Posted: February 26th, 2023

Avant-garde Movie

Essay (1500-2000 words)
Due: February 21th. Choose either
Visionary-Trance or
Visionary-Lyrical movie. Write an analysis of
one film(provided below) considering the key points in the section. Make use of

lecture notes and readings
. Be sure to clearly state an argument about the film’s meanings and use specific examples to support the interpretation. Pay particular attention to how formal/stylistic devices make meanings.

Format requirement:

Use 12-point font, double space and number pages. A cover page is not necessary but make sure you include your name and the course number. Any citation method is acceptable. A timestamp isn’t necessary.

Choose 1 movie below to analyze:

Visionary Lyrical movie

1.Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

2.Night Music (Stan Brakhage, 1986)

Visionary Trance Movie

1.Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

2.Meshes of the Afternoon(Maya Deren,1943)

Three readings and Lecture Notes(and PDF) are provided

· Horak Early Am AG

· Deren Cinematography

· Geller MESHES

· Am Visionary Trance

· Am Visionary Trance

· AM Visionary Lyrical

· AM Visionary Lyrical

Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006) © Biographical Research Center




Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) could be said to exemplify
Teresa de Lauretis’s idea of “the really avant-garde work in cinema and in
feminism,” which “is narrative and Oedipal with a vengeance, since it seeks
to stress the duplicity of that scenario and that specific contradiction of the
female subject in it—the contradiction whereby historical women must work
with and against Oedipus” (40). Deren worked tirelessly “with and against
Oedipus” as a filmmaker and activist in an otherwise masculinist avant-garde
art world. The critiques she waged against the dominant representations of
women were met with vehement resistance by a rabidly patriarchal, and fre-
quently misogynist, avant-garde film culture that did not hesitate to conflate
Deren herself with her films in their attacks. In this way, Deren’s films do
not register simply as “personal cinema,” but as a form of cinematic autobi-
ography. I want to show this by mapping the connections between Deren’s
first and most screened film, Meshes of the Afternoon, and Deren’s own role
within the history of the American avant-garde. This film’s critical reception
and Deren’s responses to it reveal a set of autobiographical themes.

Deren is credited with making the first narrative film in the history of
the American avant-garde, which up to that point had been dominated by
abstract representations and formal experiments with animation. Meshes uti-
lizes characters, setting, and a narrative temporality owing as much to film
noir and to Hollywood’s “women’s films” as to avant-garde experimentation.
Yet, the fact that this film focuses on a woman, played by Deren herself, who
is never assigned a name (nor does Deren give herself film credit as actress),
invites the narrative themes of the film to be interpreted as autobiographical
(Soussloff 123). As Bill Nichols contends, this interpretation of Meshes influ-

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Geller, The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren 141

enced both its early reception and the reasons for Deren’s relative invisibility
in the seventies: “Deren’s early reception hinged on elements of autobiogra-
phy and introspection. . . . [T]hese fell into disfavor as film studies grew into
an academic discipline in the 1970s” (13). Though perhaps out of favor in
the seventies, these elements were in fact a lightning rod in the film’s first
wave of reception. As Nichols and the contributors to Maya Deren and the
American Avant-Garde show so well, today it is generally held that Deren
effected “radical transformations . . . in regard for the self, or subject, with
her efforts to understand hysteria, trance, and ritual” (13). But the radical
nature of her film’s engagement with these themes originally drew critical
fire because it did so in ways that were explicitly gendered.

It has been suggested that it was in fact Deren’s radical engagement with
the self that initiated women’s autobiography in the cinema—a tradition con-
tinued in the work of Barbara Hammer, Sadie Benning, Cindy Sherman, and
other women who use self-representation in their visual art. Although self-
representation is not necessarily the same as autobiography, I agree with
Catherine Soussloff’s observation that a “slippage between the ‘I’ and the pro-
jected image” invites one to see “the films in which Deren appeared” as “doc-
uments” of her life (109, 124). Elizabeth Bruss argues, however, that “there
is no real cinematic equivalent for autobiography,” even when self-represen-
tation is involved (296). Her point is salient; film upsets “the parameters—
‘truth-value,’ ‘act-value,’ and ‘identity-value’—that we commonly associate
with the autobiographical act” (Bruss 301). However, Bruss’s taxonomy of
cinematic autobiography mentions only a single woman, and gender differ-
ence is never acknowledged as a mitigating factor. Certainly Deren’s films
have a great deal in common with the expressionist attempts at film autobi-
ography that Bruss names. In fact, Deren has been compared to both Jean
Cocteau and Kenneth Anger, two filmmakers Bruss discusses at length. Still,
Deren’s position as a filmmaker addressing the gendered self, who is seen by
others in terms of her gender, directly affects any understanding of her work
as autobiography.

The crux of Bruss’s differentiation of written autobiography from film is
the claim that “the structure of autobiography, a story that is at once by and
about the same individual, echoes and reinforces a structure that is also
implicit in language . . . the capacity to know and simultaneously be that
which one knows. . . . [T]his fundamental identification (or conflation) of
two subjects—the speaking subject and the subject of the sentence—is, then,
crucial to the autobiographical project” (301). Yet, this foundational insight
into the logocentrism of the Cartesian subject overlooks the crucial place-
holder of the phallus as the “ground” of the linguistic subject. Psychoanalytic

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feminism has addressed in great detail how the classical epistemic subject is
clearly marked as masculine. This psychoanalytic supplement to structural
linguistics troubles Bruss’s definition of autobiography, both written and
filmic, with sexual difference making all the difference. As a film that openly
engages with the ontology of sexual difference, Meshes deals with the uncon-
scious and pre-symbolic traumas that trouble the unified subject. At the same
time, in its critical reception, Meshes arguably comes closest to “the unity of
subjectivity and subject matter—the implied identity of author, narrator, and
protagonist on which classical autobiography depends” (Bruss 297). Accord-
ing to Bruss, this unity is shattered by film: “the autobiographical self decom-
poses, schisms, into almost mutually exclusive elements of the person filmed
(entirely visible; recorded and projected) and the person filming (entirely hid-
den; behind the camera eye)” (297). Yet, Deren reunified these elements by
drawing “attention to herself through appearances in front of the camera and
on the stage of an avant-garde scene” (Turim, “Ethics” 79). Even without
these interventions on Deren’s part, her unique position as a woman artist
supplied “exceptional reasons” to seek her out “as focalizer and focus” of her
films (Bruss 307, 309).

A feminist and psychoanalytic framework provides one way to answer the
questions “what happens to the notion of personal cinema when the person
behind the camera is a woman and what happens to the representation of the
other (and by extention the world) within that which is offered as a personal
vision of the self ” (Turim, “Ethics” 81). Deren’s personal cinema exemplifies
the feminist anthem “the personal is political” by atomizing the psychoana-
lytic processes ascribed to Woman. By analogizing the girl-child’s experience
of the structuring principle of the unconscious, the Oedipal drama, the film
positions itself against cinema’s typical theme of the masculine subject’s Oedi-
pal narrative, with Woman as the object (and outcome) of desire. Indeed, this
trajectory is often the very paradigm informing the male filmmaker’s autobi-
ography, as in Bruss’s examples of Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. “If the
personal was primarily a historically bound male perspective,” notes Maureen
Turim, “whose myths, heroics, and metaphors were conditioned by the con-
sciousness of the male artists who sought to equate the camera with their own
subjective eye, Deren infuses the personal with her experience as a woman.
She then arranges the force of experience into a form that evokes connections
to shared cultural experience” (“Ethics” 82). By evoking the psychoanalytic
mythology and metaphors of sexual difference, Meshes visually realizes Jacque-
line Rose’s claim “that the imaginary, of which the cinema may well be the
most privileged and efficient machine, is precisely a machine, an apparatus in
which what is at stake is a repression or refusal of the difficulty of sexuality

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itself” (218). In this way, I argue, Meshes employs “abstract expressionism,
fantasy, or surrealism,” which convey the Imaginary, to map the very psychic
structures that predate and predetermine both the “eye” and the “I” of the
autobiographical (sexed) subject (Bruss 309).

The beginning section of Meshes is performed in first-person through its
cinematic structures; only after the dream sequence commences does the
camera turn to third-person (Heck-Rabi 202). This first-person camera work
is what inspires P. Adams Sitney to see the film as an “interior quest,” and
to see “the character and Deren herself” as one and the same (Soussloff 112).
This system of first-person representation is encoded not simply through how
we see but what we see. This begins with the first image of the mannequin
arm dropping the paper flower. We, like the infant, see the fragment of the
female body—her arm. And like the infant knowing the mother through
metonymical experiences of her—her arm entering the crib—the arm is seen
as an object (a mannequin rather than a real arm). We experience this arm as
a thing in itself, and like the mother’s arm, the mannequin disappears with-
out a trace, except for the flower. By so doing, the film brings to the surface
the most startling experiences of the infant in the Imaginary by calling the
spectator’s attention to the more frightening aspects of loss and alienation
that dominant cinema works maniacally to efface through the fullness of the
screen image—and particularly the fetishization of the female.

This affective impact is heightened by film techniques. The lack of an
establishing shot places the camera as the stand-in for Deren, and the “sub-
jective” film techniques ensure that she is never filmed in totality. Without
a reverse shot, Deren’s character appears fragmented, with arms, legs, and
hands intermittingly occupying her, and our, field of vision. This subjective
camera work is akin to the infant, who experiences its own body as frag-
mented. Deren is filmed in such a way as to appear to be lacking a unified,
cohesive body. This lack of cinematic representation initiates the spectator
into the intensive focalization typical of autobiographical cinema. As Bruss
has said of Fellini’s films, “this is perhaps as close as the ‘eye’ of filming can
ever come to the ‘I’ of writing . . . both the subject and object of perception”
(314). Yet, unlike Fellini, Deren does not attempt to “restore equilibrium”
with the trope of the dream sequence, but instead will show that, for the
woman, “the coherent image” afforded by the “stade du miroir” is unavailable,
for she is the ground upon which the male’s coherent image is established
(Bruss 314).

