After seeing two Deren movies in HD on the Masterworks of Avant-Garde blu-ray, I thought it was time to rewatch the others on the ol’ DVD.


At Land (1944)

Just as cool as Meshes, in a way, but with less sci-fi/thriller genre imagery. Maya washes up on shore, creeps around, climbs into a meeting room, then seeks a missing chess piece, finally stealing a replacement from a couple by the beach. Continuous action across different locations, so Maya will creep forward across the board room and through tree branches, cutting between. It’s already a cool effect, but then the ending recontextualizes everything, as the chess thief Maya runs past each of the other Mayas performing different actions – more of the Meshes-style doubling. Silent, so I played “The Ship” by Brian Eno, a good musical match once I made myself stop focusing on the lyrics.

Deren:

One aspect in which the film is completely successful, it seems to me, is that the techniques, though complicated, are executed with such quiet subtlety that one is unaware of the strangeness of the film while one looks at it. It is only afterwards, as after a dream, that one realizes how strange were the events and is surprised by the seeming normalcy of them while they are occurring.

Deren again:

It presents a relativistic universe … in which the problen of the individual, as the sole continuous element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century.

Much harder than Meshes to get across the greatness of this one through stills, since it’s all about editing and motion:


A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

Dancer(s?) in the woods, moving indoors then to an art gallery and back through discontinuous editing, cool and silent and very short. Oh yeah, it was the same dancer appearing four times during a single camera pan in the opening shot, impressive.

Deren:

[The dancer] moved in a world of imagination in which, as in our day or night-dreams, a person is first in one place and then another without traveling between.


Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

Rita wanders through different activities, flees each one: Maya knitting, a party featuring Anais Nin, and dancing with some shirtless guy. As she runs from the last one, Rita becomes Maya, wading into the ocean.

Deren was trying “to create a dance film, not only out of filmic time and space relations, but also out of nondance elements … save for a final sequence the actual movements are not dance movements.”

Deren on her films up to now:

Meshes is, one might say, almost expressionist; it externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external one. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist, it externalizes the hidden dynamics of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Ritual pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the larger changes of the earth. Ritual is about the nature and process of change. And just as Choreography was an effort to isolate and celebrate the principle of the power of movement, which was contained in At Land, so I made, after Ritual, the film Meditation on Violence, which tried to abstract the principle of ongoing metamorphosis and change which was in Ritual.

Anais Nin is unimpressed by the dancers:


The Very Eye of Night (1958)

Dancers superimposed twirling against a cheap black starscape. Woodwind music by Teiji Ito (later Maya’s husband) with some tinkling, chattering sections that got my birds riled up. “Her concern was with plastic development, conflict of scale, and dimensional illusion rather than with total structure,” per P. Adams Sitney.

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part two.

Tarantella (1940 Bute & Nemeth)

Abstract designs move in time to music, a la An Optical Poem and some of the Len Lye films. Bold and colorful.

Lewis Jacobs in Film Quarterly:

At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger’s method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals … Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc.


Pursuit of Happiness (1940 Rudy Burckhardt)

These NYC mini-docs keep getting better. This one is mostly focused on people and advertisements. Towards the end, Rudy goes nuts in the editing, rotating and slowing and superimposing and splitting images. “Intentionally silent,” which I cannot abide, so I played some Cyro Baptista.


1941 (1941 Francis Lee)

Flowing paint and broken glass, an abstract visual response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor made just before the filmmaker went to war.


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943 Maya Deren)

This is the best. Cocteau-like death-dream narrative from every perspective, with doubling, mirror-faces, slo-mo – all the effects used to great poetic purpose. Wrote (a bit) more here.

Deren:

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.


Meditation on Violence (1948 Maya Deren)

A man practicing wutang and shaolin moves to flute music. Drums are added, and completely take over the soundtrack as the man warps to an outdoor setting with a sword and costume. A few token slo-mo and freeze shots then he’s back indoors. Apparently it’s much more complex than it looks and Deren had theories and charts to explain what she was doing, but Sitney calls it “a film overloaded by its philosophical burden.”


In the Street (1948 James Agee, et al)

Documentary of kids of all ages hanging out and playing in the street. Builds to a climax with a war of boys fighting with stockings filled with gravel, then chills out again, then a montage of close-ups. Costumes are involved, and rambly piano music accompanies.


