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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Beyond the Canon: 3 by Maya Deren + Mulholland Drive

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs three films by Maya Deren with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

By Shelley Farmer

Without Maya Deren, the filmmaker widely recognized as the mother of American avant-garde cinema, there is no David Lynch. Their works overlap both thematically—in their interest in doubles, dance, and the darkness underlying the mundane—as well as in visual and formal aspects: their use of mirror imagery, negative photography, and superimposition, to their dreamlike narrative logic and pacing.

In shorts such as the iconic “Meshes of the Afternoon,” (1943) “At Land,” (1944) “And Ritual in Transfigured Time,” (1946) the Ukrainian-born Deren synthesizes cinema, dance, design, and mid-century avant-garde traditions, as well as both American and European sensibilities. Meanwhile, the American Lynch explores a sort of specifically American grotesquerie, unearthing the surreal in genres from soaps to crime films. In Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch borrows from and blasts open the film noir tradition, using markers of the genre to create an off-kilter portrait of the despair underlying Hollywood’s sheen.

Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943)
Deren and Lynch are both most closely identified with the more overtly surrealistic aspects of their work, with hooded figures with mirrors for faces in “Meshes of the Afternoon” and a spot-lit man with oversized limbs in Mulholland Drive. But perhaps what unites their work most is their ability to conjure a sense of reality slightly off its axis. Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie, frequently translated to English as “defamiliarization.”

Much of what occurs in Mulholland Drive doesn’t stretch the bounds of logic or reality, and would fit comfortably in a more traditional genre film. In Lynch’s film, heroine Betty, a bright-eyed Hollywood hopeful new to Los Angeles, becomes entangled with raven-haired amnesiac Rita. In the movie's striking “Llorando” sequence, in which Naomi Watts’ Betty and Laura Harring’s Rita watch a lip-synced performance in a nearly-empty theater. With the use of extreme close-ups, echoing sound, and the dissonant image of a woman emoting deeply to a voice that isn’t her own, the scene gains a dreamlike edge of unreality. Even the performance styles of the actors throughout the film, with their acting styles pitched somewhere north of natural, imbue genre plot beats with an uncanny feeling.

Laura Harring in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001)

Similarly, in Deren’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time,” an unnatural breeze, slightly slowed motion, and an ominously judgmental figure in the background of a shot all make the quotidian domestic task of spinning twine feel unnatural. Later, slowed footage and lightly stylized movement transform the simple task of winding one’s way through a crowded party into a dream ballet.

Beyond their stylistic echoes, both Mulholland Drive and Deren’s shorts in this program center women protagonists. Lynch’s film exists within a tradition of male auteurs’ cinematic dreams starring women who mirror and meld and cannibalize each other, from Robert Altman’s Three Women to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.

But where many of those women feel like symbols or inscrutable ciphers, Lynch—who frequently toes the line between empathizing with women’s suffering and exploiting it—here does more than create a puzzle with his mirrored women, but uses that mirroring to dig into the subjectivity of his lead character. As the phantom love of Betty and Rita gives way to the crumbling romance of Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes, Lynch’s doubling of the women and details between the two stories creates a wrenching portrait of a woman driven by passion and jealousy to destroy both her lover and herself.

Naomi Watts and Laura Herring in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001)

Deren takes this excavation of a woman’s inner life even further by frequently casting herself, wading through her own dreamscapes, and—in “Meshes of the Afternoon”—even pursuing her own doppelgangers. In her silent shorts, the central women—whether Deren herself or “Ritual in Transfigured Time”’s Rita Christiani—wordlessly move through disorienting landscapes that shift and transform around them, pursuing and interacting with figures unknown or not quite human, discovering objects that appear seemingly without reason. These singular works, rife with symbolism and operating by their own rules of time and space, drop the viewer deep into the realm of a woman’s subconscious.

The works of Deren and Lynch aren’t simple to describe. Their movies are defined by a language that is purely cinematic. Manipulating time and movement, they illustrate the ineffable in films as uneasy, slippery, and wondrous as dreams.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sun, Jul 28 at 2pm.

Shelley Farmer is the publicity manager for film at BAM. She is also a performer and writer with bylines at Slate, Roger Ebert, Paper Magazine, Reverse Shot, and Indiewire. You can find her work at

Upcoming Beyond the Canon screening:

Sat, Aug 31 at 2pm
Haifaa Al-Mansour
2012, 98min
Alice in the Cities
Wim Wenders
1974, 113min

All images courtesy of Photofest
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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