When I originally sat down with an experimental movie from the List, Slavador Dali’s An Andalusian Dog, I thought it was amusing but was mostly just interested in the fact that Dali was involved. There’s something about trying to understand, intellectually, the work of painters that intimidates me either just as much or slightly more than trying to understand music. So I was hoping that, Dali being such a huge cultural figure, the List was gonna take my hand and walk me through some of his work. Show me how to understand it.
Dali’d made the movie with Louis Bunuel (the genuine filmmaker of the pair) and together they went on to begin work on Age of Gold, a feature-length movie that was similar to Andalusian Dog in its use of bizarre imagery that did or didn’t communicate a narrative. Dali dropped out and Bunuel carried the movie to fruition and I attributed my disdain to Dali’s absence. I started inching toward the idea that maybe this wasn’t experimental, like Andalusian Dog had been. Like it was maybe more surreal than experimental – which was an exciting thought, cuz “surrealism” is a bit of a buzzword and I was excited to think I was finally exploring it, but it was also decidedly not that exciting. Cuz I didn’t like the movie.
Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, which came out at around the same time, is experimental. Pure playfulness. It’s toying with the viewer’s perspective, her sense of depth and continuity; it feels experimental in the most conventional sense of science, of discovery; you get the vibe in Man with a Movie Camera that Vertov’s hijinks with various angles and frame rates and cutting will influence his field. That filmmakers will cite it as the moment they realized how flexible the medium’s boundaries were.
Meshes of the Afternoon, a fifteen-minute experimental movie more in the vein of Bunuel than Vertov, is one of these few experimental movies on the List and it got me thinking, for the first time in the Project, about the line between experiment and abstraction. Meshes of the Afternoon straddles that line. It owes a lot to Limite, which spent a little too much time on high angles of people walking along lengthy paths (Limite was pretty obscure at the time, though, so I don’t suppose our filmmaker here, Maya Deren, would’ve had easy access to it), but Deren creates something more expressive here than Mario Peixoto created in the latter. Which probably doesn’t matter in a big-picture sense. Probably makes no sense to say that one is better than the other. Deren’s created a powerful mood here, and Peixoto does the same in Limite, but I think Peixoto cared more about mood than anything else. Patience and brooding. He’s one of those filmmakers who, like David Lynch, likes making the audience feel every moment pass. Seems to celebrate film as a medium where, unlike reading, you can’t hasten or slow down your progress. You’re entirely in the hands of the artist and at the mercy of their pacing. Deren, on the other hand, is using the medium to communicate something. A feeling, a mood. She does it quickly and with a creepiness, a kinda haunted thrift-shop domesticity, that seems more interested in gripping the audience than Peixoto’s movie does.
Ultimately they’re both weird movies from which it’s all but impossible to discern a coherent motive and so the act of even trying to discuss it, to posit meaning, is itself a little masturbatory and aimless. Just like the movies. But that’s nice. Masturbation’s fun and targets are overrated.
The fact that a movie employs dream-like imagery to tell something like a story, or communicate an idea, doesn’t make it experimental. Hitchcock, with the help of Dali, does it beautifully in Spellbound (1945), but that movie’s definitely not experimental.
An experimental movie, I think, is one wherein the director is trying to explore some new technical-narrative device. Trying to walk new ground. I’m not sure Deren does a ton of that here, in this fifteen-minute semi-story wherein a woman confronts herself at a kitchen table, sees a key transform into a knife and then back again, and chases a hooded figure whose face (in a beautifully eerie reveal) turns out to be a mirror. But there’s one scene of major vertigo wherein it seems that our heroine is falling over the railing of a staircase but, as the camera pivots and twirls along with her body, the fall seems endless, and we can’t tell which way is up.
What the movie suggests, with its two-person cast and domestic setting and terrifically mobile camera, is the increasing portability of cameras and, by extension, the burgeoning democratization of the craft. Meshes was shot on 16mm and, despite its being a grainy black-and-white movie that isn’t far removed from an era in which every movie looked just like it (D.W. Griffith’s towering masterpiece, Intolerance, doesn’t look much better), Meshes looks at once professional and amateur. Like one of the earliest home videos. There’s one particular shot, POV, approaching an arm chair: it looked so real. Not sure how to articulate it. Just that…it’s not stylized. The set isn’t crafted. It looks like people live here. It looks like this is the vibe you’d have gotten walking through a typical middle-class home in the early 1940s.
I also happen to be watching this on Halloween, 2017, and there’s some creepy imagery here that felt pretty well-suited to the occasion.
But yeah – there’s a definite vision here, and I’m gonna sound pedantic as hell saying the next thing, but here it is: Meshes of the Afternoon is full of creative integrity. The filmmaker is trying, without taking up too much of our time, to explore the interior of her character, try some new visuals with her camera that actually add to the mood and character study rather than just flashing some skills, and yeah. It’s really good. And free as fuck on YouTube.