Maya Deren

Theresa Geller

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online August 2013 | | DOI:
Maya Deren

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Maya Deren (b. 1917–d. 1961) completed only six films and two monographs in her lifetime, yet she made a huge impact on the history of cinema and the avant-garde specifically. Indeed, she continues to inspire a wide range of artists, from filmmakers to visual artists and musicians. Although she had established a name for herself from a young age as a leader in the Young People’s Socialist League, as well as having published as a journalist and a poet, and earning a master’s degree from Smith College, Deren is best known for her first short film: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Shot on 16 mm film, made for just a few hundred dollars and with only two people, Deren and her husband (Czech filmmaker Alexandr Hackenschmied, who changed his name to Alexander Hammid after immigrating to America), her first film was hugely influential. Awarded the Cannes Festival’s 16 mm Grand Prix Internationale in 1947, the first ever given to an American or a woman, Meshes impacted film history in ways still felt to this day. As most film historians agree, it carved a path for the American avant-garde and gave rise to underground cinema, shepherding European modernism into the film experiments of such filmmakers as Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Andy Warhol, David Lynch, and Cindy Sherman. Although her film work certainly has had a huge effect on everything from music videos to feature-length cinema, and spanning genres from the dance film to ethnographic documentary, Deren’s reach extended far beyond her films alone. She was also a prolific writer and dedicated activist for film art. In order to support independent film artists, she established the Creative Film Foundation (CFF), which inspired Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 as well as the British feminist film collective Circles, among others. Her writings on the philosophy of art and technology foreshadowed some of the most highly regarded work in the field today, especially with regard to theorizing the historical and technological shifts in the experience of time. Then there is Deren’s paradigm-shifting anthropological research on Voudoun in Haiti, which, while influenced by founders of the field such as Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, modeled an outsider ethnographic approach rejecting the dogmas of the previous generation. Uniting such diverse interests was Deren’s commitment to transforming culture, which she ultimately saw as the responsibility of the artist to her society. (This article was completed with the assistance of Laura Stamm.)

Article.  16540 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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