Format: Internet video on laptop.
I don’t typically watch films on YouTube if I can help it. If that’s the only way to see something, I’ll do it, but it’s generally a last choice. However, wanting to keep moving forward on the list and having a day filled with painting my daughter’s room a hot, Hello Kitty pink meant that my time for such niceties as movie viewing was severely limited. And, well, I don’t happen to have a vast number of film shorts on hand. So, in lieu of something longer I sat down with Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, one of the few films I have left that runs under an hour.
It’s fair to call this film a collaboration since Alexander Hammid is listed on the credits as a director as well, but most people consider this to be Deren’s vision. So what is Deren’s vision, you ask? I have to be straight with you here—I’m not 100% sure I know.
But let’s forge ahead. Meshes of the Afternoon is not so much about plot as it is about something that happens, a sort of dream fugue that loops around itself a few times. Our main character, played by Deren herself, enters into a house and falls asleep in a chair. In her dream, the same thing happens, only this time, she is following a figure dressed like the classic version of death, only with a mirror in place of a face under the hood. Eventually, the hooded figure makes its way into the house and places a flower on the bed; and the flower turns into a knife.
Eventually, there is the sleeping woman and three other versions of her in the house as well. Each takes a key from the center of the table, but the third has it turn into the same knife, which she uses to attempt to kill the sleeping version of herself. A man (Hammid) wakes her up, and proceeds to do the exact same thing that the mirror-faced death figure did.
Up to this point, I was finding all of these proceedings pretty interesting, if opaque. I got that this was turning into a dream Moebius strip, and endlessly recursive loop. While I didn’t completely understand the point of it, I got that it was an art film and experimental, and that Deren was attempting something here that might not be obvious on a first viewing. I’m okay with that, particularly with such a short film.
Then…yeah, I’m lost. The man looks into a mirror. The woman lies down on the bed and the knife appears next to her. She strikes at the man and it’s as if she has shattered a mirror—where the man’s face was is now the ocean. Pieces of the broken mirror fall onto a beach. We cut back to the outside of the house and the man walks in, finding the woman still on the chair, but now obviously dead, her throat evidently slashed.
I don’t get it, but I feel like I’m right on the edge of getting it, like if I think about it for a couple of days it might actually pop into my head. It’s frustrating, but it’s also how I often feel when it comes to experimental films.
Originally this film was made as a silent, but a soundtrack was added years later. This soundtrack is a disturbing blend of what sounds like a baritone sax combined with someone tapping the top of an empty oatmeal container with a pencil. It’s mildly disquieting, and I admit that I felt like someone was coming up behind me half of the time.
Deren once claimed that she made films for what studios spent on lipstick, and this film is evidence of that. There aren’t really any special effects. It’s actually more accurate (but far less kind) to say that the effects here aren’t really special. There’s a nice moment when it appears that she is flying, her hand reaching out to turn off an old record player, but most of it is simply camera manipulation. It’s still surprisingly effective and timed very well—as she climbs a set of stairs, she falls from side to side, and the camera mimics her movements pretty well. Still, it’s evident that this film was made for the price of the film and the development.
When all is said and done, I’m not sure what to make of this film. It’s “high art” without question, but I have to wonder at the value of that art when it’s so difficult to understand that its meaning gets so quickly lost.
Why to watch Meshes of the Afternoon: It’s 15 minutes out of your life for an influential art film.
Why not to watch: It’s obtuse and pretty opaque.