Morton Street, New York. Photo by Eleni Tranouli.

Entering Maya Deren’s “chamber films”

The keys to an overlooked avant-garde concept

Maya Deren is considered the Mother of post-war American experimental film and was a legend to her peers. Even so, her vast writings are largely overlooked. Among her many original concepts, “chamber films” is about multidisciplinarity, womanhood, domesticity, the right to self-identify, and how to be truly independent.

Maya Deren wearing a turban clapping.
Maya Deren wearing a turban clapping.
View of busy New York from the Whitney Museum. Photo by Carmen Leroi.
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid having breakfast on fire escape in Morton Street studio, New York.
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid having breakfast on fire escape in Morton Street studio, New York.
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid in their Morton Street apartment, c. 1944.
Jean Cocteau in Flair Magazine, February 1950.

“Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction”. ⁷

In line with a feminist perspective, Deren’s biographers poignantly called the second volume of her monumental biography Chambers, naming the chapters “Stairways”, “Morton Street”, “Thresholds”, etc. This volume covers the period from 1942 to 1947, the years that Deren completed her first four films and entered the active social life as a pioneer of experimental film. Yet, in her transition from one “chamber” to the other, and from the introspective character of Meshes of the Afternoon to universal values in Ritual in Transfigured Time, Deren distanced herself from a psychological perspective in favor of a metaphysical view of the world. It is this transition that the term “chamber films” captures, moving away from any assumed connection to a subjective, personal cinema and, on a larger scope, from a purely woman’s point of view, linked to domesticity.

“This room, housing the flesh, is home for the heart: point of return and point of departure; contains those objects which, the sight fallen or fixed upon, are thresholds for the quick heart’s eye”. ⁸

Maya Deren lounging on couch as light comes in through the window in Morton Street apartment.
Maya Deren lounging on couch as light comes in through the window in Morton Street apartment.
Maya Deren in her apartment at 61 Morton Street.
Haitian bedroom, c. 1947–52. Photo by Maya Deren.
A Private Life of a Cat, 1947. A film by Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren shot at their apartment in Morton Street, NY.

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