PRINT November 2016


How can a little girl born in Russia and reared in Syracuse, New York, find happiness as a Voodoun priestess in Greenwich Village? That question sort of sums up the story of Maya Deren, who was one of the most complex and legendary personalities among independent filmmakers of the 1940s and 50s.
—Stan Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers

The source of inspiration is nothing but the object of the quest.
—Jean Laplanche, The Temptation of Biology: Freud’s Theories of Sexuality

Maya Deren, At Land, 1944, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 15 minutes. Maya Deren.

IF BRAKHAGE’S REDUCTION of Maya Deren’s life to the tagline of a 1940s radio serial seems unduly harsh, there is some justice to his remark that the symbolism in her films could “bring down the house with laughter.”1 Such reactions to the “plot” and imagery of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), her first and most famous film, were and are not uncommon. The film critic and painter Manny Farber remarked that Deren was “as unable to spot a cliché as a Tin Pan Alley hack.”2 Yet if one gets past the overdetermined use of keys, knives, and mirrors in Meshes, there is no denying the palpable shock of the suicide that ends the film. When critic Parker Tyler declared, therefore, that Meshes, At Land (1944), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) together represented Deren’s “most important film work, an essentially autobiographical trilogy,” he acknowledged the authenticity and uniqueness of this outsize personality.3

Deren strode across the landscape of American avant-garde cinema in the ’40s and ’50s with a theatrical flair befitting her namesake, Eleanora Duse (Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowskaia), while playing protagonists, in Tyler’s words, “under the spell of mysterious urges somewhere between great desire and great fear.”4 The trauma and the tormented quest implicit in Tyler’s description were driven, at least in part, by Deren’s dysfunctional relationship with her father, and her struggle to master her art was a manifestation of that relationship.

Maya Deren, Ritual in Transfigured Time, 1946, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 15 minutes. Rita Christiani.

ELEANORA’S PARENTS, Solomon and Marie Derenkowsky, left Kiev to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms following the revolution of 1917—the year of her birth—and emigrated to the United States, where they shortened the family name to Deren. Eleanora’s schooling in Switzerland coincided with her parents’ separation; her father, a staff psychiatrist at a state institute in Syracuse, later remarried. During the ’30s, she became a journalist—her father thought the occupation unsuited to her—and joined a socialist youth group, where she met Gregory Bardacke, her first husband. That her ties to such groups may have been less ideological than personal may be seen in her later adoption of Trotskyist principles, which resonated more powerfully with the family’s cultural past and her father’s authoritarian nature. Despite his criticism of virtually everything she did, when her father died of a heart attack in 1943 Deren wrote the following in a letter to a friend:

[Our] relationship was never sentimental, it was organically parental. . . . I have the image of some of those sea-plants that reproduce by a growth out of themselves—not by an umbilical thread nor by a seed deposited. I am something that grew, like a cancer almost, out of my father’s head. I was a growth from and upon his mind and soul so that I was always a part of him. That is why our relationship was almost pathological. . . . We could hardly speak to each other, we always had to converse with a third person in the room whom we addressed, instead of each other. For we were really one person and you cannot speak to yourself. . . . How can he be dead and I alive since we are one thing? . . . My father was more of a creation or rather a belief of my imagination and heart than a real person. . . . He exists in me . . . because we are organically an identity.5

It’s hard to miss the allusion to Athena’s springing from Zeus’s head. Notwithstanding Deren’s overripe sensibility, her recourse to mythological, biological, botanical, and pathogenic metaphors here implies not only a deeply neurotic tie to her father but also an unnatural suppression of any maternal bond—as if she were not, in fact, of woman born. Though many acquaintances remarked on her closeness to her father, she had been estranged from him for some time before his death. The letter reeks of regret over her inability to “express the depths of her feelings for him,” as her stepmother, Amalie Phelan, remarked.6 Far from being an overdramatic expression of a real relationship, however, Deren’s letter is more suggestive of a grandiose, imaginary, and destructive fusion of their identities, from which she struggled to extricate herself for many years after his death.

Identifying with a parent of the opposite sex often adds sexual confusion to the already schizoid conflict between the urge to merge with the dominant personality and the guilt-ridden desire to be free. If the tie to the parent is fabricated or exaggerated, the struggle is endless, and the intactness of one’s own ego is at risk. “The aspiration of identification,” Otto Rank observed, “is to make one’s own ego like the object [i.e., the person identified with] and in this way to establish the desired identity.”7 But if that “object” is absent, figuratively and literally, and one clings to a fantasy in its place, the quest is doomed. The dynamics of how this was played out in Deren’s case are manifested in her “trilogy.”