When Deren first enters the house, the domestic space is cinematograph-
ically framed to defamiliarize it. Objects are fetishized through the operations
of the camera, such as the use of close-up. Yet, these scenes are edited rapidly

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to emphasize the camera’s (Deren’s) main trajectory—the bedroom. Like the
film spectator, Deren looks through the rectangular frame of the doorway to
see a messy bed, and as such, the trace of sexuality left behind. The first-per-
son scenes end with Deren seated, placing the flower on her lap (again giv-
ing it metonymic signification in relation to the female body), and caressing
herself. This caressing symbolizes the subject not yet cut off from her desire,
not yet lacking. However, the dream segment indexes the advent of desire,
which is introduced by a loud sound, akin to the role of the cry for Freud
(although all aural accompaniment was added several years later, supplied by
Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito), and by the visual of a cylinder. Joanne
Betancourt sees this as a stand-in for the cinematic apparatus: “The cylinder,
so clearly a camera part, relates directly to the fact that this interior vision,
this view of her dream, is possible only through the strategies of the movie
camera” (103). The dream sequence is introduced by a close-up on Deren’s
eye; this, and the mesh over the camera, signifies an interior psychic space
(“I”)—the realm of the unconscious where the structures of the primal scene
and castration have been repressed.

The dream commences a cycle of repetition that illustrates Deren ritual-
istically chasing an androgynous person with a mirror where its face should
be, a person who threatens confrontation while nevertheless eluding Deren’s
gaze. It is significant that this mirror never reflects back Deren’s image.
Instead, the mirrored enigmatic figure places on the bed the paper flower, the
original signifier of sexual difference. In this way, the flower, and its relation-
ship to the mirrored character, communicates the correspondence of the Other
(ultimately Deren in relation to Alexander Hammid’s male character) with
sexual difference, a difference that is threatening to the female subject. With
each circuit of the chase of the mirrored Other, and each refusal of the mir-
ror to cast back a reflection, the female character becomes more and more
infantilized, presenting a regression of subjectivity. This scenario is paradig-
matic of the stakes of mirror-stage for the female, as Jacqueline Rose explains:

Lacan’s conception of the mirror-stage is founded upon a structure of subjectivity
whose basic relation is that between a fragmented or inco-ordinate subject and its
totalizing image (the structural equivalent of the metonymic relation, part for
whole). In order to vehicule the image, the subject’s own position must be fixed.
. . . It is from this fixity, and the images that are thus produced, that the subject is
able to postulate objects of permanence and identity in the world. The mirror-stage
is, therefore, the focus for the interdependency of image, identity and identifica-
tion. . . . As a result of identifying itself with a discreet image, the child will be able
to postulate a series of equivalencies between the objects of the surrounding world,
based on the conviction that each has a recognizable permanence. (173)

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Geller, The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren 145

Yet, Deren is never allowed to identify with a “discreet Image”: even the knife
can only give a blurred and unrecognizable reflection in that it is one of the
many objects within the domestic space which has no permanence. This is
because, without a discreet image, she becomes an object herself; she is filmed
in a rigid position and then “moved” up and down the stairs with jump cuts,
recalling the first scene of the dream where she drops the house key and it
“bounces” along the stairs. Deren too “bounces,” becoming an object among

Deren renders the gaze and its objectification of Woman explicit. After
the first chase in the dream sequence, Deren (Maya-2) has been put in the
place of spectator to both the sleeping Maya-1 and the other two Mayas that
follow. She stands, unmoving, at the window to view the subsequent pro-
filmic ritual. Maya-3 appears unaware of the gaze of Maya-2. In fact, the
editing works to suture the spectator into the gaze of observing Maya-2, and
to play with the viewer’s sense of filmic reality by revealing the fungible bar-
rier separating spectator and character. The erasure of difference between
spectator and spectacle—Maya-2 and -3—implicates the spectator’s position
in a disturbing and surrealist fashion. The image of Deren pressed up against
and looking out of the window viewing herself is one of the most reproduced
images of her work, perhaps because it visually demonstrates the dialectic of
active exhibitionist and passive voyeur that structures visual pleasure and
challenges the general assumption of film theory that “the perceiver can
never hope to catch a glimpse of himself ; the figure that he sees before him
on the screen cannot be his own, for he is somewhere else watching it” (Bruss
308, my emphasis). Unlike the unified male (and in a move foreshadowing
Luce Irigaray), Meshes illustrates a sex which is not One.

Because Deren’s multiplication on-screen echoes her split as filmic auto-
biographer, simultaneously in front of and behind the camera, the repro-
duction of this image will come to be iconic of the way Meshes negotiates the
opposition between, as Bruss puts it, “the stress on the person filmed and . . .
the person filming” that will mark Deren’s place in the history of the avant-
garde (313). This moment in the film works as an index of “the first-person
narration necessary for autobiography,” despite its lack of “truth-value,”
because it demonstrates self-observation rather than objectification (313).
To this extent, this scene illustrates that “identity-value” is not the same for
the female subject (constitutively an object of male desire) as for the male
subject. If “in autobiography,” as Bruss contends, “the logically distinct roles
of author, narrator, and protagonist are conjoined,” then this simultaneity is
constitutively more difficult for Woman than for the presumptive masculine
subject (300). The multiplicity of Woman troubles the claims made on

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behalf of the unified speaking subject of autobiography. Meshes thus stands
as evidence (and the first widely seen example) of what Susanna Egan posits
as “the possibility that film may enable autobiographers to define and repre-
sent subjectivity not as singular or solipsistic but as multiple and as revealed
in relationship” (20).

The film exposes the political implications particular to the sexual rela-
tionship. To this end, the conclusion of the explicit dream sequence plays on
the double meaning of “the sex which is not one.” The polymorphous mul-
tiplicity imagined in the several Mayas gathered around the table (not one but
several) becomes lack or absence of subjectivity (the sex which is not one, or
does not signify) for the woman when she is awoken from her dream by her
male Other, notably played by Deren’s real husband, the filmmaker Alexan-
der Hammid. It is at the moment of Hammid’s entrance that Deren is fully
framed in a reverse shot, her passivity as object marked by his position above
her, pulling her limp body up from the chair. Pointedly, the initial image is
of Hammid pulling away and separating not from Deren but from his own
shadow to become visually a “discreet image” before the camera. As soon as
we see Deren in relation to Hammid, her hand goes up to cover her face, sig-
naling a reversal, for as Rose explains, “The Imaginary itself, through which
the subject sets itself up as subject and the other as object, can be seen to con-
tain a potential reversal—the subject is constituted as object by the Other for
which the structure of specularity is now taken as the model” (190). In this
way, the violence at work in the refusal to grant the female character a reflec-
tion, and thus a stable subjectivity, motivates the scene in which Hammid’s
gaze casts Deren—literally—into the shadows.1

When the couple first enters the bedroom, Hammid looks into the mirror
and sees a full, clear reflection. Here he both comes to stand in for the previ-
ous elusive other, and is given a complete subjectivity. Hammid looks from his
image in the mirror to the image of Woman (Deren). She is structured as a
stand-in for his reflection, as his Other—according to Rose, “the place where-
in the subject alienates its own image and simultaneously grounds its desire”
(187). We are sutured to his gaze and she becomes our spectacle. Her lips,
rather than producing a key, are frozen in a fetishized image for the lover/
spectator. Her head is thrown back, neck bared in a position of vulnerabili-
ty, and significantly, her eyes are closed. Her body is filmically dismembered
from his perspective, as Deren is shot in fragments ordered by Hammid’s gaze
—head and bared throat, lips, beheaded body. As Lauren Rabinovitz points
out, Deren’s body is “an object whose contours remain intact,” and Ham-
mid “runs his hand along its contours” (64). Yet it is at this moment that
Deren opens her eyes, refusing Hammid’s pleasure over her (dead) body.

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This act of refusal—the very moment her eyes open—is filmed as a
shocking event. Simultaneously, the paper flower, the signifier of sexual dif-
ference, is transformed into a knife through jump cut editing, a knife the
woman wields to tear into both the male spectator and the filmic space itself.
By putting the knife through the face of the viewing subject, Hammid, the
phallic male, Deren performatively rejects the traumatic history of sexual dif-
ference. It is the Imaginary, referenced in the cut to the ocean, a symbol of
boundarylessness, which lies behind the Symbolic order and its violence to
Woman. With the knife, the symbol of castration par excellence, Deren expos-
es the non-center of being which un-founds all subjectivity, or in Rose’s
words: “The moment of castration . . . represents the final collapse of the
Other as the guarantor of certitude” (188). What is implied in Deren’s nar-
rative film is the cost of the psychic production of sexual difference—the eli-
sion of woman’s subjectivity. Her objectification is the necessary grounds for
stabilizing masculine subjectivity, and ultimately, the cinematic apparatus

Meshes offers a double ending: one in which Deren turns to confront the
male gaze, effectively destroying camera/mirror/male subject; and the other,
her own suicide. The suicide is left ambiguous, revealing the traces of
woman’s power to “burst” the seams of cinema—mirror shards and seaweed
denote Deren’s subjectivity, and specifically, her resistance to the site/sight
of sexual difference (castration). It is exactly this ambiguity that challenges
the traditional definition of autobiography. Deren’s work, as Maureen Turim
argues, can be understood “to play theoretically with the process of identifi-
cation between filmmaker, protagonist, and viewer. It does so quite differ-
ently than does the more expressionist autobiographical film in which this
process is assumed and iterated directly” (“Ethics” 93). Because the film
destabilizes the foundations of subjectivity itself, the subject that centers the
autobiographical work is necessarily deconstructed. Meshes speaks to the pro-
found difference gender makes in terms of representation. In this way,
Deren’s film reorders experience, moving backwards from Symbolic to Imag-
inary registers, not to overcome what Bruss calls “the old antagonisms between
self and other,” but rather to expose and interrogate their psychic origins

To this extent, the film is less concerned with “personal idiosyncrasies”
than with what it means for a woman to “submit to the camera” (Bruss 318).
Cinematic autobiography is foreclosed in ways specific to women because
their film image, as Claire Johnson suggested at the dawn of contemporary
feminist film theory, is not their own: “within a sexist ideology and a male-
dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man. . . .

