10 July 2012 | RomanJamesHoffman
Sombre surrealist nightmare
'Meshes of the Afternoon' is the first and best-known film of experimental film-maker Maya Deren, whose surrealist tinged movies explore time, space, self, and society and have had a lasting influence on American cinema. 'Meshes
' begins with a hand reaching down, as if from Heaven, leaving a flower on a pathway which a woman (Deren) picks up on her way to her house. When she arrives she ascends some stairs, gets her key out, unlocks the door and enters the house. Already an ominous absence is present, and a subsequent tour of the house shows us a bread-knife, a telephone off the hook, and up another flight of stairs we see an empty bed. After the woman falls asleep, these domestic objects' double life as Freudian symbols is revealed and charged with increasing potency with each repetition of the cyclical narrative until the films catastrophic denouement.
In using Freudian symbology and a cyclical narrative, 'Meshes
' certainly has a dream logic which is reminiscent of surrealist films likes Cocteau's 'Blood of a Poet' as well as Dali and Bunuel's 'Un Chien Andalou'. However, Deren actively rejected the "Surrealist" tag and the difference between 'Meshes' and these seminal surrealist works is marked. Firstly, despite the repeating narrative, objects suddenly transforming into something else, and a lead character that splinters into four, the dramatic structure of 'Meshes
' is quite tight and even though the viewer is challenged in regard to interpretation it struck me as quite straightforward compared to some of her later films. Secondly, the dreamscape of 'Meshes
' is not a celebratory realm liberated from reason, but rather a more claustrophobic and sombre world inhabited by a Grim-Reaper like image with a mirrored face, and the splintered identities of the protagonist who at one point congregate around the kitchen table.
Since it was made, the film has had an immense impact both cinematically (in inspiring a new generation of film-makers to pick up the camera) and culturally given that the most favoured interpretation is that it is a feminist commentary on gender identity and sexual politics in an era when the role of women was changing dramatically. One might think that, in an era when David Lynch is mainstream and woman are arguably liberated, 'Meshes
' would feel dated. However, this is not the case, and remains fresh and engaging to a modern viewer in addition to its (deserved) status as a fascinating and influential piece of early experimental film.