Maya Deren

film 2 of 5

At Land

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Some opening! It’s not Boticellian, exactly—an utterly different time, place, artistic and philosophical foundation—but it’s still in the same beautiful ballpark.

Deren’s compositions and cuts are razor sharp, and her creative geography—climbing out of that tree, across a film cut, and onto the banquet table!—is right up there with Pudovkin’s Chess Fever or Welles’ Othello. That is to say, right up there with the best utilization of that technique, ever.

This superlative cinematic control continues as Deren chases that chess piece out of culture and back to nature. Should we go back to that Meshes in the Afternoon discussion? Should we take on the question that nearly everybody is going to be asking? What on earth does the chess piece represent? What on earth is going on here?

This is the site of a productive tension, where the great exactitude of Deren’s images comes up against the great roominess, even the frustrating and inaccessible mystery of the symbols that she uses. As often, as ever with the avant-garde in general, her meaning is not conventionally clear. In fact in this case, as so often, the clear communication of exact ideas is not even her objective. Maya Deren is one of film’s great pioneers in the exploration of dreams, and the workings of the subconscious. Our symbol dictionaries can help us as we watch her work, but in consulting them we may be missing the point. These things clearly meant a great deal to her. We can concentrate on that, and draw some productive conclusions as we do so. But films like this are also inviting us to forge our own connections, figure out our own meanings. And not just meaning. How do they feel? Where do they take you?

Knife edged, yet imprecise. A puzzlement! And a grand opportunity as well. A steadier diet of this kind of material might go far toward reducing the dangerous passivity with which we consume our media, or with which our media consume us.

Not only are these images exceedingly attractive, but Ms. Deren is also, and quite gloriously. Related notion? At Land doesn’t seem to think very positively of its men. They extend their deleterious influence even in their absence. The film concludes where it began, at that creation’s morning seaside. Deren’s character/avatar returns there to finds another pair of glorious women there, and they share a moment of near-sisterly near-accord. But it ends, abruptly, inexplicably, almost tragically. The Woman returns to her solitude—could it be solipsism?—and the audience to its productive, now heart-rent puzzlement.

Some last shot!