Scan the most recent (2022) of Sight and Sound magazine’s polls of the greatest films of all time (critics are polled every ten years) and you’ll see films you know intimately (Singin’ in the Rain or Vertigo, maybe), films you might have seen once or twice (The Searchers, Playtime) and films by directors you’ve heard of but maybe aren’t over-familiar with (Ozu, Murnau, Varda, Renoir, Denis).
And then, in the number 16 slot there’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Chances are you’ve not heard of it, or of its makers, Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied. But there it is. It stands out for other reasons too. It was made in 1943 and is silent – entirely silent, no musical accompaniment. And it’s only 14 minutes long, the shortest film of the 250-strong list, two minutes shorter than the next shortest, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, which was made in 1929 and is a clear influence on Meshes of the Afternoon, despite Deren’s regular protests that it wasn’t.
So it’s an outlier in several senses even before a single frame has been glimpsed. And what a strange and almost mystical beast it is, a largely experimental and often innovative, if obviously crude carnival of images which nevertheless tells a straightforward story, of a woman (Deren herself, a shock of wild hair setting off her strong attractive features) drifting through what seems like a semi-dreamlike existence, who falls asleep and enters a properly dreamlike dreamworld, where a mysterious cloaked man with a mirror for a face is always disappearing off into the distance, and our heroine, this woman, keeps running into copies of her sleeping self. She is perhaps being threatened by the man, or even by herself.
The effects are simple – a split screen here, a camera rocked side to side there – but they are all designed to dissolve the distinction between the subjective and objective. When a hand reaches for a fallen flower, it’s the shadow of the hand that appears to have agency rather then the hand itself. When the camera rocks, the woman is also thrown to one side. Time is also played about with. It’s compressed massively in jump cuts, like the ones of a foot walking – one step it’s on tarmac, the next on sand, the next grass, and so on (I might have got the order wrong there, but you follow my drift).
It’s a dense collection of stylish looks and trick shots, which exerted an influence on the likes of Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard. It has been and still is something of a playbook for directors trying to achieve a surreal or ethereal effect. The work of Jan Svankmajer (1988’s Alice, for instance) is obviously influenced, and so is David Lynch, particularly in his washier, more ambient films like Inland Empire. Less obviously, maybe, you can see influences in Dick Lester’s work – the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, for instance.
The man constantly disappearing out of shot – the character we can’t catch in our dreams – is co-creator Hackenscmied, a title board at the beginning (“A film by Maya Deren and A. Hackenschmied. California 1943”) says as much, though it’s moot how much Hackenschmied contributed. For a while he insisted it was mostly his work, before relenting and admitting it was mostly hers. The couple split up in 1947, possibly as a result of the adulation she was getting, and he went on to a varied and successful career, winning an Oscar for his documentary short To Be Alive! in 1964 and co-creating, with Francis Thompson, the first IMAX format film, To Fly! (1976). He obviously liked his screamers!!!!
Deren, a bohemian of the old school whose social circle included Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Anaïs Nin, met a Japanese teenager, Teiji Ito and started a relationship with him – him about 15, her around 34. The two of them eventually married and collaborated on a number of films. If you find a copy of Meshes of the Afternoon with a soundtrack, it’ll be by him.
Maya Deren: Experimental Films – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2023