#171) Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

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#171) Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

OR “Czech Mix”

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid

Written by Deren

Class of 1990

The Plot: It’s experimental, there ain’t no plot. As best I can tell it’s a woman (Maya Deren) experiencing a dreamlike scene at her friend’s house that involves a flower, a phone, a key, a knife, and Death!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the classics of avant-garde cinema” and praises the writing and cinematography. “Meshes of the Afternoon” was the first experimental film inducted into the National Film Registry.

But Does It Really?: The nice thing about experimental films is that I don’t get it, but I’m not supposed to get it. You can read whatever you wish into a film like this, and as long as you explain your viewpoint to others in the most condescending, self-entitled way possible, it’s valid! There’s some lovely technical work happening here, particularly the cinematography and editing, and Deren & Hammid recreate a dreamlike experience quite effectively. I give it a pass for being a prime example of American surrealism, and for being existential commentary on the work of Buñuel (At least that’s how I viewed the film. You disagree? Oh, you probably just didn’t get it.)

Everybody Gets One: We’ll see Alexander Hammid again with his later film “To Fly!”, but this is where we meet Maya Deren. Born Eleonora Derenkowska, she found herself in Los Angeles in the early ‘40s following a tour as the photographer/assistant to choreographer Katherine Dunham. It was in L.A. were Deren met Alexandr Hackenschmied, who nicknamed her Maya and helped turn her photography into experimental film.

Wow, That’s Dated: Rotary phones? I got nothing. Next!

Other notes

  • Deren and Hammid were married in 1942, one year prior to “Meshes”. This has got to be the weirdest honeymoon video ever, and that’s saying something.
  • For the record, I watched the 1959 version with the added score by Maya’s then-husband Teiji Ito. And if you’re going to add a score to a surreal film, atonal is the way to go. Side note: Don’t watch this version with ear buds. It will drive you insane.
  • Speaking of the score, at the very beginning it sounds like Gumby’s going to start.
  • I have never dropped a key that far down a flight of stairs. How is that even possible? Of course, if I start questioning the logic in this film we could be here all night.
  • What do you think the script for this looked like? “Close-up on crazy shit. Wide angle on other crazy shit. Repeat.”
  • Must have been weird for Maya and Alexander’s neighbors to look out their window and see Death walking by.
  • Maya went to the “Star Trek” school of stumbling for the camera.
  • A mirror as Death’s face. Nice touch.
  • I believe I’ve seen the key/knife combo for sale on one of them late night infomercials. It’s the Lindsay Wagner one, right?
  • Without spoiling too much, the shot that involves a mirror and the ocean is really cool.
  • I wish my dreams were this artistically gratifying. Most of my dreams are me back in high school; no amount of camera trickery can spice that up.

Legacy

  • Deren and Hammid made a few more films together prior to their divorce in 1947. Both would continue to make films, as well as other artistic endeavors, for the rest of their lives.
  • David Lynch cites “Meshes of the Afternoon” as a major influence on his work, particularly “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.”
  • The Death figure with the mirror face reappears in the music video for Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope”. I’m just delighted I can legitimately reference Janelle Monáe on this blog. That’s a win!

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