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148 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

The fetishistic image portrayed relates only to male narcissism: woman rep-
resents not herself, but by a process of displacement, the male phallus” (135
–36). In its utilization of avant-garde aesthetics, Meshes retools cinematic
devices to interrogate, and ultimately to challenge, the psychoanalytic struc-
tures upon which gendered subjectivity, and by implication spectatorial sub-
jectivity, are founded. The impact of the film’s (feminist) challenge becomes
clear in the context of its historical reception. It is in the reactions to Meshes
that the autobiographical resonance of the film with Deren’s role as a woman
filmmaker and titular “Mother of the Avant-Garde” can best be witnessed.
Indeed, how Deren fared in the history of the avant-garde is irreducibly tied
to the history of Meshes. Her reputation in patriarchal film history is to a large
extent conjoined to the disavowal of the cultural work Meshes accomplishes,
exemplifying Lauren Rabinovitz’s insight that “women filmmakers were con-
tained and categorized because the films that they made consistently articu-
lated positions for a refusal of the male gaze” (10). Indeed, Manny Farber
“went so far as to call Deren’s films ‘lesbianish,’” and he and James Agee
wrote devastating reviews of Meshes (Neiman et al. 378). Farber was correct
in assuming that some sort of refusal of heteronormativity was in effect. The
editors of The Legend of Maya Deren underscore this by citing both Farber
and Deren’s response: “he said . . . ‘this film, cluttered with corny, amateur-
ishly arranged symbols and mainly concerned with sex, hops too confusing-
ly from reality to dream.’ In response, on her copy of Farber’s review, Deren
noted in the margin: ‘This is exactly the point’” (Neiman et al. 378).

This “point” is highlighted in the vitriolic attack aimed at Deren’s film
by Jonas Mekas, the filmmaker and film critic who notably originated the
concept of “personal cinema.” For Mekas, films that fail to conform to het-
eronormative paradigms of masculinity and femininity do not even deserve
the title of “art” (24). Deren, therefore, is awkwardly condemned under the
heading “The Conspiracy of Homosexuality” (23). Included in this “perver-
sion of sex” is Deren’s presentation of Woman “robbed of both her true spir-
ituality and her unashamed carnality,” which for Mekas marks Deren as an
“adolescent film poet” (23). Deren is the only woman filmmaker Mekas dis-
cusses in his history of the American avant-garde, raising questions as to why
he seems so committed to setting her apart. “The supposed depth of Maya
Deren is artificial, without the ingenious spontaneity which we find, for
instance, in Brakhage’s or Anger’s work,” Mekas writes, castigating Deren as
well for a lack of technical expertise. Her work ultimately is the “absolute
zero” of the “new film poets” because it cannot evoke universal sympathy—
“a deeper insight into the human soul, emotions, experiences, as related to
the whole rather than to abnormal exceptionalities” (25). Mekas is especially

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useful for helping us to understand the relationship of gender to autobiogra-
phy because, although “he failed to recognize that many of the first filmmak-
ers to introduce abstract and personal filmmaking were women,” he never-
theless recognized “that the personal cinema did indeed have certain tropes
that were gendered, even if his analysis of those gendered tropes was symp-
tomatic of gender prejudices” (Turim, “Reminiscences” 201). His “misread-
ing of the complex permutations” of “Deren’s female imagery,” as Turim
illustrates, does in fact underscore “issues of the gendered subject” (“Remi-
niscences” 201).

That Meshes is a deeply personal film is evident when its themes are
placed within the context of Deren’s larger, explicitly feminist critique of
cinema’s more obvious “gendered tropes.” Indeed, Deren spoke of narrative
cinema as “an appeal to the latent Peeping Tom in the audience” (“Mak-
ing” 55). The historical record reveals Deren to be a vocal critic of sexist
cinema: “the majority of French films and particularly those of the New
Wave . . . has produced a preponderance of films that exhibit the kind of
obsessive, even lecherous, sexual sensations which one ordinarily associates
with the frantic desperations of a man on the threshold of senility” (“Movie
Journal” 53). Her criticisms inform the “subjective reality” and “authorial
intervention” structuring Meshes, aimed at those very voyeuristic gender rela-
tions (Thompson and Bordwell 413). However, such historical documenta-
tion of Deren’s opposition to cinematic sexual objectification troubles the
smooth integration of her work into the canon of either the American avant-
garde or European postwar modernism. As Meshes circulated, in no small
part due to the tireless efforts of Deren herself, the radical potential of its
content was hastily defused to enable integration into one camp or the other.
This required critical strategies that simultaneously undercut the implicit
interrogation of gender relations while at the same time lauding the film’s
formal techniques.

This was much more possible in a European context, because the film’s
formal qualities could be foregrounded to construct a story of European
modernism into which Meshes could be neatly integrated. Rather than read
Meshes of the Afternoon as a feminist intervention and reappraisal of the patri-
archal discourses at work in early European modernist film, it has been writ-
ten into film history, most notably by P. Adams Sitney, as the unproblema-
tized legacy of that tradition. Significantly, Sitney opens his history of the
American avant-garde with the chapter “Meshes of the Afternoon,” although
this chapter is equally occupied with Dali and Buñuel’s Un chien andalou as
it is with Deren’s film:

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150 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

Both films have a “frame” and a double-ending. . . . [T]here is similar cutting on
action across disjunctive spaces. . . . [T]he mechanics of Un chien andalou and
Meshes result from a theoretical application of the principles of cinema to the expe-
rience of the dream. . . . [T]he abrupt changes of location, so common in dreams,
have the same cinematic meaning for both sets of collaborators. (14–15)

For Sitney to claim that the films share “the same cinematic meaning,” gen-
der difference must be effaced. Yet, because both films involve the “self-
expression” of their makers, Sitney is not content simply to ignore Meshes ’
gendered content (6). His implicit discomfort with the film’s critical engage-
ment with gender relations impels him to bracket Deren’s authorship almost

Commentators on this film have tended to neglect the collaboration of Alexander
Hammid, to consider him a technical assistant rather than an author. We should
remember that he photographed the whole film. Maya Deren simply pushed a but-
ton on the camera for the two scenes in which he appeared. The general fluidity of
the camera style, the free movements, the surrealistic effects . . . are his contribution.
If Meshes in the Afternoon is, in the words of Parker Tyler . . . ‘the death of her nar-
cissistic youth,’ it is also Hammid’s portrait of his young wife. (9–10; my emphasis)

This comparison effectively marginalizes not only the role of gender in the
film, but Deren’s significant part in its making.

Sitney’s bias reveals the political fallout of the ambiguity of cinematic
autobiography, which as Bruss implies, tends “to fall into two opposing
groups—those that stress the person filmed and those that stress the person
filming” (309). Despite Deren’s vocal claims to the opposite, Sitney sees the
film as conforming to the dominant artistic paradigm of the male auteur with
his female muse. In short, he sees Meshes not as Deren’s film but as a joint
project: “The collaboration of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid shortly
after their marriage in 1942 recalls . . . the earlier collaboration of Salvador
Dali and Luis Buñuel” (3). Yet, Sitney goes to some lengths to show that these
collaborations are far from parallel. While both Dali and Buñuel were estab-
lished artists in their own rights, Deren “wrote poetry, but she was never sat-
isfied with it. . . . [S]he developed an interest in modern dance . . . but was
not a dancer herself. . . . [S]he conceived the idea of writing . . . on dance.
. . . [T]he book never materialized” (6). This list of at best unfulfilled goals,
and at worst failures, is juxtaposed to Hammid, “well known in filmmaking
circles as a cameraman, editor, and director” (6–7). The autobiographical is
thus transformed into biography. By granting Hammid authorial intention,
Sitney denies Deren autobiographical representation of what Turim describes
as “the relationship between artist and lover, artist and home” (“Ethics” 92).

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 150

This erasure is not surprising if one considers that home carries much
different and much more loaded connotations for the woman artist than for
her male counterpart. “The home and the relationship,” Turim writes, “are
fertile grounds for the woman artist, whose intensity of association often
releases imagery bespeaking an angry rush of pain. Meshes is Deren’s most
direct expression of that pain” (“Ethics” 92–93). Sitney not only ignores
Deren’s pain and rage, but also effaces her agency. For instance, he never
asks why a newlywed husband would create such a brutal portrait, ending in
his beloved’s death. By ignoring Meshes conjoining of “autobiography and
female space,” as Turim puts it, Sitney assigns the role of Woman only to the
presence in front of the camera, circumscribed in this way to the sign of fem-
ininity (and inherently, to the ownership of the male gaze/spectator/film-
maker) (“Ethics” 82). She is no longer a threatening presence behind the
camera—ironically enough, the very point that Meshes raises. Indeed, Sitney
resorts to biographical innuendo to identify Deren as a threat, opposing “the
mildness and acquiescence” of Hammid’s personality to “Maya Deren’s per-
sistence and dynamism,” and going on to imply that it was only through her
“persistence” that Meshes has been ascribed to her, since “Hammid has done
nothing to contradict this” in film history (6–7). By enacting discursively the
very thing the film itself critiques—the de-subjectification of woman—Sitney
turns Deren into Hammid’s, and his own, object of contemplation rather
than seeing her as an artist and subject in her own right.

