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The Incomplete Dream of Maya Deren and Duchamp

written by rick August 31, 2016
The Incomplete Dream of Maya Deren and Duchamp

The works of Maya Deren are hugely influential touchstones for experimental cinema, frequently cited and studied. Her luminous debut Meshes of the Afternoon, covered here as part of the Counter-Programming The Great Movies series, is a widely recognized classic of the form, a dreamlike visual interrogation that, in Deren’s words, “externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world.”


Yet Meshes was also “a point of departure” (Deren again). A curious fact about the filmmaker: she left behind far more “unfinished” works than those we would call “complete”. (Though this simply underscores the question of what we mean by “complete,” exactly.)

It was only recently that I discovered, via Dangerous Minds, that one of those unfinished works was a collaboration with the great Surrealist and urinal-exhibitor Marcel Duchamp. The jaggedly edited Witch’s Cradle, a roughly 12-minute short assembled after Maya Deren’s untimely death and intended for exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s short-lived The Art of This Century gallery in Manhattan, blends images of the occult and the mundane in ways that provide unique insight into Deren’s process and obsessions. It’s allusory cinema as feminist doom metal video, and full of surprises. (I’m not kidding about the metal. As a silent, you are free to score it as you see fit; I recommend eyehategod’s “In The Name of Suffering”.)

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Like Meshes, Witch’s Cradle doesn’t so much tell a story as evoke sets of colliding sensitivities. Its central figure is a woman tracing a network of string, arranged like a cat’s cradle on disembodied hands but also issuing from shoelaces and elsewhere. Exposed hearts pulse. She discovers, to her apparent horror, a pentagram emblazoned on her forehead. The string itself is revealed to emanate from a mysterious male character played by Duchamp.

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Drawing on a background in choreography, Witch’s Cradle is a spectacle of movement, a truly open-ended text interrupted routinely by intra-frame leader and scratched image, which only heightens its uncanny otherworldliness and resolute lack of completion. Writing to James Card of the George Eastman House in a different context, Deren once noted:

This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…

In Witch’s Cradle, a shawl on the floor raises itself to cloak the body extending to pick it up. A commentator observes:

Gravity and space don’t work like we expect them to and the most simple of actions suddenly has a new dimension which we can start learning about in the film.

As in dreams, Maya Deren places us at the cinematic mercy of logic we recognize but must parse in the moment, without any firm ground to stand on. It is shifting before our eyes, and the meaning seems to lie in the shift.

Drawing on themes from Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and others, critics like Sarah Keller have emphasized theories of absence and incompletion as central to Deren’s work, and it’s not difficult to see why. Even 15 years after Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren was attempting to revisit and reconceptualize it, perhaps the way we revisit earlier nightmares and rerout them for present purposes, whether we mean to or not. Our inner texts, like all texts, keep changing, interweaving.

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Still, it’s startling to come across something like Witch’s Cradle, which suggests a pivotal meeting between two brilliant, elusive minds and yet seems largely forgotten … perhaps precisely because it’s understood to be an “unfinished work.”

It doesn’t look that way from this vantage point. Maya Deren’s late-period fascination with the culture of vodoun is of a piece with the staggered occult of Witch’s Cradle, combining Surrealism with dance and a notion of the beyond, a kind of secret language of the image that she was after throughout her too-short career.

To this point, Maria Popova, again, draws from Deren’s letter to the George Eastman House:

[L]ooking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.

The “incomplete” Witch’s Cradle is a Duchamp-like window into this precise idea. Its flickers and rough edges — and, yes, total occult creepiness — are exactly what make it interesting and vital to anyone concerned with Deren’s work.

Watch for yourself.

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