Tribute to Maya Deren at MOMA


Her influence is vast: The Maya Deren Theater at Anthology Film Archives is a permanent reminder of the director’s invaluable contribution to American avant-garde filmmaking; her work is echoed in the movies of David Lynch (especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire). Beginning with her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), made in collaboration with Alexander Hammid, her husband at the time, Deren both expanded cinematic language and shifted the focus from women as object to women as subject, with the director herself frequently in front of the camera. Describing Meshes as “a film about a girl who fell asleep and saw herself in her dream,” Deren combines surrealist symbols (a key, a flower, a knife) with slow motion, frequent p.o.v. shots, abruptly changing camera angles, and jump cuts to create a mesmerizing vision of routine, desire, and interior states—themes that reappear in At Land (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).

Beginning this week and well into the fall, MOMA honors Deren, who died at age 44 in 1961, by showing six of her shorts plus her footage of Voudon rituals in Haiti, organized and compiled after her death into Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, juxtaposed with a sampling of work by three filmmakers on whom she had an enormous impact: Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich.

Where Hammer and Friedrich discovered Deren’s films through coursework, Schneemann, born in 1939, actually knew the director, meeting her in New York in 1958 through Stan Brakhage. Deren’s practice of often “starring” in those of her works with oblique erotics at play finds a hardcore, hot-red, -purple, and -blue descendant in Schneemann’s landmark Fuses (1967). Silent, collaged sequences of the vigorous fucking in multiple positions between the director and her then-boyfriend, musician James Tenney, are interspersed with clit close-ups, Schneemann running along a beach, and a curious cat. Fuses puts the “graphic” in autobiographical. But her pornotopia is her vision alone, and one of the first films to represent XXX pleasures from a woman’s perspective.

In contrast to Schneemann’s explicit hetero revels, both Hammer (also born in 1939) and Friedrich (born in 1954) have established their reputations, in part, for exploring same-sex desire—as in Friedrich’s Damned if You Don’t from 1987, a Black Narcissus–inspired meditation on the sapphic allure of nuns—and lesbian lives, sometimes their own. Hammer’s recent digital-video work, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2009), documents her life during and after treatment for ovarian cancer. Her first-person filmmaking is a candid combination of grimness (scenes of Hammer recovering in a hospital bed at Sloan-Kettering) and pleasure (swimming in a pond, galloping on horseback), suggesting a kinship with Deren’s emphasis on ritual and transformation.

Feminine ritual—and making the private public—also drives Friedrich’s first film, Cool Hands, Warm Heart (1979), in which a woman watches as three others shave legs or armpits or braid hair as an Orchard Street crowd looks on. More personal (and restrictive) customs and conventions are explored in Friedrich’s fascinatingly detailed experimental autobiography Sink or Swim (1990). A series of 26 episodes arranged in reverse alphabetical order (starting with “zygote” and ending with “Athena, Atalanta, Aphrodite”), Friedrich’s film chronicles—primarily through a young girl’s voice-over narration in third person—her relationship with her demanding, aloof anthropologist father. Dad left his mark, but Deren’s endures.

All films will be shown in the museum’s Titus 1 and 2 theaters from May 15 through June 23. An installation in the theater’s galleries, including projections of a selection of the films, will be on view from May 14 through October 4. Schneemann, Hammer, and Friedrich will join series curator Sally Berger for a discussion of Deren’s influence on their work on May 15.