Furthermore, although Sitney readily admits that “the quest for sexual
identity” is “the central theme of all psycho-dramas,” his historiography effec-
tively masks the difference gender plays in this quest (18). A qualitative exam-
ple of how the feminine quest troubles the patriarchal order appears at the
end of Sitney’s analysis. Rather than taking seriously the possibility that Mesh-
es might be a cinematic critique of the gender disempowerment on which
such a (masculinist) quest for sexual identity is founded, Sitney presents such
a reading by mysteriously substituting Man Ray’s Étoile de Mer for the analy-
sis of the quest in Meshes. Setting aside the violent outcome of the male’s
quest, as allegorized in the death of Deren, or the aggressive rejection of male
desire, as demonstrated by Deren’s act of putting a knife through Hammid’s
gazing face, Sitney turns to Man Ray’s “hero,” who gets a stable and readily
objectified Other in the woman/starfish of his film. What threat “the woman”
still poses, even after the awkward substitution of Man Ray’s female for
Deren’s character, remains utterly incomprehensible to Sitney: “Metaphors
. . . are deliberately jarring. After an illusion to ‘les dents des femmes’ we see
a shot of the heroine’s legs, not her teeth” (19). What is truly jarring here is
Sitney’s refusal of the parallel. He sets up the chapter’s central comparison as

Geller, The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren 151

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 151

152 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

between Meshes and Un chien andalou, but fails to address the narrative
themes and motifs of the former in any direct way.

One might read the slight of hand from Meshes to Étoile de Mer as Sit-
ney’s unsuccessful displacement and disavowal of Deren’s more threatening
“les dents des femmes.” Because she functions as a structuring principle in his
book, it seems this first chapter works to de-fang Deren and the threat posed
by her sexual subjectivity. Unlike other authors, Sitney does not efface
Deren’s significance in the history of the film avant-garde. Rather he cir-
cumvents the more critical (feminist) implications of Deren’s work as an
auteur. Despite his detailed interest in her biography, and his willingness to
conflate male auteurs with their protagonists, Sitney avoids any possible auto-
biographical reading of Meshes, illustrating only too well Rabinovitz’s claim
that “the discourse of the ‘author-function’ is all the more important when
the name of the author is a woman’s, because it signifies and empowers a gen-
dered social subject as an index of a female textual subject” (22). This link
between the social subject and the textual subject surfaces when the autobio-
graphical impulses of Meshes are acknowledged, but patriarchal film histories
such as Sitney’s rarely explore this interpretation in any detail, despite the
obvious historical grounds.

To integrate Deren smoothly into an otherwise patriarchal film history,
whether American or European, gender disappears as a category of analysis.
In the American context, Sitney could readily claim that “sexual metaphors
abound in the avant-garde films made in America in the late 1940’s and
1950’s,” without ever acknowledging that not all metaphors are the same
(20). In addressing the specific sexual metaphors at work in Meshes, those
willing to recognize Deren as a founder of the American avant-garde, like
Mekas and Sitney, still often equivocated when directly confronted with their
actual gendered implications. Mekas and Sitney are referenced in A. L. Rees’s
history of independent American cinema, which presents Deren as the inven-
tor of “the narrative film-poem . . . [which] enacts the personal conflicts of
a central subject or protagonist. A scenario of desire and loss, seen from the
point of view of a single guiding consciousness, ends in either redemption or
death” (539). But Sitney evades Deren’s filmic sexual scenario by deftly
assigning the film’s guiding consciousness to Hammid, while Mekas acknowl-
edges Deren’s specifically gendered influence in order to attack it.

Although Mekas condemns both Deren and Anger, their similar film sce-
narios “of desire and loss” demonstrate the difference gender makes to cine-
matic autobiography. Both notably make “home movies.” Like Bruss’s
description of Kenneth Anger, Deren “writes, directs, and plays the principal
role . . . yet the particular events the film depicts are entirely fictitious . . .

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 152

badly skew[ing] our usual assumptions about the self-evidence of visual infor-
mation and the coherence of the visible person” (312). Deren’s films, like
Anger’s, “unearth a delicate polyphony within an apparent unity of a single
existence,” but, while Anger’s work has a certain “therapeutic” resolution,
Deren’s character is left for dead (318). Clearly the sexual implications of
visual culture call forth vastly dissimilar “alien” gazes when a man (albeit gay)
“deliberately exhibits” himself and when a women does. In the filmmaker’s
critique of this very difference the gaze has for and on women, “Deren assert-
ed an oppositional voice to Hollywood cinema and confronted Hollywood’s
formal aesthetics as a set of political practices” (Rabinovitz 49).

Yet, even those committed to a feminist revision of film history have been
ambivalent about Deren’s role in it. To designate Deren as a founder of fem-
inist film practice would challenge claims to the new, often made by second-
wave feminism to instantiate the power of current feminist ideology and the
przxis it informs. But crediting the critique of Woman in representation to
the historical rise of second-wave feminism ignores the earlier women’s film-
making which made this critique possible. In this way, the woman artist is de-
linked from the discursive resistances affected in her film texts. The opposi-
tion to fetishistic representations of women enacted in Meshes is interpreted,
even by the most generous feminist scholars like Lauren Rabinovitz, as the
radical potential of “the diegetic elements,” but separate from the film artist
herself. Deren thus becomes one of the women artists who were “female pio-
neers in their ‘masculine’ fields of endeavor” yet “remained prisoners of an
ideology that even constructed their positions of resistance within traditional
roles” (Rabinovitz 5). So, although her “actions outwardly opposed the dom-
inant ideology of the 1950’s,” for a feminist biographer like Rabinovitz,
Deren “did so without entirely understanding how the cultural institutions,
including the family, constructed and organized women’s social subordina-
tion” (3). The presumption that one may ever “entirely understand,” or stand
outside, the ideological apparatuses that construct one remains debatable. Yet,
the institutions of knowledge production demand such claims be made to
shore up and validate specific sites of feminist redress and intervention.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Laura Mulvey’s influential article,
“Film, Feminism and the Avant-garde.” How this piece deals with the figure
of Deren reveals the ambivalence feminist film historians have in construct-
ing the history of women in film, and specifically the influence women had
behind the camera on the ontological questions raised concerning the image
of Woman in front of the camera. Mulvey openly claims that “Maya Deren’s
pioneering work in the United States during the 1940’s had earned her the
title ‘Mother of the Avant-garde,’” and that both Deren and Germaine

Geller, The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren 153

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 153

154 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

Dulac’s “intermingling of cinematic movement and interior consciousness
interested feminists and avant-gardists alike” (202). Nonetheless, in the same
piece, Mulvey claims that “women have played only a marginal part” in var-
ious avant-garde movements (210). Mulvey’s investment in maintaining the
distinction between “the avant-garde tradition” and “feminist film” forces
Deren out of film history. This inscription of Deren to the discursive margins
because of the way she complicates categorization is deeply troubling when
enacted within feminist film circles, and especially within those openly com-
mitted to constituting a feminist film history and practice. The outcome of
such an elision of women from the “crucial and influential response within
avant-garde aesthetics . . . pioneered by the New American Cinema of the
1960’s” allows Mulvey to emerge from this void—along with her European
counterparts Yvonne Rainer and Chantal Ackerman—as the necessary inte-
grators of avant-garde film praxis and feminist polemics (213). In this way,
Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke are swept into a parenthetical aside about
dance films, rather than given full credit as the legitimate founders of femi-
nist film practice, described by Mulvey as the “meeting between the melo-
dramatic tradition and psychoanalysis” (214).2

For Mulvey, “both film theory and feminism . . . have been influenced
by recent intellectual debates around . . . the eruption of the unconscious in
representation (psychoanalysis)” (209). But these intellectual debates are not
so recent. For as Rees notes, Meshes of the Afternoon is “erotic and irre-
deemably Freudian (despite Deren’s protestation at the label)” (539). Mul-
vey’s goal of legitimating feminist interventions into a patriarchally defined
avant-garde therefore thwarts the project of establishing links to past women
filmmakers’ shared textual thematics. Instead, Mulvey chooses to constitute
feminist film production as a wholly new cultural practice:

As woman’s place in past cinematic representation has been mystified, at once a
linchpin of visual pleasure and an affirmation of male dominance, so feminists now
have become fascinated with the mysteries of cinematic representation itself, hid-
den by means of the sexualized female fantasy form. . . . Politically, a feminist for-
malism is based on a rejection of the past and on giving priority to challenging the
spectator’s place in cinema. (208, my emphasis)

This “rejection of the past” is troubling. Although Meshes could readily be
cited for “inseparably link[ing] problems of form and content,” Mulvey fails
to place Deren in the “tradition [that] has broken rigid demarcations between
fact and fiction and laid a foundation for experimentation with narrative”
(213). Only through a network of rhetorical disavowals can Mulvey claim, “it
is hard, as yet, to speak of a feminist film-making practice” (213). Mulvey

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 154

Geller, The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren 155

agrees with and perpetuates the constitutive narrative of Deren as “the
Mother” of the American avant-garde movement. Mulvey’s construction of
a specifically feminist film history and its relationship to the avant-garde
enacts a confinement of this Mother, whose specter is raised early with “the
first glimmer” of independent film, but is then quickly relegated to the mar-
gins of “this tradition.” Like patriarchal film historians before her who are
willing to confirm Deren’s significance in cinematic history, Mulvey also
eventually replaces Deren with the Nom-du-père, the appropriate paternal
names to stand in the place of the (now castrated) Mother: “going back to
Eisenstein and Vertov, influenced by Brecht, re-emerging with the late work
of Godard” (213). Deren thus disappears into the historical gulf implied
here with the use of the term “re-emerging.”

What is striking is that the central trope linking misogynist critics like
Mekas and Sitney to feminist thinkers such as Mulvey is Deren’s omnipres-
ence as “the Mother of the Avant-garde.” But it is this trope that suggests the
ways in which the otherwise narrative film Meshes of the Afternoon should be
understood as an autobiographical act. On the psychoanalytic level, the
maternal is a term, if not the term, of gender ascription, a process Freudian,
and later Lacanian, psychoanalysis describes at great length. Film theorists
such as Mulvey have taken up this theory to explain the operations of the
cinematic apparatus. In short, the psychoanalytic position claims that it is the
relation to (and the ultimate rejection of) the maternal signifier that makes
the subject a social being. At the risk of being overly reductive, it is through
the mother, and the recognition of her castration, psychoanalytically speak-
ing, that the subject comes to understand himself as a subject, and becomes
a speaking (engendered) subject in the social order. Although much has been
written on how this relation infiltrates and shapes film texts along with the
cinematic apparatus itself, much less attention has been paid to how this
dynamic might infiltrate and shape institutional conditions and historical

It is significant that progressing from the Imaginary relation to the Sym-
bolic order demands the disavowal of the power of the mother. To this extent,
the maternal signifier helps contain the threat Deren insinuates as a producer
of public culture, and whose productions, like Meshes, can be read as a chal-
lenge to the tyranny of Woman as object of the gaze. The maternal metaphor
simultaneously acknowledges Deren’s position as a gendered subject in his-
tory, while maintaining the sanctity of the patriarchal social system. That is,
if Woman is the sign of sexualized Otherness, Woman, re-inscribed as
“Mother,” is de-linked from such connotations of (sexual) power by her mark
of castration, of “lack,” and by her historically and culturally constructed

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 155

156 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

role as supporter and caretaker of the patrilineal order. The ubiquity of the
“Mother” narrative describing Deren’s role in film history underscores the
anxieties she and Meshes raise for both patriarchal historians and their femi-
nist counterparts. In this way, the maternal narrative no longer operates sim-
ply as a figure of speech honoring the unquestionable significance of Deren.
Rather, it is through this maternal trope that Deren becomes fixed in specif-
ically gendered terms—“the good mother” who derives her power not from
her own appropriations of the modes of production, but indirectly from her
progeny. Thus the incorporation of Deren into film history as the “Mother
of the Avant-garde” works to reify the patriarchal film system rather than
highlight the sexualized representations Deren critiqued.

One way to redress this discursive construction, which has greatly influ-
enced the historical reception of Deren and her work, is to see her films as a
form of cinematic autobiography, what Bruss defines as “a personal per-
formance, an action that exemplifies the character of the agent responsible for
that action and how it is performed” (300). This would invite a reexamina-
tion of the sexual politics Deren articulated in her films as a creative response
to their effects on her own life. Rather than placing her films either before
or after other (male-defined) movements, categorizing Deren as a cinematic
autobiographer fits her squarely within a modernist art world that Egan argues
“began to replace realism with experiments in perception, apprehension, and
process” that transformed “the manner of representing the autobiographical
subject in the text” (29). If modernism marks, as Egan contends, “the begin-
ning of frequent experiment with self-representation,” then Deren’s films
share the autobiographical tendencies expressed by her modernist cohort,
such as the diarist and writer Anais Nin and the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp
(29). The representation of the sexual self is specific to Deren’s film experi-
ments because of her own heightened awareness of cinema’s dominant por-
trayal of Woman, and her unique position as a woman filmmaker. Deren’s
“trance” film is autobiographical, following Bruss, because it conveys the
unconscious workings of the sexed subject, taking gender identity specifical-
ly “beyond what one consciousness can grasp, beyond even what the unaided
human consciousness can encompass” (319). In this way, Meshes of the After-
noon stands as a powerful autobiographical intervention in the cinematic
representation of sexual difference.


1. This presages Barbara Kruger’s pop-artwork, Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My
Face), symbolizing only too clearly how “your gaze [the male gaze] hits the side of my
face [the woman’s].”

11-Geller 5/11/06 10:40 AM Page 156

2. To explain the emergence of Deren’s career “as a dancer—one role in the arts where
women are less likely to suffer discrimination and oppression,” is spurious on numerous
grounds. In fact, there is no record of Deren ever having a professional career as a dancer
(unlike Clarke); rather, she worked as a personal assistant to the dance director and
writer Kathryn Dunham. Further, Deren’s professional connection to this dance troupe
—not as a dancer, but significantly as an organizer and administrator—was indeed
defined by “discrimination and oppression” because the troupe was entirely African-
American and traveling in the Jim Crow United States. The implication of Deren’s his-
tory in dance as one that is less fraught with issues of “discrimination and oppression”
insinuates a possible avoidance strategy on her part that is simply not the case. With
Dunham, and with her activism as a member of the Socialist Movement of the 1930s,
Deren spent her life openly battling “discrimination and oppression” on a number of
historical and cultural fronts.


Betancourt, Joanne. Women in Focus. Dayton: Pflaum, 1974.
Bruss, Elizabeth W. “Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film.” Autobiog-

raphy: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

De Lauretis, Teresa. “Oedipus Interuptus.” Wide Angle 7.1–2 (1985): 34–40.
Deren, Maya. “The Making of Movies: Burglars and Triggers.” Village Voice 1 June 1961.

Rpt. Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965): 55–56.
———. “Movie Journal.” Village Voice 25 Aug. 1960. Rpt. Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965):

———. “Program Notes on Three Early Films.” Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965): 1–2.
Egan, Susanna. Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill:

U of North Carolina P, 1999.
Heck-Rabi, Louise. Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception. New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1984.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP,

Johnston, Claire. “Woman’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema.” Sexual Strategems. Ed. Patricia

Erens. New York: Horizon, 1979. 133–43.
Kruger, Barbara. Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face). 1985–1987. Collage.
Mekas, Jonas. “The Experimental Film in America.” Film Culture Reader. Ed. P. Adams Sit-

ney. New York: Praeger, 1970. 21–26.
Mulvey, Laura. “Film, Feminism, and the Avant-Garde.” The British Avant-Garde Film,

1926–1995: Anthology of Writings. Ed. Michael O’Pray. Luton: U of Luton P, 1996.
Neiman, Catrina, Millicent Hodson, and Vévé Clark. “Thresholds.” The Legend of Maya

Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Vol. 1, Part 2. New York:
Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988. 275–417.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: U of California P,

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Rabinovitz, Lauren. Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-
Garde Cinema 1943–1971. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

Rees, A. L. “Avant-Garde Film: The Second Wave.” The Oxford History of World Cinema.
Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 535–44.

Rose, Jacqueline. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.
Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.
Soussloff, Catherine M. “Maya Deren Herself.” Nichols 105–129.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-

Hill, 1994.
Turim, Maureen. “The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren’s Challenge

to the Cinema.” Nichols 77–102.
———. “Reminiscences, Subjectivities, Truths.” To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the

New York Underground. Ed. David James. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. 193–212.

158 Biography 29.1 (Winter 2006)

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Cinematography: The Creative

Use of Reality

The motion-picture camera is
perhaps the most

of all machines, in that it can be at once



infinitely passive. Kodak’s early slogan, “You

push the but

ton, it does the rest,” was not an
exaggerated advertising claim;

and, connected to any simple trigger device, a camera can


take pictures all by itself. At the same time, while



development and refinement of other mechanisms h



resulted in an increased specialization, the advances in the scope

and sensitivity of lenses and emulsions have made the camera

capable of infinite receptivity and indiscriminate fidelity.

this must be added the fact that the medium deals, or can deal,

in terms of the most elemental actuality.
In sum, it can

maximum results for

virtually minimal effort: it
requires of


operator only
a modicum of aptitude and energy; of its


matter, only that it exist; and of its audience, only that


can see. On this

elementary level it functions ideally
as a mass

medium for communicating equally elementary ideas.

The photographic medium is, as a matter of fact, so amor

phous that it is not
merely unobtrusive but virtually transparent,

and so becomes, more than any other medium, susceptible


servitude to any and all the others. The enormous value of such

servitude suffices


justify the medium and to be


as its function. This has been a

major obstacle to the

definition and
development of motion pictures

as a creative fine



of creative action in its own terms?for its own

character is as a latent image which can become manifest only
if no other image is

imposed upon it to obscure it.

Those concerned with the emergence of this latent form

must therefore assume a
partially protective role, one which

recalls the advice of an art instructor who said, “If you have

drawing the vase, try drawing the space around the

vase.” Indeed, for the time

the definition of the creative

form of film involves as careful attention to what it is not as to

what it is.

Animated Paintings
In recent years, perceptible first on the

experimental fringes
of the film world and now in

general evidence at the commer




The Creative

Use of Reality

cial art theaters, there has been an accelerated development
of what might be called the “graphic

arts school of animated

film.” Such films, which combine abstract backgrounds with

recognizable but not realistic



designed and painted

by trained and talented

artists who make use of a

sophisticated, fluent knowledge of the rich resources of

media, including

A major factor in the emer

gence of this school has been the enormous technical and

laboratory advance in color film and color processing,
so that

it is now
possible for these artists to

approach the two-dimen

sional, rectangular
screen with all the



to a canvas.

The similarity between screen and canvas had long ago been



artists such as Hans Richter, Oscar Fishinger,

and others, who were attracted not

graphic possibilities

(so limited at that time) but rather by the excitements of the

film medium, particularly
the exploitation of its time dimen

sion?rhythm, spatial depth created by

diminishing square,

the three-dimensional illusion created by
the revolutions of a

spiral figure,

They put their
graphic skills at the service of

the film medium, as a means of extending film expression.*
The new

graphic-arts school does not so much advance those

early efforts as reverse them, for here the artists make use of the

film medium as an extension of the plastic media. This is par

ticularly clear when one
analyzes the principle of movement

for it is

no more than a


tion?a kind of

out in time?of the dynamic ordinarily

in the design of an individual composition. The most

appropriate term to describe such works, which are often in

teresting and witty, and which certainly have their place among
visual arts, is “animated

This entry of painting

into the film medium presents certain

parallels with the introduction of sound. The silent film had

attracted to it persons who had talent for and were
inspired by

the exploration and development of a new and unique form of

visual expression. The addition of sound opened the doors for

the verbalists and dramatists. Armed with the
authority, power,

laws, techniques, skills, and crafts which the venerable

arts had accumulated over centuries, the writers



recognize the small resistance of the “indigenous”

film-maker, who had had barely
a decade in which to

and evolve the creative potential of his medium.

It is

that Hans Richter, a

in such a use of film, so


abandoned this approach. All his later films, along with the films of


Ray, Dali, and the painters who

in Richter’s

later films ( Ernst, Duchamp,
etc. ) indicate a

profound appreciation of

the distinction between the plastic and the photographic image, and

make enthusiastic and creative use of
photographic reality.


The rapid
success of the “animated painting”

similarly due

to the fact that it comes armed with all the plastic

and techniques which are its impressive heritage. And just

the sound film
interrupted the development of film form on the

commercial level by providing
a more finished substitute, so

the “animated painting”

already being accepted
as a form of

film art in the few areas (the distribution of 16 mm. film shorts

to film series and societies ) where experiments
in film form can

still find an audience.

