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In The Mirror Of Maya Deren


In The Mirror Of Maya Deren


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In spirit, if not also in form, the best documentaries about artists and thinkers find creative ways to reflect their subjects' work, which means going beyond the usual cut-and-paste of talking heads and archival materials, and expressing their vision with cinematic panache. For example, recent profiles on philosopher Jacques Derrida (Derrida) and landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy (Rivers And Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time) made their ideas more stimulating through structure, composition, or other complementary innovations. Though a solid and scrupulously researched primer on an avant-garde pioneer, Martina Kudlácek's In The Mirror Of Maya Deren fails to harness anything close to Deren's singular intensity and precision, nor does it always make sense of the highly intellectual concepts that characterize her work. Granted, Kudlácek doesn't have the benefit of living subjects like Derrida or Goldsworthy, who double as their own tour guides. Instead, she relies on an admittedly impressive gallery of Deren's colleagues and collaborators, from experimental giants like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage to dancers and painters from Deren's late-period sojourns to Haiti. The closest Kudlácek comes to Deren herself is in old recordings of her lectures, which reveal a remarkably self-possessed and passionate woman who circled around the same set of themes and visual motifs in her short but influential filmography. Born the year of the Russian Revolution into a privileged, well-educated Ukrainian family, Deren later sparked a revolution of her own with the experimental staple Meshes Of The Afternoon, a rigorous exercise in symbolism and dream logic that still casts a long shadow. (It's impossible to imagine, say, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. existing without it.) Though Meshes was co-directed by Deren's then-husband Alexander Hammid, a Czech émigré and avant-garde filmmaker who appears in the film, Deren's name remains the most associated with the project, perhaps because it seems of a piece with her subsequent efforts. Drawn powerfully to physical forms, with a special attraction to dancers, water, and celestial bodies, Deren created what she called a pas de deux between the camera and her subjects, which complete each other's movements. Before dying of a brain hemorrhage at 41, Deren spent the latter part of her career shooting voodoo rituals and dance in Haiti, where she emerged with hours of unassembled footage and an anthropological book (Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods Of Haiti) edited by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. For In The Mirror, Kudlácek rounds up a who's-who of experimental filmmakers, Haitian artists, dance choreographers, archivists, and programmers, all of whom reflect intelligently (though dryly) on Deren's importance in underground cinema. Yet only Brakhage, shown hand-painting frames for an homage called "Water For Maya," has a memorable handle on Deren as an artist (he convincingly defends her much-maligned final work, The Very Eye Of Night) and as a temperamental, inspiring personality. His insights bring much-needed color and life to a documentary cloaked in drab austerity.