Watch This: Maya Deren’s Surreal Ode to Medieval Witchcraft
When we look back at the work of Maya Deren (born April 29, 1917, died October 13, 1961) the breadth of expression is just breathtaking. She seemed to reinvent Cinema by rearranging its component parts of drama, music, ritual and visual arts along new bold lines that were absolutely personal, completely idiosyncratic, and unmistakably direct. AFS has shown her films often, and will show them many more times as they forever point the way to the future of artistic expression.
By the time the 27-year old Deren made the film you see here she had already emigrated with her parents from Ukraine to escape the brutal Soviet Bolshevik pogroms, become a revolutionary Socialist leader in New York, received a masters degree in English literature, become a professional journalist (and later a photojournalist), and then signed on with the pioneering African American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham as an assistant and collaborator. All of that was before she began making and exhibiting films, a field that she revolutionized, changing the way that avant-garde films were received and appreciated.
She may rightly be called the Godmother of Avant Garde film. Her efforts in popularizing the form changed the landscape of the medium forever.
WITCH’S CRADLE, the unfinished, silent, deliberately unscored film you see below, was made in 1944. That was the same year as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, just to set your frame of reference for how unusual and ahead of its time the film is. It stars the mysterious Pajorita Matta and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. Keep in mind that this is not the finished product, only a pass at editing some of the footage that was shot before she was presumably swept away into some other creative endeavor. Still, the vision is crystal-clear, the sense of ritual, dance and painterly visual composition. It’s remarkable in any context, let alone 1944.