The motion-picture medium has an
extraordinary range of

expression. It has in common with the plastic
arts the fact that

it is a visual composition projected
on a two-dimensional sur

face; with dance, that it can deal in the arrangement of move

ment; with theater, that it can create a dramatic intensity of

events; with music, that it can compose in the rhythms and

phrases of time and can be attended by song and instrument;

with poetry, that it can
juxtapose images; with literature gen

erally, that it can
encompass in its sound track the abstractions

available only

This very profusion


seems to create confusion

in the minds of most film-makers, a confusion which is dimin

ished by eliminating

major portion of those potentialities

favor of one or two, upon which the film is

structured. An artist, however, should not seek security in a

tidy mastery
over the simplifications of deliberate poverty; he

should, instead, have the creative courage to face the danger of

being overwhelmed by fecundity
in the effort to resolve it


simplicity and economy.

While the “animated

film has limited itself to a

small area of film potential, it has gained acceptance
on the

basis of the fact that it does use an art form?the


form?and that it does seem to meet the
general condition of

film: it makes its statement as an


in movement. This

opens the entire
question of whether a

is of the

same order of

as all others. If not, is there a

ingly different

to it in a creative context? Although
the photographic process is the basic building block of the

motion-picture medium, it is a tribute to its self-effacement as

a servant that virtually
no consideration has been given

to its

own character and the creative
implications thereof.

The Closed Circuit of the Photographic Process

The term
“image” (originally based on “imitation”)


in its first sense the visual likeness of a real

person, and

in the very act of

resemblance it


establishes the entire category of visual experience which is




The Creative

Use of Reality

not a real object
or person. In this

specifically negative

in the sense that the

of a horse is not the horse

itself?a photograph
is an

But the term

“image” also has positive implications:
it pre

sumes a mental activity, whether in its most passive form (the

“mental images” of perception and memory) or, as in the arts,

the creative action of the imagination realized by the art in

strument. Here reality
is first filtered by the selectivity of indi

vidual interests and modified by prejudicial perception

become experience;
as such it is combined with similar, con


modifying experiences, both

and remem

bered, to become assimilated into a
conceptual image; this in

turn is

to the manipulations of the art instrument; and

what finally emerges is a
plastic image which is a

in its



is not, fundamentally,
a likeness or


of a horse; it is a likeness of a mental concept which may

resemble a horse or which may, as in abstract painting,
bear no

visible relation to any real

Photography, however, is a process by which an


its own
image by the action of its



rial. It thus presents
a closed circuit

at the point

where, in the traditional art forms, the creative process takes


reality passes through the artist. This exclusion of the

artist at that point is
responsible both for the absolute fidelity of

photographic process and for the widespread conviction that


medium cannot be, itself, a creative form.

From these observations it is but a

to the conclusion that

its use as a visual printing press or as an extension of another

creative form represents a full realization of the potential of the

medium. It is

in this manner that the photographic

process is used in “animated paintings.”
But in so far as the camera is


objects which


already accomplished images, is this really
a more creative use

of the instrument than when, in scientific films, its fidelity



conjunction with the revelatory func

tions of

microscopic lenses and a


of the motor?

as the

of a lens trained upon matter shows

us a mountainous, craggy landscape
in an


surface, so slow-motion can reveal the actual structure of move

ments or
changes which either cannot be slowed down in

or whose nature would be

changed by


tempo of
performance. Applied

to the flight of a bird, for

example, slow-motion reveals the hitherto unseen sequence of

the many separate strains and small movements of which it is



use of the motor, I mean the telescoping



time achieved by triggering
a camera to take pictures of a vine

at ten-minute intervals. When projected

regular speed, the

film reveals the actual integrity, almost the intelligence, of the

movement of the vine as it grows and turns with the sun. Such

telescoped-time photography has been applied
to chemical

changes and to
physical metamorphoses whose tempo is so slow

as to be virtually imperceptible.

the motion-picture

camera here functions as an

instrument of discovery rather than of creativity, it does

a kind of image which, unlike the images of “animated paint

ings” ( animation itself is a use of the telescoped-time principle ),


to the motion-picture medium. It may therefore be

as an even more valid basic element in a creative

film form based on the
singular properties of the medium.

Reality and Recognition

The application of the photographic process to reality results

in an
image which is

in several respects. For one

since a

specific reality
is the prior condition of the existence of a

photograph, the

only testifies to the existence of

that reality (just
as a

drawing testifies to the existence of an

artist) but is, to all intents and purposes, its
equivalent. This

is not at all a matter of fidelity but is of a different

order altogether. If realism is the term for a
graphic image

which precisely
simulates some real

object, then a

must be differentiated from it as a form of reality itself.
This distinction plays

extremely important role in the

address of these respective images. The intent of the plastic
arts is to make meaning manifest. In


image for the

express purpose of communicating, the artist
primarily under

takes to create the most effective aspect possible
out of the

total resources of his medium. Photography, however, deals

in a
living reality which is structured

to endure, and



to serve that purpose, not

to communicate its meaning; they may even serve to conceal

that purpose
as a

measure. In a

photograph, then,

begin by recognizing

reality, and our attendant

and attitudes are

into play; only then does the aspect

become meaningful
in reference to it. The abstract shadow

in a

scene is not understood at all until revealed and

identified as a person; the bright
red shape

on a
pale ground

which might,
in an abstract, graphic context, communicate a

sense of gaiety, conveys something altogether different when

as a wound. As we watch a film, the continuous

act of recognition
in which we are involved is like a


memory unrolling
beneath the images of the film itself, to




The Creative

Use of Reality

form the invisible underlayer of an
implicit double exposure.

The process by which we understand an abstract, graphic

is almost directly opposite, then, to that by which we

understand a

In the first case, the aspect leads us


in the second case the

which results

from recognition is the

to our evaluation of the aspect.

Photographic Authority and the “Controlled Accident”

As a
reality, the photographic image confronts us with the

innocent arrogance of an
objective fact, one which exists as an

independent presence, indifferent to our response. We may in

turn view it with an indifference and detachment we do not

have toward the man-made images of other arts, which invite

and require

and demand our

response in order to

consummate the communication they initiate and which is

their raison d’?tre. At the same time, precisely because we are

aware that our

detachment does not in any way di

minish the verity of the photographic image, it exercises an

authority comparable

weight only
to the

authority of reality

It is upon this authority that the entire school of the social

documentary film is based.
Although expert in the selection of

the most effective reality
and in the use of camera

and angle

to accentuate the pertinent and effective features of

it, the documentarists operate
on a

principle of minimal inter

vention, in the interests of

authority of reality


the support of the moral purpose of the film.

Obviously, the interest of a
documentary film


to the interest inherent in its

matter. Such films


period of particular pre-eminence during the war.

popularity served to make fiction-film producers


aware of the effectiveness and

authority of reality,

awareness which gave rise to the “neo-realist” style of film and

contributed to the still growing trend toward location filming.
In the theater, the

physical presence of the
performers pro

vides a sense of
reality which induces us to accept the symbols

geography, the intermissions which represent the passage

of time, and the other conventions which are
part of the form.

Films cannot include this physical presence of the

They can, however, replace the artifice of theater by the actu

ality of landscape, distances, and place; the interruptions of in

termissions can be transposed into transitions which sustain and

intensify the momentum of dramatic development; while

events and episodes which, within the context of theatrical

artifice, might
not have been convincing

in their


can be clothed in the verity which emanates from the


of the
surrounding landscape, the sun, the streets and

In certain respects, the very absence in motion pictures of the

physical presence of the performer, which is so
important to the

theater, can even contribute to our sense of reality. We can, for

example, believe in the existence of a monster if we are not

asked to believe that it is present in the room with us. The

intimacy imposed upon us
by the physical reality of other art

works presents
us with alternative choices: either to

with or to

deny the experience they propose,
or to withdraw

to a detached awareness of that reality



metaphor. But the film
image?whose intangible reality



and shadows beamed

the air and


the surface of a silver screen?comes to us as the reflection of

another world. At that distance we can
accept the reality of

the most monumental and extreme of images, and from that

we can

perceive and comprehend them in their full


The authority of reality
is available even to the most artificial

constructs if

is understood as an art of the “con

trolled accident.” By “controlled accident” I mean the main

tenance of a delicate balance between what is there spontan

eously and

as evidence of the independent
life of

actuality, and the persons and activities which are

introduced into the scene. A painter, relying primarily upon

as the means of communicating his intent, would take

enormous care in the arrangement of every detail of, for

a beach scene. The cinematographer,

on the other

hand, having selected a beach which, in

has the desired

aspect?whether grim

happy, deserted or crowded?must on

the contrary refrain from overcontrolling the aspect if he is to

retain the authority of reality. The filming of such a scene

should be planned and framed so as to create a context of

limits within which anything that occurs is
compatible with

the intent of the scene.

The invented event which is then introduced, though

an artifice, borrows reality from the
reality of the scene?from

the natural

of the hair, the irregularity of the waves,

the very texture of the stones and sand?in short, from all the

uncontrolled, spontaneous elements which are the property of

actuality itself. Only

the delicate manipu

lation which I call controlled accident?can natural phenomena
be incorporated

into our own
creativity, to


image where

the reality of a tree confers its truth upon the events we cause

transpire beneath it.

Abstractions and Archetypes

Inasmuch as the other art forms are not constituted of reality




The Creative

Use of

itself, they

for reality. But photography, being

itself the reality
or the equivalent thereof, can use its own

as a

metaphor for ideas and abstractions. In painting, the image

is an abstraction of the aspect;

the abstraction

of an idea produces
the archetypal image.

This concept is not new to motion pictures, but its

ment was
interrupted by the intrusions of theatrical traditions

into the film medium. The early history of film is studded with

archetypal figures:
Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Marlene

Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Charles Chaplin,
Buster Keaton, etc.

These appeared

not as


and the films which were structured around them were like

monumental myths which celebrated cosmic truths.

