Maya Deren - Director

Nationality: Russian/American. Born: Kiev, 1917, became U.S. citizen. Education: League of Nations School, Geneva, Switzerland; studied journalism at University of Syracuse, New York; New York University, B.A.; Smith College, M.A. Family: Married (second time) Alexander Hackenschmied (Hammid), 1942 (divorced); later married Teijo Ito. Career: Family immigrated to America, 1922; made first film Meshes of the Afternoon , 1943; travelled to Haiti, 1946; secretary for Creative Film Foundation, 1960. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship for work in creative film, 1946. Died: Of a cerebral hemorrhage in Queens, New York, 13 October 1961.

Films as Director:


Meshes of the Afternoon (with Alexander Hammid) (+ role); The Witches' Cradle (unfinished)


At Land (+ role)


A Study in Choreography for Camera ; The Private Life of a Cat (home movie, with Hammid)


Ritual in Transfigured Time (+ role)


Meditation on Violence


The Very Eye of Night


By DEREN: books—

An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and the Film , New York, 1946.

The Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti , New York, 1953.

Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti , New York, 1970.

By DEREN: articles—

"Choreography of Camera," in Dance (New York), October 1943.

"Cinema As an Art Form," in Introduction to the Art of the Movies , edited by Lewis Jacobs, New York, 1960.

"Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality," in Daedalus: The Visual Arts Today , 1960.

"Movie Journal," in Village Voice (New York), 25 August 1960.

"A Statement of Principles," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

"Movie Journal," in Village Voice (New York), 1 June 1961.

"A Lecture . . . ," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1963.

"Notes, Essays, Letters," in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1965.

"A Statement on Dance and Film," in Dance Perspectives , no. 30, 1967.

"Tempo and Tension," in The Movies As Medium , edited by Lewis Jacobs, New York, 1970.

On DEREN: books—

Hanhardt, John, and others, A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema , New York, 1976.

Sitney, P. Adams, Visionary Film , 2d edition, New York, 1979.

Clark, Veve A., Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neimans, The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works: Vol. 1, Pt. 1, Signatures (1917–1942) , New York, 1984.

Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.

Rabinovitz, Lauren, Points of Resistance: Women, Power, Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–71 , Urbana, Illinois, 1991.

Sudre, Alain-Alcide, Dialogues théoriques avec Maya Deren: du cinéma expérimental au film ethnographique , Paris, 1996.

Sullivan, Moira, An Anagram of the Ideas of Filmmaker Maya Deren: Creative Work in Motion Pictures , Stockholm, 1997.

On DEREN: articles—

Farber, Manny, "Maya Deren's Films," in New Republic (New York), 28 October 1946.

"Deren Issue" of Filmwise , no. 2, 1961.

Obituary in New York Times , 14 October 1961.

Tallmer, Jerry, "For Maya Deren," in Village Voice (New York), 19 October 1961.

Arnheim, Rudolf, "To Maya Deren," in Film Culture (New York), no. 24, 1962.

Sitney, P. Adams, "The Idea of Morphology," in Film Culture (New York), nos. 53, 54, and 55, 1971.

Cornwell, Regina, "Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac: Activists of the Avant Garde," in Film Library Quarterly (New York), Winter 1971/72.

Bronstein, M., and S. Grossmann, "Zu Maya Derens Filmarbeit," in Frauen und Film (Berlin), December 1976.

Camera Obscura Collective, The, "Excerpts from an Interview with 'The Legend of Maya Deren' Project," in Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California), Summer 1979.

Mayer, T., "The Legend of Maya Deren: Champion of American Independent Film," in Film News (New York), September/October 1979.

"Kamera Arbeit: Der schopferische umgang mit der realitat," in Frauen und Film (Berlin), October 1984.

"Maya Deren Issue," of Film Culture (New York), 72–75, 1985.

Millsapps, J.L., "Maya Deren, Imagist," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1986.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June–July 1988.

