• Director: Maya Deren
  • Writer: Maya Deren
  • Starring: Rita Christiani, Maya Deren, Frank Westbrook, Anais Nin, and Gore Vidal
  • Accolades: BBC 2019 Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#97)
  • Where to Watch: Watch free on YouTube

And now for something completely different. Ritual in Transfigured Time is only about 15 minutes long, and doesn’t exactly have a plot or dialogue. It is one of the original “experimental” films, and it might feel more at home in an art gallery than it would in a movie theater. But we don’t have any rules against any of that here at Movie Valhalla. I’m also OK with experimental films being shorter, because by their nature they demand attention on every frame to a much greater degree than your average narrative film. You can’t look at your phone in the middle and get the same thing out of it. As it’s only fifteen minutes, the film is freely available on YouTube, so I’ll just leave it here in case you’re interested:

Maya Deren was born Eleonora Derenkowska in Kiev. Her Jewish family fled pogroms to the US when she was five. She forged a career for herself at the forefront of the contemporary art scene of her era, starting with her 1943 debut experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon. She had a New York social circle that included modern artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton. She was also close friends with the modernist writer Anais Nin and the novelist Gore Vidal, both of whom somewhat randomly appear in Ritual in Transfigured Time.

Deren saw film as an art form, like painting or sculpture, rather than simply a narrative medium. She talked derisively about Hollywood enslaving the image to plot and dialogue, while Hollywood itself would not have touched her with a 10 foot pole. Deren was not a trained dancer herself, but she often cast them in her movies, and her films are often characterized as dance pieces. That seems to be over-simplifying matters, however.

Ritual is a study in duality, among other themes. It stars both Deren and a Trinidadian-born dancer named Rita Christiani, who seem to play the same individual in different shots. Maybe? The film starts with Deren happily doing something with yarn, but Christiani is not as happy. Anais Nin appears and beckons Christiani into the next room, which seems to suddenly be the scene of a party. She walks in with what looks like a black widow’s mourning outfit. Christiani tries to introduce herself to various people, who all turn away and avoid her. Then another dancer, played by Frank Westbrook, approaches, but she flees. He chases her through a colonnaded garden with great, leaping grand jetes. Then we see Deren running away from him, under a pier into the sea. As she sinks to the bottom, the film turns negative. Deren is now black like Christiani, and her black mourner’s dress now looks like a white wedding dress. And that’s the thing.

Deren herself described “ritual” as an “action distinguished from all others in that it seeks the realization of its purpose through the exercise of form. In this sense ritual is art; and even historically, all art derives from ritual. In ritual, the form is the meaning.” In her film, we see Christiani/Deren gaining freedom by abandoning “ritual.” Again, I think. I like this kind of stuff, because rather than seeing it as a sort of test to figure out what stands for what, as many viewers likely do, I enjoy finding different possible interpretations of the images Deren chooses. It is likely not an accident that she chooses a Black woman as a doppleganger for herself, in a film about duality. Nor is it an accident that the latter stages of the film feature a woman sinking to the bottom of the ocean rather than be caught by a man. But what does it mean? Well, that’s up to us, or more specifically you.

Avant Garde film in general has also served as a testing ground over the decades, for techniques that would later be featured in big-budget narrative films. Ritual uses slow motion and freeze frames throughout, in a way that these techniques wouldn’t be used in mainstream movies for decades. I could, and many people have, speculate as to what Deren means by these techniques as well. Is a living, moving person being held in freeze frame the equivalent of a statue coming to life, which is something else we see in this film? I’m pretty sure we see that, right?

Deren’s fascinations with both dance and “ritual” came to a head in 1946, the same year as the release of Ritual in Transfigured Time, when the film’s success in the art world got Deren a Guggenheim Fellowship grant to go to Haiti to film traditional local Voodoo rituals. Deren shot hours and hours of film, which eventually turned into Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, along with an LP of her sound recordings. This is actually considered an important work in the field of scientific anthropology, an interesting twist in the life of a super-artsy filmmaker. Unfortunately, that film had to be completed by others after Deren’s death, because she suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage and died at the age of 44.

Despite the abbreviation of Deren’s career, her work continues to be viewed today by aspiring filmmakers (I recall being made to watch Meshes of the Afternoon in a college film class, much to consternation of most of the students). Avant Garde film is what it is today because of her. She was so well-known that the AFI named its annual award for independent filmmaking the Maya Deren Award, though it eventually chose to stop giving this out for some reason. The point is, if you’re looking at the history of film, both technically and as an art-form, it would be a mistake to skip over Maya Deren, even though her work is likely not the cup of tea of most mainstream moviegoers.

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