loud music) connects the danceoor to the apartment vertically above it. Troubled by the
loud music in a later scene, Pauline comments to Frannie, “I need to move.” It’s her last line
in the lm.
Even after Pauline’s apartment is desecrated by her murder—and Frannie nds her
sister’s head in exactly the location that Pauline uttered this line—the interpersonal bond
between them shapes the lm. Del Rio argues for
the irreducibly armative signatures of the body, which only the onset of death
can fully erase, for it is precisely at that moment that the body’s powers to aect,
and to be aected by, other bodies reach a point of exhaustion … [Yet n]either
forgetfulness of signs or traces, not the physical elimination of bodies, can truly
result in a full erasure of their aects. Instead, the body subjugated cannot but
continue, however stealthily, to express itself.35
Dance as propulsive movement opens the sisters’ relationship towards the city (and vice
versa); as aective touch, dance’s traces throughout the lm link all its locations as a shared
intimate space. In both forms, it enables Frannie, through her relational enmeshing with
Pauline, to contest the fatalistic spiral of the killer’s phantasmic heteronormativity. She
had been wearing Pauline’s dress when she rst heard about Rodriguez’s demotion, and
subsequently receives a startling display of Rodriguez’ misogyny, even as he cruises the
danceoor at the bar where she has met Malloy. She and Malloy do not dance, and she
walks home alone. She has a bruising encounter with a masked mugger, which she subse-
quently replays with Malloy in her kitchen. Both in its specic physicality—the mugger
encircling her neck from behind, a gesture reminiscent of the starting pose of Johnny and
Baby’s climactic dance in Dirty Dancing (Baby’s given name, uncannily, is Frances)—and
this rehearsal, the mugging is transmuted into dance, as Frannie’s self-awareness of desire
begins to open the spiral of gendered violence into the negotiated potential of mutuality.
When she engages in a performative, hyper-femme re-embodiment of Pauline after
the murder—dressing in red, Pauline’s colour, and being sexually aggressive—Malloy
not only accepts but enjoys it. Handcued to a radiator pipe, Malloy is literally trapped
in Frannie’s imagined spiral of repetition as she mis-takes him for the killer, eeing into
the path of Rodriguez. Although Frannie returns to Malloy, still cued to her pipe, at the
end of the lm, her Meshes-esque walk is so evocative of Pauline’s journey through the
city at the beginning of the lm that the two relationships—heterosexual and homoso-
cial—fuse into each other, with Malloy repeating Frannie’s supine position of the opening
scene. It is as if the spiral/cycle can start again—of course, it can’t, and it doesn’t cancel
34 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
grief. But it is the as if, the transguration of time, that is part of the lm’s utopian project.
Pauline’s dance in the petal shower at the opening, which Frannie says she thought was
the snow in her dreamed vignette, has been transmuted into dazzling glitter that occurs
after Rodriguez appears to strangle Frannie, which transpires to be rain falling onto their
bodies; the sparkling bead curtain of Pauline’s apartment forms an intermediate term. This
“haptic visuality,” in which the screen itself appears to dance, is allusively described by Gilles
Deleuze in Cinema 2, where he says that cinema “spreads an ‘experimental night’ … over us;
it works with ‘dancing seeds’ and a ‘luminous dust’; it aects the visible with a fundamental
disturbance, and the world with a suspension, which contradicts all natural perception.”36
In the Cut meshes prolmic and cinematographic “dancing seeds” to instigate a Derenian
poetic cinema that resituates the everyday as dreamy, imaginative, sensual and aective.
Dance is no longer a distinct/ive mode of the performative, but integrated into feminist cine-
matic embodiment. This integration is what opens the lm and its danced bodies beyond
questions of representation and presence, into a negotiation with biopolitics at the level
of ‘luminous dust,’ which gures both the generative imagination (Frannie’s revised dream
returning her to life, re-mothered by Pauline’s death) and the micropolitics of the body. This in
turn gures the new feminist theory argued for by Elizabeth Grosz, which “needs to welcome
again what epistemologies have left out: the relentless force of the real, a new metaphysics
… we need to reconsider both representation and representational forces in their impact on
the mediation of the real.”37 Closing her apartment door in our faces, Frannie turns us both
back to the beginning of the lm with a set of tools learned from the spiral to read the spiral,
and outwards towards the world. In its haptic and narrative pleasures, predicated on Derenian
dance, this is Emma Goldman’s longed-for revolution.
1. Manning, Relationscapes, 17.
2. Acker, “Critical,” 91; 85.
3. Ibid. 91–92.
4. Goldman, Living, cap. 5.
5. Manning, Relationscapes, 17.
6. Rhodes, Meshes, 64–66.
7. Alexander Hammid, Deren’s husband and the co-director of Meshes, ed to the US from fascist Czechoslovakia
over fears about a critical documentary he had shot. At the moment Deren and Hammid were conceiving
Meshes in Los Angeles, Japanese Americans were being interned under FDR’s Internment Act of February 1942,
at Pomona and Santa Anita just outside LA, as elsewhere throughout the West Coast.
8. del Rio, Deleuze, 208–16.
9. Butler, Frames, passim.
10. Bolton, Film, 60–94; Gillett, “Engaging.”
11. See Geller, “‘Each Film Was Built,’” on Deren’s strategic response to the post-war re-domestication of women in
12. Manning, Relationscapes, 17.
13. Ibid., 6.
14. Place, “Women,” 37.
15. Dolan, Presence, 1.
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 35
16. Bolton, Film, 62.
17. Carroll, “Moving.”
18. Marks, Skin, 206–11
19. Santos, “Dancing.”
20. Dyer, “Resistance,” 96–97
21. Gillett, “Engaging.”
22. Kennedy, “Post-Feminist,” 126.
23. Whatling, “Femme,” 80.
24. Bolton, Film, 82.
25. I’m here borrowing Manning’s account of a short dance lm. See Manning, Relationscapes, 214.
26. Bolton, Film, 66.
27. See Harvey, Ventriloquized.
28. Thornham, “Starting,” 33–46.
29. All of Campion’s costume dramas feature tangential or eccentric versions of the climactic social dance scenes
that are a key trope of costume drama, while never oering pointed parody, as Sally Potter does in the ballroom
scene The Gold Diggers, where the female dancers throw over their male partners and escape, leaving the men
to dance together. In The Piano, for example, Ada’s young daughter Flora dances uninhibitedly on the beach—
performing cartwheels that reveal her knickerbockers—as Ada plays the piano, while in Bright Star, Fanny
Brawne is seen at a dance at the start of the lm, cuing viewer expectations of an Austen-esque romance. Fanny
talks about making dresses for dances thereafter, but her expected unison with John Keats through the trope of
social dance is never realised.
30. Stott, Fabrication, 30.
31. Qtd. in Kudlácek, In the Mirror.
32. Gillett, “Engaging,” n.p.
33. Bronfen, “Nocturnal,” n.p.
34. Qtd. in Rhodes, Meshes, 86.
35. del Rio, Deleuze, 209.
36. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 201, qtd. in Brannigan, Dance Film, 10.
37. Grosz, Becoming, 85.
Acker, Kathy. “Critical Languages.” In Bodies of Work, 81–92. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
Bolton, Lucy, Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Brannigan, Erin. Dance Film: Choreography and the Moving Image. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Nocturnal Embodiments: Gendering Allegories of the Night.” June 10, 2004. http://www.
bronfen.info/index.php/archive/47-archive2004/108-gendering-allegories.html. Accessed 30 July 2012.
Brooks, Jodi. “Rituals of the Filmic Body.” Writings on Dance 17 (1998): 15–20.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War. London: Verso, 2010.
Carroll, Noël. “Moving and Moving.” Millennium Film Journal 35/36 (Fall 2000). http://www.m-online.org/
journalPages/MFJ35/MovingandMoving.htm. Accessed 30 Jul. 2012.
del Rio, Elena. Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Aection. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
36 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Continuum,
Dolan, Jill. Presence and Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance. Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan
Dyer, Richard. “Resistance through Charisma: Rita Hayworth and Gilda.” In Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann
Kaplan, 91–99. London: BFI Publishing, 1980.
Geller, Theresa L. “‘Each Film Was Built as a Chamber and Became a Corridor’: Maya Deren’s Film Aesthetics as
Feminist Praxis.” In There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond, edited by Corinn Columpar and Sophie Mayer,
79–92. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.
Gillett, Sue. “Engaging Medusa: Competing Myths and Fairytales in In the Cut.” Senses of Cinema 31 (2004). http://
sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/in_the_cut/. Accessed 30 July 2012.
Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-
goldman-living-my-life#toc7. Accessed 30th July 2012.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reections on Life, Politics and Art. Durham NC: Duke University
Harvey, Elizabeth D. Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and Renaissance Texts. London & New York: Routledge,
Kennedy, Barbara. “Post-Feminist Futures in Film Noir.” In The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and
Contemporary Culture, edited by Michele Aaron, 126–142. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Kristeva, Julia, “Women’s Time.” Trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1981): 13–35.
Manning, Erin, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Film, Embodiment and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press,
Mayer, Sophie. “Putting on the Red Shoes: A Tango with the Camera.” Vertigo 3, no. 5 (Spring 2007): 17–19.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” In Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 35–67. London: BFI Publishing,
Pramaggiore, Maria, “Seeing Double(s).” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols,
237–260. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Rabinovitz, Lauren. “Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde Cinema.” In Points of Resistance: Women, Power
and Politics in the American Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–71, 41–91. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Rhodes, John David. Meshes of the Afternoon. Basingstoke: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Santos, Richard Z. “Dancing Around the Scene of the Crime.” Criminal Element.Com, December 2011. http://www.
criminalelement.com/blogs/2011/12/dancing-around-the-scene-of-the-crime. Accessed 30 July 2012.
Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Stott, Rebecca. The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Thornham, Sue. “Starting to Feel Like a Chick: Re-visioning Romance in In the Cut.” Feminist Media Studies 7, no. 1
____. What If I Had Been the Hero? Investigating Women’s Cinema. Basingstoke: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Whatling, Clare, “Femme to Femme: A Love Story.” In Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender, edited by Sally Munt,
74–81. London: Cassell, 1998.
If I ca n ’T d a nc e , I T ’S n oT M y r e v o l u T I o n ! 37
At Land (1944). Dir. Maya Deren. Experimental Films. New York: Mystic Fire Video. 2002. DVD.
Bande à Part (1964). Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. London: BFI, 2003. DVD.
Black Swan (2010). Dir. Darren Aronofsky. London: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment., 2011. DVD.
Blue Steel (1989). Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. London: Lions Gate Home Ent. Ltd., 2007. DVD.
Bright Star (2009). Dir. Jane Campion. London: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2010. DVD.
Dirty Dancing (1987). Dir. Emile Ardolino. London: Lionsgate UK, 2009. DVD.
Gilda (1946). Dir. Charles Vidor. London: Sony Pictures Home Ent., 2000. DVD.
The Gold Diggers (1983). Dir. Sally Potter. London: BFI, 2009. DVD.
Holy Smoke (1999). Dir. Jane Campion. London: 4DVD, 2008. DVD.
In the Cut (2003). Dir. Jane Campion. Culver City CA: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.
In the Mirror of Maya Deren. Dir. Martina Kudlácek. New York, Zeitgeist, 2003. DVD.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Dir. Richard Brooks. 1977. Film.
Meditation on Violence (1948). Dir. Maya Deren. Experimental Films. New York: Mystic Fire Video. 2002. DVD.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Dir. Maya Deren. Experimental Films. New York: Mystic Fire Video. 2002. DVD.
The Piano (1993). Dir. Jane Campion. London: Optimum Home Entertainment, 2003. DVD.
Portrait of a Lady (1996). Dir. Jane Campion. London: Universal Pictures UK, 2011. DVD.
Rituals in Transgured Time (1945–6). Dir. Maya Deren. Experimental Films. New York: Mystic Fire Video. 2002. DVD.
A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945). Dir. Maya Deren. Experimental Films. New York: Mystic Fire Video.
The Tango Lesson (1997). Dir. Sally Potter. London: Articial Eye, 2012. DVD.
Thelma and Louise (1991). Dir. Ridley Scott. London: MGM Home Entertainment, 1998. DVD.
Thriller (1979). Dir. Sally Potter. The Gold Diggers. London: BFI, 2009. DVD.
Trio A. Chor. Yvonne Rainer. 1966. Performance.
Twin Peaks. Scr. and dir. David Lynch. Prod. Mark Frost. 1990–91. Television.
YES (2004). Dir. Sally Potter. London: Optimum Home Entertainment, 2006. DVD.
38 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
On Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity:
Meshes of the Afternoon
Interdisciplinarity and collaboration are prominent contemporary concerns in the arts
that are evident in recent writings about Maya Deren. I will be critically engaging with
the literature on Deren in order to explore the potential of the term “interdisciplinary,”
with a view to opening her work further for contemporary practice. The lm Meshes of the
Afternoon (1943) was co-created with Alexander Hammid and oers a rich text through
which to explore Deren’s collaborative strategies and her approach to interdisciplinarity.
This black and white, 16mm lm will be the central focus of the essay. I will be referring
exclusively to the silent version that resulted from the original collaboration1 and to the
central character as “Maya.”
Maya Deren’s An Anagram Of Ideas On Art, Form And Film is a fty-two page “chap-
book” originally published as a limited run by the Alicat Book Shop Press, New York in
1946. This work is now recognized as an important contribution to lm theory, a radical
attempt to reconcile an interdisciplinary sensibility with avant-garde lm practice. Yet, the
academic recognition of the importance of Deren’s lmmaking and theoretical work has
been comparatively recent. It was not until 1980 that theoretical attention to Deren’s work
began to gather momentum, with Annette Michelson—at that time writing for the journal
October—a key gure in Deren scholarship at this point.2 1984 and 1988 saw the release
of the rst two parts of The Legend of Maya Deren, an important biographical compen-
dium.3 The next signicant development in Deren scholarship came in 1991, with Lauren
Rabinovitz’s book Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde
Cinema. This inuential text played an important role in reclaiming Deren as a key precursor
of feminism. In the essays included in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (2001),
edited by Bill Nichols, Deren’s work is framed in the wider context of avant-garde practice
in America, and in recognition of her important connections to avant-garde milieus across
art, lm, dance and poetry. Renata Jackson’s book The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental
Film Practice of Maya Deren (2002) emphasises the important role that Deren’s early poetic
practice played in shaping her subsequent work on lm.4 Also in this year an accessible
online article by Wendy Haslem, entitled “Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental
Cinema,” was published in Senses of Cinema.
Most recently there have been two key texts produced that understand Deren in rela-
tion to contemporary concerns. John David Rhodes’ Meshes of the Afternoon, published in
the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, was launched during Maya Deren: 50 Years On at
BFI Southbank in October 2011. Rhodes emphasises the radically open form of this lm; in
addressing the experimentation and aesthetics, he makes available the creative discourse
between its collaborators—Deren from a background in poetry and Hammid from that
of lm. Attention to the intensely collaborative nature of Meshes provides an important
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 3 9
starting point for this study. In Dancelm: Choreography and the Moving Image (2011), Erin
Brannigan approaches Deren’s lms from a dance perspective, placing emphasis on their
interdisciplinarity. She challenges the limitations of the prevalence of writing on “dancelm,”
which she perceives as strongly biased toward the prolmic choreographic event (the live
performance) and suering from a lack of engagement with the range of relevant lm
theories. Brannigan denes a practice of “dancelm” that is truly interdisciplinary in nature,
focussing on “cine-choreographies” that exist only in lm and because of lm. Deren’s work
is central to this thesis, both for key lms that embody this interdisciplinary approach and
also for the concepts and methodologies found in her writing.
Writers on Deren have advanced dierent explanations for why her lms and theories of
lm have not attracted the critical discourse and position they deserve. Jackson, for example,
aims to establish the position of Deren’s An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946) within
modernist lm theory. She notes that Deren’s writings do not echo the language of feminist
lm theory and that this may have contributed to them being overlooked.5 Nichols supports
this, noting that highly inuential feminist writers like Claire Johnson and Laura Mulvey
“ignored Deren entirely in their search for pioneering feminist lmmakers.”6 This is perhaps
overstating the case as in her paper “Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde”(1978), Mulvey
does refer to Deren’s pioneering work. While she does not choose to analyse Deren’s work
in relation to experience of oppression and the exploitation of the image of women, Mulvey
does place Deren alongside Germaine Dulac, suggesting that “both directors’ intermingling
of cinematic movement and interior consciousness interested feminist and avant-gardistes
alike.”7 Brannigan suggests the interdisciplinary focus may have resulted in Deren’s work falling
between key theoretical frames. She also draws attention to Deren’s signicant contribution
to the area of dancelm and the general slow development of critical discourse within this
area.8 Nichols also suggests a range of additional factors that could have contributed to the
period of Deren’s neglect, including the move within independent cinema toward a Beat
improvisational sensibility, the ascendance of structural lmmaking in the avant-garde of the
60s, and the prominence of cinéma vérité.
