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Friday, Oct. 27, 2000


A dream supreme

The "dream sequence" is such a common and accepted part of the cinematic vocabulary these days that we've all learned to overlook the obvious: that these sequences bear almost no resemblance to our own experience of dreams. Filmmakers tend to give us a bit of trippy montage and some heavy-handed significance, but that's a far cry from our own dreams, cloaked in layers of veiled symbolism and shifting between the unnervingly real and the impossible.

Over a century of cinema, there is one film that clearly stands out, above all others, as a near-perfect cinematic distillation of the essence of the dream experience. That film is Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon," and -- trust me -- it is one of a kind. Made in 1943, with the collaboration of her cinematographer husband Alexander Hammid, "Meshes" grabbed the torch of non-narrative filmmaking from the Europeans (Dali and Bunuel, et al.) and almost single-handedly gave birth to the American avant-garde.

Deren also trailblazed the idea of a woman behind the camera (Leni Riefenstahl not being the best role model), and a stubbornly DIY ethic that was to inspire all of independent film. Her work proved that a simplicity of means could still produce works of great depth, intelligence and elegance.

"Meshes" should be experienced as it comes so I won't give much away. Suffice it to say that it's a mere 14 minutes, shot in black-and-white by Hammid with a haunting, Zen-like soundtrack by Teiji Ito, and featuring Deren herself (an absolutely enigmatic beauty) as the protagonist who faces the detritus of her own subconscious as an afternoon nap fades into an eerie reverie. While so much avant-garde art can be detached, it is Deren's decision to appear in "Meshes" as "herself" which gives it a spellbinding power that can't be matched; she is exorcising her own demons here.

Although the film was shot on no budget, almost entirely within the confines of their home, Hammid's camerawork and Deren's inspired cutting create some mad distortions of time and space. There's a "through the looking glass" feel to much of the film, as Deren seems to float across a room, or finds herself confronting other selves. But the mirror-faced figure in black comes from someplace far darker than anywhere Lewis Carroll ever imagined.

Like a dream, "Meshes" can be appreciated aesthetically, as a surreal deconstruction of reality, full of stunning imagery and complex sensations -- but it can also be explored as ripe with meaning and symbolism. The recurring motifs of a key, a flower, a knife, a mirror and that mysterious robed figure who is always just out of reach, display Deren's desire to connect on a mythic level.

We've all had that experience of some inconsequential moment during the day coming back to us in a dream, recycled in bizarre and portentous ways. The mundane is transformed into something charged with significance, but shrouded in secrecy. "Meshes" captures this process with a disturbing potency. It also portrays the experience of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer "awakes" within the dream, and is able to see her sleeping self. To inhabit a dream with waking consciousness intact is an experience which calls into question the very nature of reality; this seems to have been Deren's ultimate goal.

Maya Deren, like all great dreamers and mystics, believed in the power of the imagination to shape and impact reality. It is this drive that, later in her life, led her to Haiti, where she became deeply involved with Voudoun rituals of trance and possession. Maya -- an appropriate name, the Hindu word for the illusion that is this world, a dream of the god Brahma -- sought to use film as a technology to break the barriers of time and space (reflecting the revelations of Einstein and quantum physics), and to hint at realities beyond our ken. Illusion would reveal to us truths that our eyes could not see; our minds would be shocked into new understandings.

That was the plan. Deren left us with but a handful of films, her brief career ending with a sudden and fatal stroke in 1961 (on Friday the 13th, no less) amid rumors of Voudoun curses and counter-curses. Nothing she filmed ever equaled the promise of "Meshes" -- although "At Land" comes close -- but perfection is a hard act to follow. "Meshes of the Afternoon" remains a singular and defining film, a gateway to another realm of cinematic experience.

"Avant-Garde Classics: Maya Deren" opens Nov. 3 at Theater Image Forum, Shibuya. Screening are "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943), "At Land" (1944), "A Study in Choreography for Camera" (1945), "Ritual in Transfigured Time" (1946), "Meditation on Violence" (1948) and "The Very Eye of Night" (1959).

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