Maya Deren is an Ukrainian-American filmmaker who died in 1961. She is often associated with avant-garde filmmaking and particularly the feminist avant-garde . Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) was her first film. She was twenty six years old when she made it, living in Los Angeles. She was married toAlexandr Hackenschmied. It is hard, if not impossible, to know exactly what was going on in Deren's mind when she made the film, yet there are some interesting historical developments from 1943.
Of course, WWII has not yet ended, and a number of battles took place in 1943. In early '43 bread is rationed in US. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto happens on January 19th 1943, etc. Many developments are certainly meaningful in trying to reconstruct the socio-economic and political environment in which Maya Deren has worked. One development, though, is of particular relevance. The All-American Girls Softball League, then baseball league, came into existence in 1943. Among other similar developments in women's lives during the war, this type of expansion in women's engagement with society can only point toward a new social consciousness; particularly among young women at the time.
Several issues come to mind when thinking about Meshes of the Afternoon in relation to a newly discovered female consciousness toward the environment, society. Yet, I'll focus on just one: Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon significantly blurs the line between the inner and the outer, the private and the public.
The film is a non-linear narrative about a woman who falls asleep in an armchair and dreams. She has a dream in which a character with a mirror as a face features repeatedly. Deren plays the role of the woman who falls asleep. The film repeats the act of entrance into the house again and again. Right before the woman enters for the second time, however, we see her observing her sleeping body, then looking outside the widow at the character with the mirror face, all dressed in black, and at herself speeding away from the house. The very famous Maya Deren portrait (below) comes from this scene.
MAYA DEREN. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON.1943.
(Right after the frame from which this still is taken, the film cuts to the woman herself running after the character with the mirror face. )
This scene is a good illustration of how Deren blurs the line between the inner and the outer and attempts to merge the two spheres. In this scene the woman is both inside the house sleeping, and outside the house running. Of course the mantra for second wave feminism was "the personal is political" which also blurs the distinction between the political/ the public/the outer and the personal/ the private/ the inner. Deren does seem to engage with this public-private binary, while attempting to situate the female within it. The woman, in this scene, appears as if she is both looking at herself running outside and looking at herself sleeping inside. She knows. She is offered a frame of reference from which she could take a distance and theorize about her position.
The claim that she could theorize about her position is problematic though. Looking at the still above, Deren, on the threshold looks, arguably, like a mime. She can only gesture but not speak. She is able to point but not use language. Her allusion to mime acting helps emphasize her deep involvement with, if not entrapment within, her body. There lies a paradox. She can look at herself, but at the same time cannot distance herself from her body. It is hard for me to make sense of what this paradox might mean, yet perhaps it is only meaningful within the context of the fantasy or dream. The film might be postulating that distancing herself from her body, which seems to be a hindrance, is a female dream.
The female body is here situated on the line between the inner and the outer, making it the site of the struggle, or negotiation, between these two spheres. Although something similar could be said about all bodies it is especially true of the female body which is often considered a matter of public discourse as females are the mothers who are traditionally seen as responsible for the propagation of the species. One could argue, therefore, that the dream of running away from the house in the above referenced scene is in fact a dream of breaking free of her body—a position to which the ending of the film gives credence.
This movement outside of the body might mean a movement into a plentitude that exists outside of it —a space similar to that which the film creates in which even the law of gravity can be broken . Or if one emphasizes the process of movement toward an outside, instead of the destination, Deren seems to be deliberately bringing the public and private (the political and the personal) into dialogue. She is ultimately, thus, a dialectician. Woman is a dialectician. Her capacity to create and inhabit between seeming opposites, merging them within herself, to allow for the synthesis of something in can account for why Deren ensures that the woman observes herself both sleeping and running.
Meshes of the Afternoon has been read and re-read in so many different ways. Partly, perhaps, because in the many years after it was made and till now people, and particularly women's, experiences changed and therefore people saw different meanings in the film. This is one of its particular strengths as a text of course—it ages well. So for example tying the reading to second wave feminism is not an attempt to say that Deren foresaw the movements mantra or whatever. Instead it is an attempt to situate Deren within a larger historical tragectory.