Maya Deren & Warpaint

“Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.”

Deep in the bowels of a basement in the Mission of San Francisco I once witnessed filmed bodies writhing and dancing while seemingly possessed. Film any environment of transcendence; a rave, Glastonbury in 2002, a Phish concert and the probability of possession doesn’t seem quite so far fetched however, these particular bodies and these particular people moved beyond human possibility. Human bodies are not supposed to do that. It was disturbing. So disturbing that a few people had to leave the room and one vomited in the famous bathroom upstairs.

The footage in the film was taken by film maker Maya Deren who had traveled to Haiti in 1954 and is one of the few, to this day, who has been given permission to film Vodoun rituals. Posthumously her 18,000 feet of footage was compiled and released in 1977 as the documentary Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti. She also participated in the rituals as the ethos of the practice spoke directly to her artistic impetus. “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 deconstruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specializations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

This could also be a fitting description for her most famous film Meshes of the Afternoon released in 1943. The short film explores both the innocuity of a woman taking a nap and the immeasurable realm of emotional depth. The film catapulted her into art world notoriety. She is now considered to be one the seminal avant-garde film makers of the 20th century and as such has been critiqued and dissected and treated to countless acts of theorizing. Freud has been sited as well as comparisons to Jean Cocteau and of course, that old bugbear, ‘the Feminine Perspective’ have been invoked. Deren resisted all of these interpretations. She defied such simplistic critiques though that she was a woman does make a difference. Not a difference easily defined but yet, important.

“The task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art but to experiment with the effects contemporary technical devices have on nerves, minds, or souls.”

Born in Kiev in 1917, Her family soon emigrated to the New York to escape the the anti-Semitic pogroms of the White Volunteer Army. She studied journalism and political science at Syracuse University and there joined the Young People’s Socialist League. Activism and an early marriage eventually led her to a Greenwich village rife with artistic fervor where her signature wild hair, fanciful clothes and fierce convictions found fertile ground with which to thrive.

One could say that there was no great embodiment of the Bohemian then than she, unadulterated truth being her pursuit and a recognizing that the wind or a feather is as vital a force as are our most preciously held conceits of self her devotion. It is perhaps why she did not score her own films. She did not wish to manipulate but instead, to invoke. One of her husband’s, Teiji Ito, added music to the film in 1959. But her focus was the power of the visual image alone impacting the senses. Indeed and perhaps oddly, her films go very well with music. The music is slightly transformed by being paired with the images and the images take on different layers of meaning while still maintaining their essential truth.

Meshes of the Afternoon along with other films will be treated to a new musical collaboration at the Castro on Friday, April 19th as part of the SF International Film Festival. This time, fittingly, with Warpaint an all female group best described as ‘dream pop that rocks’. Punk infused, this pairing speaks well to Deren’s philosophy that her art should be free — free to experiment and freely offered. She intentionally made her films as cheaply as possible, “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”. And truly, her vision resonates far beyond the method of production.

That the Divine Horseman footage so disturbed could be a testament to the actual influence of the Orishas, the nature of the space in which it was shown, (before it was a Viracocha it had been a Santeria shop), or to Deren’s profound ability to capture something deep in the gut of our collective psyche.

Though I could swear that a few of those Orishas came in to hear me singing Wish you Were Here over and over again by myself in that basement late one night, I am inclined to credit the disturbance to the unique and intoxicating work of Maya Deren.

Thank you for reading. The film festival continues through Tuesday. https://sffilm.org/