Movie Making Madames Part Four: Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac

26 Nov

Cross posted to Sarah’s blog

Sometimes it can seem like all the films being churned out are either remakes or sequels. Hollywood can seem formulaic and narratively simplistic. Ever since movies began there have always been people who have wanted to try something different and so the independent film industry was born. It lacked the money and influence of mainstream film industries but it made up for that with maverick ideas and inventive ways of bringing them to life.

image from here

Germaine Dulac did a bit of everything. She started her career as a feminist journalist before pursuing her passion for still photography that propelled her on to working as a film director, writer, producer and theorist as well as becoming the president of Fédération des ciné-clubs, a group dedicated to promoting up and coming filmmakers and teaching photography and film, putting many of her contemporary counterparts to shame.

Dabbling in both Impressionism and Surrealism, Dulac’s big successes in cinema such as The Seashell and the Clergyman and The Smiling Madam Beudet came before the advent of sound cinema and before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, arguably the most famous Surrealist film ever (If you’ve never heard of it is the film where Buñuel slices a woman’s eye open, it turns into the moon and he and Dali are monks… watch it).

After the introduction of sound Dulac’s career faltered and she spent the rest of her life making newsreels for Pathe and Gaumont. When she died it took three weeks and numerous re-writes before her obituary to be published, she was so controversial.

In the US, Maya Deren is the Grandmother of Indie film and the experimental director Stan Brakhagecalled her “the mother of us all”, “Us” being everyone who felt like giving the finger at narrative and stylistic conventions.

image from here

I first encountered Maya Deren during my second year of university when our class was shown arguably two of her most famous short films, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which I later based my first solo project on and At Land (1944). Art films and experimental films usually get a bad rap outside of hard core film theorist circles because it can look like jumbled mess and overly pretentious. Deren thought of her films as visual poems, capturing fleeting emotions and states of being rather than events or characters. The films rely on striking images and haunting concepts to draw in the audience. Deren acted in her films but never credited herself, preferring to keep her characters as anonymous figures and her film crews were similarly simplistic. Deren worked on Meshes with only her second husband Alexander Hammid and a 16mm camera bought using inheritance money. Deren once claimed that “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick” and she was a fierce critic of the way she felt Hollywood was stifling creativity and diversity within American Cinema.

Tragically, Deren died in 1961 from malnutrition, possibly due to her drug use. A posthumous documentary was released in 1985 from footage Deren shot between 1947 and 1951 when she made multiple trips to Haiti. Divine Horsemen: the Living God’s of Haiti (1985) led to some criticizing Deren for leaving the avant-garde but Deren herself felt she needed to progress as an artist and Vodun traditions and rituals were fascinating to her. Her book of the same name is considered an important text on the subject. Sadly, Deren never completed the project and the last film released before she died, The Very Eye of Night (1958) gives us a glimpse at how her work could have unfolded.

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.

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