Maya Deren as Film Theorist: An Annotated Bibliography

General Reference Sources | Biographies | Books | Journal Articles | Film Reviews | Filmography

Maya Deren created what is perhaps the most famous American avant-garde film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the avant-garde movement. Yet she was also a prolific writer of the theory of cinema, as well as an advocate for new modes of distribution and exhibition to counter the Hollywood industry. Although subsequent generations of film scholars would begin to appreciate her theories on film as an art form, her contemporaries were less kind, ranging from dismissive to hostile. What were her theories, and why were they initially ignored or rejected, only to be fully appreciated posthumously? For those who wish to explore Deren’s ideas, the following list of resources will provide background, context, and analysis.

General Reference Sources

Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1991.

Acker provides an introduction to Deren’s life and work, drawing on excerpts from writings of her contemporaries, such as Anais Nin and Parker Tyler. Though brief and lacking a bibliography, this work succeeds in contextualizing Deren’s work both in film history and feminist history. Also contains a filmography and excerpts from Deren’s obituary in the New York Times.

Foster, Gwendoyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Unlike other guides to film directors, the Deren entry in this work is not just a brief biography and filmography. Foster explores Deren’s influences and theories on film as an art form, noting, for example, that she was a formalist by training and predated the structuralists of the 1960’s. Includes a selected filmography and bibliography, though not so extensive as other sources.

Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film 2: Criticism-Ideology. Detroit: Schirmer Reference, 2007.

The essay, “Experimental Film,” by Craig Fischer (p. 149-162) provides a basic overview of the history of experimental film, from post-World War I to the contemporary scene. Covering the major historical phases as well as the different types of experimental films, this essay is a readable and informative introduction that serves to contextualize Deren’s work, and is a useful starting point for the beginning avant-garde film scholar. Also includes a boxed inset on Deren (p. 150) with a brief biography and list of films.

Pendergast, Tom and Sara Pendergast, eds. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000

Thorough and well organized, the entry for Maya Deren contains vital statistics, a brief biography and summary of her films and artistic achievement. Most useful is an extensive list of publications, first listing books and articles by Deren, followed by books and articles on Deren. This listing is more comprehensive than comparable reference sources, and covers a wide range of Deren topics.

Biographies

Clark, VeVe A., Millicent Hodson and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, Volume One, Part One: Signatures (1917-42) and Part Two: Chambers (1942-47). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984 and 1988.

This work remains the authoritative source for biographical information about Deren. Reprints of letters, articles, correspondence, photographs and other documentation from Deren’s papers (located at Boston University’s Mugar Library), as well as interviews with her mother and contemporaries are included. More than a sourcebook, the two parts are edited to read like a biography; the editors convey a sense of Deren’s life and work, in addition to providing the raw material for research.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren. DVD. Directed by Martina Kudlacek. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2004.

Largely credited with introducing a new generation of scholars to the merit of Deren’s work and theories, Kudlacek’s documentary draws on archival material from Deren’s papers at Boston University as well as her material at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. More than biography, it provides a useful introduction to Deren’s poetics of film, and encourages both scholars and the layperson to engage in further research.

Books

Deren, Maya and Bruce Rice McPherson. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005.

This long-awaited compilation of Deren’s film writings is divided thematically into three parts: theoretical (“Film Poetics”), technical (“Film Production”), and critical (“Film in Medias Res”). It contains a broad spectrum of her writings, including the complete text of “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,” (1946) Deren’s seminal treatise that laid the groundwork for many of her ideas on film as an art form. McPherson’s preface includes a brief biography and general introduction to Deren’s theories, which will be useful to the beginning Deren scholar.

Jackson, Renata. The Modernist Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren (1917-1961). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press, 2002.

Perhaps the only book-length study of Deren’s films and theories in relation to each other. Jackson’s work devotes considerable discussion to an analysis of Deren’s “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,” (1946). Firmly grounded in film theory and an appreciation of Deren’s work, this book takes a long-overdue academic approach to Deren’s complex theories, and is essential for anyone studying Maya Deren as a film theorist.

Nichols, Bill. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

One of the first serious attempts to analyze Deren’s work, this collection of essays by notable cinema scholars provides a thorough introduction to the impact of her theories and work on experimental cinema and film in general. Although ineffectually arranged in the table of contents as an anagram, in homage to Deren’s seminal text, “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,” the essays themselves address a variety of Deren topics, from film poetics to ethnography to dance. Annette Michelson’s, “Poetics and Savage Thought,” and Renata Jackson’s “Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren” are particularly useful in contextualizing Deren’s theories in relation to varied other intellectual currents.

Sitney, P. Adams. Film Culture Reader. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Started in 1954 by Jonas Mekas (also founder of Anthology Film Archives), Film Culture soon became known for its focus on independent cinema. This collection of reprints from the journal’s first 15 years, selected by avant-garde cinema scholar and critic P. Adams Sitney, provides an incomparable introduction to avant-garde cinema.  Sitney’s introduction, “A Reader’s Guide to the American Avant-Garde Film,” is a useful primer on the major intellectual currents informing the development of experimental film in the U.S. For Deren scholars, the most valuable entry is the inclusion of “Poetry and the Film: A Symposium with Maya Deren, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler,” the transcript of the 1953 symposium in which Dylan Thomas famously derides Deren’s theories. Also useful is “To Maya Deren,” (1962) by Rudolf Arnheim, a tribute by the film theorist to the recently deceased filmmaker that hints at her future position of prominence in the avant-garde canon.

Journal Articles

Butler, Alison. “Motor-Driven Metaphysics: Movement, Time and Action in the Films of Maya Deren.” Screen, 48:1 (2007).

A scholarly analysis of Maya Deren’s film aesthetics and artistic theories, with special consideration of the role of movement, time and action. Butler’s work is a solid piece of film theory, largely connecting Deren’s ideas to those of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. One of the most recent works on Deren, is indicative of the bourgeoning recognition of Deren’s merit as a film theorist by current scholars.

Michelson, Annette. “On Reading Deren’s Notebook.” October, 14: Autumn (1980).

Renowned film scholar Michelson calls for a reconsideration of Deren’s work on the level of Sergei Eisenstein, who was perhaps film’s most respected film theorist and practician to date. Includes a thorough examination of Deren’s “Anagrams” (1946) and contributes to the growing body of work looking not just at Deren’s films, but at her ideas as well.

Millsapps, J.L. “Maya Deren, Imagist.” Literature/Film Quarterly, 14:1 (1986).

Part biography and part criticism, Millsapps focuses on Deren’s background as an aspiring poet and imagist (in the tradition of Ezra Pound) to illuminate her films. Drawing extensively on her master’s thesis, the article demonstrates why Deren vociferously rejected Surrealist or Freudian, interpretations of her films, as those two schools rely on images as symbols, rather than valuing the image for its own sake. As such, this work is valuable to Deren scholars looking to trace the evolution of Deren’s artistic theories.

Film Reviews

Agee, James. “Films.” The Nation, March 2, 1946, 269-270.

Agee, one of the most prominent film critics of the period, reviews the three films that Deren exhibited together at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1946: Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and A Study in Choreography for the Camera. Admitting that he hasn’t seen the latter, his primary criticism of the former two is Deren’s performance in each of them. Considering them heavy-handed and overly conscious of being artistic, Agee’s review sets the stage for Deren’s critical reception by her contemporaries, and demonstrates the hostility that experimental filmmakers had to face from mainstream audiences.

G., R. “Three Experimental Films.” National Board of Review Magazine, March 1946, 22-23.

Reviewing the same three films, this magazine, like Agee, also comments on experimental filmmaking in general. Though the review is generally favorable towards Deren, it betrays some of the hostility found in Agee’s dismissive. It does, however, commend Deren’s effort, and serves as a useful counterpoint to Agee in attempting to gauge the initial reception of her films.

Filmography

Maya Deren: Experimental Films. DVD. New York: Mystic Fire Video, 2007.

This collection includes all six of Deren’s films that are discussed in the preceding works (it does not, however, include the entirety of Teiji and Cheryl Ito’s Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti (1977), which assembles Deren’s Haitian film footage). Special features include excerpts from Divine Horsemen, as well as Private Life of a Cat (1945), a previously-unreleased short by Alexander Hammid. The films included are:

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943-59, in collaboration with Alexander Hammid, music by Teiji Ito, 14 min.)

At Land (1944, silent, 15 min.)

A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945, silent, 4 min.)

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-46, silent, 15 min.)

Meditation on Violence (1948, music arranged by Maya Deren, 12 min.)

The Very Eye of Night (1952-59, choreographic collaboration by Anthony Tudor, music by Teiji Ito, 15 min.)

last updated 9/2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *