Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maya Deren (archive footage), Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Martina Kudlácek
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 103
Date: 25/01/2002

In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Afternoon' Delights

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Canadian film magazine Senses of Cinema recently took a poll to choose the great women directors and their greatest films. Maya Deren came in third (after Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda) and her film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) came in first.

Deren (1917-61) is not exactly a household name, and it's amazing that anyone still knows who she is -- especially given that she was at least 20 years ahead of her time. Though it's hugely fertile territory, a documentary on her life and work has never surfaced until now.

Martina Kudlácek's In the Mirror of Maya Deren opens today at the Red Vic Movie House for a five-day run.

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Deren moved to New York when she was five years old. She studied at Syracuse University and Smith College, making earnest stabs at both dance and poetry. But as someone who thought in images, she was thrilled to discover film, a medium that allowed her to communicate directly, rather than having to "translate" her ideas into words.

She remained interested in dance, using it as a motif in many of her films and enlisting her dancer friends to participate. This passion was heightened after she journeyed to Haiti in the late 40s and immersed herself in its culture.

During the course of her life, she completed six short, experimental films and left behind tons of footage belonging to many other unfinished projects. Deren passed away in 1961, nearly broke and addicted to a kind of "energy" drug.

Made at age 26, her first film was Meshes of the Afternoon, still her most famous and revered work. It's a beautiful, dreamlike meditation with unforgettable images, the most striking of which has Deren (playing herself) following a black-cloaked figure with a mirror for a face. The film also plays with classic dream images: mirrors, keys and knives.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren includes generous clips from this and her other films, and uses recordings of Deren's own voice -- sounding a bit like Lucile Ball -- to round things out. Kudlácek interviews many of Deren's surviving colleagues, actors, and friends, including experimental filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage (who passed away this past March).

Best of all, the documentary gives us an idea of the woman herself -- even more so than we can glean from her films. She was a thoughtful, passionate, extraordinarily beautiful creature with curly hair that she let grow long decades before the hippie movement. She married twice and enjoyed many lovers and ran in the company of other artists (Joseph Campbell was one of her colleagues). This new picture of her in turn enhances the viewing of her films.

Now all that remains is for some savvy distributor to release them on DVD (together they run less than 90 minutes). Better late than never, In the Mirror of Maya Deren reminds us of what a treasure Deren was and gives us just enough of a taste to make us want more.

DVD Details: Zeitgeist's DVD reportedly comes with three featurettes: two unfinished Deren films, Witch's Cradle (1943) and Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951), and Stan Brakhage's tribute Waiting for Maya (2000).{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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