Essay: Maya Deren - Meshes of the Afternoon - 2012

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Adapted from the Question:Choose a film from the course to explore in detail and discuss its meaning in regards to its formal techniques, and its historical/social context. Consider the aims of the film maker and refer to any contemporary theoretical and subsequent critical analysis.


Meshes of the Afternoon, is a story that follows a woman within a dream; who experiences a repetitive pattern on what was occurring only moments before she fell asleep. Only to realize that was occurring around her was in fact reality, and it led to her demise at the climax of the film. The core factor was inspired by the heavy emotions of paranoia, inquisitiveness and confusion; turning a murder mystery into a psychotic nightmare.

The purpose of me writing this dissertation is to search into the depths of what further inspired Deren’s decision to create such a psychological storyline, and what methods she used to make the finished product.

Few contemporary experimental film directors, markedly female directors hold Maya, appropriately Jo Ann Kaplan and Sarah Pucill, as a large guidance, ensued by the success of Meshes. It was one of the many films associated with her first husband, Alexandr Hammid (nee Hackenschmied). Together they produced techniques that were highly exceptional for the time.  Coincidentally, this film has grown a large fan base in the modern century of the experimental and underground film genres; furthermore as a result, is the most accessible.

In a clip of a ten minute interview with British Film Institute, Kaplan emphasized her adoration for the director in question, mentioning in further detail of the relationship of Deren and Hammid; “I’m certain that a lot of the method, which she used over and over again, comes directly from him” The so referred method that Jo-Anne speaks of is the component of the 1930s Surrealism, since the trickery of the imagery for Meshes of the Afternoon and the later works replicates some of these measures. This era of Surrealism is a direct reference to the avant-garde crusade; where the brush strokes, and nature of the paint itself had questionable effects on the viewers.

Maya Deren has openly spoken about the initiative within the Afternoon’s instinctive development, stating “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 an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience”.

There are many elements of the film which give not only the genre an intriguing view point, nonetheless even the smallest of details which might go unnoticed until the ending is revealed.

Alike the visual thesis she presented was the usage of questioning her own sanity; not the self-resulting death, however, the practice of the props. There was the flower at the beginning of the film, following by the opening of the door with the key, the phone, the knife and loaf of bread upon the kitchen table, and then the revelation of the hooded figure; possessing a mirrored face. What made Maya adopt the reflecting face? Was this supposed to represent the character’s self-questioning? For its time, this special effect was considerably advanced, and the technique itself fascinates me, because I have come to see up to date variations in other mainstream media.

A direct connection of a modern day perception of the mirrored face was used in the television series Stargate; with the character of Anubis. Anubis, a Goa’ld system lord named after the Egyptian God of Mummification was given the ability to ascend; which was a consequence of tricking a character called Oma Desala, a member of a fictional humanoid race called the Ancients, later to be known as the Lateans of the sunken city of Atlantis.  He wanted the knowledge, power and the technology of the Ancients to surpass his former system lords of the Goal’d and control of the human population. However, when his ruse was found out, the rest of the Ancient society agreed to cast him out, and as punishment for his crimes of manipulating them; they transported his mind into a state of flux; as a result he was no human, nor was he an Ancient. Anubis was instead left standing as a hybrid; the body of a man, the mind of a Goa’ld, but with the face of transparent goo; which did not reflect any face upon its surface because it was so dense.

Could this be a play upon the idea that the characterisation of Anubis is so self-absorbed within his own power and knowledge, that he has become blind to his own corrupted state? The density of the goo a physical representation of his short-sightedness, thus ‘reflecting’ upon other’s inability to cast their own reflection? They unable to change his ways?

What differs between Deren’s and the works of Stargate’s attainments is the use of technology; when the character of Anubis came into the picture, there was a 63 year old gap; and by the late 1990s, the dependence of the computer animated sequences were in demand.