Among her “deepest fears,” her stepmother said, “was that her father would not respect her chosen work” and would have been dubious about her “‘sudden’ decision to take up film.”8 Her father did not live to witness this choice, but his anticipated judgment no doubt still hung over her. And so it must have been with boldness and trepidation that, with the money he left her, Deren purchased a 16-mm Bolex camera, embarked on a career of which he would most certainly have disapproved, and changed her name to Maya, from the Hindu word for “illusion.” That change further masked the Jewish heritage that her parents had always downplayed, a hardly negligible factor in Deren’s struggle to form an identity and one she never made peace with. In casting doubt on the reality of her identity, her adopted name itself implies dependence on the tie with her father. And so, in defiance as well as homage, she hung his portrait—a likeness bearing an uncanny resemblance to both Lenin and Trotsky—above her editing bench and dedicated her 1946 essay “Cinema as an Art Form” to him. Reflecting the need to stay connected while flaunting independence, the former positions him as mute, reluctant witness to her craft, while the latter asserts that craft’s cultural worthiness.

Meshes of the Afternoon, which Deren directed with Alexander Hammid—the film’s cinematographer and costar, and her second husband—fleshes out this struggle quite dramatically. In fact, while its atmosphere resembles that of the “trance film” (as scholar P. Adams Sitney described it in Visionary Film [1974]), its psychodynamics also suggest the psychodrama. Deren plays four versions of herself, acting out the protagonist’s warring personalities—an internal conflict that ends in suicide. The situation’s relevance to Deren’s own circumstances could not be better demonstrated than in her public statements to the contrary, in which she warns against psychoanalytic interpretation, a defense every analyst recognizes and that Freud encountered when his assertions of child sexuality were met with outraged denials that only confirmed its existence. One might conclude, therefore, that in this film, as well as in At Land, the line between the works’ contrived worlds and their autobiographical force is unavoidably, if unintentionally, blurred.

Even the film’s play with frame and dream structure may be designed to deflect attention from Deren’s underlying personal agony. For example, the suicide depicted in the last shot is not only consistent with the life-and-death struggle in which the protagonists are engaged; it also confirms the seemingly imminent “suicide” in an earlier scene, in which Maya’s knife-wielding self hovers threateningly over the sleeping Deren, any further action thwarted by a cut. If Deren’s internal struggle was triggered by her father’s death (which occurred the year she made Meshes), the film can be seen as her unconscious effort to free herself from the “pathological” union she speaks of in her letter—to, in fact, kill the father “organically” inside her so that a core self can emerge. In this context, the cut from the threatening Maya to her husband, who awakens and thus “rescues” her from her suicidal nightmare, is not only a nod to pure Hollywood hokum but evokes a false sense of relief soon to be savagely undercut by the final shot.

Taking Deren at her word, most scholars have not interpreted Meshes of an Afternoon psychobiographically. Yet such a reading seems inescapable. The death of a father in whom one’s identity is heavily invested, and therefore confused, induces an acute crisis. Given Deren’s father’s absences, remoteness, and persistent criticism, and given the figure of exaggerated proportions she idolized in his place, it is unlikely she could have experienced a normal sense of loss, or coped with the psychological fallout of remaining alive while her “real” self had died. Turning her inner turmoil into film art, therefore, was no small achievement.

Maya Deren, At Land, 1944, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 15 minutes. Maya Deren.

IN AT LAND, Deren’s second completed film (the unfinished Witch’s Cradle intervened), there are more explicit signs of mourning, although the film is clearly shadowed by her envy of her father’s power. In a poem she wrote in the spring of 1944, Deren again characterizes herself as “the cancer, throbbing from the parent’s head” and wonders how “could this pulsing still persist / if, as they tell, my parent heart has ceased.” Though apparently awake, unlike the figure the filmmaker portrays in Meshes, the protagonist of At Land is also a “somnambulist, in sea-weed gowned . . . leading myself at arms length by the mirror / where I pursue the parent and the lover.”9

The film’s opening shots are of huge white-crested waves crashing onto a beach, crosscut with shots of Deren, washed up by the sea and seemingly dazed. The implication that the waves have, in fact, delivered her onto the land evokes the birth of Aphrodite and suggests that this film poses Deren’s psychological conflict in erotic terms. The “resurrected” Deren has been reborn as the goddess of love, in the wake of a symbolic quelling of her father’s sexual power and allure. As Robert Graves recounts, “Some hold that [Aphrodite] sprang from the foam which gathered about the genitals of Uranus, when Cronus [his son] threw them into the sea.”10 In At Land, Deren does not simply wash up onshore; the shots and countershots imply a conscious exchange between her gazes outward and the sea, which, in an inversion of natural law, only recedes farther and farther away, as if, having completed its task, it now bids her farewell.

