Friday, May 6, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) ****
Directed by: Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid.
Written by: Maya Deren.
Starring: Maya Deren (The Woman), Alexander Hammid (The Man).

What is one to make of a film like Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon? It is a strange, surreal short (only 16 minutes long) that is nonetheless a haunting cinematic experience. It portrays a world that, I think, is almost entirely in the head of the main character. What is in her head, and what is reality becomes blurred beyond recognition. In the days since I have seen the film, it keeps expanding in my mind, as its images keeping coming up in my thoughts. I have never been as big of a fan of short, surreal films like this one – but Meshes in the Afternoon is a tiny masterpiece.

The “action” in the film involves a woman coming home. The film opens with a shot of a flower in a long way driveway that the woman picks up. She then continues to the stair case leading into her house, walks up, unlocks the door, goes inside and falls asleep on a chair. She then dreams she is chasing a strange, grim reaper like creature, with a mirror face, but cannot catch him. Each time she fails, she ends up at the end of her driveway, and walks back up the same stairs. Each time is slightly different than before, in terms of the camera movement (in one scene in particular where the camera moves with her body), the fumbling for the key, the placement of a knife inside the apartment. She wakes from her dream to find a man in her apartment, who she comes to see as the grim reaper character from earlier – and tries to fight him off. Eventually, we will see this same man take the same journey that the woman has taken multiple times – up the driveway, up the stairs, and comes into the apartment, to find the woman dead in the chair – a supposed suicide.

What does all of this mean? Does it mean anything? Maya Deren has said she wanted to make a film similar to Un Chien Andalou, the infamous Salvador Dali/Luis Bunuel short film, but that is misleading. The whole point of Un Chien Andalou, was that there was no point. It is simply a series of images that bare no relationship to each other, meant to shock and scare the audience. But Meshes in the Afternoon is different – it quite clearly has a “plot” that can be unlocked.

In short, Meshes of the Afternoon is all about the woman – the grim reaper and the man don’t really matter, except in how she perceives them. This seemingly mundane routine of coming home gets expanded in the woman’s mind to become something much more than what we see them as. It all leads to this blending of the real world and the dream world, as the two seep into each other, and the woman ends up dead.

Yet, I think describing the movie, and what the actual plot means, is to take some of the pleasure out of Meshes of the Afternoon. The film is a clear influence on the work of David Lynch – in particular his “Hollywood Trilogy” of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). I’m thinking in particular of the sequence in Lost Highway involving Robert Blake, and that video he gives Bill Pullman where, yes, it is a video of him going up the stairs, into Pullman’s apartment. Or of the suicide ending of Mulholland Dr., when Naomi Watts’ dream world clashes with the real one. Or the entirety of Inland Empire, which its multiple repetitions and amplifications throughout the film, which culminates much the same way.

But Lynch is just one filmmaker – the most obvious one – influenced by Meshes of the Afternoon. The film’s impact and influence can be seen all over the place. It is clearly one of the most influential shorts in film history.

Yet, Meshes of the Afternoon, unlike a previous entry in this series, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, remains interesting in and of itself – not just because of what it inspired. It is a haunting cinematic experience. One that I doubt I’ll ever forget.


  1. Great description, Dave!

    I always wondered about the key in Maya's mouth. Do you think she was saying that there's always a way in and out of things, or that there's always a way to solve things?

  2. I'm not entirely sure, but that wasn't what I thought of. The movie uses repetition throughout the movie, but nothing is ever the same twice, to imply the different levels the movie is taking place on - the difference between the objective and subjective view point on the character, the "reality" and the "nightmare" of the movie. I cannot say with certainty what the key in the mouth represents, although I would say that in my mind, the film does not really suggest a way out.