During her travel in the monochrome filmed locations, the protagonist of this short length feature (played by director Maya Deren) falls asleep in an armchair and is thrown into a series of interlocking experiences. Of a woman with a mirror for a face, multiple versions of herself, and the punctuation of reality itself. It would not be surprising if these moments have drastically influenced cinema from it’s first screening. This film is now seventy years old, this year, depending on when it was made during the year of production, one of the historically important experimental films ever made. It’s creator is a godmother for American experimental filmmaking and a lot of importance has been placed on this film. Scored with a soft string instrumental score by Teiji Ito, the dream logic that permeates the short length is expanded by the visual manipulations used by Deren. An ever increasing tangle of through lines, it complicates itself as the protagonist has nowhere to go. It tapes into various types of cinema from or after its period of existence – naturalistic, abstract, even the lurid exploitation films of the later decades with Deren wearing odd, bug-eyed ball glasses and a knife in hand in one moment. In rich black-and-white, it immediately evokes the possible influence of Jean Cocteau, whose The Blood of a Poet (1930) was a pull into the subconscious of its protagonist. Deren’s, however, may be self destructive.
It does also bring up the issue of how viewing a film about a character’s dreams places a mirror back on its viewer. No matter how absurd it could sound, I have ended up viewing cinema as a form of artificial dreams. With how technology and software has gone, the choice and ability to cram mass amounts of this material together should surely have a subconscious effect on the viewer, bleeding it all together in one mass visual narrative if you let it. That I could so quickly switch to covering this film for the ‘M’ entry – missing the chance to cover a transgressive anime Midori (1992) by losing the resources I had – and immediately swan dive into Maya Deren’s subconscious could be seen as trivialising the importance of the film, but for me as I viewed it again, the ability to do this and the resources that allowed me to do it, if used properly, could be used to make the viewing experience of these films appropriately abstract for the material viewed. I wish, now having seen the merits of Meshes of the Afternoon finally, I could see it on the cinema screen, projected off celluloid film, closed in a small location, a house and making staircases and paths feel like trips to new realities. But this technology that was unavailable in the forties allows for some aspects that are closer to what films like Deren’s wanted to be depicted in terms of a dream more so. Imagine if YouTube had an option to randomly switch between all the material on it – whole feature or short length films, clips, remixes and non-sequiturs – and be watched in as much or as little as you wanted and it could all be experienced in one single entity. A film like Meshes of the Afternoon plays on what happens in a dream, keys turning back and forth from/to knives, reality itself breaking like glass, so the idea of viewing something like this on websites, even on DVD, that allows one to switch between them in a single viewing like the shifting perspectives of dreams going into the next one as you sleep is ironic in many ways.
It’s also amazing to think that, during a period of war in the early forties, such a personal look into the mind was made alongside such a global conflict. Certain films of this period did also tackle the mind in varying ways, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but something like Meshes of the Afternoon is very much against the norm to mainstream filmmaking even now. It doesn’t try to explain itself or make rational sense, instead playing off a sense of the alarming and threatening when the protagonist dreams and suddenly finds time and place have been disrupted. It is not an outside force that can easily be labelled, but just an occurrence that increases as she travels around the house that is the setting. It follows what David Lynch would learn from decades later where even the architecture and location is part of the alien entity and shifts to reflect the change. At less than fifteen minutes, it’s a snippet of a larger dream but Meshes of the Afternoon perfectly works well at its length. Like an actual dream its slight in actual experience but its felt like a larger entity.