Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Maya Deren: Cat Woman

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Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon”, shot 70 years ago this May in and around a bungalow north of Sunset Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills, is the American avant-garde movie most often screened in American film classes, which is why it has been visually quoted, consciously or not, by everyone from Madonna to David Lynch. (The 1994 Milla Jovovich video “The Gentleman Who Fell” (here), being the most blatant example.)

Deren’s haunting psychodrama, made with her then husband Alexander Hammid, and itself borrowing a bit from the first three or four minutes of “Citizen Kane,” released two years earlier, is also the subject of a hilarious tribute cum parody by Mary Gillen. The four-minute piece was posted on YouTube last December, in conjunction with the “Catdance Film Festival,” but I’m only just now getting to it (thanks to Amy Taubin) because I’ve spent the past month reliving (or at least researching) the 1970s.

“Meows of the Afternoon” — which stars a gray cat named Smokey and a pop-eyed doggie called Sebastian and seems to have been partially shot in Prospect Park — made me laugh out loud although I have to wonder how Deren, not known for her sense of humor, would have taken it. If there was anything that she was more serious about than her movies, it was her cats.

Deren was a devoted felinophile who, according to the late Amos Vogel, was convinced that that she herself was a reincarnated cat. Deren also worked, uncredited, on Hammid’s 1946 “educational” film, “The Private Life of a Cat” — which, originally distributed by Vogel’s Cinema 16, stars Deren’s house cats Glamour Girl and Joe and, among other things, features a once-controversial live birth sequence. (Gene Forell’s musical accompaniment and Deren’s original voiceover were eventually dropped by Hammid as a distraction from the film’s visuals, although there are, supposedly, a few of these prints in existence; Deren did however write a diaristic article on “The Private Life of a Cat” that first appeared in the July 1947 issue of Mademoiselle: “February 19. The entire universe — or more specifically, the lives of three people — seem to revolve around ‘Will she or won’t see today?’”)

Somewhat perversely, Stan Brakhage has always insisted that although “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “The Private Life of a Cat” are both about Deren and Hammid’s “dissolving” marriage. “Meshes of the Afternoon” was more Hammid’s  and “Cat” was actually Deren’s “first” real movie and “one of the finest films that has ever been made.” (You can find Brakhage’s reasons elaborated in his collected lectures on avant-garde filmmakers, “Film at Wit’s End.”)

One final note on Deren and cats. Published in 1961, the year she died at age 44, then New York Times reporter Gay Talese’s “New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey” included a photograph of the unsmiling filmmaker, holding a black cat and captioned “Voodoo Authority.” In the preceding text he notes that “New York is the favorite city of the voodoo authority, Maya Deren, who lives at 61 Morton Street with nineteen cats and a husband, Teiji Ito, who plays thirty-nine musical instruments — mostly at night.” (Mmrow!)

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