Annette Michelson’s On Reading Deren’s Notebook provides an insightful exploration of
the rigor and scope of Deren’s writings, as well as an important description of the relation
between theory and practice in her work.
The sense of a constant and intimate articulation of theory with practice, of a
relentless concern with systematization, the determination to ground innovative
practice in theory. And, of course, the manner in which both practice and theory
stand in a relation of fruitful, unresolved tension, of variance with those of her
time. Tracing the development of Deren’s work and of her role, one discerns a
particular logic evident only once before in the history of the medium.9
In her preface to An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, Deren takes an anti-reductionist
stance, drawing attention to the proliferation of statements and theories on which creative
practice is based. She states with conviction that “these are, almost without exception, infe-
rior to those works from which the principles were derived.”10 She proceeds to chart the
evolution of her own statements, noting how each lm would provoke new theories rather
than illustrate previous ones, thus creating a “dynamic and volatile” relationship between
theory and practice.11
40 Th e InT e r n a T I o na l Jou r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
The systematization that Michelson refers to above is of particular interest here in rela-
tion to interdisciplinarity, as is the notion of an “anagram of ideas” rather than a logical linear
progression. Here we nd Deren seeking innovative ways to work with the complex and
interrelated nature of an interdisciplinary practice. It is perhaps this refusal to orientate her
work in relation to one area of critical discourse that has resulted in the slow uptake of
her contribution by theorists and critics. Deren’s practice may, by its nature, be open to
indeterminate readings as each discipline allows for a particular perspective to be applied,
the meaning lying somewhere between these and the creative concerns of the people
involved in its making. Not surprisingly, any attempt at dening the genre, meaning or
plot of Meshes is problematic. These uncertainties become evident when we compare the
dierent approaches that have been taken to framing Meshes within an historical or theo-
retical context. Haslem refers to Deren’s work as “evasive and unclassiable,” stating that
Deren “actively rejected categorization as a surrealist and refused the denition of her lms
as formalist or structuralist.”12
Writers engage in various ways with issues surrounding authorship in textual analysis,
particularly in regard to reducing the complexity of a lm to a function of the biography
and the presumptive psychology of an author. Rhodes highlights the dangers of this
approach in regard to Meshes, referring to the details of Deren’s life as being “dangerously
seductive,” suggesting that “Deren with her antipathy to the claim of the personal and the
biographical, would herself have been the rst to object to any emphasis on the facts of
her life as a way into an understanding of her work.”13 The biographical nature of Haslem’s
article does, to some extent, lead her in this direction. This approach, regardless, would
need to address the histories of both authors of Meshes. Rhodes perceives the lm as:
… a point of origin (that from which much later avant-garde lm-making ows),
a point of transition (the thing that connects the interwar avant-gardes to those
of the postwar period), a point of intersection (between the lives of two artists,
between male and female, lm and literature), an artefact of an extremely
personal—even Hermetic—modernist vision, and a document of political
Rhodes suggests that the remarkable characteristic of Meshes is that it manages to be all
these things simultaneously, and many more besides.
In addressing the interdisciplinary nature of Deren’s work, notions of collaboration are
of particular relevance. The question of the authorship of Meshes has always been disputed
and dicult. Haslem quotes lmmaker (and friend of Deren) Stan Brakhage, as well as histo-
rian of avant-garde cinema P. Adams Sitney, as stating that authorship should be attributed
solely to Hammid. On the other hand, Haslem aligns herself with the consensus of Deren’s
biographers in perceiving the project as a collaboration, with Hammid providing the
mechanical expertise to “realize images born from Deren’s imagination.”15 I would argue
that reducing Hammid’s role to one of mechanical expertise is unfortunate as it obscures
the conceptual level of a collaborative discourse that has much relevance to contemporary
One text that has become available online recently is Film and Music by Alexander
Hackenschmied (Hammid). While written a decade before the making of Meshes, it does
oer insight into his initiatives and strategies for experimental lm. Exploring the use of
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 4 1
language and concepts from one medium transposed to another, Hammid frames this
line of exploration in relation to his contemporaries at the Bauhaus School in Dessau. His
approach challenges the conventional relationships of collaboration as he explores the
possibility of a new medium, where neither music nor lm can be divided and performed
separately, because one part without the other would be unintelligible. This echoes the
relationship between dance and lm that Brannigan promotes as “cine-choreography.” It is
possible that Hammid’s ideas pregured Deren’s notion of lm form as an anagram where
the parts are inseparable from the whole. Along with his proposed title for the lm Music
of Architecture, this text suggests a preparedness on Hammid’s part to employ inter- and
transdisciplinary strategies across several disciplines for the purpose of one project.
Rhodes refers to the issue of the authorship of Meshes as vexing. He acknowledges that
his writing on the lm focuses on Deren far more than Hammid, and oers as an apology
his conviction that Meshes “emerges from a set of concerns and passionate commitments
that are native to Deren’s life and her trajectory” that preceded the making of the lm.16
However, Rhodes also points out that “Hammid was truly a man of cinema, whereas, in the
tremendous paper trail that documents her life prior to meeting Hammid, Deren makes
only the scarcest and most desultory of references to cinema.”17 Rhodes draws attention
to precedents in innovative lm form that can be seen in Hammid’s earlier work, most
notably the “startling intervention in point of view editing”18 that Hammid employs towards
the end of his early avant-garde lm, Aimless Walk (1930). Here we see the central char-
acter exchange glances with what we can only assume to be his double. In his article for
Film Culture, “Alexander Hammid: A Survey of His Film-making Career,” Thomas E. Valasek
interviews Hammid who describes how separating a person into multiple self-images had
always fascinated him. Valasek explores the key role this concept plays in Aimless Walk both
in terms of the lm’s structure and its integration of disparate elements:
Hammid skilfully dramatizes the idea of separation in the three climatic sequences
that end the lm. In the rst of the three, where the protagonist walks easy from
himself in the park, Hammid employs a panning technique that allows both of
the protagonist’s “selves” to appear in the same shot. After the camera follows the
man a short distance, it pans back to his original position, during which time the
actor has run behind the camera and repositioned him-self. The eect is startling.
Hammid follows up with point-of-view shots from both positions. In the second
sequence, where the protagonist hops a tram, Hammid cuts quickly and on action
to give the illusion that the man is again splitting in two before your eyes, even
though this time there is a cut. In the nal sequence Hammid superimposes the
water and the tram, the two unifying images of the protagonist’s “aimless walk,”
to suggest symbolically the forces which have split him. In each of the three
sequences Hammid employs carefully-implemented cinematic techniques which
strikingly realize the concepts of separation.19
The three self-images of Maya in Meshes of the Afternoon, along with the innovative use
of both architectural and natural environments, can be seen to extend and develop this
concept and aesthetic. Hammid explains that Deren “had poetic vision and was very
responsive to that kind of thing, too.”20 Deren’s subsequent two lms continue to explore
this line of work both through multiple self-images and through dierent actors being
42 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
substituted for the same character. Valasek also draws attention to structural similarities
between Aimless Walk and Meshes, particularly in the use of an almost double ending
where the nal shot opens up new interpretations.21 In Points of Resistance (1991/2002),
Lauren Rabinovitz recognises the lm’s stylistic and conceptual debt to Hammid’s rst lm.
She briey draws attention to Hammid’s contribution and his description of the collabo-
ration as being “so involved between the two of us that it’s hard to separate what was
one person’s idea and what was the other’s.”22 However, she suggests that the emotional
intensity and overall mood of the piece is dissimilar to his work. Valasek’s analysis concurs
with this as he suggests that Hammid brought “a study into the visual and intellectual
possibilities of a cinematic idea” while Deren involved the viewer emotionally, signicantly
inuencing “the overall tone and mood.“23 Rabinovitz suggests that the lm’s signicance
lies in its function as a “woman’s discourse that rewrites Hollywood’s objectication of
women by addressing a female subject who must contend with her own objectication.”24
Determining the signicance of the lm in this way establishes Deren’s contribution to
resisting the dominant forms and institutions in art and media, and Deren’s position in rela-
tion to feminist lm theory. However, opening up the lm’s value as a key interdisciplinary
text requires an approach that is ready to explore the genesis of ideas and collaborative
strategies that brought this lm into being.
Both Jackson and Rhodes explore the range of archival material on Deren’s life and
lmmaking with regards to the issue of collaboration.25 Jackson notes that what becomes
apparent is a contrast of personalities: “Hammid’s quiet manner and preference for calm
versus Deren’s forceful presence and frenetic pace.”26 Rhodes notes Hammid’s tendency for
self-eacement and his reluctance to be credited, in contrast to Deren who showed herself
to be a great self-promoter.27 Valasek draws attention to how Hammid contributed greatly
at a conceptual level to many of the projects he worked on but rarely took sole credit for
a directorial role. He appears to have been most comfortable in collaborative roles and in
collective ways of working.
Valasek rst locates Hammid in the 1920s as one of the few rebellious “malcontents”
in Prague who advocated for “nonconformist views about form and meaning in art [and]
who wrote about practical applications of ‘nova fotorae’ and ‘novy lm.’ They argued
for lm, the ‘seventh art’…and for Czechoslovakia to develop an avant-garde cinema.”28
Here the commonalities with Deren’s writings and her contribution to American avant-
garde cinema become apparent. However, Hammid’s interest went beyond developing
an aesthetic avant-garde, as we see when he writes in 1930: “the social and ideological
reform of the lm industry is the highest goal of the independent lm.”29 Valasek suggests
that in his extensive career Hammid would “strive to manifest ‘the free spirit’ in a variety of
commercial, documentary and experimental lms.”30 In the years immediately prior to the
making of Meshes, Hammid concentrated on documentary lmmaking. Rhodes describes
the complex circumstances that led to his emigration to the USA, where, having worked
with American leftist documentary lmmaker Herbert Kline on his lm Crisis (1939)—a
lm documenting the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia—Kline, fearing for Hammid’s life,
arranged for his immigration.31 It was only on meeting Deren that Hammid applied himself
once again to experimental lmmaking. It is of note too that after their separation, Hammid
pursued his career through a range of roles in independent and mainstream lm projects
rather than establishing himself as an avant-garde lmmaker.
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 4 3
Jackson exposes some interesting contradictions in the biographical statements
included in Deren’s publicity material that somewhat inaccurately present her subsequent
lm practice as one in which she performed all the roles herself, despite the continuing
involvement through to 1946 of Hammid and their photographer friend Hella Heyman. This
notion of an individual “doing it all” may have been inspiring to subsequent avant-garde
lmmakers but there are possible negative implications here in terms of Deren’s legacy. This
notion may have created a mystifying and unachievable premise for lmmakers who have
attempted to make similar lms on their own, with disappointing results. It continues to be
the case that Deren inspires individual lmmakers, but this can easily become an obstacle
to development without proper appreciation of the working processes and the creative
discourse involved in her work. In addition, this misconception may also have encouraged
a disregard for the range of collaborative contributions (both practical and conceptual) that
occur in avant-garde lmmaking.
It is notable that following her careful examination of the available texts, Jackson, in
her lmography, credits Hammid and Deren as conceptual collaborators and lists Hammid
as co-editor and one of the camera operators on Deren’s three subsequent lms. In direct
contrast, Brannigan’s lmography lists Meshes as directed by Deren alone, and she makes
no reference in her book to Hammid. Perhaps this is a function of her stated decision to
focus on the contributions of female dancers, lmmakers and choreographers in order to
redress the gender imbalance in critical discourse around lm and dance.32 If collabora-
tion is a signicant aspect of the interdisciplinary practice of “lmdance,” then this omission
is a limiting factor of Brannigan’s book. Hammid’s later lm with Martha Graham may
also be of interest here.33 In Martina Kudlácek’s documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren
(2002), we see Hammid holding a storyboard for Deren’s later lm A Study in Choreography
for Camera (1945) and describing the decisions “we” made, suggesting that the creative
discourse established in the making of Meshes continued through to this lm. Authors have
commented on the marked shift in aesthetics and form in the lms Deren made after her
creative association with Hammid. Haslem comments that the lm Meditation on Violence
(1948) “is marked by a lack of dynamism and mobility that we have come to expect from
Deren’s camera,”34 while Rhodes notes that by comparison her subsequent lms “irt with a
kind of formlessness.”35
The interest in collaborative strategies has become well established in contempo-
rary art in the past two decades. We now have the opportunity to place Meshes within a
more extensive critical debate. In The Collaborative Turn, Maria Lind overviews the range of
contemporary strategies for collaborative authorship in art, highlighting the often ideolog-
ical and political motivations of those involved. In the pre-feminist context where a woman’s
contribution could more easily be subsumed, Deren’s choices were limited. However, given
her earlier commitments to the collective endeavour of radical socialist activism, along
with her interdisciplinary strategies and concepts of ritualistic form, it is worth considering
whether given today’s context, Deren would dene her practice in terms of collaboration
rather than that of a sole agent.
At the time of the making of Meshes, Deren saw herself as a poet and had studied the
ideas of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. This orientation may oer us some insight into her approach
to authorship. In his 2007 article, “T.S. Eliot and the Art of Collaboration,” Ronald Schuchard
brings a current perspective to the range of collaborative strategies employed by Eliot, and
4 4 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l J ou r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
to the struggles he had in reconciling this with the modernist ideal of authorship. Schuchard
focuses on The Waste Land and how this emblem of modernism was a suppressed collabora-
tion formed through editing by Ezra Pound and Vivienne Eliot. The Waste Land is an interesting
text because it exposes the processes of collaboration that lie behind the modernist notions
of authorship that were an important part of Deren’s formation as an artist. Although Deren
would not have known that The Waste Land was a collaborative text, even with that knowl-
edge it is unlikely that the questions of power involved in authorship would have allowed
her to fully acknowledge her collaborative processes as a female artist. Nonetheless, this is an
important context for interpreting her work.
Lind goes beyond both the ideological rationales for collaboration and the struggles
that can surround notions of authorship to locate a key creative premise for collaboration.
She illustrates this through a quote from the curatorial collective What, How & for Whom,
who state that their criteria for selecting collaborative practice is that “It has to result in
something that would otherwise not take place; It simply has to make possible that which
is otherwise impossible.”36 Meshes gives evidence of this criteria and of Deren’s astute
choice of collaborative strategy, with the discourse between the two authors resulting
in remarkable work that neither could have achieved or even imagined on their own.
Rhodes explores how this was achieved, noting that Deren and Hammid innovated with
the materials and environment that they had, while not letting assumptions and previous
experience limit what was possible. Rhodes draws attention to how
Deren and Hammid suspended themselves between intense artists’ intentionality
(think of the precision of Hammid’s in camera eects) and a kind of intentionless
ignorance about what they were up to (think of Deren’s proposal: “Why don’t we
make a lm”).37
Meshes is interesting because of the way that the openness associated with interdisciplin-
arity is coded into the fabric of the lm. Meshes starts with a shot of a pathway; walls and
vegetation demark the space as it snakes uphill into the curved distance dissolving from
sight. In the foreground, a ower (a synthetic poppy) descends into frame held by an arm,
which we soon perceive to be that of a mannequin; the arm vanishes leaving the ower on
the ground. The lm is shot in black and white; bright sunshine casts shadows through the
trees and fences on to the path, rendering the scene full of ambiguities of space and form.
In a second shot from amongst the shadows cast by the trees on the path, we see another
shadow of a gure, a young woman progressing towards the ower. Her shadow reaches
out, its form touching the ower, before the physical hand joins it in the frame in the act of
picking up the ower.