Furthermore the pattern is correspondingly subtly experienced within Stephen King’s novella story ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden (from Four Past Midnight); by which is then replicated into the 2004 film ‘Secret Window’ starring Johnny Depp. The character, Morton Rainey, a once influential mystery writer in a case of writer’s block begins to experience the visits of a man named John Shooter. Shooter is threatening him with plagiarism, stating that Rainey had stolen his story that was issued in a magazine nine years before the events. Later down into the plot, the character of Shooter is revealed to be an element of Morton’s mind, a duel personality because of the stress of Morton’s wife cheating on him six months prior. Shooter’s purpose is to manifest the distress, anger and jealousy of the writer; turning those heated emotions into murder. What King continues to write, which isn’t followed on in the film, however, leaves the characterization of the man more open-ended; through the eyes of Amy Rainey, the estranged wife; she implies that Shooter could’ve been a ghost of a man that Morton had in fact plagiarized from, that had materialized to haunt him into insanity, and death.

How the storylines of Dern’s and King’s conjoin is the aspect of the ghost-like figure, which is a representation of the protagonist. Despite the key influence not being immediately in film form; it was the novella that inspired the 2004 film; which took the visual adaption of the events to a new level. In addition to the spiritual essence, there was a distorted mirror sequence as Secret Window loomed towards its climax; echoing the end of Dern’s Meshes of the Afternoon – where Rainey had a revelation of the honest reasons behind the turn of events.

This demonstration of captivating narrative was instigated by the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s thought process Psychoanalysis, which was then stimulated into his hypothesis; Interpretation of Dreams – the assembly of psychoanalysis and dreams didn’t derive into film making until during the Second World War. Prior to the philosopher’s adaptions of dreams study, there is of course oneirology  and dream interpretation (sometimes known as dream analysis); the official learning of unconscious brain activity as we sleep and connotations behind it. These idiosyncratic elements of brain study were themselves Freud’s main stimulus. However, without Frued, dreams would not have become so popular.

Practice of the mirror, in the case of Deren, was manifested from the analysis of dreams that have been subjected into two areas; the emotional and mystical. One of the three clarifications of the mirror for the inner state of the sleeper speaks of a fear of seeing someone’s else’s face – this is a reflection of the dreamers true nature of themselves, or what they wish to be seen as. In regards to the superstitions of mirrors; there is an element of joined symbolism of the soul; the phobia of not liking the real essence of yourself. In the context of Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren’s character was in a mental, emotive and physical dilemma with her inner persona and was passing this dread onto the character’s lover in the state of lucid slumber. She did this, so that the ambiguous figure had a tangible form to relate to.

Another aspect involves the telephone, the phone is always out of place from the receiver; as if it’s been used, or perhaps going to be used but was instead forgotten about and left to lay about the stairs. In this instance, it maybe reflecting the woman in the narrative to be trying to get a grip on herself; the phone displaying her sub-consciousness, forewarning her of her path to insanity, but she doesn’t wish to listen?  Phones have been acknowledged in the study of dreams, to demonstrate a hypothetical lack of communication between the dreamer, and whomever the dreamer has drawn to mind in attempting communication with; i.e. boyfriend, girlfriend, family member. The lack of care for the phone, in this case may be due to the character giving up in trying to get through to herself; a disconnected line.

When Deren’s lover walks into the home, within her lucid secondary dream, he’s putting the phone back onto the receiver; this could be a depiction of her subconscious finally getting through to her, appearing to her in person she no longer needs try and connect – the events that are about to unfold have been figured out.  The rational elements of her mind is then finding a path out of the inner confusion; giving the lover a double metaphor, an implication of two aspects of herself.

Similarities are perceived in The Secret Window narrative of the film, especially drawing on the same exact signifiers of the mirror and the telephone; only, because it was made for mainstream audiences though ironically not well received by critics – the symbolism of the objects were taken a step further. Mort Rainey was allowed to see himself in the mirror, more than once and it was always with his back turned. He was also interacting with the character of John Shooter over the phone; whilst Deren’s character had no obvious interaction with either, she was always viewing this from a distance. The preliminary idea behind the dreamer’s reflection in a mirror having their back facing them, is a strong essence of hatred or self-inflicted stress  placed upon themselves; they are not able to face something they are feeling, or have physically done when awake, and it’s a sense of the subconscious being in denial – precisely like Mort Rainey’s denial of his personality’s actions whilst in a unconscious state (sleep).

With the two separate scenarios where Mort was being faced with his reflection, the first time was in reconsideration to him believing that this man – John Shooter, the man who is accusing him of plagiarism was in his living space, invading his privacy all because of a misunderstanding with a story; the echo he envisioned within the glass belonged to Shooter, or so he thought until he attacked it to realize it was himself – that he had imagined the stranger being in there. The second time around, was when the reality of what was unfolding before him; he was being faced with a truth he wasn’t yet ready to betroth.

