Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Meshes of the Afternoon (#16)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Favorites - Meshes of the Afternoon (#16)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/USA/dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) appeared at #16 on my original list.

What it is • A woman (Deren) wanders alone through her Los Angeles home and rests in a chair. There, it would seem, she dreams an encounter with an eerie cloaked figure carrying a flower, whose face is a shard of smooth glass: a mirror in which no reflection can be glimpsed. Within this dream, time folds over itself. She is the woman in the window looking down at herself as she passes up the winding path. She is floating up to the ceiling, toppling fluidly down stairs, cascading through window curtains, as if her own house is a space station in which the standard experience of gravity no longer applies. She is still sleeping in the chair, vulnerable to a knife attack from her own goggle-eyed double. Upon near-death a man (Hammid) awakes her, but this encounter too has an unreal tinge. The film ends with a fourth layer of experience, a macabre final image, but is this any more - or less - real than everything else we've seen? This avant-garde masterpiece repeatedly suggests that every clue is a double-edged dagger, most literally when the key which the woman pulls from her mouth transforms into a knife in her open palm. Meshes of the Afternoon teases us with the temptation to make sense of what we see, while refusing to provide any digestible order to reassemble its gorgeous puzzle pieces. The film was creator/director/star Deren's cinematic breakthrough, a collaboration with her husband, the talented cinematographer Hammid, which also contributed to their personal and professional breakup. Deren's later films, for which she receives sole directorial credit, are perhaps more purely obscure and enigmatic; on another day, I could place them above Meshes and in any just analysis At Land and probably Rituals of Transfigured Time would be on equal footing. What uniquely intrigues about Meshes is its existence at the cross-section of narrative and pure experiment, and its touch of Hollywood glamor, reflected in a looking-glass at once more disorienting and far more lucid than the straightforward products of the dream factory.

Why I like it •
If I had to sum up the pleasing sensation this film provides for me in one phrase it would be "Getting lost in your own home." Using a small location - a two-story apartment with kitchen, living room, and just a bedroom at the top of the stairs, plus the walkway outside - Deren and Hammid craft a universe of repetition, doubling, and free movement. That is probably the most "fun" (but also uneasy) aspect of the movie, its ability to use imagination to expand a limited horizon. Meshes's use of space provides a mirror reflection of At Land, in which Deren links multiple locations as if they are only one step away from one another. If I had to choose a second phrase to explain the Meshes appeal, it would be "Different layers of reality overlap and intermingle." This is where Deren's work most strongly evokes David Lynch - specifically Mulholland Drive, in which we see a chilling, inexplicable action or object and then the more physically mundane, but psychologically explicit cause of this action or object. For example, a character envisions a monster behind a diner and later we see this same incidental character lock eyes with a very human character who has just done something monstrous. Like Lynch, however, Meshes doesn't just keep it at these revelations one level of resonance or complexity, an "Aha! You were there and you were there and you were there" dreamlike explanation. We alternately see Deren's character, the cloaked figure, and her husband or lover walk up the stairs and place a flower on the bed. Which is the "real" image, that inspired the others? Are they all real, and if so what does that say about her feelings about herself, the man, the spirit? Meshes allows these fractured perceptions to swarm together without privileging just one reading, allowing us multiple vantage points and interpretations. Finally, if I could pick a third phrase to briefly answer "Why I like it," I would go with "Characters and camera moving like dancers." The film has a choreographed rhythm which is a bit less explicit than in later works like At Land or (especially) Ritual in Transfigured Time, but the figures still move with a grace and fluidity that hints at Deren's history as a dancer and choreographer. The camera itself, with its point of view shots and extreme close-ups, is loose and mobile in a way few contemporary films were, taking our hand to guide us trancelike through the field of dangerous energies operating beneath everyday surfaces. Meshes is like a tingling temporary sensation of deja vu or disorientation stretched out to fourteen minutes - the forms of everyday life and Hollywood entertainment transfigured into a visionary experience.

More from me • I have featured Meshes of the Afternoon in two video essays. My first video, Across the Threshold, couples images from many of Maya Deren's films with the words of quantum physicist Arthur Eddington, demonstrating how her work embodies our expanded understanding of physical reality. The cross-post further explores these implications with quotes from Martha Nochimson's work on David Lynch. Speaking of whom...my second video, Meshes of Lynch, places clips from Meshes of the Afternoon side by side with clips from many different Lynch films. The images (and more importantly, the ideas) bear uncanny resemblances to one another. I dig into the apparent coincidence a bit further in my cross-post, alongside screen-caps of every single comparison for closer study. A clip from Meshes of the Afternoon appears at 1:05 in "Dreaming in Wartime", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

How you can see it • Meshes of the Afternoon is available on Fandor and also as part of the In the Mirror of Maya Deren DVD collection on Netflix. And it is also all over YouTube, Vimeo, and other video sites.

What do you think? • Do you see a particular influence or flavor from Hammid as Deren's collaborator vs. Deren's later films which were more purely solo efforts? Aside from Mulholland Drive (and other Lynch films), what feature narratives do you see as reflecting Meshes, either intentionally or unintentionally? Given Deren's status as a pioneer of female independent filmmaking what particularly female elements do you see in Meshes?

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Yesterday: Star Wars (#17)

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