In this opening scene Deren and Hammid depart from any notion of representing or
illustrating her poetic ideas. Instead we see a process of an interdisciplinary nature, where
ideas, concepts and literary poetic devices are reconceived in relation to those of lm-
making. The authors took a broader approach to medium specicity than the exclusivist
approach promoted by Clement Greenberg.38 Deren states that
what particularly excited me about lm was its magic ability to make even the
most imaginative concept seem real. For if the tree in the scene was real and true,
the event which one caused to occur beneath it seemed also real and true.39
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 4 5
This indexical nature of lm, its ability to be perceived as not just “representing” but
somehow “being” the thing itself or at least having a causal relation to it, is described by
the ower is left amid the shadows cast on the pavement, their movement an
index of the trees, whose movement we have already seen—movement that is
itself an index of the wind that we cannot see except through the trees and their
Rhodes suggests that the directors use this medium-specic quality of lmmaking to its
fullest extent to establish with the viewers a language of how we are to engage with the
Nothing could be simpler than this opening sequence, and yet few opening shots
of any lm are so strange. What begins as cinematic realism (an image of the world,
“as it is”) converts, within seconds into a demonstration of cinematic artice.41
This encourages the viewer to cease creating a real world of logical consequences and
to instead “marvel at the whole nature of the art of lmmaking to produce such startling
In contrast to Rhodes, Haslem gives less attention to the key cinematic innovations in
Meshes and focuses more on narrative devices, on the circularity that results in “unnerving
repetition” and on a “vision in crisis” constructed from a “myriad of eyeline matches and
mismatches.”43 She also draws attention to how lmic techniques such as jump cuts and
montage are used to incorporate a fascination with the instability of objects that she
associates with the Gothic.44 However, placing the lm in relation to categories such as
“experimental” or “gothic” runs the risk of concealing how the lm challenges such catego-
ries and actively dees denition.
Rhodes’ approach highlights how introducing the analysis of the lm form and
medium specicity of Meshes can liberate it from reductionist readings. For example, he
points to how attempts at reading the lm with an eye towards understanding how it
satises questions of female agency “run the risk of producing answers that are too ready-
to-hand.”45 He gives the example of the scene where, following the kiss, the poppy turns
into a knife, which “Maya 3” reaches for and smashes against Hammid’s face. As we discover,
this “face” is but a reection in a shattered mirror, the gaps in its broken shards revealing the
ocean. In the next shot we see the shards landing on the beach only to be washed over by
the sea. At rst glance this could be interpreted as gender warfare. Whilst warning against
over-simplistic readings, Rhodes acknowledges Lauren Rabinovitz’s sophisticated interpre-
tation of the lm as signifying the destruction of “the objects governing a woman’s sexual
reection, the man who is both male sexuality and a mirror for narcissistic female sexuality,”
Maya has “literally reached out to control the denition of herself.”46 Rhodes appreciates
the way that Deren and Hammid exploit and confront the specicity of the lm medium,
suggesting that this scene also “constitutes a revolt against the containment of cinematic
structures.”47 In this sense, our engagement in the lmmaking illusion is exposed or shat-
tered by Deren and Hammid into unresolved possibilities.
Several writers focus on the window shot, referred to by Hammid and Deren as their
“Botticelli.”48 This shot is the apex and point of reection in Hammid and Deren’s multiple
46 Th e InT e r n a T I o na l Jou r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
self-image strategies, and can be seen to embody the complexity of meaning in the lm.
Having seen “Maya 2” approach the window, place her hand on the glass, and gaze down
on the path, we then see a shot from her point of view as the mirror-faced gure walks past,
followed by “Maya 3” in futile pursuit. It is at this point that the “Botticelli” shot occurs. It is taken
from outside of the house at window level, the reection in the glass of foliage against the
sky combining with the image of Maya’s hair. This shot would be impossible without the use
of a crane, so we should assume that Hammid and Deren again employed their lm artistry
and resourcefulness in using another more accessible window selected for this combination
of reection and transparency. Haslem points out that this creates an equivalence to a lmic
superimposition. As she writes, we “identify with the enigmatic expression at the window,
silently observing from within. Although her eyes indicate distrust, she is not desperate to
escape her domestic space, but she is not entirely comfortable immured behind the glass.”49
Here we nd Haslem quickly revising her interpretation of Maya’s expression from one that
is enigmatic to one of distrust, suggesting a more sinister and melodramatic interpretation.
While Rhodes joins Haslem in interpreting the shot in relation to a woman’s containment in
a domestic space, he suggests that it is an image of “Inside-ness pressed up against outside-
ness,” which condenses the lm’s focus on interiority and making the internal external.50 At the
moment it appears in the lm, this “image operates somewhat like a fulcrum of a chiasmus,
with the versions of herself before and behind her.”51 As Rhodes suggests, it can be seen to
function as a metonymic signier for the lm project as a whole. He points to a metaphorical
equivalence between the nature of the window’s framing and the functioning of cinema
itself. Supported by the fact that the woman in the image is identiable both as the central
character and as co-author of the lm, he navigates the complexity of its meaning, suggesting
that as her hands press against the membrane of glass it operates as both the boundaries
of domestic containment and metaphorically as the skin of the cinematic image itself.52 In
my own reading of the lm I do not perceive the “distrust” in this gaze that Haslem refers
to, but instead I experience a calm, allowing curiosity as she observes her own cycles, and
invites us to join her in that quality of observation. Perhaps this has something in common
with Haslem’s suggestion that “in this still shot she establishes a silent connection with the
eyes, suggesting the possibility for reverie or even hallucination.”53 Haslem strangely blurs the
distinction between the still image used for publicity and the moving image in the lm. She
also leaves us unclear to whom she is referring, whether it is the central character of the lm,
the lmmaker herself, or both: as she writes, “it is an image that suggests the most compel-
ling themes of her lm work: dreaming, reection, rhythm, vision, ritual and identity.”54 It is
questionable how this shot suggests rhythm and ritual, and indeed identity. Perhaps Haslem
is looking to attribute too much to this image. When she says “this still shot” perhaps she is
referring to the moving image that has a quality of stillness. While it may be valid to critique
Haslem’s writing, it is however more interesting to view these possible contradictions and
inconsistencies as a measure of Deren and Hammid’s success in engaging the viewer. Rhodes
experiences a liberation in the ways in which the lm continually sets up and breaks expecta-
tions, in its plasticity and indeterminacy.55 Arguably, Haslem’s metonymic consideration of the
still and moving image provokes her to attempt to say too many things for the brevity of her
article. However, that one image can evoke such a nexus of ideas, experiences and associa-
tions is to some extent indicative of the resonances of Deren’s body of work, though it is also
possible that Haslem’s observations are over-determined by the form of a biographical article,
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 4 7
which inevitably tends to read the work as a sign of the author and the author’s oeuvre as a
whole. It is of interest that this same shot provokes Rhodes to use such words as “metonym”
and “fulcrum of a chiasmus,” interdisciplinary applications of literary devices which echo
Deren’s conceptual use of the form of the “anagram.”
It is in Deren’s theoretical work that we can look for the key to her thinking about inter-
disciplinarity, though her exploration of these issues is far from straightforward. Jackson
notes a tension in Deren’s writing, as Deren warns against adapting other forms into lm,
particularly novels and theatre, and yet seeks out analogous concepts and methods in
poetry in particular, and also in dance and music.56 The essential nature of lm is one of
openness and interdisciplinarity. This leaves lm vulnerable to becoming subservient to
other forms. We can see Deren’s approach as challenging the reduction of lm to a form of
interdisciplinarity dominated by the practices and constructs of mainstream theatre and
literature. Deren is, for example, not advocating a lm about poetry or about dance, but is
striving instead for an innovative translation of the concepts, and creative impulses of these
disciplines into the very form, construction and conception of the lm itself. This innovative
approach—involving a playing o of the constructs, concepts and languages of dierent
disciplines—has similarities to that of Hammid in Film and Music 1930. This characteristic is
central to Deren’s work and is therefore crucial to any attempt to speak of it as interdisci-
plinary. In order to examine this more closely, it is useful to explore similar practices that
have been identied in discourses that attempt to understand the nature of work across
disciplines. In relation to health research, Aboelela et al. survey a range of denitions for
interdisciplinary practice, within which the term transdisciplinary is used to dene those
practices, which employ translational innovations along with a high degree of synthesis
of ideas and methodologies.57 It is perhaps the “translational innovations” that distinguish
Deren’s practice and as such it may be necessary to make this distinction in terminology.
Authors have made a range of observations about the interdisciplinary relationships
between lmmaking and poetry that Deren developed and promoted. Jackson suggests
the engagement with the perceiver/audience central to Deren’s strategies in Meshes can
be seen to stem from Ezra Pound’s denition of the poetic image as “that which presents
an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”58 Rhodes suggests that T.S.
Eliot’s notions of depersonalisation informed Deren’s writings and her approach to the
collaboration where authenticity and expressivity come not from personality and subjec-
tive emotions but through the intensity of the artistic process.
Jackson draws attention to the equivalence in the construction of meaning in lm and
poetry, quoting Deren from Anagram, “the spatiotemporal manipulations made possible in
lmmaking and editing allow for an economy of statement akin to poetry where a complex
of meaning can be created that far transcends the few juxtaposed words.”59
The question of interdisciplinarity cuts across many of the analyses of Deren’s work.
Rhodes explores the relationship of interdisciplinarity in the nature of the collaborative
process, referring to Hammid’s recollection that Deren was constantly writing poetry, as
this was her main focus and ambition at that time. It was this focus that provided the
starting point through her poetic “images” on paper, which he would visualize in relation to
his knowledge and formal experimentation with lm.
Brannigan observes the relationship of the symbolist poets to modern dance, particu-
larly in regard to Loïe Fuller, icon of the symbolist poetic imagination, who she perceives as
48 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jo u r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
a precursor to Deren in her utilisation of the technologies of her time to create new forms
of choreographic art.60 However, it is interesting to note that she does not take this connec-
tion with poetry further in relation to Deren and Meshes.
Deren imports this interdisciplinarity into how she describes her lms as variously
“chamber lms,” “cine-poems,” and “choreographies for camera.”61 Jackson further develops
this, suggesting that Deren’s “adaptation of her literary mentors’ aesthetics provides her
with an established philosophical paradigm through which she could argue for lm’s legiti-
mate status as an art form.”62
A specic parallel emerges between imagist principles and Deren’s strategies for
performance in lm. Brannigan quotes Deren: “Movements should be rather an extension
and perfecting of a normal movement so that audience [sic] is kinaesthetically identied
with them, under illusion [sic] that they too are capable of it.”63 This approach is echoed to
some extent in a principle of the imagist poets that Jackson locates in Deren’s writing: “to
use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-
exact, nor merely decorative word.”64 Brannigan notes that the performances in Meshes do
not simply present everyday utilitarian behaviour but instead have “movement trajectories
and loiter along gestural routes that escape into verticality through strategies that pre-
empt Bausch: repetition, exaggeration, abstraction, or rhythmic manipulation.”65 As the lm
progresses we see various sequences where Maya ascends the stairs:
In one, she exaggerates her run upstairs, kicking up her heels. In another her
progression is played out in slow motion and shot from several angles. In a partic-
ularly motile sequence her ascent is shot from above with a swinging camera,
Deren lunging from side-to-side as if the staircase is rocking. In her nal ascent
she appears frozen at various positions on the stairs through a series of shots from
a still camera.66
Brannigan notes that this approach to choreography has been adopted for live perfor-
mance, particularly in dance theatre, and that the more successful dance lms, such as
those of DV8 physical theatre, owe a lot to the approach to performance that Deren and
Hammid developed in Meshes of the Afternoon.
The notions of ritualistic form that Deren writes of are potentially signicant in consid-
ering the success in creating “lmdance.” Nichols links Deren’s interest in dance, play and
games with her concepts of ritual referring to her writings
The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic
action, but as a somewhat depersonalized element in a dramatic whole. The
intent of such depersonalization is not the destruction of the individual; on the
contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the
specialization and connes of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole
that, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of
its larger meaning.67
For Brannigan this is evident in Deren’s lms where “corporeal performance is one lmic
movement among many”68 with the choreography spreading across people and objects.
Brannigan suggest that this characteristic, along with lm’s inherent freedom to construct
time and space, has had a signicant inuence on the choreographers of today.69
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 4 9
This emphasis on depersonalization is supported by Rhodes’ close reading of Meshes.
Rhodes draws attention to the way in which Maya’s image is introduced in the lm and
notes that given the lm’s focus on one woman’s experience, the lmmaking withholds
any vision of her body for a remarkably long time. Instead, we are introduced to her by an
intricate composite of shadows and fragments in close-up, building up a complex rela-
tion to her environment and to the lmmaking artice. It is only within the second layer
of the dream or consciousness of Maya that we see her face. Rhodes suggests that due
to her striking, unusual beauty “we might have been too absorbed looking at her to be
able—or want to—look through her,”70 and that holding this moment back was important
to creating the engagement of the viewer that they wanted to achieve.71
Whilst advancing cinematic devices and discourses, Deren drew extensively on dance
and emphasised the proximity between the two artforms. In the discussion on Deren’s
lms as “cine-choreographies,” Brannigan refers to Deren’s tribute to dance and movement
as key structural elements in her lmmaking:
I feel that lm is related more closely to dance than any other form because, like
dance, it is conveyed in time … [It] conveys primarily by visual projection and …
it operates on a level of stylization—it is the quality of the movement that renders
Brannigan examines Meshes on the basis of choreography as the “primary organising meth-
odology,” arguing how the “vertical” form of the lm frees the gure from the linear cause
and eect progression of the horizontal form.73 “The movement ‘event’ of the lm passes
from Deren through her fragmented and multiple selves to the inanimate objects through
stylisation and lmic manipulation.”74 However, an interesting question arises here as to
whether Brannigan’s decision to identify dance and choreography as the determining
methodology and frame of reference really captures the transdisciplinarity of Meshes. There
is a lot of textual evidence (from her MA thesis onwards) that supports the notion that
Deren’s interest in the imagist poets inuenced her approach both to the performances
and to the lmmaking in Meshes. It is possible that the innovative choreographic nature
of Deren and Hammid’s lm form owes as much to Deren’s use of poetic concepts and
methodologies as explored by Jackson, and to the range of strategies brought by Hammid
(particularly in regard to space and architecture), as it does to those of dance choreography.
Deren and Hammid’s agility in engaging a wider range of principals and conceptual frame-
works is perhaps crucial to their success in making “dancelm.” This approach may have
liberated their work from the expectations and practices surrounding live dance perfor-
mance, choreography, and indeed from the conventions and assumptions surrounding the
practice of lmmaking.
In conclusion, I would suggest that there is value in challenging the dominant notion
of Deren as sole conceptual author of her lms, a notion promoted to some extent by
Deren and perpetuated by writers such as Haslem and Brannigan. Arguably, by omitting
Deren’s collaborative strategies in Meshes, Brannigan misses a potentially valuable aspect of
this interdisciplinary practice. Looking at Deren’s work as collaborative and interdisciplinary
has the potential to oer contemporary artists a richer and more achievable model to draw
on in their work and opens up the range of possible readings of the lm. Valasek’s article
is of particular value in this respect. Collaboration seems to have an important relation to
50 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
interdisciplinarity in a lm like Meshes due to the dierent conceptual and methodological
frameworks brought to the project by its co-creators. It is beyond the scope of this essay to
fully examine this suggestive relationship, though it certainly warrants further investigation.
With regard to the most recent developments in research into Deren, Rhodes’ close
reading of Meshes is particularly valuable to interdisciplinary lm practice in liberating the
lm from the reductionist tendencies of any one theoretical discourse. In doing so, he
exposes a work, which by its intention, nature, and creative processes dees denition.
Brannigan emphasises interdisciplinarity as something that Deren oers to contemporary
practice. However, she limits her exploration of Deren’s work to a study of the relationship
between dance and lm. Deren’s notion of an “anagram of ideas” points to a more complex
integration of strategies. While Brannigan’s singular approach oers a valuable analysis from
a choreographic perspective, it has limitations in regard to the range of interdisciplinary
strategies employed by the authors and how these inform one another.
Jackson highlights important tensions in Deren’s approach to interdisciplinarity,
exposing the need for a more precise denition of her process. Deren warns against
adapting or integrating the forms and accepted practices of other disciplines into lm,
and yet she seeks out analogous concepts, employing translational innovations in regard
to poetry, dance, and music. “Transdisciplinary” may be a more appropriate term for her
process and for the resulting lm that characteristically resists reductive interpretations.
