The Real and The Unreal
Francesca Sambucci, Italy
The work of Maya Deren is a vertical investigation into the imaginative dimension, in order to create, to generate a new, original experience through the cinematography medium. In her mind art is a process, a way to give a form to the shapeless, undetermined things. In this process it is up to the artists to create, by their means, an independent form differing from objective reality. That involves a new reality producing a different experience, opposed to a merely descriptive praxis (reproducing a static/stated reality or a pre-existent plot).
The mechanical complexity of the film camera and editing are both the rendering tools of the artists vision and a way to create a vision of the world, an experience that can exists only on film.
Derens films are necessarily conceived in visual terms rather than in dramatic and literary terms; and this is inconsistent with her aesthetic project where the instruments of the art and the creative action are closely linked together.
The newly shown image, deserting its reference nature, can be transfigured by editing so that the author creates an imaginary time and an imaginary space, differing from objective reality.
The editing allows a transformation of the experience: a new temporal structure - conceived by the filmmaker - and sets the images for the space that form the experience.
I have chosen to study Derens earlier short films, made in the years 1943- 1946.
I took this selection from the corpus of the production of Deren because in those years the author conducted an intense exploration of all the technical -creative innovations in film-making; in this period the author explored the instruments of cinematographic reproduction/creation. Maya was conscious that a coherent and co-ordinated use of such instruments leads to the articulation of a filmic form.
This is an incessant work of revelation and re-creation of reality (by linguistic potentials of cinema); research, articulated in earlier works, resulted fundamentally in her formal aesthetic cinematographic proposal.
The analysis essentially regards a verification of correspondences and coherences between the "corpus" of theoretical works of Deren and their accomplishment by filmic praxis; this because, in approaching the figure and work of Maya Deren, a lucid comprehension of the potentiality of cinematographic means and her coherence in the investigation of the linguistic productivity of film appears interesting.
The film analysis privileges an investigation of the techniques of representation used by Deren in the films and the original way she used camera and shooting tricks. This analysis aims at understanding the sense and goal of the research conducted by Deren about the extention of the expressive resources offered by the tekné.
My work is articulated in four chapters. The first chapter is a short account of Deren's life and work. The second one is an historic contextualization of the work of Deren (culture and cinematographic production in America, in the 40's). The third chapter investigates the first period of the research of Deren on the components of filmic space/ time. The fourth chapter investigates the problems relative to the subject as the movement into the film.
The conclusion provides evidence of the richness of the aesthetic proposal of Deren and the revolutionary modernity of her cinema.
Now, if the fundamental principle of filmic form is "a fine blend(...) between the true real and the unreal real "1, we are concerned with valuing how this realization of the unreal involves a powerful and effective use of the instruments of filmic meaning.
This results from a persevering experimental working attitude by Deren, using the filmic instrument. The author builds her work and her mediatic communication by images, on the basis of a dominant idea of "necessity": and "inevitable" process where a classic form growing.
The term "classicist" (...) is a concept of method: a controlled manipulation of any elements into a form which will transcend and so transfigure them(...) In this sense form becomes not an esthetic problem but a moral one; the form is the physical manifestation of an abstract moral structure. Moreover, this form is a function, in its real, physical aspect, of the creative means of the particular art instrument by which it is realized. Film is a time-space medium. 2
By pursuing these chosen short films we may notice that the investigation which Maya Deren makes of the cinematografic medium is carried out as a process of definition of film form, such as a proposal of an alternative experience to the audience, consulted to participate actively with cognitive dynamics for the achievement of the filmic text.
It is not only the film artist who must struggle to discover the esthetic principles of the first new art form in centuries; it is the audience, too, which must develop a receptive attitude designed specifically for film, and free of the critical criteria which have been evolved for all the older art forms.3
The inclusion of the aesthetic attitude of the audience into the film puts the work of Deren in the area of the cinema of modernity : a cinema whosetexts (films), act as a primer and propeller of dynamic effects on the audience.
With that I mean to say that the research of Deren on the film medium configures as the statement of a becoming , as a display of theoretic pathos which is
....what happens, the event, which "from outside" strokes us, leads and changes our being and our thinking(....); becoming registered into the style(...), becoming which involves who writes and who reads.4
The work of Maya represents the origin of a different cinematographic sign. A difference which concerns the effects of the artistic work in the meaning of a source of new ideas, and must be measured on the ground of the problematic space which it opens.
In the early works of Deren the creation of a new form takes place, implicit in the immense range of the potentiality of the cinematographic means.
The different quality of the image, suggested by Deren, results in a transfiguration and overcome of the filmed shots. An elaboration of pro-filmic data by a creative action using the cinematograph. A realization of the unreal aiming at a de-materialization of pro-filmic and materialization of a thought-form.
This project is put into concrete form by an action, a filmic praxis that consists in "using in a creative way the medium,(to achieve) the destruction of the photographic image as reality".5
The filmic universe, that the author suggests, completes its dynamic realization by meeting/ exchanging the thought-lines of the audience, of the seeing- I (/eye).
This universe is founded upon elements which are the result of the moulding action of the artist. We can single out, into each of the four analyzed works, the moment and the stage of each of these components.
Therefore Meshes... leads to a re-definition of time and At Land deals with the spatial dimension subject; while Choreography... focuses the aspect of movement and Ritual.... states the accomplished coming of a new (filmic-perceptiveness) reality.
Let's divide, moreover, two moments in this period of the work of Deren: the moment of the research and of the studies for the building of new time/space that exceeds the pro-filmic date (this moment is shown in the early two films: Meshes... and At Land ) and the moment of the drawing of the dynamics into the new space/time contexts( that takes place in the dance worlds of Choreography... and Ritual...).
In Meshes... Maya, starting her project of research of a new image, attacks commercial cinema and its underlying linguistic conventions. This communicative standard is defined by Deleuze as the domain of the organic fusion between the character and scene, between situation and action, between man and world.6
The disintegration of the convention of this organic outline comes in the construction of an image that gives rise to the erosion of the standard action-patterns in filmic representation. In Meshes... dream and reality are blended together: in the film a mixture of real and imaginary, present and past comes out. The genesis of time draws a repetition of events, defined by micro-changes,which gives rise to non-chronological time , a global present as a continuous ecstasy : an
...ecstatic present (...) The same event takes place in different presents by the power of repetition- change.7
The image which rises in this film can be described as a description/ visualization which constructs its object in the same moment that shows it.
The second film of Deren, At Land, takes upon itself the task of a re-writing, a re-drawing of space.
In her fight against a cinema which puts itself passively in regard to reality, Maya, (basing herself on the results reached in the first film), proposes a concept/form of a space organized
...on distinct parts, one by one....(which) losing the possibility to be identified as a familiar, recognizable scene, becomes a space of infinity connections, expression of Possible.8
In At Land, we may notice a description of a fluid and relativistic universe, an every space, fragmented and de-constructed and, yet, re-organized in a new whole 9 presented as the place of infinite creative possibilities of film, putting the bases of the (un) reality of vision... 10
...A reality which can be obtained only by a temporal alteration of natural elements by camera as artistic means.11
Later on Deren dealt with the subject of movement (not only as a question about the dynamic behaviour of object moving into the new time/space) but above all as a basic concept the idea of cinema is founded on .
...the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else... I mean that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful than space.... The movement of the dancer creates a geography, in the film, that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbors of distant places.12
The creative power of movement, its ability to define, to outline previous non-existing places, all this shows itself to be one of more effective and coherent theoretical fomulations about cinema. The idea of dance (as an harmonic modulation of the dynamics of space/time vectors of a different, alternative order) and the creative movement, (dance and the relative figures of time and space) proposes a cinema as an art of becoming.
A becoming which puts in connection
....the "before" and the "after" in a process of trasformation, of creation (...) of simulation(...) which puts the relationship between simulation(...) becoming and dethronement of true (...) which makes undistinguishable true and false (real and unreal).13
This way of thinking cinema, keeps Deren's images away from a cinema of representation (based upon identity) connecting it to the big stream of modern cinema of "...simulation, where the point of view can't be fixed easy any more..."14
The last film of this analysis, Ritual... closes this period of Deren's research, in the field of cinematographic expression. It is a ritual transition that leads the author to reach other interests (esoteric anthropology etc.)
Ritual... represents by images the realization of a fluid universe. In it the subjects/bodies, linked up in a mesh of mutual relationships, move and slide over each other, fluctuating and dancing into a dynamic and changeable world.
The illusion of dramatic action, the non-description of the dialogue aspect of the relationships between subjects, the emphasis upon gestures (stylized as in a ritual), are all elements of this film.
The focus is the body, its movements, the gestus :"...gestus is the development of attitudes, is a theatralization of bodies".15
The ritual, for Maya, is an action where the "...goal is always a reversal in comparison with the everyday life."16
This reversal shows the virtual level of reality, the realization of unreal by camera and editing which if are used creatively can produce "...a revolutionary reality ".17
1 Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, cit. , p.46
2 Maya Deren, Films in the Classicist Tradition, flyer, autunno 1946, in Vevé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson, Catrina Neiman, Francine Bailey Price, The Legend of Maya Deren, volume 1, Part.Two Chambers (1942-1947), Anthology Film Archives/ Film Culture, New York 1988, p.405
3 Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, cit, p. 43
4 Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, Roma, Bulzoni, 1996, p. 13
5 Maya Deren, The creative use of reality, cit., pp. 336-7 in A; Barbera e R. Turigliatto Leggere il cinema, Mondadori Milano 1978.
6 Cfr. Gilles Deleuze, Limmagine-movimento, cit., p. 167 and the following pages.
7 Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, cit., p. 83
8 Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, cit., p. 38.
9 Cfr. Gilles Deleuze, Limmagine-movimento, cit., p. 133.
10 Cfr. Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, cit., p. 71.
11 Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, cit., p. 43.
12 Maya Deren,a letter to James Card, April 1955,in "Film Culture", n.39, pp. 29-32,p. 31
13 Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, cit., p. 86 e Gilles Deleuze, Limmagine-tempo, cit., p. 155 and the following pages.
14 Roberto De Gaetano, Il cinema secondo Gilles Deleuze, cit., p. 87 e Gilles Deleuze, Limmagine-tempo, cit., p. 155 and the following pages.
15 Gilles Deleuze, Limmagine-tempo, cit., p. 213.
16 Maya Deren The craetive use of reality, cit. , p. 336 in A. Barbera e R; Turigliatto, Leggere il cinema, Mondadori, Milano 1978.
17 Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, cit., p. 43.