The invasion of the motion-picture medium by modern play

and actors introduced the concept of realism, which is

at the root of theatrical metaphor
and which, in the a

priori real

ity of photography,
is an absurd redundancy which has served


deprive the motion-picture medium of its creative

dimension. It is
significant that, despite every effort of preten


directors and film critics who seek to raise their


by adopting
the methods, attitudes, and

criteria of the established and respected
art of theater, the major

figures?both the most

stars and the most creative

directors (such as Orson Welles)?continue to operate in the

archetypal tradition. It was even

as Marlon

Brando demonstrated, to transcend realism and to become an

archetypal realist, but it would appear that his early intuition

has been
subsequently crushed under the pressures of the rep

ertory complex,
another carry-over from theater, where it func

tioned as the means
by which a

single company could offer a

remunerative variety of

to an audience while providing

employment for its members. There is no

tion whatsoever for insisting
on a

repertory variety of roles for

actors involved in the totally different circumstances of mo


Photography’s Unique Images

In all that I have said so far, the fidelity, reality,

of the

photographic image


modify and to

support. Actually, however, the sequence in which we

photography?an initial identification followed by

tion of the aspect according

to that identification (rather than

primarily aspectual terms)?becomes irreversible and con

fers meaning upon aspect
in a manner

to the


graphic medium.

I have

referred to slow-motion as a time micro


scope, but it has its

uses as well as its revelatory

Depending upon the

and the context, it can be a state

ment of either ideal ease or
nagging frustration, a kind of inti

mate and loving meditation on a movement or a

which adds ritual

to an action; or it can


reality that dramatic image

anguished helplessness, otherwise

experienced only
in the nightmares

of childhood, when our

legs refused to move while the terror which pursues us comes

ever closer.

Yet, slow-motion is not
simply slowness of speed.

It is, in fact,

which exists in our minds, not on the screen, and

can be created only

conjunction with the identifiable reality
of the

photographic image. When we see a man in the attitudes

of running and identify the activity
as a run, one of the knowl

edges which is part of that identification is the pulse normal

to that activity.
It is because we are aware of the known pulse

of the identified action while we watch it occur at a slower rate

of speed
that we

experience the double-exposure of time which

we know as slow-motion. It cannot occur in an abstract film,

where a
triangle, for instance, may go fast or slow, but, having

no necessary pulse,
cannot go in slow-motion.

Another unique image which the camera can

is reverse

motion. When used

it does not convey so much

a sense of a backward movement
spatially, but rather an

undoing of time. One of the most memorable uses of this occurs

in Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, where the peasant is executed by

volley of fire which also shatters the crucifix hanging
on the

wall behind him. This scene is followed by
a reverse motion

of the action?the dead peasant rising from the ground

the crucifix reassembling
on the wall; then again the volley of

fire, the peasant falling, the crucifix shattering; and again the

filmic resurrection. Reverse motion also, for obvious reasons,

does not exist in abstract films.

The photographic negative image
is still another


in point. This is not a direct white-on-black statement but is

understood as an inversion of values. When applied
to a


nizable person
or scene, it conveys

a sense of a
critically quali


as in its use for the landscape
on the other side of

death in Cocteau’s Orpheus.
Both such extreme

images and the more familiar kind which

I referred to earlier make use of the motion-picture medium as a

form in which the meaning of the image originates in our

nition of a known reality and derives its
authority from the

direct relationship between reality and image
in the photo

graphic process. While the process permits
some intrusion by

the artist as a modifier of that image, the limits of its tolerance

can be defined as that point
at which the

original reality


deren :


The Creative

Use of Reality


or is irrelevant ( as when a red reflec

tion in a

is used for its

and color only
and without

contextual concern for the water or the

In such cases the camera itself has been conceived of as the

artist, with distorting lenses, multiple superpositions, etc.,

used to simulate the creative action of the eye, the memory, etc.

Such well-intentioned efforts to use the medium creatively, by

forcibly inserting the creative act in the position


in the visual arts, accomplish, instead, the destruction

of the
photographic image

reality. This image, with its

unique ability
to engage


on several levels?

by the
objective authority

of reality, by


values which we attach to that reality, by
the direct address of

its aspect, and

manipulated relationship between diese

is the
building block for the creative use of the medium.

The Placement of the Creative Act and Time-Space


Where does the film-maker then undertake his major creative

action if, in the interests of
preserving these

of the

image, he restricts himself to the control of accident in the

pre-photographic stage and accepts almost
complete exclusion

from the
photographic process as well?

Once we abandon the concept of the image
as the end

product and consummation of the creative process (which it is

in both the visual arts and the theater), we can take a

view of the total medium and can see that the motion-picture

consists of two parts, which flank the artist

on either side. The images with which the camera

him are like
fragments of a

permanent, incorruptible memory;
their individual reality

is in no way dependent upon their

sequence in
actuality, and

can be assembled to compose

any of several statements. In film, the image
can and should

be only the
beginning, the basic material of the creative action.

All invention and creation consist
primarily of a new rela

between known parts. The

images of film deal in

realities which, as I pointed
out earlier, are structured to fulfill

their various functions, not to communicate a
specific meaning.

Therefore they have several attributes


when a table may be, at once, old, red, and high. Seeing
it as a

separate entity,

antique dealer would appraise its age,

artist its color, and a child its inaccessible
height. But in a film

such a shot
might be followed by

one in which the table falls

apart, and thus a
particular aspect of its age would constitute

its meaning and function in the sequence, with all other attri

becoming irrelevant. The

of a film creates the


sequential relationship which gives particular
or new

to the images according

to their function; it establishes a con

text, a form which transfigures them without distorting their

aspect, diminishing their reality and authority,

that variety of

functions which is the characteristic

dimension of reality.
Whether the images

are related in terms of common or con

trasting qualities,
in the causal

of events which is narra

tive, or in the

of ideas and emotions which is the poetic

mode, the structure of a film is

The creative action

in film, then, takes place
in its time dimension; and for this rea

son the motion picture, though composed of spatial images,

a time form.

major portion of the creative action consists of a

tion of time and space. By this I do not mean

only such estab

lished filmic

as flashback, condensation of time,

parallel action, etc. These affect not the action itself but the

method of revealing it. In a flashback there is no

that the usual chronological integrity of the action itself is in

any way affected by the process, however disrupted, of memory.

Parallel action, as when we see
alternately the hero who

rushes to the rescue and the heroine whose situation becomes

increasingly critical, is an

on the part of the

camera as a witness of action, not as a creator of it.

The kind of manipulation of time and space to which I refer

becomes itself part of the organic
structure of a film. There is,

for example, the extension of space by
time and of time


space. The

of a

can be enormously extended if

three different shots of the person ascending
it (filmed from

different angles
so that it is not apparent that the identical

area is
being covered each time)

are so edited together that

the action is continuous and results in an
image of enduring

labor toward some elevated


in the air can be

extended by the same

but in this case, since the film

action is sustained far beyond the normal duration of the real

action itself, the effect is one of tension as we wait for the figure
to return, finally,

to earth.

Time may be extended by the reprinting of a
single frame,

which has the effect of

the figure
in mid-action; here

the frozen frame becomes a moment of suspended animation

which, according
to its contextual position, may convey either

the sense of critical hesitation ( as in the turning back of Lot’s

wife) or may constitute a comment on stillness and movement

as the opposition
of life and death. The reprinting of scenes of

a casual situation involving
several persons may be used either

in a
prophetic context, as a

d?j?-vu; or, again, precise reitera

tion, by inter-cutting reprints, of those spontaneous movements,


edward steichen, The Maypole, 1932.

Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York.

boris kaufman, Scene from “L’Atalante” (at dusk).

of the artist.

boris kaufman, Scene from “On the Waterfront” (smoke drift

ing through
the scene).

of the artist.

maya deren and Alexander HAMMiD, Scene from “Meshes of

the Afternoon.”

Courtesy of the artists.



The Creative

Use of Reality

expressions, and

change the quality

of the scene

from one of

to that of a
stylization akin to dance;

in so

it confers dance upon nondancers, by shifting

phasis from the purpose of the movement to the movement

itself, and an informal social encounter then assumes the solem

nity and dimension of ritual.

it is

to confer the movement of the camera

upon the

in the scene, for the

movement of a

in a film is
conveyed by the

changing relationship between that

and the frame of the screen. If, as I have done in my


cent film The Very Eye of Night,
one eliminates the horizon line

and any background which would reveal the movement of the

total field, then the eye accepts the frame as stable and ascribes

all movement to the
figure within it. The hand-held camera,

moving and revolving
over the white figures

on a
totally black

ground, produces images
in which their movement is as grav

ity-free and as three-dimensional as that of birds in air or fish

in water. In the absence of any absolute orientation, the push
and pull of their

becomes the major dialogue.

By manipulation of time and space, I mean also the creation

of a
relationship between separate times, places, and persons.


a shot of one person is terminated by

rapid swing away and a shot of another person or
place begins

with a
rapid swing of the camera, the two shots


quently joined
in the blurred area of both swings?brings


dramatic proximity people, places, and actions which in actu

ality might be widely separated. One can film different people
at different times and even in different places performing ap

the same

or movement, and, by


of the shots in such a manner as to preserve the conti

nuity of the movement, the action itself becomes the dominant

dynamic which unifies all separateness.

Separate and distant places

can be related but can

be made continuous

continuity of identity and of move

ment, as when a person begins

gesture in one
setting, this shot

being immediately followed by the hand entering another set

ting altogether

complete the gesture there. I have used this

to make a dancer step from woods to apartment in a

single stride, and similarly
to transport him from location to lo

cation so that the world itself became his stage. In my At

Land, it has been the technique by which the dynamic of the

is reversed and the protagonist, instead of undertak

ing the
long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that

the universe itself has usurped the dynamic
action which was

once the prerogative of human will, and confronts her with a

volatile and relentless metamorphosis
in which her personal

identity is the sole constancy.