Michelson oers an important contribution to appreciating Deren’s work from a contem-
porary perspective. When she writes, of the lmmaker’s “sense of a constant and intimate
articulation of theory with practice, of a relentless concern with systematization, the determi-
nation to ground innovative practice in theory,” we can read this in terms of Deren’s endeavour
to discipline the shifting elements and complexity of a transdisciplinary practice.75
1. A sound score by Teiji Ito was added by Deren in 1959.
2. See Michelson, On Reading Deren’s Notebook.
3. Clark et al., The Legend of Maya Deren.
4. Jackson, The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren.
5. See The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren.
6. Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, 13.
7. Mulvey, 114.
8. Brannigan, Dancelm.
9. Michelson, On Reading Deren’s Notebook, 48.
10. Deren, An Anagram of Ideas, 35.
11. Ibid, 35–36.
12. Haslem, Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema, 5.
13. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 13.
15. Clarke, Hodson, Neiman in Haslem, The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema, 4.
16. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 13.
17. Ibid., 50.
18. Ibid., 41.
19. Valasek, Alexander Hammid: A Survey of His Film-Making Career, 282.
on c oll a b o r a T I o n a n d I nT er d I S c I Pl I n a r I T y : Me S h e S o f T h e a fT e r n o o n 5 1
22. Valasek quoting Hammid in Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, 56.
23. Valasek, Alexander Hammid: A Survey of His Film-Making Career, 284.
24. Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance, 56.
25. Clark et al., The Legend of Maya Deren.
26. Jackson, The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren, 37.
27. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon.
28. Valasek, Alexander Hammid: A Survey of His Film-Making Career, 251.
29. Hammid cited in Ibid, 252.
30. Ibid, 252.
31. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon.
32. Brannigan, Dancelm.
33. Hammid, Alexander, and Martha Graham, Night Journey.
34. Haslem, Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema, 4.
35. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 86.
36. Lind, The Collaborative Turn, 29.
37. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 92.
38. See Greenberg, Modernist Painting
39. Deren cited in Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 53.
40. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 51.
41. Ibid, 51.
43. Haslem, Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema.
45. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 90.
46. Ibid, 89–91.
47. Ibid, 91.
48. Hammid cited in Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon.
49. Haslem, Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema, 12.
50. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, 76.
51. Ibid, 75.
53. Haslem, Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema, 2.
54. Ibid., 2.
55. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon.
56. Jackson, The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren.
57. Aboelela et al., Dening Interdisciplinary Research.
58. Jackson in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde,60.
59. Deren cited by Jackson in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde,63.
60. See Brannigan, Dancelm.
61. Jackson in Nichols, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, 51.
62. Jackson, The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren, 118.
63. Deren in Clark et al., 268, cited in Brannigan, Dancelm, 120.
64. Jackson, The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren, 117.
65. Brannigan. Dancelm, 122.
66. Ibid., 123.
67. Deren, An Anagram of ideas, 20.
52 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
68. Brannigan, Dancelm, 113.
70. Rhodes, Meshes, 69.
72. Brannigan, Dancelm, 120.
73. Ibid., 114.
74. Ibid., 124.
75. Michelson, On Reading Deren’s Notebook, 48.
Aboelela et al. “Dening Interdisciplinary Research.” Health Services Research 42 (2007): 329–346.
Brannigan, Erin. Dancelm: Choreography and the Moving Image. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Clark, VèVè, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: Documentary Biography and
Collected Works. Vol. 2. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1984.
Deren, Maya. An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film. In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film, edited by
Bruce R. McPherson, 35–109. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 2005.
Haslem, Wendy. “Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema.” Senses of Cinema (2002). Accessed 15
Jan. 2011. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/deren.html
Hackenschmied [Hammid], Alexander. “Film and Music.” Film Quarterly 1 (1933): 152–5. Accessed 15 Oct 2012.
Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a
Vengeance, 1957-1969. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Jackson, Renata. The Modernistic Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren (1917-1961). New York:
Lind, Maria. “The Collaborative Turn.” In Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and
Collaborative Practices, edited by Maria Lind, Johanna Billing, and Lars Nilsson, 15–31. London: Black Dog
Publishing Limited, 2007.
Michelson, Annette. “On Reading Deren’s Notebook.” October 14 (1980): 47–54. http://www.jstor.org/
Mulvey, Laura. “Feminism, Film and Avant-Garde.” In Visual and Other Pleasures, 111–126. London: MacMillan,
Nichols, Bill. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Rabinovitz, Lauren. Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–71.
2nd ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991/2003.
Rhodes, John David. Meshes of the Afternoon: BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan for British Film
Schuchard, Ronald. “T.S. Eliot and the Art of Collaboration.” Modernism/modernity 14, no. 4 (November 2007):
Valasek, Thomas E. “Alexander Hammid: A Survey of His Film-Making Career.” Film Culture 67–68–69 (1979):
Aimless Walk (1930). Dir. Alexander Hammid/Hackenschmied. Czechoslovakia. Accessed 15 Dec. 2011. http://
In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002). Martina Kudlácek. Zeitgeist Films.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid.
Night Journey (1960). Dir. Alexander Hammid, and Martha Graham. New York: Phoenix/BFA. Clip available: http://
Pas de deux for Dancer and Camera
in Maya Deren’s Films
An expansive interest in dance guided Maya Deren’s ambitions even before she
began to make lms. She served as secretary for progressive choreographer and
research anthropologist Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe in 1942, touring with
their production of the musical Cabin in the Sky. That same year, she published an article on
religious possession and dance in the American journal Educational Dance. She was fond of
dancing both formally and informally: friends recall her dancing at the slightest provocation.
Then, in her rst lms, including Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944), Deren
embraced “dancerly” movement as one of several ways of producing meaning outside of
narrative paradigms.1 By the time she made A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), her
relationship to dance-lm was solidied. Then and thereafter, she consistently collaborated
with trained dancers and talented choreographers (Talley Beatty, Rita Christiani, Frank
Westbrook, Anthony Tudor, Jean Erdman) over several lm projects. Further, she partici-
pated in lectures and discussions on lm and dance, and she published articles in venues
such as Dance magazine, articulating her aims for using dance in her lms. She began to
categorize several of her lms as “choreographies for camera,”2 compared their form to
dance forms, and reected at length on how the two media could be combined towards
the goal of a wholly new artistic expression. Her investment in dance, as a lmmaker, was
impressive and sustained across her career.
Deren invented a unique aesthetic for lmed dance that drew on her own theories
of cinema; on current trends in modern dance, the art world, and anthropology; and on
the example of several cinematic predecessors. In his recent book Screendance: Inscribing
the Ephemeral Image (2012), Douglas Rosenberg outlines some of the artistic debts owed
by Deren’s expression of a relationship between camera and dancer, noting that her work
belongs to a “continuum of production that ows from a rhizomatic network of sources,”3
including Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographic motion studies as well as the “partic-
ular type of physicality” in performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.4 Further,
he notes the inuence of modernist artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, who
were experimenting with the eects of movement in their work—work which came to
include the cinema.5 Indeed, it is certain that a wide range of artists, including Loïe Fuller,
Fernand Léger, René Clair, and Germaine Dulac, are indisputable forerunners to what Deren
developed as a lm-dance aesthetic, more or less directly. For instance, Dulac’s abstract lm
Thèmes et variations (1928) combines the movements of a dancer with parallel movements
in nature and machinery, predating Deren’s similar use of dancers within her mise-en-scène;
likewise the slow motion of the funeral procession in Clair’s Entr’Acte (1924) predicts Deren’s
own investigations into how the manipulation of lm time creates rhythms within other-
wise mundane events. Deren experimented with combining cinematic movement and
54 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
dance movement in ways that are indebted to such artists, and even as she forged her own
aesthetic, it developed with strong parallels to their earlier work.6
Deren’s investment in dance expanded her sense of the purview of cinema; her notion
of cinematic specicity, for example, came as a result of using cinematic devices to connect
with the rhythms of dance in her lms. In this way, she extended the reach of modern
dance’s coincident trend to include natural movements (e.g., following the later develop-
ments championed by the Judson Church dancers7) by showing how such movements
performed in compelling combination with cinematic movements might augment both
media according to their special features.8 For example, in the movement of Deren’s hair at
the end of the rst sequence in Ritual in Transgured Time (1946), Deren manipulates tempo-
rality in a slow-motion study to make time unfold in an unfamiliar way. Correspondingly, the
sequence initiates a compelling, dance-like rhythm. In Deren’s longest and most complex
statement of lm theory, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film, published that same
year, she describes her reasons for shooting an action (shaking one’s hair) in this fashion:
When a fast turning is reduced by slow-motion, it still looks natural, and merely as
if it were being performed more slowly; the hair, however, moving slowly in the
lifted, horizontal shape possible only to rapid tempos, is unnatural in quality. Thus
one creates a movement in one tempo which has the qualities of a movement of
another tempo, and it is the dynamics of the relationship between these qualities
which creates a certain special eectiveness, a reality which can only be achieved
through the temporal manipulation of natural elements by the camera as an art
Deren attempts the kind of shot she describes here rst in her climb up a ladder of drift-
wood in At Land,10 but such an eort gains complexity as it unfolds in Ritual in Transgured
Time. In this later lm, Deren appears, turning her head in slow motion while she vivaciously
talks and winds yarn with the character played by Rita Christiani (one of Katherine Dunham’s
dancers). As Deren suggests in her writings, the slow motion of this moment aords the
spectator the ability to analyze the subtlest intricacies of the gure’s movement: intricacies
inaccessible to the unassisted eye. The way the yarn moves, the nuances of Deren’s facial
expression, and the broader gestures of her bodily movement are broken down into an
entirely new rhythm, which is revealed more potently in the slower motion eected by the
camera. We see the fast, graceful, “dancerly” movements of the actor (as lmed) intersected
by the slow motion of the camera, making a new rhythm of the two in partnership.
Moreover, the slow-motion movement underlines options available to the cinematic
medium for expressing a rhythmic sense of time. The shots are cut between Rita Christiani
and Deren winding the yarn into a ball together, and Anaïs Nin standing in the threshold
of a doorway beyond. First, the lm depicts Christiani turning her head in “real” time, at a
regular, unhurried pace. In slight slow motion, Nin turns her head to look away from the
women. The image of turning, shared by these three women across several shots, commu-
nicates the shifting relationships among them (at rst Christiani seems to feel welcomed by
Deren, then alienated as Deren disappears within the space of Christiani turning towards
her). The rhythm of this simple gesture is played out in several dierent temporal registers:
we have someone turning quickly but depicted slowly via camera time; we have someone
turning slowly in both camera and real time; and we have three people turning individually
Pas d e d e u x f or da n c er a nd c aM e r a I n Maya de r e n ’S fIl M S 55
at a normal speed in real time but slowed or extended by the way Deren draws that collec-
tive turn across several shots. By cutting to close-ups of the yarn or to a longer shot of
the three women in a line, Deren further attenuates the action of turning and contextual-
izes it in an activity (creating the ball of yarn, women gathering in a room). The fugue of
rhythms binds their activity together and underlines the feeling of how time passes via
these multiple indications of cinematic temporality.
There are several ways that Ritual in Transgured Time explores rhythm according to
cinematic modes. For instance, it underlines a specically cinematic rhythm in its sequence
that takes place among statues, where it freezes certain frames to highlight cinema’s depen-
dence upon and simultaneous ability to manipulate a relationship between stasis and
motion. The fact of making the dancing gures like statues also evokes a metaphorical rela-
tionship, asserting kinship between the mobile gures and the statues among which they
frolic. Rhythm, deriving from alternation from stasis into motion, underlies the nature of the
cinematic medium: twenty-four still frames per second allowing for the illusion of collective
movement of those frames (and the images depicted in them). Such rhythmical relation-
ships in fact drove Deren’s investment in dance as cinematic subject and lm-theoretical
touchstone, which has corollaries in several of her passions beyond lmmaking, including
ne arts, anthropology, and poetry. She was an incorrigible touch-à-tout, who tried her hand
at many things, perhaps partly to nd the best avenue for expressing her ideas. As a result,
she rened and honed her lm practice cross-medially. Deren drew important conclusions
about lm art based on issues she explored through dance and poetry in particular, in that
both depend on a sense of rhythm that Deren derived from these models and expressed in
vertiginous spatial and ideational mobility within and between the frames of her lms.
Deren displayed an active interest in poetic form from an early age. This interest devel-
oped in important ways throughout her short lmmaking career, and is most resonant
in her treatment of dance on lm. Poetry, rhythm and dance serve as keys for under-
standing the primacy of temporal investigation and reinvention in her lms. As her rst
artistic outlet, poetry exerted an especially powerful inuence on both Deren’s concep-
tual thinking and her lmic conceits. From early amateur versifying for her school journal,
where she rst received encouragement for her poems (she wrote home from boarding
school in Switzerland, “I am hailed by all the girls as a sure poet”11), until soon after she met
her second husband Alexander Hammid and began to make lms, Deren identied as a
poet, claiming it as her artistic calling.12 Hammid later described the genesis of Meshes, on
which they collaborated in 1943, as deriving from Deren’s poetic sensibility combined with
his own cinematic expertise. He recalls that she was at that time “writing poetry always.
It was one of her main ambitions. So she started with poetic images on paper, and I was
visualizing them.”13 Their work together charted a movement from imagination to image
through rhythms determined both by movement within the frame and through editing,
where those rhythms were dictated equally by the duration of shots, slow or fast motion,
and spatial relationships among a set of images. This trajectory, from imagination to image
through rhythm, shaped Deren’s later work more broadly.
Poetic precedents in her lms are evident in the way Deren addressed questions of
temporality and rhythm. In fact, she mobilized several modes of poetic thinking in her
lm work: she used poetry as a metaphor for cinema itself, enlisted visual metaphors to
express ideas, theorized a “poetic” temporality as preferable for cinema (the “horizontal” and
56 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
“vertical” thesis Deren posited in greatest detail in 1953, at a symposium on poetry and lm
organized by Cinema 1614), and described the nature of the “image” in cinema in terms that
resonate with her work on Imagist poets prepared for her master’s thesis at Smith College.
Focused on the Symbolists and the Imagists, and exploring how each group resolved the
dilemma of how images generate poetic ideas, Deren’s thesis culminated in a chapter on
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Pound’s pronouncements about the directness of the image—e.g.
“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”—were
refashioned in Deren’s thinking according to the technical specicities of the lm camera.15
To convey her sense of the directness of expression that she posited was more
readily available to the visual image (she claimed poetic ideas could not convey images
so directly, in that they had to capitulate to the intermediary mechanism of language16),
Deren found a perfect vehicle in the gestural, charged expressivity of dance. For Deren’s
aesthetic, cinematic dance is most immediate and capable of conveying ideas, emotions,
and rhythms with directness and force. She put the resources of her background in poetry
and her exposure to dance to work in the moving image, oering an artistic method in
contradistinction to literary and theatrical linearity, chronology, and causality. Doing so, she
importantly recongured the temporal relationships within the artwork: her work favors
models that allow development according to recursions of time characteristic of memory,
dreams, and rituals. Deren’s lms accrue meaning based on the non-linear juxtaposition of
related actions and images, expressed both directly and indirectly through the paradigms
of poetry and dance.
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), the third lm Deren completed, succinctly
illustrates these inuences. A brief lm of barely three minutes duration, Study was
conceived by Deren as an equal partnership between the dancer and the camera: a pas
de deux. It progresses over four very short sequences, and features just one dancer, Talley
Beatty. He begins in a birch forest, moves to a living room and then to the Egyptian Hall
at the Metropolitan Museum before returning to the out-of-doors for the last part of the
piece. His body connects these disparate spaces, beginning a gesture in one setting and
completing it in another, making use of a standard device in continuity editing (a match on
action) for holding together a somewhat jarring discontinuity. Dance, rhythm, and poetic
devices provide virtually the entirety of the form and content for this lm.
The opening section of Study articulates one of several metaphorical relationships
introduced by the lm. It implicates man (Beatty) and nature (trees) by lming them both
as part of the natural movement within the setting. In his book Film at Wit’s End, lmmaker
Stan Brakhage describes the cooperation between the lm’s mise-en-scène and Beatty’s
movements, which “rhyme with all the little branches of the trees around him. So that he is
a rhyme with the trees. In fact, during the rst pan across, he can almost be missed as being
a tree.”17 On the level of the mise-en-scène, Beatty’s gure functions as if he were part of the
background; his body generates a sense of symmetry by being a graphic match within
the frame. Deren fashions the image so that Beatty mirrors his surroundings, implying a
relationship between natural movement (branches in wind) and creative movement within
the lm (the dancer among those branches), as well as outside of the lm (through the
movement of the camera).