Four in the Afternoon (1951 James Broughton)

Four vignettes set to Broughton poems. 1. Jump-roping woman imagines possible suitors. 2. Gardening man imagines finding a date. 3. Prancing woman in garden is pursued by even prancier man. 4. Sad man in rocking chair dreams of ballerinas past. This one has some nice reverse-action.

Sitney:

For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; with Game Little Gladys it is stop-motion manifestation and disappearance of possible lovers; in the case of The Gardener’s Son it is a composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the woman he desires in the background … The final section, The Aging Balletomane, may be the finest … Reverse motion is the trope of this episode.

I passed up seeing The Scarlet Empress in 35mm for this, but it was probably worth it [later note after having finally watched The Scarlet Empress: nope].

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren)
One of the great poetic movies of the 40’s. Love when she’s climbing the stairs, bouncing off the walls as the camera twists from side to side. Love the multiple Mayas sitting at a table in the same shot (technically impressive, too). Love the movement, the plot (avant-filmmakers take note: an actual plot), the look, that iconic shot of Maya at the window.

Fuses (1967, Carolee Schneemann)
Fairly rapidly-edited shots of director having sex with James Tenney, with other scratched and weathered colored filmstrips superimposed over it. The editing and content are exciting for about ten minutes, but the movie is twenty minutes long, and silent. Girl in front of me tried reading from the reflected light of Tenney’s alarmingly red-tinted penis on the classroom wall, then texted people for a while. I sat wondering why there were so many shots of her cat staring out the window. Maybe it was supposed to be boring, and that was the point. Worth watching on pristine 16mm, glad I saw it, just saying it felt long. Schneemann has few film credits, but they’re in collaboration with Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Stan Brakhage. The Brakhage influence can plainly be seen here, and the film process work makes for some wonderful images. This was apparently a reaction to the objectification of women in movies, with Window Water Baby Moving named as an example. The director: “I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt – the intimacy of the lovemaking… And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense – as one feels during lovemaking.” Won a special jury prize at Cannes.

Reassemblage (1982, Trinh T. Minh-ha)
Black with ambient sound. Then shots of a rural scene in Senegal with silence. More shots with narration. More shots with ambient sound. More narration. Eventually, more black. The sound is rarely commenting directly on the visuals, and even the ambient sound rarely seems to line up. Shots of bare-breasted African women, daily chores, kids (two albinos!), youth playing in the river, and so on, with comments about ethnography. The commentary might make sense written down, but as we heard it, all scattered and edited (the sound editing was pretty poor), it seemed to circle around some points without managing to make any. Got nothing against the film, was fine to hang out in Senegal for a while. L. Thielan: “By disjunctive editing and a probing narration this ‘documentary’ strikingly counterpoints the authoritative stance typical of the National Geographic approach.”

Reassemblage:
image

First Comes Love (1991, Su Friedrich)
Pop music by the Beatles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and more, but someone please get this woman a cross-fader – it’s all so abruptly edited. The songs sometimes work really well with the images, though. Image is of four wedding ceremonies, astoundingly woven together into an ethnographic study of heterosexual marriage ceremony, interrupted by a text crawl of all the countries in which homosexual marriage is prohibited (every country but Denmark). Bell & Zryd: “This simple strategy, which contrasts the lush life of heterosexual ritual with the stark legal and constitutional realities of gay and lesbian relationships, reframes the anthropological text with political rigor.” Rigor isn’t something I look for in a movie, but avant-critics love to proclaim it. What rigor! Anyway, would like very much to see more of her work.

Girlpower (1992, Sadie Benning)
I hear the intro feedback of a Sonic Youth song and all is right in the world. Even though this movie (the shortest of the bunch, I expect) is a half-res crap-quality videotape, the music and narration are clear. About the narration – sounds like either a petulant girl or a woman in performance-art mode… an impressionistic video diary of disaffected youth, comfortable with herself but not with society. Aha, Benning was 30 at the time. Lotta shots of the television. Punk film, but with nicer sound editing than the Friedrich, weird. Short, enjoyed it. Ooh, she’s James Benning’s daughter.