These are but several indications of the variety of creative

time-space relationships which can be accomplished by
a mean

ingful manipulation of the sequence of film images. It is an

order of creative action available only
to the motion-picture

medium because it is a

medium. The ideas of

condensation and of extension, of separateness and of conti

nuity, in which it deals, exploit
to the fullest

the various

attributes of the
photographic image:

fidelity (which es

tablishes the identity of the person who serves as a transcendant

force between all separate times and places),


reality ( the basis of the recognition which activates our knowl

edges and values and without which the

of location

and dislocation could not exist), and its
authority which trans

cends the impersonality

intangibility of the image and en

dows it with independent and
objective consequence).

The Twentieth-Century Art Form

I initiated this discussion
by referring

to the effort to deter

mine what creative film form is not, as a means
by which we

can arrive

at a determination of what it is. I recom

mend this as the only valid point of departure for all custodians

of classifications, to the keepers of catalogues, and in

to the harassed librarians, who, in their effort to force film into

one or another of the performing
or the plastic arts, are

in an endless Procrustean


A radio is not a louder voice, an

is not a faster car,

and the motion picture (an invention of the same
period of

history) should not be thought of as a faster

or a more

real play.
All of these forms are

qualitatively different from those which

them. They

must not be understood as unrelated de

velopments, bound merely by coincidence, but as diverse as

pects of a new way of
thought and a new way of life?one in

which an
appreciation of time, movement, energy, and dynamics

is more
immediately meaningful than the familiar concept of

matter as a static solid anchored to a stable cosmos. It is a

change reflected in every field of human endeavor, for example,

architecture, in which the notion of mass-upon-mass structure

has given way to the lean strength of steel and the dynamics
of cantilever balances.

It is almost as if the new age, fearful that whatever was there

already would not be

had undertaken to arrive com

pletely equipped,
even to the motion-picture medium, which,

structured expressly to deal in movement and time-space

lationships, would be the most
propitious and appropriate art

form for expressing,
in terms of its own

paradoxically intangible




The Creative

Use of Reality

reality, the moral and
metaphysical concepts of the citizen of

this new

This is not to say that cinema should or could replace

other art forms, any more than

is a substitute for the

pleasures of

or for the leisurely panorama of land

scapes seen from a car or train window. Only when new

serve the same
purpose better do they replace old

things. Art,

however, deals in ideas; time does not
deny them, but may

merely make them irrelevant. The truths of the Egyptians

no less true for

to answer
questions which they


raised. Culture is cumulative, and to it each age should make

its proper contribution.

How can we

the fact that it is the art instrument,

among all that fraternity of
twentieth-century inventions, which

is still the least explored and exploited; and that it is the artist

?of whom, traditionally, the culture expects the most

and visionary statements?who is the most


ing that the formal and
philosophical concepts of his age


in the actual structure of his instrument and the tech

niques of his medium?

If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged
art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe

of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead,

it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature

of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must

relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from litera

ture and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative

plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound,

step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was

part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century.

Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of filmic images and

evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It

must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, dis

cover its own structural modes, explore the new realms and

dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically

as science has done in its own province.



American Visionary Film: Trance Films

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Maya Deren

Kenneth Anger (1927-)

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)


Two Types of Visionary Film


Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

Meshes of the
(Maya Deren, 1943)

Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Trance Films

The filmmaker is positioned as dreamer. The use of a subjective camera invokes the dreamer’s point-of-view.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon
(Maya Deren, 1943)

The Irrationality of Dreams

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Temporal & Spatial Discontinuity

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Dreaming as Vision

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

The Filmmaker as Subject

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Dream and Self-Scrutiny

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Narrative Conventions: Pursuing Another and Crossing a Threshold
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

Fragmented Female
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

(Kenneth Anger, 1947)

Fireworks invokes, subverts and critiques dominant social practices.
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

State Violence

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

A Subversion of Heteronormative Masculinity

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)



































American Visionary Film: Lyrical Films


-in this lecture we’ll look at P. Adams Sitney’s discussion of lyrical films

-specifically, some films of Stan Brakhage who is considered a leader in innovation in the early American avant-garde

-Brakhage proposed a visionary aesthetic

-like other a-g film-makers, he promoted the idea that the film-maker is like the poet

-from this perspective, the camera is seen as being analogous to the pen

-this is similar to the values and beliefs of the French New Wave which emerged in late 1950s

-new wave film-makers are famous for the term “La Camera Stylo” (camera pen)

-B.’s notion of the filmmaker may be compared to the romantic definition of the artist that implies a certain autonomy of the artist’s personal vision


-according to Northrop Frye, the romantic artist’s conception of society is that the social world is held together by creative power

-and, that artists are the bearers of creative power and an important element of social cohesion

-from this perspective the artist steps into the role of hero; as the focus of society

-for the artist, the “real event is no longer even the universal or the historical event, but the psychological or mental event: the event in his own consciousness” (Frye)

-this applies to lyrical films in general, and Brakhage, specifically


-2 key features of lyrical films:

-film-maker’s experience, consciousness, is considered the central concern

-film is seen as a tool to represent or reproduce that experience

-like trance films, lyrical films are highly personal

-but they aren’t concerned with the dream of the film-maker or with the subconscious

-there is no hero as in trance film where the filmmaker appears as the dreamer

-rather, lyrical films postulate filmmaker behind the camera as a first-person protagonist

-Sitney writes that the movement of the camera and the editing “reverberates with the idea of a [someone] looking”

-these films are usually shot in such a way that the audience is constantly made aware of the film-maker’s presence behind the camera

-the filmmaker is signaled by the camera movement, editing, and image quality

-for example, the blurring due to hand-held cameras and re-focusing within shot necessarily suggests the film-maker’s presence


-or personally scratching or hand painting film like Brakhage

-the lyrical film is a product of the film-maker’s vision

-it is a record of the way a filmmaker reacts to what they see

-Sitney: “As viewers we see the man’s intense experience of seeing.”


“Imagine an eye unruled by manmade laws of perspective”

-he subverts the realist image and its illusion of perspective by emphasizing the flatness of the screen

-Brakhage calls attention to the flatness of the screen when he scratches on the celluloid

-he often includes a black screen that invokes flatness

-“an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic”

-often images in Brakhage’s films are abstract in the sense that they distort photographic realism

-“an eye which does not respond to the name of everything”

-Brakhage reacted against the official language of cinema and is credited with pioneering a new form within the a-g

-he also resisted the idea of conventional language that names and categorizes the world

-“but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”

-the act of seeing is a central process

-and light is a key cinematic material

-“How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of `Green?'”

-B. privileges experience and vision realized outside of the social constraints of conventional language

SLIDE/CLIP: Brakhage interview


WWBM one of the points is to show what is conventionally hidden by social constraints

-there are close up images of childbirth that in 1959 certainly subverted social and cultural convention

-another point of the film is that the camera mirrors how Brakhage sees the birth of his child

-film is a means to reproduce his vision

WWBM (1959)


-in many respects, Brakhage’s films are about

-no soundtrack focuses attention on seeing

-light is key to cinema and is related to perception

-for example, light is suggested by the reference to the window in the title and through recurring images in the film

-that this is an intensely
personal vision is suggested by the hand-held camera that is at times calm and caressing at other times more frenetic and excited indicating the filmmaker’s emotional state

-this sense of the personal is also a feature of the extreme close-ups which suggest an undeniable intimacy

-the personal of course is also suggested by the subject matter

-there is also a concern with memory and experience in the film

-it’s non-linear

-the audience sees earlier images of pre-labor during the labor sequence suggesting a sense of simultaneity and the non-linearity of experience and memory

-there is also a tendency to render the image abstract

-Deren remains faithful to the photographic roots of film

Meshes, most of the distortion comes from the irrationality of dreams not through rendering the “image hard to read”

-Brakhage’s lyrical film reject this relative faithfulness to photographic representation

-point is not to use film as window either onto external reality or an internal dream state

-but rather as a vehicle through which the vision of the film-maker is filtered

Mothlight, WWBM at times functions like abstract art (
Mothlight is a film made without a camera)

-it isolates the woman’s body from the context

-it’s an intimate landscape

-there is no social context

-B. finds the aesthetic in child-birth and shows or privileges it as a significant event not as a sickness

-yet, simultaneously denies an aspect of women’s experience

-that childbirth is “labor”

-no sound reduces significance of pain in labour woman

-it is a romanticized vision

-the idea of vision and seeing beyond convention is central to Brakhage

-he encouraged filmmakers to film how they actually see not what they’ve been taught or socialized to see

-Brakhage is said to have thrown away his glasses when he became a filmmaker

-for Brakhage, vision involves what the eye sees

-but, also, what the mind’s eye sees in visual memory and in dreams

-he calls dreams “brain movies”

-vision also includes the play of shapes and colors on the closed eye

-he calls this “closed eye vision”

-for Brakhage the imagination involves the functioning of all three modes of vision


-Brakhage attempted to restructure or renew perception

-and, he questioned conventional modes of perceiving and representing experience

-film was seen as a vehicle thro’ which his experience is re-presented

-his films attempted to imitate human consciousness

-they attempted to duplicate, explain or visualize the consciousness of the artist

-can think of his films as catalogs of experiences

-they are concerned with the perception of things through cinema

-about it as an extension of the eye of the filmmaker

-this visionary/personal aesthetic is not the only aspect of lyrical film

-Brakhage’s scratching on the celluloid and subjecting it to all manner of interference (like ironing it) is very much related to the materialist films we’ll explore in the next section

-the following films invoke both vision and material


The Wonder Ring (1955)

Mothlight (1963)

The Dante Quartet (1987)

Stellar (1993)

American Visionary Film



Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Northrop Frye (1912-1991)

Window Water Baby Moving
(Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Lyrical Film as a Means to Reproduce the Experience of the Artist

The Filmmaker’s ‘Signature’

Night Music (Stan Brakhage, 1986)

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003)
“Imagine an eye unruled by manmade laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green?’”

Metaphors on Vision (1960)

Stan Brakhage

Window Water Baby Moving
(Stan Brakhage, 1959)
Showing the Conventionally Hidden

Light is Related to Perception

Window Water Baby Moving
(Stan Brakhage, 1959)















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