The third section more fully elaborates such relationships. It begins with another match
on action, shifting the scene without warning from Beatty’s spin in a living room area to a
shot of his legs completing that spin on a new surface. He runs gracefully away from the
camera in what is revealed to be (as the camera tilts up) a long gallery.18 When he reaches
the end of the room, he turns and retraces his steps, returning to a position closer to the
camera and the same framing of his legs. Deren masks the spatial discontinuity by begin-
ning with a close view without contextualizing details, so we don’t immediately know he is
in a place other than where he began.19 The new space is further made strange, disjunctive,
by Deren’s use of a wide-angle lens, making the hall appear much longer than it actually
is. This exaggerated perspective, as Deren asserts, “by causing him to diminish in size very
rapidly, makes it seem as if he had covered a tremendous distance in a relatively short
time.”20 The camera assists in conveying the rhythm of the dance, but with new parameters
specic to its own devices and capacities.
The close-up of Beatty’s feet used as transition enlists synecdoche as another variation
on a metaphorical relationship, this one particularly apt for the fragmentation necessary to
generate close-up framing. Here, the feet stand for the dancer. The next shot underscores
this synecdoche by placing the dancer’s body in the gallery among sculptural objects (not
unlike the statuary sequence in Ritual in Transgured Time). His depiction takes on both
literal meanings (his art form mobilizes dance in an art-specic setting) and gurative
ones (he serves as a gure for the art Deren is creating, metaphorically compared with the
human-like art gures, and, as with the sundry states of fragmentation among the gures
in the hall, he is fragmented by the camera). Multiplying the metaphorical relationships,
Deren then cuts to a medium close-up of Beatty’s head and shoulders, with a Bodhisattva
head and shoulders also in medium close-up behind him. Beatty begins to spin, and in his
spin mimics the statue behind him. Like the Bodhisattva’s head, Beatty also occupies the
Fig. 1: A study of motion and rhythm in Ritual in Transgured Time (Maya Deren, 1946).
Pas d e d e u x f or da n c er a nd c aM e r a I n Maya de r e n ’S fIl M S 57
58 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
vantage point of multiple directions, especially when the spin accelerates and his head
becomes blurred (Fig. 2).
P. Adams Sitney has noted that this framing brings the two gures together to evince
a metaphorical relationship: “The implied metaphor identies the dancer, whose twirling
head seems to face all directions at the same time, with the statue and relates to the theme
of the ambiguity of space (here, direction).” Sitney further deems the resulting metaphor
a “compositional” metaphor, “one made by framing rather than by interrupting the action/
image with superimposition or intercutting.”21 This type of composition is a further elabo-
ration in Deren’s multiform uses of metaphor. She doesn’t underline the metaphor in the
same way that cutting between the statue and Beatty’s spin would: instead, the context of
the shot (the museum) provides a justication for the juxtaposition; the spectator is left to
piece the fragments of the shot together.
Echoing the statuary sequence in Ritual in Transgured Time, the relative stasis of the
statue—a stand-in for plastic arts more generally—draws attention to the dierence
cinema makes (motion), while the framing of the shot asks us to consider how the camera
expresses an idea. (Deren does not intercut, but she could have: both would express some-
thing, but this is more compact.) Of course, the Bodhisattva head associates Beatty with the
dancing gure Hevajra who occupies all directions and sees everywhere at once. For Beatty,
too, in his spin assisted by Deren’s acceleration of the motion, faces all directions at once: a
modern, technologically supported, cross-medial, and artistic expression of omniscience.
The combination of Beatty’s spinning movement with the camera’s varying speed of
movement underlines Deren’s lmic practice: she employs her camera not simply to record
Beatty’s dance, but to expose the uniquely harmonious cinematic/terpsichorean nature of
her endeavor. The way she describes this sequence in publicity materials and later articles
invokes her pride in having devised the way to achieve the shot, followed by a series of
metaphors that underlines how she thinks about the metaphorical qualities of this imagery
more generally. Beatty is a “dervish,” with the “frenzied whirling of a machine pace.”22 His
feet twirl him increasingly fast, “like spinning top.”23 In Deren’s lms, the eect of the shot—
its overall qualities in relation to other qualities across the lm, rather than its position in
the linear sequence of the sections or shots—takes precedence: “…in the course of the
shot, the camera speed was changed from extreme slow motion to extreme accelera-
tion. The movement, then, begins with a dreamlike quality and ends with the blurring of
a machine wheel.”24 Such comparisons should remind us again of Deren’s cinematic ante-
cedents, perhaps especially Dulac’s metaphors of movement in her abstract lm Thèmes
Fig. 2: The Bodhisattva Spin in A Study in Choreography for Camera (Maya Deren, 1945).
et variations, particularly in that both highlight a machine aesthetic compared metaphori-
cally to more ancient and/or natural forms, including of course dance itself.25 The chug of
machinery evoked by Deren carries Beatty over into the nal section of the lm, a return to
the woods by way of a leap, sustained for what Deren described as “a much longer period
than is humanly possible.”26 In a rhythmic, four-shot sequence, it depicts dance movement
complemented by cinematic movement (for example, Deren runs the leap backwards, so
that Beatty appears to lift eortlessly from a pirouette into the air). This set of shots, “a pas
de deux between camera and dancer,”27 as Deren put it, enables the body to surmount its
usual capitulation to gravity.
Dance in Deren’s lms engages the unique temporal possibilities of the cinematic
medium and its ability to conjure images of both an abstract and wholly realistic nature to
create a new cinematic reality. It does so by engaging with Deren’s thinking about poetry
and rhythm on a direct level: the temporality of the lm is recursive rather than linear,
and the images are composed with a mind to expose how such images might come into
being in the cinema. Those images are set in deliberate rhythm not only by the dancer’s
movements before the camera, but through the camera’s engagement and interaction
with those movements. By the three-way merger of her sense of poetic, terpsichorean, and
cinematic devices, she prompts a cross-medial investigation of ideas elevated by connec-
tions that drive her creative practice.
1. Elinor Cleghorn has posited a connection between Deren’s choreographic aesthetic and her unnished
project from the same time, Witch’s Cradle, as well. “Manus Operandi: Film, Sculpture, Choreography.” The
International Journal of Screendance 2 (Spring 2012): 129–139.
2. Deren, “Program Notes.”
3. Rosenberg, 35.
4. Ibid., 42.
5. Ibid., 42–47.
6. For an elegant, cogent, historically-invested, discussion that further situates these predecessors in relation
to Deren’s work, see Erin Brannigan’s Dancelm: Choreography and the Moving Image. Note, too, that Deren
acknowledges her interest in her predecessors in dance lm if not quite her sense of their inuence in reference
to the earlier cinematic avant-garde in France in her Anagram of Ideas on Film, Form, and Art.
7. The dancers aliated with the Judson Church (in Greenwich Village, New York City), where they practiced and
performed, tended to make dance out of everyday movements, so that the gesture of walking, for example,
would elicit a dance-like rhythm.
8. This action places Deren in the camp of media-specic theoreticians of cinema, where the properties that are
deemed unique for a particular medium are mobilized and highlighted to create art.
9. Deren, Anagram.
10. The editors of The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. I, Part 2: Chambers draw this parallel in their section “The Making
of At Land.” See Clark et al., 186.
11. Quoted in The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. I, Part 1: Signatures, 347.
12. Legend of Maya Deren, Vol I, Part 2, 186–87.
13. Hammid quoted in Legend of Maya Deren, Vol I, Part 2, from interviews conducted on September 4, 1975 and
August 3, 1976. Deren continued to write poetry even after she begins to identify as a lmmaker, though less
often than before.
14. For a detailed account of Deren’s ideas as expressed in the symposium, see the reprint of part of the
transcript of that event, “Poetry and the Film,” 171–186.
Pas d e d e u x f or da n c er a nd c aM e r a I n Maya de r e n ’S fIl M S 59
60 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
15. Pound, 3.
16. Legend I.2, 57.
17. Brakhage, 13.
18. This sequence was lmed in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
19. Deren describes the genesis of this shot in her article for Dance in 1945. Essential Deren: 222–223.
20. Ibid., 223.
21. Sitney, “Imagism,” 188. Sitney takes the term “compositional” metaphor from Eisenstein; see for example
22. Deren, “Original Plan for A Study in Choreography for Camera.”
24. Ibid. A very similar formulation occurs in “Choreography for the Camera,” op cit., 223.
25. The relationship of machinery and modernism to both mainstream and avant-garde lm practices,
particularly as it expresses cinematic rhythm (the cinema of course being itself a machine), has been explicated
in several recent works, including Kristin Whissel’s Picturing American Modernity: Trac, Technology and the Silent
Cinema, Lucy Fischer’s recent work presented for the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar in April, 2012,
“Modernity, Machine, Movies, Mind: Abel Gance’s La Roue,” and Tom Gunning’s essay on Chaplin, “Chaplin and the
Body of Modernity,” a talk given at the BFI international conference on Chaplin on 22 July 2005. The proceedings
of the entire conference are available on the BFI website: http://chaplin.b.org.uk/programme/conference/
26. Deren, “Choreography for the Camera,” 224.
27. Deren, “Program Notes.
Brakhage, Stan. Film at Wit’s End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers. New York: McPherson & Co., 1989.
Brannigan, Erin. Dancelm: Choreography and the Moving Image. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Clark, VèVè, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. I, Part 1: Signatures (Legend, I.1).
New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1988.
____.The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. I, Part 2: Chambers (Legend, I.2). New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1976.
Cleghorn, Elinor. “Manus Operandi: Film, Sculpture, Choreography.” The International Journal of Screendance 2
(Spring 2012): 129–139.
Deren, Maya. An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by
Bill Nichols, 267–322. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001.
____. “Original Plan for A Study in Choreography for Camera.” Maya Deren Collection (MDC), Howard Gotlieb
Archival Research Center, Boston University Library.
____. “Program notes.” February, 1946. MDC.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “Laocoön.” In Selected Works, Vol. II., edited by Michael Glenny and Richard Taylor, 109–202.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
Fischer, Lucy. “Modernity, Machine, Movies, Mind: Abel Gance’s La Roue.” Lecture for the Philadelphia Cinema and
Media Seminar, April, 11 2012. Fisher-Bennett Hall, University of Pennsylvania.
Gunning, Tom. “Chaplin and the Body of Modernity.” Lecture for the BFI international conference on Chaplin, 22
July 2005. Available: http://chaplin.b.org.uk/programme/conference/papers.html
“Poetry and the Film: A Symposium with Maya Deren, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler. Chairman, Willard
Maas. Organized by Amos Vogel.” Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, editor. New York: Cooper Square Press,
Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” In Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T.S. Eliot, 3–14. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.
Rosenberg, Douglas. Screendance: Inscribing the Ephemeral Image. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Sitney, P. Adams. “Imagism in Four Avant-Garde Films.” In Film Culture Reader, 195–199. New York: Cooper Square
Whissel, Kristen. Picturing American Modernity: Trac, Technology and the Silent Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2008.
“Art Is Energy”: Barbara Hammer Speaks
with Sarah Keller about the State of
Experimental Cinema after Maya Deren
Barbara Hammer is a visual artist primarily working in lm and video. She was recently
honored with retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (2011),
the Tate Modern, London (2012), and the Jeu de Paume, Paris (2012). Her work reveals
and celebrates marginalized peoples whose stories have not been told, and it engages
an audience viscerally and intellectually with the goal of activating them to make social
change. Her trilogy of documentary lm essays on lesbian and gay history has received
numerous awards: Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), History Lessons, (2000). Recent
lms, A Horse Is Not A Metaphor (2009), Generations (2010), and Maya Deren’s Sink (2011)
were awarded Teddy Awards for Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival.
HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, a book of memoirs and personal lm theory,
was published by The Feminist Press, City University of New York, and Fearless Frames: The
Films of Barbara Hammer at The Tate Modern will be released by Mousse Publishing, Milan,
Italy in 2013.
Sarah Keller rst became aware of Barbara Hammer’s work through her rst research
into Maya Deren’s work, specically from Hammer’s essay in tribute to Deren in Bill Nichols’
anthology Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (University of California Press, 2001).
Since then, she has become a great fan of Hammer’s work, and recently invited her to
lecture at Colby College, where it has generally been armed that during her visit Hammer
positively transformed people’s lives, not at all unlike the way Deren aected her own audi-
ences. Hammer’s lms draw on Deren’s example in certain ways, but of course they also
embrace their own rhythms, their own artistic investments and interests. Hammer and
Keller spoke about these issues in New York City in July 2012, and then continued the inter-
view over email in the months following.
Sarah Keller: We’re talking about things “after Maya Deren,” so I want to ask you about your
sense of Deren’s legacy for lmmaking. I also want to talk about how you have personally
picked up the mantle of her artistic plans or her way of advocating for experimental cinema
in general, through networks of distribution, awards, and the Creative Film Foundation, and
then talk a little bit about how those kinds of things have inuenced you. It might make
sense to start with your lm Maya Deren’s Sink, and the ways that you’ve taken up some of
the things that were dearest to Deren—how you’ve interacted with those issues recently.1
62 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
Barbara Hammer: Maya’s lms and writing and distribution strategies incredibly inu-
enced me, because I saw that in making work, you could also write about your ideas about
work, and then once you’d made it, you could distribute it, or exhibit it, and get it out in the
world yourself. Meanwhile, you needed to gain money for your lms, so you learned how
to write grant applications. Deren got the rst Guggenheim in lm, which I think is extraor-
dinary, and it was totally right for them to give it to her because lm is a ne art the way we
artists practice making it.2 Also of inuence is/was Maya’s complete dedication. Her life was
really committed to her work, I think, before anything else. That may be the hardest thing
to commit to in a world of relationships. The artist has to make the choice for the work, for
writing the book, over the family. This is pretty taboo in our society.
SK: Especially for women.
BH: Especially for women, exactly. I see Maya’s plans as still viable today. I try to show my
work at universities, as you know. Deren’s energetic self-distribution showed me a two-
pronged approach that’s often to the artist’s advantage. One can distribute her/his lms as
well as go through an established distribution outlet.
And Maya’s many letters to the editor of The Village Voice were important. For example,
the column on lm she wrote when Jonas Mekas went on vacation and asked her to take
over. She had other outlets too, such as magazine articles, and this meant she could write
about her own work even if other people didn’t (often the general public doesn’t understand
experimental lm). But if you talk about layers of memory represented by images or in Deren’s
case, “vertical cinema,” and explain it, and you’re not on a panel with Dylan Thomas—3
SK: Or Arthur Miller.
BH: Or Arthur Miller. Yes. You have a better chance to be understood. And you’re chal-
lenging your audience, too, because you’ve given them word concepts as well as image
concepts to work with in evaluating your work or experiencing it. Maya’s vitality and energy
have been remarked upon by so many people. I remember once in the late 70’s I was
rewinding lms, a very physical activity, and I kept repeating a mantra out loud: “Art is
Energy, Art is Energy.” That was and is my denition of “art.”
I think my work, being energetic as it is, reects my ideas as well. I’ve always found that
every lmmaker has her own personal, interior rhythm that she uses in the editing structure
and lming structure, and Deren’s was so dance-based, especially when we think of Meshes
of the Afternoon.
You make your rst lm, and you really don’t think of yourself in capital letters. You’re
just burning with your own energy. And then it’s made, and Dyketactics becomes a lm that
people talk about and suddenly you’re a lmmaker and you self-reect. That self-conscious-
ness and reection cuts down on your spontaneity. And I think it did Deren’s after Meshes
of the Afternoon. I know, after my ‘70s lms, in the ‘80s, when I turned to landscape, and I
turned to more structural cinema, the exuberance is there but in another fashion. It’s not in
the freedom of expression with the camera that we nd in Meshes, or maybe in Dyketactics.
SK: Well, that’s an interesting point, because (as we’ve talked about) the energy in Meshes
is part of Deren’s “perfect collaboration” with her then-husband, Alexander Hammid, who
used a very mobile camera. He was famous for being able to free up the camera, to walk
“arT IS e n er g y ” 63
it everywhere, basically doing a kind of steady cam without a steady cam. And in her lms
after Meshes, Deren doesn’t replicate that specic sort of mobility with the camera. But it
seems to me that maybe she depends on a more dynamic editing strategy at that point.
Would you agree with that?
