How Special Collections archival holdings tell the story of our time
for all seasons for the filmic avant-garde
David J. Craig
At the height of Hollywood’s golden age in the 1940s, when the
major studios were churning out whitewashed portraits of American life
that served first and foremost as star vehicles for their cozy stables
of celebrities, a glimmer of serious creative thought was beginning to
filter around the edges of the industry.
Among the first Americans to successfully produce feature films on their
own terms was Maya Deren (1917–1961), whose letters and artifacts
are held at BU’s Department of Special Collections. Armed with a
16mm camera, Deren wrote, directed, and starred in a handful of experimental
films in the 1940s and 1950s that established her reputation today as
one of the most important artists in the history of American avant-garde
film. Best known for the darkly surreal Meshes of the Afternoon (1943),
with its dramatic jump cuts and cyclical, irrational narrative, Deren
is often referred to as the archetypal independent filmmaker, one who
eschewed the film industry entirely but still managed to reach an audience,
even if it meant showing films on her living room wall.
BU’s Deren holdings recently were used by the Czech-trained Viennese
filmmaker Martina Kuladcek in making her new documentary In the Mirror
with Maya Deren, which opens on January 24 at the Anthology Film Archive
in New York City. Most notably, Kuladcek’s film features rare sound
recordings of Deren speaking, which are part of BU’s collection.
Deren made the recordings primarily in Haiti in the late 1940s with a
wire recorder, a device that uses magnetic tape and was popular during
World War II. She spent several years there researching voodoo and spiritual
dance rituals for her 1953 book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti,
and for an eponymous film, which was released posthumously, in 1977. Even
though Deren often appeared in her own films, they typically feature no
dialogue so even film buffs familiar with her work are startled to hear
her voice in In the Mirror.
definitive study of voodoo rituals, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods
of Haiti (1953), was based on her extensive research in Haiti between
1947 and 1951. There Deren became immersed in voodoo on a personal
level and was initiated as a voodoo priestess. She later lectured
widely in the United States to dispel myths about the spiritual practice,
which combines aspects of Roman Catholicism and West African religious
rites. This first edition of the book is in BU’s Special Collections.
“When I heard Maya’s words for the first time, I felt a deep
connection to her emotions and sensibility,” Kuladcek recently told
the online magazine indieWire. “It was very important for me in
the making of this film. Many of the recordings are the source of Voices
of Haiti, a record she released with Elektra, but also there are many
recorded hours of her lectures, and Maya just speaking her ideas. I believe
she made them for archival reasons, but also I think she was a very analytical
person, and this way she could control and improve her lectures. She never
spoke in public without intricate preparation.”
Indeed, BU’s Deren holdings contain several boxes of carefully outlined
lecture notes on subjects ranging from Haitian spirituality to the artistic
process to extremely abstract sociological and philosophical concepts,
all laboriously categorized by subject. Of even greater interest to scholars
may be original diary entries and research notes with extremely personal
observations that morph into ideas for artistic concepts and back again.
These often appear side-by-side in the same tiny notebooks. Not surprisingly,
Deren’s diaries, often spliced from the same emotional reel as the
paranoid, alienated vision -- hailed by one critic as “shockingly
artistic” -- that dominates Meshes of the Afternoon, are not for
the faint of heart.
“What you see in me is not courage,” begins one long entry
with few clues to its inspiration.
“It is all arrogance. I have achieved such a dissociation between
pain and fear that I cannot and do not protect myself from pain. . . .
I would like someone to kill me. . . . I want to feel poor, spare and
clean. Can you penetrate to the very source of life and extinguish it?”
Cropping up a few pages later are disjointed images that Deren might have
scribbled, half-asleep, on her nightstand: “Dreams -- horse broken
loose/ kite tugging at fingers/ tightened by pulling me down/ indoors
my house other women there/ ask maid which locks last/ black handkerchief
has on it a poison/ waved over the face of a woman.” Devotees of
avant-garde film surely could draw a wealth of connections between such
lists of images and the themes commonly found in Deren’s work: out-of-body
experiences, repetitive actions that become transcendent or maddening,
lovers who turn into killers.
In addition to the wire recordings and diaries, Special Collections also
owns rare photos of Deren and hundreds of photos taken by her, stills
from several of her films, galleys from Divine Horsemen and other writings,
and correspondence between Deren and fellow artists and cultural figures,
including Anais Nin and Joseph Campbell. BU acquired the collection over
the course of several years, beginning in 1964, according to Howard Gotlieb,
founder and director of BU’s Special Collections, who had befriended
Deren’s mother several years previously.
“Deren already was an icon when I first began to collect her, which
was right around the same time that I realized, to my great surprise,
that California institutions were not collecting material related to their
greatest industry,” says Gotlieb. “But even I had no idea
how terribly popular Deren would eventually become, with feminist groups,
film groups, and all sorts of scholars studying her. There have been several
books and documentaries made about her in the last decade, and all of
those projects have worked with us. After our Martin Luther King, Jr.,
collection, Deren is our most heavily used collection.
“I think all the interest stems in part because she was so much
more than a filmmaker,” he continues, pointing out that the wire
recordings used by Kuladcek were transferred to digital audiotape during
the production of In the Mirror in order to preserve them. “Deren
was also a sociologist and a philosopher who was deeply interested in
cults and voodoo, and long before women were directing, writing, or producing
films, she did it all. She was a true pioneer.”
For more information about Special Collections, including exhibition
hours, visit www.bu.edu/speccol.