Though Deren preferred having her work viewed through the lens of mythology rather than that of psychoanalysis, we need make no such choice. The convergence of mythology with the psychodynamics under discussion is not only felicitous but quite stunning. How fitting, following the protagonist’s “suicide” in Meshes, the final image of which shows Deren laced with seaweed, that her rebirth is not only by sea but convergent with the emasculation myth of an ancient progenitor, as if only by imagining her dead father in these terms could she permit her new self to emerge. Declaring the birth of her sexual power in shots stressing the voluptuous curvature of her body amid the diffused remains of the “First Father” (Graves’s term), Deren, in a projection of her own unconscious sexual fantasies, destroys her father’s capacity—sexual and otherwise—to seduce her. In thus repressing unresolved oedipal desires, she strives to limit his hold to the safer, though no less formidable, precincts of intellectual superiority—nicely exemplified in the subsequent sequence by a game of chess.

Embracing her newfound power, this reborn Aphrodite lifts herself from her supine position on the beach by grabbing hold of a gnarled limb of driftwood, a passage composed of four shots from different angles, thus exaggerating the branch’s height and the “sense of a long and important climb.”11 The continuity editing that links this action to the banquet table in the next scene enforces our feeling that a fierce determination is at play that overrides physical exertion. As she peers over the top of this long table, her gaze caught by a huge chandelier in the smoke-filled room, her legs still dangle near the tree trunk “below.” Indifferent to the guests that line the table, none of whom notices her, the goddess of love is now the little girl in awe of her father and his world. Images of dense brush, intercut with shots of the guests as she crawls (“swims” in her notes) across the table, recall the disjunctive spaces crossed by the goggle-eyed Maya in Meshes. The traversal of such spaces in the earlier film implied the psychic distance one must travel to commit suicide. In At Land, it connotes the no less charged, wide-eyed determination of a child to “reach” an unapproachable parent.

Maya’s moves are awkward but steady, her eyes alert, bright, and unwaveringly focused on the man at the far end of the table (Alvin Lustig), who, utterly unaware of her presence, is engaged in a game of chess—apparently, and tellingly, with himself. In her notes, Deren cites an analogy between art and chess, which resonates with her choice of filmmaking as a competitive pursuit, but the man’s absorption in the game may also be equated with the responsibilities that kept her father from having a greater presence in her life.

Whatever significance chess itself had for Deren, at this point the game is inseparable from the man playing it. This is clearly registered in Maya’s notably crestfallen look when, just as she is about to reach him, the “father” suddenly rises and leaves the table to talk with the others present—played by preeminent figures in the art world but meant to evoke his circle—synopsizing her father’s characteristic absences and remoteness in a single gesture. Only in the wake of that abrupt departure is the chessboard itself invested with psychic value. As she looks down, the pieces suddenly move animatedly, as if responding to her will, until a white pawn is toppled and falls off the table into a deep, watery hole before she can grasp it, and a moment later is transformed into the white queen floating in the water. Disappearing, like her father, it becomes fused with him, the inaccessible object of desire that impels her pursuit—not the phallus in sexual terms alone but as all that her father represented in her emotional and psychic life.

The pawn’s falling off the table and down a rocky inlet into the sea rhymes with Deren’s climb from the beach and emergence at the opposite end of the table, the symmetry implying closure and transition to the next scene. While not structured as a narrative, in other words, At Land tends to lean on linking strategies, so that the seeming act of closure before the next scene suggests Deren’s unconscious wish to weave the film’s episodes into a cohesive whole. Her descent over the rocks in pursuit of the elusive pawn that ultimately slips away, then, leads quite naturally to the idea that she must search elsewhere for traces of the elusive father. In the spirit of Jean Laplanche’s notion that “the search of the one who strays is guided by a persistent aim,”12 apparent detours often constitute the truest, if not yet conscious, signs of psychic growth.

We next see Maya walking along a country road in long shot, at first alone and then conversing, sequentially, with four different men. That we see no sign of the latter in the “establishing” shot suggests the exchanges may be imaginary. Two of the men, Tyler and composer John Cage, belonged to the artistic and intellectual circles in which Deren moved, and therefore share qualities with the idealized father, including unavailability as romantic or sexual partners (both men were homosexual).

