Term Paper: Maya Deren: An Experimental Life

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[. . .] Deren's use of temporal and spatial dislocations, trance-like states and the expressive and ritualistic spirit of dance make it one of the highpoints of her film work. (5) This film is a dance, but it is also a social statement about the ritual role of women.

Beginning with three women performing household rituals, one young, one middle-age (played by Maya), and one older woman. The younger female then enters a party, where the actions of the people are choreographed in an unending waltz. A man approaches the young female, and the world changes. They are outside, and he pursues her. She runs from him. To escape him, she walks into the water until she is submerged. As she floats down, she is seen in a white gown. This film could easily be viewed as the interior experiences of the female before and into marriage.

In 1947, Deren won the prestigious Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prix International award. That same year she was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to begin research on the Voudoun (Voodoo) ritual in Haitian culture.

During her visits to Haiti, she became personally involved in the mysterious religion, which led to her writing "The Divine Horsemen." Although not trained as an anthropologist, she did a painstaking ethnographic study with the result that the book would become the definitive work on Haitian Voudoun. Her film footage, shot between 1947 and 1951, never finished in her lifetime and never seen before 1978, was later culled and edited by her third husband and Teiji Ito and his wife Cherel. They added to the footage an anthropological structure and narration (true to the facts and spirit of her book) which though perhaps at odds with the original film's rhythm, clarifies the ceremonies for the viewer.

This revealing and stunningly photographed documentary, "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti," is perhaps at the center of the Deren legend: the legend of Deren the Voodoo Priestess. It is a film that conveys, perhaps for the first time, the power and beauty of the Voudoun rites free of both the false fantasies of Hollywood and the distance of ethnographers. It is a picture of Voudoun viewed by an artist, and one privileged to conduct a study of emotional and psychological perceptions on an intimate and subjective level.

It is also the work of an insider; Deren had not only gained the celebrants' trust enough so that she was permitted to film authentic ceremonies. She also participated in the ceremonies. In fact, she had undergone initiation as a Mambo, or priestess, and had experienced possession - the center toward which all the roads of Voudoun converge. Of this experience, she wrote: "As sometimes in dreams, so here I can observe myself [dancing]... my sense of self doubles again...except that now the vision of the one who watches flickers, the lids flutter, the gaps between the moments of sight flowing greater...wider...My skull is a drum; each great beat drives that leg, like the point of a stake, into the ground. The singing is at my very ear, inside my head, this sound will drown me!...I cannot wrench the leg free. I am caught in this cylinder, this well of sound. There is nothing anywhere except this. There is no way out. The white darkness moves up the veins of my leg like a swift tide rising, rising; is a great force which I cannot sustain or contain...The bright darkness floods up through my body, reaches my head, engulfs me. I am sucked downward and exploded upward at once. That is all." (6)

There is speculation surrounding the details of Maya Deren's death. Deren died in 1961 at age 44. The legend begins with Stan Brakhage who, in his book Film at Wit's End, speculates that Deren's death was punishment for her intimate involvement in the Haitian Voudoun ritual. Other researchers and authors think this notion can be dismissed with the shocking assertion that Deren died of a cerebral hemorrhage due to a combination of malnutrition and a predilection for amphetamines and sleeping pills.

When she died Maya Deren's ashes were scattered across the lively port side of Mount Fuji, in Japan. Ito thought that this was the perfect resting place for a woman energized in life by ritual, dance, voodoo, music, poetry, writing and of course, experimental film.

While Deren's films have all been slightly different and experimental in nature, the ongoing search for personal identity, through the use of dream logic, multiple selves, and space and time, has remained the focus of the majority of her works of art. Deren has left us several films. "In each one of them she explored a new formal option," and that is what makes her aft so unique (Sitney, p.24).

Maya Deren was a key figure in the development of the New American Cinema. Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch. As a pioneer of American avant-garde cinema, Deren's legacy is both abstract and tangible. Her innovations in filmmaking continue to fascinate aspiring experimental filmmakers. Her pioneering, uncompromising spirit enabled her to elude the institutional limitations that controlled filmmaking in 1940s American culture.

Deren's enduring quest to secure financial support for experimental filmmakers during her lifetime was finally answered with the establishment of a grant bearing her name. In 1986 the American Film Institute recognized Deren's significant contribution to experimental filmmaking by creating the Maya Deren Award to act as an incentive and reward for the work of contemporary independent film and video makers. She not only leaves behind her trademark style of vision, but also films that inspire, films that intrigue and above all else, films that are truly experimental.

Works Sited

Deren, Maya. Notes, Essays, Letters

New York: McPherson & Company, 1990

Nichols, Bill. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Rice, Shelley. Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman.

Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999

Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940's.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde 1943-1978.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.


1. Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940's, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999, p. 450 (Volume 6 of History of the American Cinema series)

2. Maya Deren, Notes, Essays, Letters, Film Culture, 39, 1965, p.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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