Homiak, J. P., "The Anthropological Visualization of Haiti: Reflections on the Films of Melville Herskovits and Maya Deren," in CVA Review , Spring 1990.

Smetek, J. R., "Continuum or Break?: Divine Horseman and the Films of Maya Deren," in New Orleans Review , vol. 17, no. 4, 1990.

Mosca, U., "Maya Deren, o dell'etica della forma," in Cineforum (Bergamo), vol. 32, no. 314, May 1992.

Larue, J., "Trois portraits de femmes," in SĂ©quences (Quebec), no. 166, September-October 1993.

Pramaggiore, Maria, "Performance and Persona in the U.S. Avant-Garde: The Case of Maya Deren," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), vol. 36, no. 2, Winter 1997.

* * *

Maya Deren was the best-known independent, experimental filmmaker in the United States during and after World War II. She developed two types of short, subjective films: the psychodrama and the ciné-dance film. She initiated a national non-theatrical network to show her six independently made works, which have been referred to as visual lyric poems, or dream-like trance films. She also lectured and wrote extensively on film as an art form. Her films remain as provocative as ever, her contributions to cinematic art indisputable.

Intending to write a book on dance, Deren toured with Katherine Dunham's dance group as a secretary. Dunham introduced Deren to Alexander Hammid, and the following year the couple made Meshes of the Afternoon. Considered a milestone in the chronology of independent film in the United States, it is famous for its four-stride sequence (from beach to grass to mud to pavement to rug). Deren acted the role of a girl driven to suicide. Continuous action is maintained while time-space unities are severed, establishing a trance-like mood by the use of slow motion, swish-pan camera movements, and well executed point-of-view shots.

In her next film, At Land , a woman (Deren) runs along a beach and becomes involved in a chess game. P. Adams Sitney refers to this work as a "pure American trance film." The telescoping of time occurs as each scene blends with the next in unbroken sequence, a result of pre-planned editing. At Land is also studded with camera shots of astounding virtuosity.

Other films include Deren's first ciné-dance film, the three-minute A Study in Choreography for Camera. Filmed in slow motion, a male ballet dancer, partnered by the camera, moves through a variety of locales. Continuity of camera movement is maintained as the dancer's foot changes location. Space is compressed while time is expanded. According to Sitney, the film's importance resides in two fresh observations: space and time in film are created space and time, and the camera's optimal use is as a dancer itself. Ritual in Transfigured Time , another dance-on-film, portrays psycho-dramatic ritual by use of freeze frames, repeated shots, shifting character identities, body movements, and locales. Meditation on Violence explores Woo (or Wu) Tang boxing with the camera as sparring partner, panning and zooming to simulate human response. The Very Eye of Night employed Metropolitan Ballet School members to create a celestial ciné-ballet of night. Shown in its negative state, Deren's handheld camera captured white figures on a total black background. Over the course of her four dance-films Deren evolved a viable form of ciné-choreography that was adapted and adjusted to later commercial feature films. In cases such as West Side Story , this was done with great skill and merit.

Deren traced the evolution of her six films in "A letter to James Card," dated April 19, 1955. Meshes was her "point of departure" and "almost expressionist"; At Land depicted dormant energies in mutable nature; and Choreography distilled the essence of this natural changing. In Ritual she defined the processes of changing, while Meditation extends the study of metamorphosis. In The Very Eye she expressed her love of life and its living. "Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction."

In 1946 Deren published An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and the Film , a monograph declaring two major statements: the rejection of symbolism in film, and strong support for independent film after an analysis of industrial and independent filmmaking activities in the United States.

Although Meshes remains the most widely seen film of its type, with several of its effects unsurpassed by filmmakers, Deren had been forgotten until recently. Her reputation now enjoys a well-deserved renaissance, for as Rudolf Arnheim eulogized, Deren was one of film's "most delicate magicians."

—Louise Heck-Rabi

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: