At Land (1944) by Maya Deren
Retro Review by Dylan Moore
At Land finds a woman who was thrown to land by the sea navigating her way through a dreamscape of dinner parties, chess on the beach, and intensely staring mustachioed man who is under some blankets. At Land (1944), a silent B&W 15 minute short and another collaboration with Alexander Hamid as cinematographer, feels whimsical compared to Deren’s mirror-faced nightmare that was Meshes of The Afternoon (1943). Meshes, set in one location of a house and the surrounding area, has a woman chase after silhouettes to find out what happened to her disheveled home, while At Land has a women jerked around in possibility and motivation as the landscapes she occupies keep morphing around her; though both show how Deren creates those dreams by connecting disparate times and locations through motion of the characters.
Maya Deren debuted as an independent filmmaker (outside of Hollywood system) with Meshes of The Afternoon and continued to do most of her work during the ‘40s and ‘50s until her early passing in ‘61. Throughout her life and career, Deren specifically kept out of Hollywood to tell more personal visual stories and for that we received a legacy of fantastic visuals from an early filmmaker. The last thing she made was completed posthumously by her third husband, Teiji Ito, who also did the eerie score for Meshes. Divine Horsemen is an ethnographic documentary that shows the culture Vodoun in Haiti through their rituals of dance and possession. It focuses on how people relate to and perform rituals, songs and dance for their gods, but doesn’t try to put that in a socio-political context and keeps it about the religion which integrates local customs with parts of Catholicism. It is a mesmerizing watch if you are interested in how possession, dance and music all intertwined plays out in that culture.
The differences in Meshes and At Land are in how Deren brings the audience into her worlds. Meshes is rooted in internal fears and desires of chasing after someone, personal connection, and being trapped in reflections, accompanied by an unsettling score by Teiji Ito. while At Land is based on a feeling close to a fish out of water and being subjected to external circumstance in this case stumbling onto dinner parties, chasing after a chess piece, having the person you are talking to morph into different people, and finding yourself desperately picking up rocks. The man morphing into different people turns into probably the one of silliest, kinda unnerving bits of the film. Deren has a close up of the person the woman is talking to and pans over to see the woman’s reaction then pans back over and it is a different person talking. Something that simple works and kept me from noticing it immediately, because Deren’s character doesn’t react to the transformations, until the last one; up until then, it just bites the back of the mind as I wonder if something is different. And I kind of missed having music in At Land, but probably because of just how effective and eerie it was in Meshes...without music though, At Land ends up more unreal and ephemeral for it.
Before I was introduced to her work, I wasn’t sure what I could get from watching old avant-garde cinema, but what is exciting for me still about Deren’s work is how she builds the dream of At Land by her experimentation of motion bending and shaping reality and her character’s gaze. Much like in Meshes, Rituals in a Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera, Deren stitches together anachronistic landscapes by editing through motion. For example, at the beginning of At Land, as her character pulls herself up a piece of driftwood as she reaches for the top, past the top of the frame, then there is a cut to a dining table and the woman’s hand comes up from the bottom of the frame to pull herself up on the table, connecting the beach space and the interior dinner party. Even the way Deren portrays the woman crawling across the dining table, through the dinner party scene, is an extension of this technique. As the character crawls across, it cuts from a wide shot of her crawling to a close up to her face with a fixated look to get across, to a wide of her maneuvering through what looks like a jungle, joined together by the similar motion and intent of the images. This also created a clear visual metaphor for the dinner party and the character’s struggle in it.
Another effective editing device she uses in both Meshes and At Land is the eyeline match where one character will stare off frame and the next shot will generally be of what they are staring at. In At Land she plays with this at the end when after the woman finally snags the chess piece she runs back to the beach from which everything started and along the way running past versions of herself, still in the middle of their journey, who look at her in wonder before they go back to their task, which she was able to do through eyeline matches. This reminds me of the last sequence with Bowman in 2001 where he slowly sees himself getting older and older and past versions of himself fall into memory. And I don’t want to spoil the last shot that ends her arm-flailing manic run, but it’s really good and ends the whimsy of her journey on a resonating note. So Deren’s use of these techniques is still interesting and impacting when most of the movies and television we all probably watch is set in a capital-R Real world that uses match on action and eyeline match to build a straightforward geography and narrative.
At first I wanted to compare Deren's Meshes and At Land to Bunuel's surreal short film Un Chien Andalou for their dreamy construction and social jabbing. But Buñuel conjures a lot of his imagery through exaggerated juxtapositions (e.g. ants coming out of a hole in the middle of man’s hand to a woman’s hairy armpit to a sea urchin...you should really check out Un Chien Andalou) to create quick visual jokes while Deren builds hers through theatrical and uncanny behaviours and motion (e.g. in At Land her crawling on the table at a dinner party and no one seems to noticed) to show awkward, strange behaviour within a formal context. Maybe a better comparison would be with David Lynch and his work in Inland Empire, particularly how the main character can be transported to different locations and times, e.g. from inside a soundstage to a house in the suburbs, just by stepping through different doors.
I would recommend Deren’s work to anyone who wants to spend time in early B&W dreams and see a filmmaker have fun playing around with editing to build their worlds. I would recommend particularly watching At Land for the opening shot of how Deren makes the sea thrown the character to shore and recede (really good use of playing film in reverse) and the closing sequence of the woman manically running across the desert. I watched At Land on Fandor; they have a bit of her other stuff too like Meshes of the Afternoon, Rituals of Transfigured Time, and Meditation on Violence, which is a more abstract work of hers, specifically focusing on hypnotic, circular movements of a martial artist through space, but you can probably also find a lot of her work on YouTube.