Hollywood is the cloaca of the Universe.
- Maya Deren
It’s film festival time! When thousands stream into cinemas to see works which even their creators describe as “harrowing”, “difficult” or (ugh) “whimsical”, eager to see the kind of film in which, as my friend Tom succinctly puts it, “a bucket slowly fills with water and a clown cries”. Or submit themselves willingly to documentaries whose blurbs begin with the words “A five hour meditation on…”.
Barbara Hammer’s latest film, Maya Deren’s Sink, premiered yesterday at Berlinale and yes, it might properly be called a “meditation”. But at just 30 minutes it never outstays its welcome, rather it leaves you longing to know more about its subject, the hugely influential Ukrainian-American film artist Maya Deren, who died in 1961.
Hammer, who has previously paid tribute to the artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, turns her attention to someone she describes as her “mentor” and “muse” (although they never met) who introduced her to an identifiably female approach to filmmaking which inspired her pioneering work in the field of lesbian film.
Amazingly, after four decades of short-form, self-made films, this is the first time Hammer has worked with a crew. She takes a kaleidoscopic approach, producing a deft interplay of crisp and diffuse images, incorporating interviews with Deren’s associates, recreation of scenes from her films and excerpts from her writings. Footage is projected in the spaces where Deren’s films were conceived and, often, realised.
The locations include the Los Angeles house where Deren made Meshes of the Afternoon with husband Alexander Hammid (the most famous portrait of her, above, is taken from it). This 1943 short film, contemporaneous with the earliest avant-garde works of Harry Everett Smith and Kenneth Anger, remains a major landmark in non-linear filmmaking. We also see the Greenwich Village apartment which once housed the eponymous bathroom fixture, and where Deren and third husband Teiji Ito would host speed-fuelled, drum-pounding parties until dawn. Those who knew Deren describe her phenomenal energy and total commitment to her art; her death at just 44 was apparently due to overworking.
Maya Deren’s Sink is clearly a labour of love for all concerned; Hammer reports that a major motivation for her crew was seeing the places where Deren filmed. The actress who “plays” Deren, dancing, reciting the filmmaker’s letters, had herself made a short film about the filmmaker, and at times unnervingly recalls the original (which is fortunate, as I can imagine look-alike agencies are not bursting with impersonators of mid-century avant-garde film artists). However this constantly mobile figure is obscured in post-production, an astute authorial decision which ensures the film is not so much a Maya Deren drag show as a visual séance.
It’s certainly not a straightforward documentary, and key questions remain unanswered. Why did Deren so often use herself as her subject? What inspired her to develop her radical vision? And where, in turn, is Deren’s influence felt today, in experimental filmmaking, narrative features and video art? Her work in the field of Haitian voodoo, in which her film and sound recordings are still essential references, is only briefly sketched in, her collaboration with Marcel Duchamp not at all.
But the most conspicuous absence from Maya Deren’s Sink is Maya Deren’s films. Hammer was coy about the copyright issues which presumably prevented her from showing more of the original footage. Maybe this is a strength; the person I went with was a Deren neophyte; he reported that he was sufficiently intrigued to seek out the originals.
So ultimately you’d have to categorise this work as “hommage”, if I may momentarily delve back into my Big Book of Film Festival Words. It’s a personal tribute which stands alongside the 2002 study In the Mirror of Maya Deren as a worthy introduction to one of cinema’s great original thinkers.
Barbara Hammer talks about Maya Deren:
A preview of Maya Deren’s Sink: