- An Introduction to the Notebook of Maya Deren

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An Introduction to the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947, Catrina Neiman
October, Vol 14 (Autumn 1980), pp. 3–15
The MIT Press

Maya Deren was besides a filmmaker also a theoretician of some stature and a photographer. “As an artist she experimented with the use of certain traditional forms in structuring her own films – haiku poetry, Chinese boxing, children’s games, circus acts. Several of these projects she left unfinished” (P.3) In her early work she used dance rather than literary or theatrical devices as their structural dynamic.

In Hollywood she got married to Alexander Hammid, a Czech filmmaker, who taught her the mechanics of photography and film. With him she made her first film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) which convinced her that Cinema was her medium.

The notes that this text is referring to were written in 1946/47 in the course of planning what Deren called her ‘Film-In-Progress”. 
In this film she wanted to mix images of Haitian, Balinese and Najavo rituals with images of children's games filmed in the streets of New York. The film never got made.

Deren was already interested in children's play while she was making Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), but cut this out at the last moment. She saw the games of children (and also those of adults) as forms of secular ritual.

"All the quality of children’s games which fascinated me and induce me to consider it as a theme for the film-in-progress were … [their] universality …, the intense illusion of reality which they had for the players, the immaculate attention to seemingly irrelevant detail, the element of self-subordinated and even ordeal … “ (p.06).

“Also implicit in her analogy, of course, are the construction of art. The example of Duchamp, another mentor of Deren, strongly pervades her thinking at this time. The identification of art with game is suggested repeatedly in her films and notes of this period – most frequently in the image of chess, but in other types of play aswell” (p.07)

In Thematic Statement(see timeline) she voices her fear that, by juxtaposing games with rituals, she runs the risk of the rituals being observed with the same "amused tolerance" with which we observe the doing of children (and artist, she noted). In order to protect the integrety of the rituals, she felt compelled "to enlist the advice of anthropologists"'

Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead were the anthropologists she turned to.

“They had warned her of the problems she would encounter in comparing Haitian dance with other forms (Balinese and Navajo). But Deren was constructing a work of art, a cross-cultural “fugue” of ritual gestures and objects, and she had persisted in her vision – until she arrived in Haiti. Once there, she soon came to feel that she could not film the dances for her own purposes without regard for their religious context. Conceding defeat as an artist, she “abandoned [her] manipulations” and devoted herself to understanding “the irrefutable reality … of Vodoun” (p.4)

Bateson shot 22000 feat of film in Bali, later used in a series of films on subjects ranging from "bathing babies to trance and dance in Bali" (1951). 

“the original footage, extraordinary in its range and objectivity, represents the first extensive venture in ethnographic filmmaking.” Bateson gave Deren the raw footage of Bali to use as she wished.

“Deren had begun to reconsider the emphasis on deeply personal themes in her own films and the necessity of using herself as protagonist. Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), just completed, was the last film in which she would appear. Her writing at this time, especially the Thematic Statement, emphasizes the need to “de-personalize” her art. Hence her interest in the forms of ritual as manifesting anonymity and universality, forms which she hoped to incorporate.” (p.10)

“The camera was for Deren the modern instrument which could most naturally reflect its own conditions of observation: “local” time and place and their changes, “the inalienability of subjective position.” For her it was through personal, subjective experience that we gain access to the universal. Though among the most personal ever made, her films were addressed “to the poet in every man.” (p.13).

“Margaret Mead’s most vivid memory of the proposed film on ritual and children’s games was of seeing Green trace hopscotch lines in the air. Green repeatedly invoked this image to illustrate the way in which we define an artificial, ritual space, a frame of reference, boundaries that may not be crossed or stepped upon. This drawing of lines has, as we have noted, something of ritual and art; for Deren it meant the placing of faith in an authority that transcends the self – an authority nevertheless, constructed by man. This theme underlies all of her interests in the form of art and religion, the paradigms of science, the games of children, and is made explicit in two statements which frame her own work as an artist. Meshes of the Afternoon portrays a woman’s dream in which: ”the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.” (p.14)



“One of the many legends surrounding Deren casts her as a witch. Her involvement with Vodoun would reinforce the image of Maya as occult priestess… “ (p.15).

Deren saw herself in the image of Lilith.

===== Timeline:
1940: She got interested in the work of Katherine Dunham, who was an anthropologist and choreographer. She went on tour with her as her assistant, while working in the mean time on her study in Haitian ritual. This resulted in a three part essay “Religious Possession in Dancing” (1942)

In 1941 she planned to go to Haiti to write about dance and religious possession, the entrance of the USA into WW2 (1942) delayed this from happening


In 1942 Bateson + Meads published the monograph Balinese character: a Photographic Analysis. Which examines posture and gesture frame by frame.

1943: Meshes of the Afternoon



1945: Choreography for camera

1946: Ritual in Transfigured Time



February 1947: Deren wrote Thematic Statement as part of her application to renew the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship

In 1947 she went to Haiti to study the Vodoun Religion

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