BH: Dynamic in terms of bringing diverse images together. Meshes is conned to one house
and the sidewalk in front. But when she gets to At Land and she uses Buy Johnson’s studio
and is out on Long Island, in dierent locations, both the seaside and the orchard end up
butt-ended to each other, and we have a dierent cinema. She brings us into some kind of
global editing in her verticality and geographical discontinuities that become whole through
her juxtapositions. Whereas somebody rst viewing those lms might not feel they’re as
unied as Meshes. But you’re right. She does step out into new editing. Rethinking my earlier
statement, Deren does use creative geography in Meshes, too, and steps outside the house
and its environment when she traverses diverse landscapes, as in At Land.
SK: That’s right. It’s there and then continues in Study in Choreography for Camera and Ritual
in Transgured Time …
BH: And Study in Choreography, yes. Talk about editing. That’s a masterpiece.
SK: It really is.
BH: And to achieve that jump in air, that use of space…so she really brings in space in the
same way she worked with time in Meshes. This is fun, to think about it.
SK: Continuing with these connections, could we talk just a little about homage and Maya
Deren’s Sink ? What are some of the ways that you’re paying homage to Deren—or do you
feel like there’s another element to it besides homage that we should be paying attention
to when we’re looking at that lm?
BH: Maya Deren’s Sink is denitely an homage, because the lowly artifact of a bathroom
sink is thrown onto the New York streets where people will pick it up, and Anthology Film
Archive comes and saves it, and I hear about it and suddenly—I get inspired. As a lm-
maker, I never know what’s going to come next. I just had this burning desire to rst see the
sink—and then to project her lms back into it.
SK: Why was that? What was it about seeing the sink that was important?
BH: Good question. You know, I’ve never—there’s a person who’s in this building who has
two artifacts from Maya Deren, she was married to one of Deren’s husbands—
SK: Which one?
BH: Teiji Ito. Ilene Ito promised to show me these items, but for various reasons she never
fullled her promise, and I was never able to see these or put my hands on them. So I think
that the sink became a substitute for this desire. When I go to an archive, I want to see the
ephemera. It’s really interesting. For example, with the Elizabeth Bishop archive I’ve been
visiting at Vassar College, there is her slide projector from the ‘50s, and I want to see it
because I’m shooting a lot of her slides.
I’m not a mystic; it’s not that I feel like there’s an aura about these objects. I think it’s
about mortality—my own. I think about what objects of mine will be left. Especially when
6 4 Th e InT e r n a T I o na l Jou r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
Above: Dream Age (1979), Dir. Barbara Hammer. United States, 12:00 min., 16mm lm, color/sound.
Courtesy of the artist.
Below: Dyketactics (1974), Dir. Barbara Hammer. United States, 4:00 min., 16mm lm, color/sound.
Courtesy of the artist.
“arT IS e n er g y ” 65
Above: Sanctus (1990), Dir. Barbara Hammer. United States, 19:00 min., 16mm lm, color & B/W, sound by
Neil B. Rolnick. Courtesy of the artist.
Below: Home (1978), Dir. Barbara Hammer. United States, 12:00 min., 16mm lm, color/sound. Courtesy
of the artist.
66 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jo u r n a l o f S cre e n d a n ce
you’re going to make a move, a studio move: you’ve got to get rid of things. And I think:
what objects will be left? What should I preserve to benet or to sell to an archive myself?
I think this is one of the reasons I’m doing archive work right now: I’m thinking about my
SK: What do you see as the dierence between the lms you’ve made becoming artifacts
of your creative process versus the other kinds of things that end up in archives?
BH: Well, one thing is: that’s what the artist has held onto and passed on. In her archive,
there is a nameplate for the house that was one of Elizabeth Bishop’s homes: it was
very important to her. So you get a sense of the interiority of the artist by looking at the
ephemera of the archive. It’s something else when we make a leap of judgment to think
that the artist has preserved this, not the heir or the executrix of the will. You know Maya
Deren’s Sink in this case speaks to us of the cultural and economic geography of the time.
When I lmed in her former Manhattan home, the house was quite run down. You can see
some of the wallpaper that was in one of her lms because the plaster has been pulled
away due to age. One imagines that she probably didn’t have a chance to replace this very
ancient sink herself, because in the ‘50s, there were much better sinks available. This artifact
tells you something about her: that her money was going toward lms, not into the furni-
ture in her house.
It’s curious, but something compels me in my research to know something more than
the artworks themselves. The artworks become artifacts, but these other items are also
artifacts. Deren, who wrote so much, reminds us that letters are objects, paper sheets, and
there must be a lot that was never published. It must be a very rich archive. In answering
your question, I notice I’ve spoken about Deren’s archive, not my own, because it’s easier.
SK: And who knows, as you say, which of these articles Deren wanted to have preserved—
in some cases, she had catalogued her own things, so it seemed like it was already being
archived. But other things—parking tickets, for example—probably not. So it makes me
wonder about an artist’s legacy and how we read that legacy according to these material
traces of her presence while she was here.
BH: That’s the artistic practice of being an academic or a biographer. I mean if we look at
biographical and archival studies as being not about truth but about imagination, and we
give the maker of that work—you, in terms of your book on Maya Deren—the embrace of
being able to be creative in your work—to use your imagination, to use hypotheses—then
we have a more vital production in the end. Because there’s no way to know the truth—
absolutely no way to do anything but regard the solid “facts,” i.e., leftovers. And the truth
is—we know there’s no truth.
SK: Right. If we get to the truth, it’s still subjective; it still is subject to change.
BH: I’d also like to say something else about her homes.
SK: Please do.
BH: The home—or the studio, if one is lucky—is where the artist works and creates. And
that kind of structure, or space, most of it being rectangular and small for us artists I think,
has a lot to do with the work we make. If Maya Deren lived in the woods as a wild child with
“arT IS e n er g y ” 67
a video camera, with multiple hours of recording devices, I think we’d have a dierent kind of
lm. And I think that Meshes and Ritual are really home-based works. Meshes was all shot in
her home. A lot of Ritual in Transgured Time was shot in her Morton Street home and some
of Study for Choreography for Camera was too. The interior structure of the home means the
artifacts in the home are visible as images on the screen for us to see, even if we can’t handle
them. If an artist is working in space-time relationships, the space that she lived in and worked
in seems to me a very interesting primary focus of what occurs in the lming itself.
Then there’s just the personal desire. Desire is—as it has been dened, I think—what you
can’t have. Who can go into the homes of Maya Deren? Well, at rst I can’t, but then I want to,
and I nd a way. I wanted to go into her homes especially after I found out that they were still
here—they hadn’t been destroyed. And I love challenges. Those homes should be museums.
They should be preserved as part of the archive. They shouldn’t be destroyed nor ignored—
we should at least have a plaque on her homes to memorialize her.
SK: I agree.
BH: But that requires the owner of the building to admire Maya Deren, which isn’t the case
in New York.
SK: Tell me about the kinds of traces of home in your own lms.
BH: Well, I made a lm called Home, of 9536 Felton Avenue in Inglewood, California, where
my rst memories come from. I moved, or was moved there, when I was about maybe
three months of age, and I grew up through twelve in that home. I remembered the home
from the size that I was. It was very interesting to me to go back and visit as an adult and
notice the way the grasses grew around a particular tree and whether the tree was even still
there. And the dirt, and the driveway being those two cement tracks with grass growing
in between, something dierent than our driveways today, which are solidly paved. It was
fullling a desire to recall, to remember, to explore that house with a moving camera, as I
did, and then to abstract it through using infrared lm so that the leaves are red, rather than
green. Home gave me a way to re-experience my own life as a subjective process, but isn’t
that what we are always doing?
SK: That transformative use of infrared is really interesting. In fact, it sounds a lot like the
widow-into-bride moment of Ritual in Transgured Time. Do you think there are aspects of
Deren’s lm style that have found their way into your own creative imagination?
BH: I immediately think of a lm of mine that is very rarely viewed; it’s called Dream Age. The
last image of that lm is me with a backpack, walking into the ocean—actually into the San
Francisco Bay, submerging myself. It was my attempt to mature. The characters in the lm are
all women with white hair, and I don’t yet have white hair. In a ritual, on a salt mound, they
paint my hair white. A ritual is a repeated activity, and eventually the repeated activity is that
my hair is painted completely white. I wanted to hurry along the process of aging. I wanted to
know more, to be more critical and reective—my idea of what age can bring.
SK: Deren worked on several projects that are intimately tied to rituals, too, especially her
monumental project in Haiti, for which she planned to use Voudoun ritual dances as the
centerpiece. Do you have thoughts on why she would have had trouble working with this
68 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
material—ritual, sacred dances—even while she didn’t have trouble lming non-sacred,
BH: The most exciting chapter of Divine Horsemen was the one where Deren is mounted by
Erzulie during a Voudoun ritual. I cannot comprehend how she could make a lm, or part
of a lm, about this experience since there is a loss of consciousness as we know it—or,
so it seems to me—during possession. Perhaps this is why Deren never edited, nor even
began to edit, her vast cans of footage. And when Joseph Campbell told her to write a
book instead, telling her that she knew more about Voudoun than any anthropologist, she
proceeded without hesitation. I wonder about that. Now I want to go back and see what
she did in words that she didn’t do in lm.
SK: Do you think your allusions to Deren’s work were conscious? Do you feel you learned
some of your lmmaking from Maya Deren, or did you sort of unconsciously absorb some
of her aesthetic and use it—maybe especially at the beginning of your career?
BH: I denitely used consciously Deren’s line in the lm where I’m talking about time being
circular and not linear.4 I take the key out of my mouth, and that’s in direct reference to
Deren’s key that opens the door to her psyche, her house. My key starts my BMW motor-
cycle: my dyke bike. On the motorcycle is the squash, the pumpkin I’ve found in the eld. I
open the squash: what’s in it, but a knife. We think of the knife on the bed in Meshes of the
Afternoon and I feel that the knife for both of us was a means of protecting our burgeoning
feminine, constructed, yes, but there, burgeoning feminine sensibilities. It’s about women
experiencing time dierently.
And then there’s the gun. There’s no gun in Deren, but the knife has the same sense
of violence about it that the gun has. They are both seen as an instrument of power. Deren
had the bed, a passive place, where she lay, and even the chair, the armchair, again displays
her restful passivity. If anything, I’m changing Deren into a motorcycle dyke. Or a woman of
the women’s movement of the 1970s, which happened at the same time I was becoming
a lmmaker. Finally, after thinking through the lm I believe there are both conscious
and unconscious projections in the work. I don’t think embracing pumpkins and running
through a pumpkin eld was Deren-inuenced, but the projection on the body might have
been because there is, in Deren, there’s that—those eyes blinking. I’m not sure if that is a
projection on her or literally her eyes blinking. In any case, there is the projection in the
mirror, and the breaking of the mirror, of Hammid’s face. And in I Was/I Am, I’m breaking
a glass bell jar that was put over my head—with a hammer. There are a lot of inuences
including Sylvia Plath and her novel The Bell Jar.
SK: Let me ask you some more about inuences, for example in collaborations with others.
Deren worked with dancers, including Talley Beatty, Frank Westbrook, and Rita Christiana,
and she used other people who are not dancers, including Anaïs Nin, Gore Vidal, and
anyone she could nd to do the party sequence in Ritual in Transgured Time where she
needed people to move in a choreographed way. But she had problems when she began
to enlist the aid of thirty people because it’s dicult to get thirty people to agree to meet
for free at a certain time and do crazy things for twelve hours. I’m wondering about your
own practice—in many of your lms you’re using your own gure, which Deren also did. Is
“arT IS e n er g y ” 69
that in part to obviate the need to depend on others, or is it more of a personal expression
of your own subjectivity or something else? Or is it for other reasons entirely?
BH: I have worked in collaboration going all the way back to Dyketactics, which for that
lm meant gathering a group of women and taking them to the country for a weekend,
along with sync sound cameras, back-up cameras, Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorders, and
a full crew of women to shoot and record. I provided food for them and camping places
to sleep, and spontaneously directed rituals in nature. Women are jumping through the
leaves, embracing trees, maybe six or seven within the lm frame at a time. My approach
was to take what I could get. Give a general direction, and then as people are performing
what you’ve asked for, you can nd your way to lm it. Or accept it. Some of the best
images are the unpracticed, unrehearsed, undirected ones such as a little child meandering
across the screen to get her hair brushed, or women sitting casually by the streamside, not
in performance mode, not posing. But to think of Deren managing thirty people in the
dance scene of Ritual in Transgured Time, you know that would be very dicult, especially
knowing how exact she was. It’s a dierent aesthetic altogether having to do with control
or letting the control go.
SK: I want to ask you more about your sense of choreography, dance, and rhythm.
BH: I have been thinking about Maya Deren in terms of contemporary dance today, and I’ve
been thinking about Yvonne Rainer and the Judson school and the very minimal approach
Rainer and others, but especially Rainer, took toward what dance is and the way dance was
redened. I think some of Deren’s work is very early structural, minimalist work. The way
one walks, the way one puts the foot down, the way one crawls through a tree trunk on the
beach. You know, very planned and minimal.
The denition of dance is like the denition of art: whatever the dancer or artist says
is “dance” is or “art,” is. I only know Rainer’s work from the Judson Dance Theater period,
that minimal period where she struck a new note for dance by walking across the dance
oor or by walking across the dance oor bouncing a ball. Maya Deren takes a step on the
stairs of the North Hollywood cottage and freezes; then another step and position and
freezes; another and another: minimal. But who is dancing? Maya or the cinematographer
cameraman, her husband at the time, Alexander Hammid? Who was dancing and who was
directing, and could the dancer dance without direction?
Similarly, Bekka Lindstrom, who amazingly had made her own lm using Deren motifs
when a student at NYU lm school, was asking me while acting in Maya Deren’s Sink: “What
is Voudoun ritual dance?” What did I know? I had seen Divine Horsemen, I had my own idea
of what the movement would look like if the person dancing lost a sense of self in merging
with a stronger force—for me, that stronger force could even be gravity. I just started to
shake and move, allowing my body to be pulled towards the ground, closing my eyes, and
then Bekka took over and found her way, the way you see in the lm.
SK: This reminds me of the way you were talking about the rhythm of natural movement…
would you say that this kind of rhythm is important to your lms? Do you think you use it
in a similar or dierent way from how it is used by Deren?
BH: Rhythm is the basis of my life, the way I move, the way I edit. I believe each one of us
has a dierent rhythm and that if we are based in a movement art form our best work can
70 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
be done by corresponding and dialoguing with our inner rhythm. Deren had her rhythm, I
have mine, you have yours. It is the rhythm of the coursing of blood through our body; the
breath through our nostrils and lungs; the musculature, structure, and movement dictated
by brain rhythm. Last week I took a class in the Martha Graham studio where the Merce
Cunningham studio had been. Even though we were assigned contraction/expansion à
la Graham, I could not help but diverge and add my own beats, twirls, skips and hops. It is
very hard to follow a standard routine as my internal rhythm demands variation. I have to
admit I was a little pleased with the instructor who asked if I were a choreographer. Deren
was a choreographer of cinema, and although formally untrained, I would hope I may have
followed a few of her leaps and bounds, aka, the Choreography of a Dancer.
SK: When you mention minimalist movement as Deren’s dance aesthetic, it makes me
think of one of my favorites of your lms: Sanctus. I admire it so much in part because it
so beautifully depicts the motion of the human body but in a completely minimalist form.
Would you relate that lm to the kinds of dance movement you are talking about?
BH: It’s strange but Talley Beatty’s ribs come to mind. The ribs, the staircase, the layers of
stratication of the skeleton pushing against the skin as minimal, although we like to think
of ourselves as more than minimal. The footstep geography expanded, one time on the
grass, one at the seashore, followed by a footstep on concrete, and the nal one on the
carpet of the room in which you commit suicide. Thank you, Maya Deren, for expanding
our space as well as our time with four shots. Nothing could be more minimal than that.
SK: And thank you, Barbara, for your elucidation of Maya Deren’s work in relation to your
own, and for carrying forward the same spirit of exuberance and panache in your creative
1. Hammer’s Maya Deren’s Sink (2011) addresses the artifacts of Deren’s life and lm work through a creative
documentary approach, xating on an abandoned sink from Deren’s Greenwich Village apartment as well as
Deren’s writings and persona.
2. Maya Deren was awarded the rst Guggenheim foundation grant for “creative work in motion pictures” in
3. Deren participated in a Cinema 16 roundtable discussion: “Poetry and the Film: A Symposium,” along with
Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Willard Maas, and Parker Tyler, in October of 1953. A transcript of the discussion is
reprinted in P. Adams Sitney, ed., Film Culture Reader. Miller and Thomas disparage Deren’s remarks about cinema
that is “vertical” (one that “probes the ramications of the moment, and is concerned with its quality and its
depth,” in Deren’s words) versus “horizontal” (“one action leading to another.”) See Sitney 173–174, 184.
4. See Hammer, I Was / I Am.
“arT IS e n er g y ” 71
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2004.
Fearless Frames: The Films of Barbara Hammer at The Tate Modern. Milan: Mousse Publishing, forthcoming 2013.
Hammer, Barbara. HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life. New York: The Feminist Press, City University of
New York, 2010.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
“Poetry and Film: A Symposium with Maya Deren, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler. Chairman, Willard
Maas. Organized by Amos Vogel.” In Film Culture Reader, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 171–186. New York: Cooper
Square Press, 1970.
At Land (1944). Dir. Maya Deren. 16mm lm, 14:00 min., B&W/Silent.
Dream Age (1979). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 12:00 min., Color/Sound.
Dyketactics (1979). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 4:00 min., Color/Sound.
Generations (2010). Dir. Barbara Hammer, with Gina Carducci. 16mm lm, 30:00 min., Color/B&W/Sound.
History Lessons (2000). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 66:00 min., color/sound.
Home (1978). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 12:00 min., Color/Sound.
A Horse Is Not A Metaphor (2009). Dir. Barbara Hammer. DVD, 30:00 min., Color/B&W/Sound by Meredith Monk.
I Was / I Am (1972).Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16 mm, B&W, sound.
Maya Deren’s Sink (2011). Dir. Barbara Hammer. HD, 29:00 min., Color/B&W/Sound.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. 16mm lm, B&W. Sound by Teiji Ito
Nitrate Kisses (1992). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16 mm lm, 67:00 min., B&W/sound.
Ritual in Transgured Time (1946). Dir. Maya Deren. 16mm lm, 15:00 min., B&W/Silent.
Sanctus (1990). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 19:00 min. Color & B/W, Sound by Neil B. Rolnick.
Study in Choreography for Camera (1945). Dir. Maya Deren. 16mm lm, 3:00 min., B&W/Silent
Tender Fictions (1995). Dir. Barbara Hammer. 16mm lm, 58:00 min., color/sound.
72 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
Ritual in Transgured Time: Narcisa Hirsch, Su
Poetry, Ecstatic Dances, and the Female Gaze1
I burn like a moth in the candle of your face.
— Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
This essay intends to shed some light on the work of the artist Narcisa Hirsch, an
Argentinean experimental lmmaker born in Berlin in 1928. It also discusses the
inuences of Maya Deren’s lms on the artistic work of Hirsch, exploring the legacy
of Maya Deren in South America.
Narcisa belongs to roughly the same generation as Maya Deren—she was born eleven
years after Deren—and their lives show some similarities: they were both infant immigrants
(one in the USA, the other in Argentina) who escaped death and misery, and who found
new communities that oered the possibility to realize their ideas on art and lm. They
were strong women at a time when Feminism was rather new, and they both practised
an artform (Cinema) when women were not generally holding the role of director. Narcisa
Hirsch continues to be, at the age of 85, an active artist.
Narcisa Hirsch’s lm Rumi (1999) is the focus of this paper, since it uses dance as one
of its main elements. Other lms of Hirsch’s, such as Testamento y vida interior (1976), A-dios
(1982), Comeout (1971), and Ana, ¿dónde estás? (1987) will be referred to as experimental
lms that, although they would not be considered as screendance, are connected to the
experimental cinema of Maya Deren.
The Myth of Narcisa
Following the example of a painter father whom she barely knew, Narcisa attended a
number of painting workshops as a teenager in Buenos Aires, where she had arrived from
Austria in 1937, at the age of nine. The emigration happened just in time to escape the
Second World War.
Born in Berlin as the only child of an Argentinean-German mother and a German father
who abandoned them when she was ve years old, Narcisa grew up in rural Tyrol and
was sent to a Viennese school at the age of eight with no previous formal education. The
move to Vienna cut her o from the Tyrolean childhood of cows, daisies, snow, and lakes—
images which turn up over and over again in her lms. She then went to Argentina at age
Rit u a l i n tRa ns f i g u R e d tim e 7 3
nine, when her mother took her for a sabbatical year to her grandmother’s house in order
to recover from the experience of the Viennese school.
Argentina became her adoptive country, although she was always seen as an outsider:
a German to the Argentineans, an Argentinean to the Germans. Eventually Narcisa Heuser
married and adopted the surname of her husband, Paul Hirsch. After a decade of raising four
children she joined the avant-garde movement of the 1960s that circled around the Di Tella
Institute. This movement proclaimed the death of easel painting and introduced her to a local
scene of happenings, where she performed street actions in collaboration with her friends,
the photographer Marie Louise Alemann and the actor Walter Mejía. They distributed apples
to pedestrians in the busy city centre with the intention of taking Art to common people.
Explaining her motivation for this event, Narcisa refers to the comment of a pedestrian and
participant: “This is the rst time that I ever got anything for free. In this country, you never get
anything for free.”2 Later on, they performed another street action, distributing baby dolls to
passersby. This was in 1972, after Hirsch had performed the event in London and New York
with the intention of creating a three-city-happening. The performance of this action coin-
cided with the arrival in Buenos Aires of the corpses of sixteen people who had been shot in a
multiple execution in Trelov, Patagonia. Hirsch remembers that at the time a friend had asked
her if she was going to do the performance anyhow, to which she replied: “Of course I am
going to do it. There’s nothing extraordinary about today; they are killing people every day.”
During the street action the performers were surrounded by policemen who tried to stop the
performance, while angry crowds stomped on the dolls and tried to crush them.
In 1967 the group performed Marabunta, the biggest of their happenings, at the foyer of
the Coliseo theatre on the night of the premiere of Antonioni’s Blow Up. Marabunta consisted
of a giant female skeleton covered with food, which fell prey to the greed of spectators who
casually passed by. When one of them took a pineapple that was strategically placed at the
skeleton’s sex, three or four birds painted in uorescent colors that had been hidden inside
the body ew away, as if ying free from a cage. In order to record this action, Hirsch got in
touch with the camera operator, lmmaker and political activist, Raymundo Gleyzer, who was
later “disappeared by” the military dictatorship. Whilst editing the material with Gleyzer, Hirsch
became interested in lmmaking and joined the world of underground cinema. She ew to
New York, where she attended lm sessions at MOMA, met Jonas Mekas, and got to know the
New American Cinema, the formation with which Deren had been involved.
Primarily a visual artist with a background in Action Art, Hirsch included, from the very
rst moment, human movement and the body itself as a primordial axis in her cinema.
Wanting to experiment above all else, she surmises her lmmaking as follows:
I think that the twentieth century, to which I belong, has a lot to do with move-
ment and I still feel that I need to achieve a certain mobility, I need to unleash
certain things…the fall of xed values, truth, reality, all that we have been carrying
since Modernity in philosophical and metaphysical terms, all this is in ruins at this
Her early pieces reveal a strong boldness and an interest in transcendental themes such
as death, love, sex, and time. She was one of two women in a group comprised of Claudio
Caldini, Juan José Mugni, Juan Villola, Horacio Valleregio and Marie Louise Alemann, and
Hirsch and Alemann shared the role of leadership. The group gathered under a kind of
74 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
artistic activism; what brought them together was not a common aesthetic but the idea of
sharing a total freedom of expression and the possibility of collaboration in terms of equip-
ment, technical ability, and eorts to summon a reluctant audience, who usually added up
to a mere dozen people. Extensive debates were facilitated in the face of the resistance of
an audience that was not used to experimental art, and in the face of the total ignorance
on the part of local critics. In situations when they shared a screening with other groups of
emerging lmmakers who made narrative or “commercial” lms (for example, at a UNCIPAR
festival / Unión de Cineastas de Paso Reducido / Short Filmmakers Union), large riots would
take place between both groups. The screaming arguments would eventually become
another form of Happening.
I n 1976, at a UNCIPAR contest, Hirsch’s Comeout, with music by Steve Reich, won the rst prize
in the “Fantasy” category, and Film Gaudí by Caldini won the second prize of the “Documentary”
category. Comeout consists of a single shot that starts with an out-of-focus image and gradually
reveals, after about ten minutes, a record player with the revolving record of the soundtrack.
The critics, who rarely paid any attention to experimental lm, responded very negatively to the
prizes obtained by Hirsch and Caldini.4 With regards to Comeout by Narcisa Hirst [sic ], errone-
ously translated as “Salir y mostrar” in the programme notes,5 a critic wrote:
We elude all comment about this lm, since we could not attend the last screening
on the Fantasy category for special reasons. Thus, we’ll limit ourselves to inform
the reader about its theme, referred to us by third parties. The lm is conformed
by only one shot that shows the needle of a record player, which appears to play
a broken record. After approximately 15 minutes [sic] the arm of the record player
lifts automatically, showing that (against expectation) the record was not broken.6
With regards to Film Gaudí by Claudio Caldini, the critic stated:
Regrettably it is not possible to make a comment on this lm without feeling the
obligation of taking as reference the lms made (on this very subject) by profes-
sionals and in superior formats. Maybe that’s the worst mistake of this lm, despite
the fact that it has nothing to do with it. Nevertheless the concrete and real is that
anybody who had seen any of the previous lms tends to establish comparisons,
most often hideous ones, but which are valid from the point of view of the spec-
tator, and also the critic’s.7
The comments suggest that the critic took minimalism for a mistake (comparing it to a
broken record), while he did not even mention the cinematography with the long out-of-
focus shots, probably because he hadn’t actually attended the screening.
A certain amount of scandal regularly surrounded the public presentations of the
group around Hirsch and Alemann. In the same way that their sixties happenings attracted
the presence of police who often tried to interrupt the events, the seventies screenings
transcended the usual audience of friends and acquaintances, and caught the protest of
an angry audience, who, according to Hirsch, tended to make familiar accusations such as:
“This lm could have been done by my ve year old daughter”. More recently, in April 2012
in Buenos Aires, members of the audience booed during a screening of Comeout. The lm
was recently chosen for a Blow-up to 35mm Award at the Viennale 2012, but still manages
to discomfort some audiences in Buenos Aires.
The year 1976 proved to be a turning point when the Goethe Institute of Buenos Aires,
who used to tour German lms throughout Argentina, hosted the group of experimental
lmmakers via a connection with Marie-Louise Alemann. The Institute provided them with a
room for exhibitions and workshops with well-known lmmakers including the Lithuanian,
New York-based artist Werner Nekes. During Nekes’ visit the artists lived together for two
weeks in a suburb of Buenos Aires, each producing their own 16mm lm. By then, Hirsch
had already joined the majority of the group in lming on Super 8. This format turned out to
be economically viable, and therefore capable of sustaining the complete artistic freedom
of the group. During the late seventies Argentina suered its bloodiest military dictator-
ship, but the group of experimental lmmakers did not attract too much attention. It was
labelled elitist and bourgeois by activists of political cinema, like the Grupo Cine Liberación
(Liberation Film Group) founded by Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino, and Gerardo Vallejo,
and at the same time was considered repugnant and senseless by mainstream lmmakers.
Hirsch, although politically minded, was therefore again marginalized between two posi-
tions, but it was this marginality that allowed her to survive: “Because things happened,” she
says, quoting her mentor, Werner Nekes, “in between frames.”8
Transposing Poetry into Film
A video runs and a lm is projected into its centre, doubling the image.
Cows walk over cows.
Female ngers open the petals of a rose.
A dervish dancer whirls under the gaze of a woman.
The images show clouds, plants, re or water superimposed over faces, ploughs, and
words written on a cave wall.
A curtain opens and a window allows us to look through onto a landscape, while
reecting at the same time the character, as if observing from the other side of the mirror.
These images are part of Hirsch’s lm Rumi (28 minutes, 16mm and video, Argentina,
1999). This work integrates dance as one of the forms of movement of the universe and its
creatures. Its metaphors transform time and space into coordinates that are mythological rather
than Cartesian. The course drawn by the movements constitutes an eternal present; there is no
destiny, no point of arrival, no nishing line. The world turns and turns, in the way the dancer
whirls while the landscape (nature at its purest, strongest form) constitutes horizontal lines: a
series of peaks of the Andes Mountains, a snowy eld, a herd of cows walking in a row. The
circular whirling of the eternal present moves against a horizontal timeline, the seasons coming
one after another, the sun beginning to fall, the road sustaining the walk of a human. Both direc-
tions, the circular and the horizontal, come together on Hirsch’s screen. She embroiders poetic
images by the heat of the re that consecrates and consummates the passion.
The lm Rumi starts with a scene that reveals the huge scenery of the Andes Mountains.
The snowy landscape unravels its power in panoramic views while the words of a poem by
Rumi appear on a textured surface. Introducing her lms at public screenings, Hirsch oers
an analogy with literature, arguing that experimental lm is like poetry, while commercial
lm is like a novel. Deren, a poet before she came to lmmaking, believed like Hirsch that
experimental lms with their non-linear structure and dream-like transitions could visually
transpose the experiential qualities of lyric poems. Hirsch’s Rumi is based on a poem by
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76 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
Jelaluddin Rumi (Afghanistan, 1207–Turkey, 1273), who left a successful academic career
to follow his master Shams e Tabriz to the desert. Meeting Shams caused Rumi’s poetry to
ow with a mystic eroticism until his death:
this is love.
Whoever is not killed for love is carrion.9
In Hirsch’s artistic career the encounter with Rumi’s poetry was signicant and became
the culmination of a search she had started as an experimental lmmaker in Buenos Aires
in the 1970s. The words of the poem gradually appear in the lm written on a textured
surface, slowly discovered by a spotlight. The image reminds one of Plato’s myth of the
cave dwellers, in which reality and the perception we have of it are understood as tempo-
rary reections of eternal ideas. Could it be that for Hirsch, the art of lmmaking is what
allows us to unite reality with thought? The original “Allegory of the Cave”10 was intended
to demonstrate to Greek philosophical disciples that the real world is not what we see with
our eyes, but what we know with our minds. Hirsch, having studied philosophy, revisits the
image of the cave to show that what we see and what we know at the end of twentieth
century is related through intricate and complex patterns.
Rumi’s words are distilled with great deliberation as the lm progresses, always lit by
the same spotlight and captured by the camera. They delimit, refer to, and anchor the rest
of the images that alternate superimposed human bodies, animals and natural elements.
All of them are consumed by the passion that is cooked over a low heat.
this is the dark one
this is the wedding night
a never-ending passion
Become that passion
and every burden
The multiple layers of reality that Hirsch unravels in Rumi remind us of Deren’s poetic move-
ment between dierent states of reality in her lms. For Deren, no transition is needed
between a place outside (such as a forest, or a park, or the beach) and an interior room.
One action can be performed across dierent physical spaces, as in A Study in Choreography
For Camera (1945), and in this way sews together layers of reality, thereby suggesting conti-
nuity between dierent levels of consciousness. Although Hirsch’s editing of movement in
Rumi tends to favour long shots and repetition rather than the deconstruction and recon-
struction of temporal and spatial continuity as in the case of Deren, Hirsch manages to
unite the dierent spaces, interior and exterior, through the gaze of the female character,
as she opens curtains and windows, revealing to the spectator both the landscape and her
In Ritual in Transgured Time (1945/46) Deren uses editing to construct a ow of move-
ment while creating a shared identity between her female protagonists. Hirsch has similarly
been interested in this sense of doubling, casting multiples of her female characters, for
example in Rumi or in Ana, ¿dónde estás?. But Hirsch tends to use a repetition of movement
executed by dierent female gures rather than reconstructing a continuous “real time.” For
her, movement is an abstract element that nds expression in life and its cycles.
I Am A Body, Therefore I Am
For Hirsch, the body is always both sexual and mythical. And her female gaze strongly
colours her lms. She was a member of several groups of women who gathered to work
out their own concerns, away from the gaze of husbands, bosses and other men. One such
group gathered in the seventies around psychologist Susana Balán, who suggested the
idea of lming as a means of looking at their own image and talking to themselves. This
proposition led eventually to Hirsch’s lm El mito de Narciso (2005), which will be discussed
further below in this essay. Balán was also responsible for introducing Hirsch to the poetry
of Rumi. In the lm Rumi, Hirsch includes a scene in which a naked male dancer descends
a staircase under the gaze of a fully-dressed woman; the fact that she contemplates him
appears like a statement by the lmmaker, in which the woman is empowered and actively
looking, no longer the object of the male gaze but the subject of her own gaze whilst also
gazing at a man’s body.12
In Testamento y vida interior (Testament and Interior Life, 11 minutes, 8mm, Argentina,
1976) the images of a funeral procession in which four people carry a con through the city
alternate with images of a woman taking a bath in the middle of a park. The lm was shot
in the same year that the last Argentinean dictatorship came to power in a coup d’état, and
the notion of modesty of the prudish Buenos Aires society of the seventies is profoundly
challenged by work such as this. But the lm is more than a simple urban provocation. The
funeral procession follows its path through the city and out into the elds. The relatives of
the deceased move forward through a snowy road, dressed in ponchos, to the sound of
amenco music. The image becomes tinged with red and eventually fades into the light
of the sun, swallowing the whole of the procession. Her “actors”—cameo appearances of
her colleagues—move naturalistically, but her cinema is very far from naturalism. As Hirsch
writes about her own process, there is always a note coming from the unconscious that
feeds the narrative: “A lm starts from a thought, from an image that emerges, that comes
out of its context, becomes independent and sends signals. An image trapped in an instant
of opening and estrangement of the world.”13
Deren’s interest in the unconscious has been evident since her rst lm, Meshes of the
Afternoon (1943). In addition to the link which she establishes between dierent layers of
reality, Deren uses lmic techniques such as slow motion and negative imaging, among other
eects, to create a sensation of strangeness or estrangement which the characters also often
allude to in their performances. For example, in Ritual in Transgured Time, we can see Rita
Christiani’s expression of astonishment from the very moment that she appears in the lm,
reinforced by the wind that blows her scarf backwards and by the movement of her arms,
which she lifts in front of her as if in defence while entering a dangerous space (the room
in which she will face her other-being, played by Deren). Hirsch’s approach to lmmaking is
dierent in that she uses relatively few in-camera and post-production eects (except occa-
sionally to suggest an acceleration of natural events) and her actors tend to have a neutral
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78 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Sc r ee n d a n c e
facial expressions, almost like masks, as for example the gure of Ana in Ana, ¿dónde estás?.
In this lm, two actresses play the part of Ana, and both adopt equally neutral facial expres-
sions. The viewer cannot interpret their emotions, and it is mostly their movements or actions
which carry the progression of the narrative. One actress embodies a woman’s wild nature;
the other conveys her social duties. The rst is very physical; she has several scenes where
she does acrobatics in a circus tent. The other tends to interact with people and hosts a party
at the climax of the lm. In this party sequence Hirsch depicts a game of chess, a recurring
motif in Deren’s At Land (1944). In this lm, Deren, in the role of protagonist, intervenes in a
chess games she encounters, thus reecting Deren’s own commandment (as artist) of the
lm’s ludic structure. In Ana, Hirsch pits her protagonist against several male opponents, thus
implying her strategic negotiation of a gendered game.
In her lm A-dios14 (22 minutes, 8mm, Argentina, 1982), Hirsch works on the myth of
the hero. This lm constitutes her explicit tribute to men, to whom she dedicates the lm
(along with Carl Jung), and in it the naked body, both male and female, receives a sculp-
tural, almost Greek classical treatment. There is something stark in those images of male
torsos which include sexual organs but no faces: bodies that are lit, printed in black and
white, revealed as if they were made of marble. The artist alternates between these images
and other quasi-heroic ones (sportsmen making supreme eorts, warriors entering the sea,
nuclear explosions, military parades, Nazi iconography) with the slow advance of a man
on crutches, who moves with great diculty along a path, until he nally reaches a resting
place: a pub on the road. In the lm Hirsch quotes Simone de Beauvoir, printing text across
the lmic image: “Man is in revolt against his carnal state; he sees himself as a fallen god:
his curse is to be fallen from a bright and ordered heaven into the chaotic shadows of his
The hero always has a mission, and the woman-artist shows his failure, his fall, by
lming him and accompanying him in his dicult advance on crutches. She looks at that
failure with pity but her look gives the warrior, even in his fall, a way to vindicate himself:
to get to his resting place by his own means. The warrior always can (and must) vindicate
himself. The female gaze is compassionate and admiration is born from this compassion.
This preoccupation with the relationship between women and men is also present in
Deren’s lms. In Meshes of the Afternoon, which is co-directed with her husband Alexander
Hammid, the man appears to be an executor of a mandate. In the beginning of the lm
when Deren’s protagonist enters the house, the male gure is absent and his absence
is marked by a serious of malfunctioning objects: a knife that falls, a telephone which is
disconnected, and an empty bed in the bedroom, with curtains blowing in the wind.
Towards the end, just as one of the “Derens” is about to stab the sleeping Deren, she opens
her eyes and the male character appears for the rst time, facing the camera in a point of
view of Deren. He leads Maya upstairs, and on his way puts the telephone handset back
into place. Further along, the man enters the house for a second time, this time to witness
Deren’s character killed by a knife. The co-directors leave any interpretation of the relation-
ship between the woman and the man open, but there is a suggestion that the male gure
might be an executor of the woman’s intention. In any case, the lm suggests that the roles
within a couple are not always what they appear.
In Ritual in Transgured Time, a man is a heroic gure on a plinth, a marble statue seen
against the sky. As statue, the man is at the same time an object of desire and of fear, but
as he jumps o the plinth and comes to life he becomes the connecting element between
an ideal world and a real world, just as in A Study in Choreography for Camera, where the
movements of a male gure connect an outside space with an interior space. This would
have been an unusual casting of a male gure for Deren’s time. For Hirsch, who belongs to a
generation that lived through the seventies with its Feminism, Free Love and Existentialism
(hence her quoting of de Beauvoir), the man who comes to life is also an object of compas-
sion for his historical role of hero and his mandate of success, therefore as victims of his own
gender mandate. The anger is faded and there is a possibility to play with the male persona
in these lms.
Another element that is always present in Hirsch’s lms is nature. Nature as a force, as power,
as a signal of the passing of time, and as the signal of humanity’s tragic destiny. Hirsch
often immerses herself in Patagonia, the icy, deserted and mountainous southern tip of
Argentina. For decades she has spent long periods of time in this region, gathering images
from the dierent seasons of the year, images that also remind us of her alpine childhood.
Generous framings of snowy elds, mountain ranges and innite roads are recurrent in her
work. She also dwells on details in which matter, almost in an abstract form, invades the
whole frame: blue water, rough rocks, ames silhouetted against the night sky. And, over all
those images, time embroiders its own course, which Hirsch emphasizes either by means
of the acceleration of the cloud motion or the quiet observation of a sunset.
like any other day
we wake up
empty and frightened16
These words, again projected on a surface as if in a cave, give rise to visions of nature and its
impressive breadth. We see a woman from behind. She raises a curtain and the movement
mediates between our gaze and the landscape in the scene. It is the woman who reveals
to the viewer her vision of the landscape. Furthermore, the 16mm image, projected into
the video image, replays the same scene with a fraction of delay and echoes the woman’s
gaze looking into the landscape, and by extension, the viewer looking at the woman. From
within the landscape, her eld of vision, a man moves towards the camera, and towards the
audience, carrying his tools.
The lm reiterates this discovery, this lifting of the veil between the interior and the
exterior, between looking out and looking in. The process is mediated by the hand gesture
of a mature woman, of a teenager or of a young girl. It is one woman and many at the
same time. At this point the lm echoes Deren’s Ritual in Transgured Time, where the
female protagonist shares a sense of identity with three dierent performers: Anaïs Nin,
Rita Christiani, and Deren herself. These three performers perhaps represent a woman at
dierent stages of her life and with dierent attitudes towards life and society: surprise in
the character of Rita, wisdom in Maya and mystery in Anaïs.
In Hirsch’s Rumi, each time the woman opens the curtain, we see the landscape which
she sees and which is the same, but dierent. The mountains are the same, but dierent.
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80 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
The elds are the same, but every time they are lit by a new light and seen from a dierent
angle. Or they are superimposed over a previous or a subsequent scene. Time appears to
be dierent under this new, multi-layered gaze. Through the simultaneity of the 16mm
and the video image, as well as the repetition of gestures, what happened before happens
again at the same time as what is happening now. Thereby the viewer never runs out of
ways of looking, and of seeing.
For Hirsch, nature is a mirror in which the interior is reected onto the exterior, much
like the close relationship between interior and exterior in Deren’s cinema. As Brazilian
researcher Joao Luiz Vieira states:
Which is the particular experience that this lm, as well as the other dance lms
made [by Maya Deren], oers to the spectators? Seeing and re-seeing Meshes
of the Afternoon, we are continuously surprised by a sequence of images…that
seems to continuously express a conict between the interior and the exterior, or
better, the coexistence of both spheres, expressed by means of dream, of imagi-
nation and also from some sort of memory of a sexual fantasy that is in conict
with the external reality. Referring not only to Cinema, but also to her desire of
Cinema, Deren made clear that she wanted to put into her lms “the feeling that a
human being experiences in any incident, and not only to register that incident.”17
The proximity or perhaps continuity between interior and exterior that Vieira describes is
reected in the uid relation between dream, imagination, fantasy and reality in Deren’s
lms. This can be mapped onto the work of Hirsch, and Rumi in particular, where the
layering of images and the intricate play of a frame within a frame dissolve any clear distinc-
tion between seeing and experiencing, watching and being watched, inside and out.
Rumi was originally lmed in 16mm, but since its premiere it has been projected
simultaneously in both lm and video, with the 16mm image projected as a smaller
frame inside the larger video image. It is one of Hirsch’s pivotal works of the nineties,
during which time she made the dicult transition from lm to video. In the seven-
ties Narcisa and her group experimented extensively with projection surfaces, projecting
onto water, ice, and smoke in place of the traditional screen. At the occasion of Hirsch’s
recent retrospective at BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Independent Film) Festival,
April 2012, Artistic Director and critic Sergio Wolf described her to be a materialistic lm-
maker, working with the material qualities of lm.18 This is conrmed by Daniela Muttis,
lmmaker and assistant to Hirsch, who writes with regards to Hirsch’s interest in the rela-
tion between technologies and perception:
In these processes of schismogenesis19 between the dierent technological
languages Narcisa settles in as an experimental artist, nurturing herself from all the
technological variables. Her ideas try to cross-link forms and concepts, to generate
a conict through simultaneous images, to provoke reection within the space
where the actions happen, inside and outside the screen.20
The experience of this double projection is particularly touching for the audience and
turns the usual movie-theatre experience into one akin to ritual. When both projec-
tions run simultaneously, a kind of picture-in-picture eect is generated, but far from the
perfect synchronization of digital technology, it causes a degree of mismatch between
the dierent qualities of the projected images. Seeing the almost mythical gure of the
older lmmaker operating the 16mm projector adds a performative aspect to the already
poetic images. Meanwhile, listening to the sound of the lm move through the projector
provides an underlying cushion to the soundtrack and adds another degree of presence to
the experience. As this mechanistic soundtrack can be heard beneath that of the video, the
combination of both soundtracks and images is experienced as aleatoric. As viewers, we
contemplate, or witness these images, which tell us that nothing is concluded, nothing is
completely under control, nothing has a denite ending. In Rumi, cows can walk over other
cows. As Daniela Muttis argues:
The ritual that Narcisa proposes is the experience of chance, the immersion in
the body of the moving image but also in the body of each spectator who traces
their own personal journey. The combination of two simultaneous readings that
are oset in time. What lies beneath are not the coincidences of the forms, but
the possibility of simultaneous thoughts that are superimposed in that search for
relationships and conceptual issues, where she proposes to exceed the limits of
the languages that technology imposes…The images of her lms are part of a
mirror that produces the action of their portrait, and the technology is a tool that
enables their distortion, by pushing on towards the new, the unpredictable.21
This is how the landscape changes, again and again. The harsh winter gives way to spring,
the relationship between the woman and the man changes. The transitional moment is
marked by images of one of the elements of nature, re, and the re is cooking a sacricial
lamb. The next time that the woman opens the curtain, we see the landscape of spring:
grass has grown on the land that had been covered by snow. Birds sing over the sound of a
ute. The man is harvesting what he had sown, and his image is followed by one verse from
Rumi’s poetry, superimposed over dark water:
A vase full of owers of a strong orange color stands in front of a dierent window: the
woman who opens the curtain seems older than the previous one, and a new performer
incarnates the man’s character, a dancer. The male gure stops being a collector, a hunter.
He stops carrying out tasks that are necessary for his survival and appears as a beautiful,
naked body walking down a spiral staircase. He sees a woman lying with her back to the
camera, fully dressed. She is watching him, which reiterates a leitmotif of the lm, the
female gaze. As Hirsch has stated: “Rumi is a lm about the gaze, about the female gaze.”23
The man reiterates a descent, a landing from a distant place in the unconscious carrying
of life in his member and in the intensity of his gaze. He allows himself to be watched. The
woman, as always situated by a window, which this time around reects plants as a part
of nature that is present and vibrant, is holding a rose in her hands. She touches its petals,
This tactile contact, a process of deowering, is repeated over and over again across
layers of images that blend with each other: reections of plants, pupils looking at the
camera, words travelling over the screen:
Rit u a l i n tRa ns f i g u R e d tim e 8 1
82 Th e InT e r n aT I o n a l Jou r n a l o f Scr e e n d a n ce
I burn like a moth in the candle of your face
In this moment the man starts dancing and whirls interminably, his skirt circling around
his body as the camera pans horizontally, taking him (and the viewer) through new land-
scapes: a riverside path, a eld, ames and mountains. This superimposition adds to the
one produced by the double projection technique, multiplying the possible readings. Rumi
deals with the passing of time. This theme runs through the work of Hirsch, both generally,
with reference to the transitioning of elements of nature, and more particularly, through
her treatment of the ageing process of humans, especially women. In El mito de Narciso (The
Myth of Narcissus, 20 minutes, 16mm, 8mm and video, Argentina, 2005) she explores the
issue of “self-image,” investigating the possibility or impossibility of knowing oneself. For
this purpose, she used interviews that were made at dierent times with the same women,
confronting and talking about her own image. Using a voiceover, Hirsch asks:
Who am I? Am I the one who looks or the one who is looked at? We are always two,
that is the dialectic, and between the two of us there is a space. That’s why I see
myself so strange and so foreign, just as I have always seen myself. And that separa-
tion, that distance, would be the no man’s land from which utopia could arise.25
At the age of 85, Hirsch continues to work and rework her images, bringing new and younger
audiences into contact with an Argentinean experimental cinema they never knew existed.
For the retrospective that the prestigious festival BAFICI 26 dedicated to Narcisa Hirsch in April
2012, the lmmaker digitized and re-edited her lm Aída (6:41 minutes, 8mm and video,
Argentina, 1976–2012) in which the dancer A’da Laib plunges into a frenzied dance that
transports her body into an ecstasy of movement. The context is a living room in an apart-
ment, probably the dancer’s home. Seen through contemporary eyes it looks somewhat like
a pastlife memory, not unlike the experience of watching Study in Choreography for Camera at
the moment when the foot of dancer Talley Beatty enters Deren’s mid-1940s apartment. The
viewer sees the dancer occupy an everyday habitat, but cannot escape the feeling that the
body has entered into a dierent dreamlike time. The viewer’s gaze activates the temporal
transportations implied by these danced spatial transitions.
In Aída, images of the actual dance alternate with images of Aída’s naked body in a
foetal position, while the rhythm of the movements is altered through the process of editing.
Layers of images are superimposed showing us details at unexpected moments. Aída’s dance
becomes a dance of the gaze, a ritual in which the audience takes part by simply being there,
watching images that address the senses. A strange sense of empathy is provoked, as audi-
ences are invited to feel with the lm, despite knowing that they are other. Hirsch says in the
voiceover of El mito de Narciso: “Creation in the space, creation in no man’s land. It is like love:
it is not a fusion; it is separation, distance, to let the other one be.”27
One of the common elements between Hirsch and Deren’s work is a feminine gaze and
the presence of nature in their work, with nature being both the interior and the exterior.
In Meshes the interior—Deren’s face—is seen through the window as part of an exterior; in