The important filmic strategy here is camera movement within a continuous space, reinforced by a shot/countershot structure. As Maya first approaches, the camera (handheld by Hammid, except when he enters as the fourth man) steadily moves back; then a cut reveals a hitherto unseen man (poet Philip Lamantia), whose gaze to his right implies that he walks alongside Maya. A cut to her confirms this, as she responds and looks offscreen in his direction. The cut back to the man is followed by a pan left to Maya, but the next pan right reveals a second man (Tyler) walking and talking in the same manner as the first. A cut to Maya is followed by a cut back to him, but another pan left to her and then right reveals a third man (Cage). A cut to a long shot shows Maya and Cage walking side by side. A cut to Maya looking offscreen is followed by a cut to a fourth man (Hammid), who points to something offscreen.

Still from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 14 minutes. Maya Deren.

The constants here—Maya, setting, and walk—play against the variation of partners, the latter implying equivalence as much as succession. Though At Land is a silent film, talk dominates the exchanges, quite fittingly, in light of the shift from the erotic to the intellectual realm. The match cutting and the panning observe spatial continuity while implying temporal shifts, but the sequence is so effectively constructed that the rhythm of the conversation and the accompanying head gestures seamlessly suggest an ongoing exchange between two people. To the degree this reflects the protagonist’s continuous, uninterrupted quest, the latter may be confounded by the interchangeability of the men whose distinct qualities tend to challenge or contradict her preconceptions, thus rendering the search futile. Is it the fate of the goddess of love to be forever disappointed? Is this the price of being washed up on land amid mere mortals?

Spatial continuity and temporal ambiguity also characterize the subsequent scene. Maya and Alexander come upon a dilapidated log cabin. He enters through the door while she, drawn to a breach in the structure, crawls through the hole and emerges (after a cut) in an implausibly well-appointed room. It seems no “linking” passage in the film is without some obstruction that requires contorted physical maneuvers to negotiate. As she scans the room, the camera from her point of view pans across furniture covered in sheets, suggesting that the owners are away. (The scene was shot in the apartment Deren and Hammid shared in Greenwich Village.) When something offscreen seizes Maya’s attention, the camera pans slowly and deliberately down her body and then left across a sheeted surface that we soon realize is a bed (unseen in the earlier pans), finally framing the head of a man, his gaze fixed on her. Given Deren’s letter following her father’s death, the effect is nothing less than umbilical, especially in light of what follows.

In a series of shots and countershots, the man’s gaze is met by hers and light ripples over her face, as if reflected by water. In context, this second allusion to the goddess’s birth—and Deren’s rebirth—intimates that the latter may be jeopardized by this unexpected confrontation. Indeed, a subsequent shot, in which Maya stands transfixed holding—and then letting slip from her arms—a previously unseen cat, slyly implies as much. Consistent with her account that she and her father could speak only through a third person, no words are exchanged. This man, played by painter Wallace Putnam, is young enough to be a romantic partner, but his erotic appeal is undermined by his emaciated countenance and by the shroud-like sheet covering him, revealing no discernible bodily contours. It’s hard to imagine a more potent image of the dead father as a living presence than this neutered figure with its penetrating gaze, a man whose sexual potency is ambiguous but whose head—the seat of intellect and of judgment—remains intact.

The emphatic, silent exchange between these two reinforces the brutal irony that stalks the quest for the dead father pursued against all odds and despite its corrosive effects on other relationships—namely, that even if the searcher knows the quest is doomed, she must persist because her own identity is at stake. In Deren’s written sketch of the film, this sequence is titled “The Dying Man in the Room” and is followed by a never-filmed sequence titled “The Mirrors,” in which the protagonist, standing in a bathroom, “moves the mirrors back and forth, looking, looking, creating new images of herself,” then, trying to exit, is confused by several doors.13 Deren dropped the mirror images, perhaps to avoid overkill.

In the sequence that follows, we are back on the beach, by way of a now-familiar motif—a transition involving extreme physical effort. (One recalls Maya’s climb up the driftwood, her clamber down the water hole, and her crawl through the breached wall of the cabin.) In this most perilous instance, she is seen up high on a rock over the beach, working her way down with a difficulty emphasized by slow motion. When she reaches bottom, she walks off over a series of dunes, disappearing, then reappearing magically at greater distances, with the help of stop-motion camerawork, as if the search had become boundless and required leaps unbounded by natural law.