The telephone on the other hand, was the somatic joining between himself and his split personality; a contrasting facility in regards to Deren’s work, which was speaking about lack of communication. The phone is the character of the schizophrenia, the two being able to establish communication yet with one of the conscious bodies straining to accept the dual nature. Along the same lines was the contact with his ex-wife Amy Rainey; the woman who caused the beginnings of his schizophrenia or made the symptoms worse. How he verified his association with her was with aggression – she was a nuisance, and she may have been, from her behavior a physical indicator of his inner guilt that he wasn’t ready to accept. The nagging questions about if the loss of their unborn child didn’t happen, if she didn’t cheat? These were obviously enquiries that he was asking himself but the plot wouldn’t let on right away.

Deren’s story of Meshes of the Afternoon continues in its inspiration to the deduction of psychoanalysis when the imagery refers to the butcher knife which is at first within the loaf of bread and then retrieved to lie upon the kitchen table; when Deren’s character removes it within the looping sequence. When the knife is shot again, this is where the usage of stop-action is taking hold; with the demonstration of disappearing and reappearing props. The purpose of the knife at this point is to interrogate the many versions of the sleeping woman into admitting who the culprit is that will become the future murderer. Rationalizing this arrangement by the study of dream interpretation; speaks of the butcher knife, like the mirror, and the telephone is a psychological misinterpretation of the dreamer’s real emotions; they are either unconsciously or consciously trying to overpower a hidden truth, not wishing to listen.

Maya instigates further depth into the dream’s association with the butcher knife, by implementing further awareness into the character; the inclinations of the building climax are implying into the woman’s conscious sanity. It is clear by this point that the woman, though not yet completely aware is beginning to associate the inevitable events as they are going to occur. It is here that the wandering impression of her lover comes into the room, this then leading to the conclusion that the subconscious is beginning to take control and rationalize the events to her.

In the same sequence, Maya Deren’s third and last persona manifests a pure black palm when she retrieves the butcher knife in the formation of the house key; playing the game of short straw with the secondary and first versions of herself.  This is the focusing section of her mind that is showing signs of restraint.

The uses of the black palmed hand is retrieved from  the legendary “black spot” of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s tale Treasure Island; the inference of the black spot is supposedly given to a person, for the novel’s purposes a pirate that has been cursed with death, as a form of punishment from a previous crime unto another pirate. Meshes’ alteration gives the implication that the woman is bound for death also. The effect of painting the entire hand black is an undermining implication of blood being on her hands; originating from the common “blood on your hands”, which is symbolic towards a person who allows death upon an unexpected person, but without being the actual interceptor of the killing.

Last, but not least, the key; throughout the narrative, the key is repetitively being used as a means of getting into the household, and in the woman’s looping structure in the short film is always dropping it outside, it is later used in the variation of short straws.  There are multiple meanings when it comes to the formats within and outside the dream world; frequently the phrase “the key to your heart”; draws upon the statement of a soul mate, while the other person represents the lock. However, within the framework of dreams – the key, depending on its condition and the environment foreshadows the dreamers’ status in society, locking away unwanted emotional turmoils, unlocking unfound answers, and for the purpose of Maya’s film; the lack of control of one’s self.

A reviewer upon the film mentioned there being an underlining message of feminism, under the title “A woman fighting with identity”; upon reading this review, I realized that throughout the film’s silent dynamics; with the woman fighting against herself, that there is considerations of feminism.

There for, I wish to conclude this essay with the key alone because I feel out of all the connotations; the key was the strongest element towards the film’s climax. Because of this, the key signifies the struggle for status; which leads to the knife being construed into her fighting against her restrictions related to her current position; the mirror being the window to what she could potentially become, and the phone being the receptor of what she is currently, and the uprising of her true self. Her lover then is the signifier of the male role, and her wanting to murder him was the woman attempting to break free of her inner restraints. When the culmination of the film came; the man walked into the home to find his lover dead. This gives the impression that the woman’s dream was a reality, but the ending of the film was itself a symbol. It was to represent the death of what she was, but who she had become was left a mystery.