Maya Deren (April 29, 1917 – October 13, 1961), born Eleanora Derenkowskaia (Russian: Элеоно́ра Деренко́вская), was one of the most important American experimental filmmakers and entrepreneurial promoters of the avant-garde in the 1940s and 1950s. Deren was also a choreographer, dancer, film theorist, poet, lecturer, writer and photographer.
The function of film, Deren believed, like most art forms, was to create an experience; each one of her films would evoke new conclusions, lending her focus to be dynamic and always-evolving. She combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of surreal, perceptual, black and white short films. Using editing, multiple exposures, jump cutting, superimposition, slow-motion and other camera techniques to her fullest advantage, Deren creates continued motion through discontinued space, while abandoning the established notions of physical space and time, with the ability to turn her vision into a stream of consciousness.
Perhaps one of the most influential experimental films in American cinema was her collaboration with Alexander Hammid on Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). She continued to make several more films of her own, including At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) – writing, producing, directing, editing, and photographing them with help from only one other person, Hella Heyman, as camerawoman. She also appeared in a few of her films but never credited herself as an actress, downplaying her roles as anonymous figures rather than iconic deities.
Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine, into a Jewish family, to psychologist Solomon Derenkowsky and Marie Fiedler, who supposedly named her after Italian actress Eleonora Duse.
In 1922, the family fled the country because of anti-Semitic pogroms and moved to Syracuse, New York. Her father shortened the family name to “Deren” shortly after they arrived in New York. He became the staff psychiatrist at the State Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Syracuse.
In 1928, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Her mother moved to Paris, France to be with her daughter while she attended the League of Nations International School of Geneva in Switzerland from 1930 to 1933.
Deren began college at Syracuse University, where she studied journalism and also became active in the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League. Through the YPSL she met Gregory Bardacke, whom she married at the age of 18. After his graduation in 1935, she moved to New York City. She and her husband became active in various socialist causes in New York City. She graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in literature and separated from Bardacke. The divorce was finalized in 1939. She attended the New School for Social Research and received a master’s degree in English literature at Smith College. Her master’s thesis was titled The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry (1939).
After graduation from Smith, Deren returned to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she joined the European émigré art scene, and worked as an editorial assistant and free-lance photographer. She became known for her European-style handmade clothes, wild, curly hair, and fierce convictions. In 1941, Deren wrote and suggested a children’s book on dance to African American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and later became her personal secretary. At the end of a tour, the Dunham dance company stopped in Los Angeles for several months to work in Hollywood. It was there that Deren met Alexandr Hackenschmied (later Hammid), a celebrated Czech-born photographer and cameraman who would become her second husband in 1942. Hackenschmied had fled from Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Hitler’s advance. They lived together in Laurel Canyon where he helped her with her still photography. After living in New York, “California presented rich sights in the Forties – urban Hollywood in its archetypal, image-ridden ‘glory,’ and lovely desert countryside;” her photographs focused on local fruit pickers and the surrealism of Los Angeles.
Ritual in Transfigured Time
By her fourth film, Deren discussed in An Anagram that she felt special attention should be given to unique possibilities of time and that the form should be ritualistic as a whole. Ritual in Transfigured Time began in August and was completed in 1946. It explored the fear of rejection and the freedom of expression in abandoning ritual, looking at the details as well as the bigger ideas of the nature and process of change.
Meditation on Violence
Deren’s Meditation on Violence was made in 1948. Chao-Li Chi’s performance obscures the distinction between violence and beauty. It was an attempt to “abstract the principle of ongoing metamorphosis,” found in Ritual in Transfigured Time, though Deren felt it was not as successful in the clarity of that idea, brought down by its philosophical weight.Halfway through the film, the sequence is rewound, producing a film loop.
In 1943, she moved to a bungalow on Kings Road in Hollywood and adopted the name Maya. Maya is the name of the mother of the historical Buddha as well as the dharmic concept of the illusory nature of reality. In Greek myth, Maia is the mother of Hermes and a goddess of mountains and fields. Also in 1943, Deren began making a film with Marcel Duchamp, The Witches’ Cradle, which was never completed.
In 1944, back in New York City, her social circle included Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, John Cage, and Anaïs Nin.
Many friends described her look as that of an exotic Russian Jew, contributing a part of her attractiveness to her bohemian, Greenwich Village lifestyle. In the December 1946 issue of Esquire magazine, a caption for her photograph teased that she “experiments with motion pictures of the subconscious, but here is finite evidence that the lady herself is infinitely photogenic.” Her third husband, Teiji Ito said “Maya was always a Russian. In Haiti she was a Russian. She was always dressed up, talking, speaking many languages and being a Russian.”
Deren died in 1961, at the age of 44, from a brain hemorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition. Her condition may have also been weakened by her long term dependence on amphetamines and sleeping pills prescribed by Dr. Max Jacobson, an arts scene doctor notorious for his liberal prescription of drugs who later became famous as one of President Kennedy’s physicians. Her father suffered from high blood pressure, which she may have had as well.
Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Mount Fuji.
Taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_Deren