Lost in the Movies: Across the Threshold with Maya Deren (video)

Across the Threshold with Maya Deren (video)

featuring video, description, further thoughts and quotes from Maya Deren & Martha Nochimson

Original Vimeo introduction

My latest video essay pairs images from Maya Deren's experimental short films with physicist Arthur Eddington's quantum description of taking a single step through a door. Deren's avant-garde cinematic worlds operate with a freewheeling approach to physical reality. Characters float and fall through space despite gravity, leaping across different planes in defiance of logic...or so it seems. By combining Deren's dreamlike visuals with Eddington's words we are reminded that perhaps the "real world" is less stable and certain than we like to think...maybe the boundless artist and the man of science have a great deal in common after all.

The concept behind this video was inspired by the work of Martha Nochimson in the book David Lynch Swerves, which uses quantum physics as a prism through which to view David Lynch's later films.

The video, along with further context (including passages from the book), follows the jump.

Here are some excerpts from David Lynch Swerves, out of context of course. Obviously Nochimson is referring to, in large degree, David Lynch's narrative action and structure and, to a (possibly) lesser degree Lynch's own visual atmosphere (which is not particularly close to Deren), stylistic rhythm (which is closer to Deren) and patterns of association (which are very close to Deren - especially in At Land and, most obviously, Meshes of the Afternoon). Nevertheless, I think these statements can apply to Deren's films too...even if my purpose is as much textural as conceptual.

Please note, the emphases below are mine.

"As with Eddington's threshold above, the Lynchian threshold is a passage between two perceptions of the same space, and a wake-up call for a fuller apprehension of our mind/body realities. ..."
"The Lynchian threshold, which appears when a troubled consciousness is forced beyond the perceived limits of reality, has the strangeness of dreams. But the experience is the essence of the Lynchian real, even if, like Arthur Eddington's subatomic image of entering a room, it has a distinctly fantastic aura. Eddington removes the blinders from our vision to reveal the alternate identity of a material world usually imagined only as a solid, stable place. Lynch does the same in his films. Thus, we can find a key to reading Lynch in the room Eddington imagines entering, even though it seems almost cartoonlike in its strangeness. Eddington is summoning up a scientific scenario, not a reverie. The familiarly solid shapes of floorboards are replaced here by the frightening (yet quasi-comical) indeterminacy of the behavior of the particles that make up the floor that Eddington would find if he looked at them in a laboratory. Clearly life is more surprising in the light of modern paradigms than it is when we wear the glasses of classical Newtonian physics, but it is no less real.
But Lynch and Eddington have different motives for surprising us. Eddington is attempting to provide a simple visible parable for complex theories developed by physicists. Lynch has much larger purposes in mind. ..."
"We must begin by talking about the shattering moments when Lynch opens up thresholds among the multiple levels of the material world for his protagonists. These moments take place when problems arise from which society does not provide an answer - when characters are struggling with impossible dilemmas or to create something new. ..."
"When they are driven outside those illusory limits, Lynch's protagonists are not only surprised by the behavior of things and bodies around them, they also experience a kind of isolation because they are propelled by events into radical conflict with the flawed and often punishing world of 'normal' transactions. ..."
 "...he himself contradicts the laws of classical physics by both being in two places at once and, at the same time, not being present at all. ..."
"Anyone who has contended with a self in turmoil, engaged in troubling conflicts with our surrounding society, or pushed the boundaries of his/her knowledge will, at least in theory, find that physicists' description of matter on a particle level evokes the experience of learning, discovering, and growing. Any profound revelation breaks up habit, and not in a lighthearted way; it can be a trauma akin to losing coordinates in space and time. Sometimes, and all teachers know this, the inability to deal with that kind of disorientation makes it impossible for some people ever to go beyond their limited comfort zones - that is, makes it impossible to learn, grow, and change. ..."
"entanglement ... multiple particles respond to stimuli as if they were one as well as many..."
"Superposition ... one particle ... in two places at exactly the same time - making it impossible to apply pronouns as we do in the ordinary course of things. The particle is both 'it' and 'they.' ..."
"...traumatic transitions and the interim space between two states of being are ... crucial part[s] of his narratives..."
"...a more important narrative goal is to move from 'here to here,' to see the moment of being in an expanded way. ..."
"...a full understanding of the 'here' would involve the scraping away of the surface of the now to arrive at the future, rather than a linear progression toward it."
Just yesterday I discovered "The Principle of Infinite Pains", an article by Maria Popova (h/t Nikki Walkerden) featuring quotations from the book Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Several of these quotes resonated completely with the sense I was getting of Deren's work in light of Eddington's words and Nochimson's research (while also, perhaps, providing subtle counterpoints). So let's end with the filmmaker herself. Again, the emphasis is mine, based on passages relevant to the video:
"This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…"

"And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest."

"[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic 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 Rituals 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 large changes of the earth."
And finally though I'm not sure it's so directly pertinent to my present inquiry, I just love this (and suspect that it does have something to do with the larger point after all): 
"Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above."
UPDATE: I just discovered this fascinating essay discussing this very subject: "The Physics of Film: Quantum Mechanics in the Films of Maya Deren"

update 2016: I have also uploaded this video essay to YouTube:

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