A hint that the protagonist is frustrated by her futile efforts and has lost her way is suggested in the next passage, in which she idly gathers stones along the beach, her stumbling effort to hold the rocks in the folds of her dress ultimately failing when something offscreen seizes her attention and she drops them, as she did the cat, involuntarily. If this serves as a metaphor for the accumulation, devaluation, and rejection of others in whom she looked for something she couldn’t find, the next scene introduces an aspect of the quest heretofore unacknowledged.

Two young women—one blond, one brunet—sit by the seashore, playing, of all things, chess. Maya observes their moves as they, engaged in conversation, seem oblivious not only to her presence but to the game as well, as if they didn’t take it seriously. At one point seated together, their heads raised to Maya’s caresses, the three women smile inexplicably while the players’ hands move pieces in an almost mechanical manner. Suddenly, Maya becomes serious, reaches down and snatches what appears to be the white queen (which her notes confirm), and runs off. This must have been the scene Farber described in his review in the New Republic as “lesbianish,” his remark provoking Deren to demand an apology from the publication.

Given the setting—against the sea—and the two chess players, the women might be rival love goddesses, whose conventional femininity contrasts with Maya’s, and whose comfortable engagement with chess contrasts with her neurotic fixation. While the scene may suggest that Deren’s affections were not limited to men, it more powerfully serves as an effective displacement of the more primal rivalries between Deren and the two women—her mother and stepmother—who had won her father’s affections. For the child and young woman desperate for his attentions, they would have been antagonists, and that sense is reinforced here by their conversion into attractive young females who have mastered chess: formidable goddesses indeed. In fact, there is an additional, ironic edge to this scene. The dark-haired woman is played by Hella Heyman, who took over primary camera duties from Hammid during the shooting and actually wed him after his marriage to Deren ended. In effect, then, she was a rival love goddess who “stole” Deren’s husband in real life.

Though Deren clutches the omnipotent chess piece in triumph, oedipal victory can only be delusional. At the same time, however, the ecstatic effect is registered filmically—that is, while a psychological resolution to the protagonist’s quest remains elusive, Deren the filmmaker can claim partial victory in the mastery of her art, exhibited here in the recapitulation of previous scenes whereby earlier Mayas look offscreen, somewhat bewildered, as the one clutching the chess piece runs past. The crosscutting between the earlier personae and the “new,” emboldened Maya exhibits no sign of the labored transitions noted earlier, suggesting that her apparent oedipal victory is equated with—but limited to—her art. This impression is reinforced by the penultimate “recapitulation” in the banquet room, wherein she now moves freely amid the guests, while the “little girl” crawling along the table looks on.

This particular juxtaposition is critical since it brings us back to the paradigmatic situation—that of the girl desperate to reach her father: Her puzzled look is now fixed on her “older” self, the deluded protagonist, as if to cast doubt on the fact and value of the latter’s “triumph.” Indeed, this impression is validated by the final long take, in which the camera pans up from a footprint in the sand to reveal a long trail of footprints leading to the small figure of Maya in the distance, still running along the beach. From what we know of Deren’s relationship with her father, her quest, like that of many people in analysis, was an effort to make real the fantasized father in place of the inaccessible one—in her own words, “more of a creation or rather a belief of [her] imagination and heart than a real person.” Mourning the loss of such a father indefinitely is no longer about the person lost but about the mourner’s inability to relinquish the imaginary, idealized, wished-for parent—a sense captured all too poignantly in the final, open-ended shot of At Land.

Tony Pipolo is a practicing psychoanalyst and a frequent contributor to Artforum.


1. Stan Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers (Kingston, NY: Documentext, 1989), 94.

2. Catrina Neiman, “Thresholds: Reviews,” in The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, ed. VèVè A. Clark, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman, vol. 1, part 2, Chambers (1942–47), (New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988), 378.

3. Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 96.

4. Ibid.

5. Catrina Neiman, “Stairways: From Poetry to Film: Death and Rebirth,” in Legend, 73.

6. Ibid.

7. Otto Rank, “Social Adaptation and Creativity” (1927), in A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures, ed. Robert Kramer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 192.

8. Neiman, “Stairways,” 74.

9. Maya Deren, “Two Untitled Poems, Spring, 1944,” in Legend, 171.

10. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (London: Penguin, 1955), 49.

11. Maya Deren, “Adventures in Creative Filmmaking,” in Home Movie Making (1960), quoted in Legend, 186.

12. Jean Laplanche, The Temptation of Biology: Freud’s Theories of Sexuality, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Unconscious in Translation, 2015), 7.

13. Maya Deren, “At Land Scenario: The Mirrors,” in Legend, 175.