Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’

TAIL POP (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon. Photofest

by Troy Takaki, ACE

In high school, I did a lot of black-and-white photography. I loved photography. I would shoot roll after roll of my friends skateboarding, old farm houses, flowers, people playing in bands — really just about anything.  

I loved manipulating the pictures: double exposures, solarizing, etc. One of my favorite things to do was to make a print with a double exposure. An example would be a skateboarder skating with himself. This is all very easy now with Photoshop, but back then it took a very long time. I would go into the darkroom at my high school and come out hours later. 

I went to college at San Francisco State University to study photography, hoping that maybe I could make a living being a photojournalist. They always say, “Do what you love and you will never have to work another day in your life.” Well, I loved the photography classes but never really connected with the journalism classes. In fact, I actually kind of hated the journalism classes.

While at SFSU, I took a class called The History of Avant-Garde Film. There were a certain number of required history classes and that one seemed interesting. We watched films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).

 One afternoon, they showed Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and it amazed me! It’s a short film directed by wife-and-husband team Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. The film’s narrative is circular: a dream within a dream. The main character would look out a window and see herself. She would fall down the stairs and end up looking at herself sleeping. She watches herself enter the house over and over with each repetition being different. It repeats several motifs, including a flower, a key, a door, a knife, a phone and a mysterious cloaked person with a mirror for a face.

Space and location were manipulated through the editing. The character would take one step on the beach and the next on grass and the next on cement — all seamlessly edited to look like the steps were continuous. 

 What really blew my mind was the discussion in class about the film. The professor pointed out that many of the editing techniques in the film are ones that are used all the time, but they are usually used to make films adhere to reality rather than to break from it. A character opens a door, and then you cut to the other side. You just assume that the new side is next to the old side. Quite often, these shots were actually shot in different locations on different days. 

I know we all know this, but back then I was a 19-year-old kid who never really thought about how films were made. I knew that people made films just like how I currently know that people are rocket scientists — but I still don’t know exactly what rocket scientists do.

This revelation made me think about the manipulations of time and space that I did while printing black-and-white photographs. In some ways, it did not matter what I photographed. My real passion was printing the pictures in the darkroom. I could not stop thinking that what film editors do in the cutting room was similar to what I loved to do in the darkroom. It hit me that what I was doing with photography was really editing. It was an epiphany. I decided that I needed to explore filmmaking and, more specifically, this “film editing” thing.

The next semester, I took an 8mm film class. I borrowed the editing techniques from Meshes of the Afternoon and made a film about my friend skateboarding. He would do a trick at one location and then land it in another. The skater traveled from street to empty pool to skate ramp to schoolyard. In each place, he also watched himself and judged his skating ability.

During that 8mm film class, I fell in love with filmmaking. That was it! I was bit by the filmmaking bug. I changed majors from Journalism to Film and Cinema.

 I got into the film production program at SFSU knowing that I loved editing. Even as a film student, I was more interested in editing films than in shooting them. And just like with my high school darkroom, I would go into a Steenbeck room (we shot and edited 16mm film) and come out 14 hours later.

Meshes of the Afternoon was selected for preservation on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990 and, in 2015, the BBC named it the 40th greatest American movie ever made.

I graduated film school, moved to LA, became an editor and the rest is history. I had found a career that actually paid me to do what I love. And it all began in an avant-garde film class many years ago.

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