Intro to Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette

I believe this animation demands some elaboration. If you want to skip the rather lengthy introduction, cool. Scroll down the page to where it says “View Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette.” You may have a magical experience thus viewing the animation or you may be completely baffled. However, to fully grasp what I am trying to achieve it helps to know something about my subject matter: Eleanora Derenkowsky (AKA Maya Deren). Eleanora Derenkowsky was born in Kiev in 1917. Her mother, Marie, named her after the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse. The Derenkowskies immigrated to Syracuse, New York in 1922. Eleanora’s father, Solomon, who became a successful psychiatrist in America, shortened the family name to Deren. Eleanora’s parents were affluent, progressive Jews. They sent their daughter to the League of Nations School in Geneva, Switzerland. While attending Syracuse University, Eleanora became active in the Young People's Socialist League, through which she met Gregory Bardacke, whom she married at eighteen. After her husband graduated, the couple moved to New York City and became active in various socialist causes. Eleanora graduated NYU and divorced Gregory Bardacke. She took classes at the New School for Social Research and got a Master’s Degree in English literature at Smith College. The title of her Master’s thesis was The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo American Poetry.

Eleanora lived in Greenwich Village, working as an editorial assistant and free-lance photographer. Then in 1941 she became personal assistant to dancer/choreographer/scholar Katherine Dunham, one of the most innovative figures in American dance. Traveling to Hollywood with Dunham’s dance company in 1942, Eleanora met and married filmmaker/photographer Alexandr Hackenschmied, a refugee from Czechoslovakia. Alexandr Hackenschmied Americanized his name to Alexander Hammid and went on to have a fine career in America, first as a documentary filmmaker and later, in the 1970s, as an early experimenter in the IMAX format.

In 1943 Eleanora changed her name to Maya. Maya: Buddha’s mama & embodiment of the dharmic concept of the illusory nature of reality. Maya Deren turned to filmmaking. Her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), is generally considered to be a masterpiece, and certainly it is stunningly beautiful, melding poetic symbolism and ritualistic movement. Actually, though, I prefer her second film, At Land (1944), which is much more personal and mythically resonant, offsetting the primacy of nature against the pseudo-sophisticated veneer of modern life. Neither film possesses a plot line, yet both were performance driven dramatic exercises in ritualized movement with Deren being the central performer. Deren’s third film, A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), depicts a dance between Deren’s 16 millimeter Bolex camera and African American dancer Talley Beatty, wherein camera perspective/stylization prove an equal partner to the dancer’s movement/stylization. While Deren appears in her fourth film, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), she is not the central performer. That role fell to Trinidadian dancer Rita Christiani, even if her cinematic presence flows directly out of Deren’s cinematic presence through Deren’s creative film editing. Frank Westbrook, Deren’s collaborator on this film, choreographs people adhering to/breaking away from ritual. Deren’s fifth film, A Meditation on Violence (1948), represents a poetic foray into Kung Fu dancing. The film loops. Just when dancer Chao-Li Chi’s performance reaches its dramatic climax, the film runs backwards to the beginning. Chi’s performance seamlessly turns in on itself. Deren’s last completed film, The Very Eye of Night (1958), made in collaboration with choreographer Antony Tudor, is for me her least successful work because it is entirely dependent upon cheap stylization, with negative images of dancers floating across a chintzy backdrop of stars. All of Deren’s completed films are shorts, none longer than 15 minutes.

Maya Deren shot some amazing footage for Witch’s Cradle (1944), an uncompleted film she had worked on with Marcel Duchamp. The footage was shot in the Peggy Guggenheim Art Gallery. According to the Maya Deren Forum, Deren’s aim with Witch’s Cradle was to harness a film camera the way a medieval witch or magician might have, had they had access to one.

At the heart of Maya Deren’s approach to cinema lay ritual. Via Katherine Dunham she became fascinated with Haitian Voodoo. Katherine Dunham was every bit as much a scholar/anthropologist as she was a dancer/choreographer. Maya Deren edited Dunham’s Masters thesis on Haitian dances. In 1947 Deren received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to travel to Haiti and research Voodoo. She returned to Haiti three more times through 1954, recording albums of Haitian music: Divine Horsemen and Meringues and Folk Ballads of Haiti. She shot over 18,000 feet of film footage in Haiti, which she planed to edit into a documentary. Deren wrote a book called Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953). Edited by Joseph Campbell, this book is considered a classic study of Haitian Voodoo. In Haiti, like Katherine Dunham, Maya Deren was initiated as a mambo, a Voodoo priestess. I believe this relationship to her subject matter came to haunt her. Unlike Katherine Dunham, a trained anthropologist, Maya Deren’s passion for spiritual possession was just that: passion. During her life Deren never managed to edit her Haitian Voodoo footage into any shape she felt comfortable with. Perhaps documentaries were just not her thing. Perhaps it was the particular subject matter. Can one document something that one is completely immersed in? I think not.

Painter/filmmaker/writer Alfred Eaker regards Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time to be Deren’s best films in no small measure because Deren appears in them. He wrote “While the later films certainly contain Deren’s preoccupations—rhythm, space, the Riefenstahl-like figures, and the dream effeminate—the physical loss of Deren’s mysterious and magnetic on-screen personality renders the remaining films as being interesting only in the after-light of these first three films, for the shared elements, but not as entities within themselves.” Eaker was wrong about the chronology of Deren’s films. A Study in Choreography for Camera, in which Deren does not appear, was her third film. Basically, though, I agree with Eaker. Deren’s cinematic presence was both transcendent and stark. She came across as a sexual temptress, exuding a dangerous innocence.

Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid divorced in 1948. Hammid married Hella Heyman, with whom he had shot At Land for Deren. Hella Heyman was a friend of Deren's. She shot Ritual in Transfigured Time. Deren felt betrayed by her ex-husband and ex-friend. In 1952 she began having an affair with seventeen-year-old musician/composer Teiji Ito (18 years her junior at the time). Ito wrote a musical score for Meshes of the Afternoon and became Deren’s third husband in the late 1950s. He shared Deren’s fascination with Voodoo, visiting Haiti with her, and learning drumming techniques from the legendary Haitian musician Coyote. Teiji Ito had a successful career composing music for theater and film. One theater production he worked on was The Living Theatre’s version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. Interesting juxtaposition: Maya Deren/Alfred Jarry.

I suppose an argument can be made that Maya Deren had exploitive relationships with her first two husbands. She almost certainly married Gregory Bardacke just to get away from Syracuse. When she established herself commercially/socially in New York City, their marriage ended. Her marriage to Alexander Hammid coincided to her falling in love with film as a medium. She learned how to make films from him. As she developed a more and more personal vision of cinema, she and Hammid drifted apart, and he ran off with Hella Heyman. For all intents and purposes, Deren was Teiji Ito’s mentor. She took him under her wing, shared her passion for Voodoo and ritual dance with him. Unlike Gregory Bardacke and Alexander Hammid, who, after their relationships with Deren ended, removed themselves from her sphere of influence, Teiji Ito felt Maya Deren’s influence for the rest of his life. After her death he went on to marry three more times, but the experiences Deren and he shared in Haiti stayed with him. Indeed, Teiji Ito died in Haiti in 1982. He loved Maya Deren. She loved him, too…in her fashion.

In 1977, years after Maya Deren died, Teiji Ito and his fourth wife, Cherel, edited Deren’s Haitian Voodoo footage into a 52-minute documentary. Teiji Ito composed a score. The end product hardly has the feel of a Maya Deren film. Deren’s vision was sublimated, but her thoughts/feelings on Voodoo were incorporated via voice-over narration using text from her book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The title of the documentary is the same as the book and it is to some extent an adaptation of the book. In my opinion, the reason Maya Deren herself never managed to shape her Haitian Voodoo footage into any aesthetically satisfactory form was that the material humbled her. Once she had shot footage of sacred Voodoo ceremonies, the sacredness demanded to be respected. The material could not be altered/stylized…and she was not a part of the material, not as a physical presence. Although it is known Deren participated in the Voodoo rituals she was filming, there is no footage of her doing so. This could easily be explained by the fact that Deren was behind the camera, shooting all the footage. Nevertheless, I can’t help but believe she must have had a bare bones crew with her and someone else could have temporarily stepped behind the camera. Or maybe Deren realized she had crossed a certain line regarding sacred material. If her ultimate vision transcended documentation, as I’m sure it did, had she developed ambivalent feelings towards pursuing such a vision? This begs a comparison to Katherine Dunham, who had no problem adapting aspects of ritualistic Voodoo dance into her theater work. I believe the big difference between how these two women tapped into/tried tapping into Voodoo was that Katherine Dunham tapped in as Katherine Dunham, whereas Eleanora Derenkowsky attempted to tap in as Maya Deren, who was a manifestation generated by Eleanora Derenkowsky. Voodoo unveils the inherent transparency of such manifestations.

P. Adams Sitney, the noted historian of American avant-garde cinema, and avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage asserted that Alexander Hammid, not Deren, directed Meshes of the Afternoon. Hammid and Deren are listed as co-directors. Like Alfred Eaker and film/new media scholar Wendy Haslem, I believe Meshes of the Afternoon was Maya Deren’s vision. It was simply her first film and she needed Hammid’s technical assistance. However, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Maya Deren—formerly Eleanora Deren, formerly Eleanora Derenkowsky—flowered into existence precisely then. Her presence was an artistic imperative. Having Hammid shoot the film freed up Maya to appear before the camera. At Land, shot by Hammid and Hella Heyman, and Ritual in Transfigured Time, shot by Heyman, also allowed Maya to appear before the camera. This celluloid presence made Eleanora’s cinematic vision whole, made her take on a new persona: Maya. In a sense, these films explored the new persona’s psyche. Deep in her virtual heart Maya Deren hoped Voodoo would illuminate "her" psyche. Something that could never happen, as the magic at the heart of Voodoo made it impossible, and it is this “impossibility” that inspired me to create Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette, for which these words serve as an introduction.

Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette is a Flash animation composed of 10 root images, each processed/transformed into 50-frame sequences strung together in a 500-frame animation. The 10 root images break down into 3 images apiece from Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, plus a photograph of Maya Deren shown in Martina Kudlácek’s documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002). This last image is color; the other 9 images are black and white, as all of Maya Deren's films were black and white. The animation sequence rooted in the color photo consists of 40 color transformations and 10 grayscale transformations. The sets of sequences with images from Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land consist of mostly color transformations and various amounts—ranging from 15 to 24—of grayscale transformations. The 3 sequences from Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti consist entirely of color transformations. My reason for thus combining color and grayscale is that I wanted to offset the difference between Maya Deren’s era and my own, between 1940s/50s low-budget experimental black and white cinema and 21st century digital art, between cinematic black and white and digital grayscale. Black and white cinema feeds off light. White is a product of black and black a product of white. White is light, black darkness. The digital color spectrum is defined by variance. Yes, at the far extremes there exist black and white, but the two do not feed off each other as they do in analog media like photography and film; rather, they feed off the gradual path leading from one extreme to the other. Maya Deren mastered the art of rendering dream states in black and white cinema. As an animator I am interested in waking hallucinations born of dream states. I need color to capture hallucinations.

The 10 sequences comprising Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette are laid out in a particular order. The first sequence, rooted in the color photo of Deren from In the Mirror of Maya Deren, allows Deren’s presence to manifest; then a sequence rooted in a still from the dizzying staircase scene in Meshes of the Afternoon takes us inside her world. The following three sequences, rooted in stills from At Land, explore the temptress/transgressor side of Deren. The next three sequences, rooted in stills from Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, refute Hollywood/pulp fiction notions of Voodoo as a dark religion. Voodoo is about generating internal transformation. For me Voodoo = dream palette. Dream palette = waking hallucinations. The root image for the next sequence is a still of the hooded lady with the mirrored face in Meshes of the Afternoon. This sequence reflects Deren’s refractive/prismatic nature. The root image for the final sequence is a still of Deren looking out a window in Meshes of the Afternoon. This sequence conveys her ethereal beauty/fierce intensity. The animation is a loop, folding back into itself.

I was inspired to create this animation after having Exploding/Coalescing, a Flash animation of mine, presented earlier this year as part of Kathleen Supové’s CD Release Show for The Exploding Piano at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. I created Exploding/Coalescing for presentation on a large screen, as well as for posting on the web. I decided to create another such work. At the time, Exploding/Coalescing was easily my most richly textured animation, yet this animation is light years beyond it in terms of density/textural richness. 34.8 MB, 18 minutes and 40 seconds in duration, it is demanding both computer-memory-wise and human-attention-wise. A high-speed Internet connection is absolutely required and even with a high-speed connection the animation may run a tad slow the first time around, before looping. When this animation formed in my head I was tempted to think of it purely in terms of theatrical presentation. But I didn’t…I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I am a web artist. The web appeals to me beyond its obvious ability to make my work available to people around the globe. It has a certain sensibility. I aim to make animations that resonate within its framework. This means isolating details. The web is an ideal medium for presenting silent animations that loop. Looping is part of the process: isolating details through repetition. Patterns weave forcefully, yet discreetly. Kai Krause’s KPT Filters have helped me weave discreetly forceful patterns ever since I first discovered them; so much so herein that I choose to dedicate this animation to him. And silence offsets the imagery. Music and/or a soundtrack would be effective in a theatrical context with the animation projected on a large screen in a darkened environment. For the relatively intimate way in which people view my animations online, silence helps make the imagery resonate. So while these words are serving as an introduction to the animation’s online posting, they are also a declaration to the world that the animation is available for musical/theatrical/club/gallery presentations. Finally, I designed the animation to run at a very specific pace. Frame durations vary radically, from a 10th of a second to 10 seconds. At pivotal frames the animation slows down, lingers.

Eleanora Derenkowsky died of a brain hemorrhage in 1961 at the age of 44, ultimately done in by years of amphetamine abuse. Eleanora had been a patient of the infamous Dr. Max Jacobson (“Dr. Feelgood”). There were rumors that somehow Voodoo played a role in her demise, but I give such rumors no credence. What role had amphetamines played in shaping Eleanora? I believe they ramped her intensity, offering the illusion of clarity. A special gift of Eleanora’s lay in harnessing that illusion. Teiji Ito scattered his wife’s ashes across Mount Fuji. Maya Deren’s virtual presence lives on.

View Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette