Maya Deren

A Lesson from Maya Deren

Maya Deren

By Claire Graman

The quarantine has affected filmmaking. For aspiring filmmakers, as well as established ones, times are bleak. With stalled productions and delayed releases, cinema seems the most fragile it’s ever been. Particularly when you’re stuck at home, the idea of making a film is daunting. Yet constraints can often spark creativity. One of the most celebrated and influential films of all time, the short art film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), was filmed entirely in and around the filmmakers’ house. Today we’ll look at how director Maya Deren crafted this amazing feminist film in her house.

Lesson #1: Make the Familiar Unfamiliar

The opening shot of Meshes is mundane: a suburban sidewalk. But then a doll arm slowly descends into frame placing a flower on the ground which is then picked up by a shadow. Both effects are easy to do, but instantly draw the viewer in with their strangeness. You may not be making a surreal dream allegory, like Deren, but you too can find a way to make the most ordinary of places, a home, extraordinary.

Lesson #2: Interesting Shots

After picking up the flower, Deren walks down the street, up some stairs, then through her house. Again, this is pretty boring in description, but the camera work makes it much more dynamic. We see only Deren’s feet as she walks, then a close up of her hands as she searches for her housekey. Both make us wonder who this mysterious woman is. As she goes through the house, the camera enters her perspective. We still don’t see her face, but we get her point of view. Neither of these shots disrupt the viewer’s understanding of what’s going on, but they make the action much more interesting. Always a good lesson for filmmaking.

Lesson #3: Play with the Space

Later in the film, gravity seems as to disappear as Deren moves along the ceiling then looks down on her living room. The sequence is eerie and mesmerizing. Again, you might not want to be this surreal, but through clever camerawork and editing, you too can play with the actual space of your house. For example, a character can exit through a door that actually leads to a closet, but by cutting to them entering another room, you can make it seem like the two rooms are connected and the house is much larger or has a completely different layout.

Lesson #4: Make Use of Props and Costumes

Deren’s house is sparse, so when we see an object, we know it’s significant. A phone off its hook. A lonely record player. A misplaced knife. An errant key. Close-ups bring these simple props to life and make them crucial to the story. And while Deren’s costume is ordinary, she is haunted by a specter dressed all in black robes with a mirror for a face. The specter’s costume would be easy to make, but its effect is haunting. Again, you don’t have to make this nightmare-fuel for your film but searching your house for interesting props and costumes can make your film that much more compelling.

Lesson #5: Cut in Other Footage

OK, this one’s a bit of a cheat, but hear me out. At the end of the film, a mirror shatters and falls on the sand where the pieces are washed by waves, then we cut to a shot of the ocean. Deren probably just went to the beach for these shots (she lived in California), but you could easily replicate this today using stock footage. There are plenty of great sources for free, public domain footage online. You can creatively edit this in to make it seem like your characters are there, or use it for flashbacks, dream sequences, etc. This is an easy way to make your film world feel bigger without risking your (or your actors!) health and safety.

Well, there you have it. Go watch Meshes of the Afternoon and get those creative juices flowing!

For more creative filmmaking ideas, check out Ten Media-Arts Activities for Teen Girls and our Coronavirus Creativity Guide!

1 thought on “A Lesson from Maya Deren”

  1. Pingback: Japanese Filmmaker Tazuko Sakane - GIRLS' VOICES MATTER

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