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 was a woman of many faces. Beyond her role as an artist, she was equally a prolific writer, curator, translator, photographer, ethnographer, and even cat breeder. Above all, she was a thinker and theorist and, during her life, her ability to tame abstract ideas seems to have been stronger than her occupation with filmmaking per se. In fact, agreeing with her biographers: “Maya is theory”.¹

Writing was Deren’s everyday domestic activity. She often spent the whole night typing, so much so that the noise of her electric typewriter often created a disturbance to her next-door neighbors at 61 Morton Street, in Greenwich Village. In a letter, responding to a tenant complaint, she defended her right to write by arguing that the sound of her typewriter should be accepted as an integral part of New York’s soundscape in the 1950s:

“Fire sirens screech, bells jangle, trucks backfire with the noise of an explosion, cats mate in the courtyards; in this house, there is other typing, at any and all hours, the front door slams shut with a bang all night long, the man overhead wears hard-leather heels and walks heavily to and fro, the baby cries at times. In inexpensive houses like this, many sounds are audible. Yet, all of these are within the rights of those individuals, and one cannot, as you would like to, dominate all the lives around one.”²

View of busy New York from the Whitney Museum. Photo by Carmen Leroi.

Writing was not only a job allowing Deren to make ends meet but it was, first and foremost, an everyday ritual as well as the weapon of her intellectual activism and her role as a cultural worker. Whether it was to write poems, keep a diary, write letters to friends, draft her program notes, claim a place for experimental film in museums and cultural institutions, instruct the audience of her films, advocate for the cultural value of independent films despite the fact that they are made “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”, defend ceremonial dances against the commercialized folklore shows in New York’s theaters in the 1950s, study Haitian Vodou mythology or speak about democracy, Maya Deren’s prolific writings stand out due to their breadth and variety of forms. Yet, her literary legacy, reaching beyond the limited scope of film theory, remains, until today, uncharted territory.

One of the major contributions of Maya Deren’s theoretical body of work to the visibility, understanding, and appreciation of experimental film was the invention of a new vocabulary of independent filmmaking. In order to legitimize her practice, she created a bright constellation of definitions for her films that were original and self-reflective. She used to call her films: personal films, introspective documentaries, films in the classicist tradition, film-poems, ritualistic films, choreographies for the camera, Haiku films, and other. Some of these poetic names intentionally spring from other art forms.

And, despite the fact that Deren tried to distinguish film from other art forms such as theater, literature, painting, and photography, she chose four art forms as a metaphor to describe her films. These were: poetry, dance, architecture, and music. According to Deren, cinema is the expression of an “artificial reality” and in order to achieve that reality, she would use the properties of these other arts in order to argue that cinema is a 20th-century time-space art form. More precisely, she compared poetry to film in order to illustrate film’s capacity of creatively rearranging fragments of memory; she compared dance to film due to movement’s capacity to transcend the perceptible Newtonian space and time; she admired architecture’s innovative achievements of taming balance through the implementation of cantilevers and she was inspired by music for its logic, nonnarrative and intangible nature. At the intersection of film and these art forms, Deren shaped her own language to speak about experimental film.

On June 28, 1947, three films by Maya Deren — Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1945), and A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) — were screened at the Palais des Beaux-arts in Brussels.³ In retrospect, this was an important symbolic moment in Deren’s career because it was when the filmmaker subconsciously created, for the first time, a link between chamber music and film, by screening her work in the prestigious Chamber Music Hall of the Palais des Beaux-arts. Years later, she will introduce the term “chamber films”.

Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid in their Morton Street apartment, c. 1944.

The hybrid name “chamber films” derives from a semantic fusion, inspired by musical terms, that appears in Deren’s writings parallel to her journeys in Haiti and her relationship with the music composer Teiji Ito. In the beginning, “chamber films” featured as the title of Deren’s film retrospectives that took place in 1960 in Living Theater and Cherry Lane and later, in 1961, in Bleecker Street Theater. These screenings differed from her previous ones in that they were poetically introduced by a sound piece, composed by Teiji Ito, while Deren was reading a text she wrote for the occasion. This new element added emphasis to the title of the screenings. These screenings were destined to be her last before her premature death in 1961 and, in that sense, the term “chamber films” contains the essence of all the previous terms she used to describe her films. The urban press the Village Voice, and Jonas Mekas’ column called Movie Journal, allowed Deren to elaborate on this new term. There, she wrote:

“Since terms such as “mainstream”, “shorts”, “feature-length”, “experimental”, “art theatres” etc., have contributed a formidable semantic confusion to the obstacles already confronting the development of film as an art form, I hereby propose the recognition of the chamber film as a form analogous to chamber music, which is not a minor or tributary form; […] the operational gigantism — massive budgets, monstrous personnel, etc. — which is normally associated with “professional” film production is as irrelevant and superfluous to such chamber films as the presence of a 90-piece orchestra is to chamber music; […]economy of means is of the essence of such forms and certainly not understood as an unfortunate limitation on creativity or profundity.” ⁴

In other words, the term “chamber films” was born out of a need for a new typology of film. It described a vibrant yet marginal independent film practice that should be acknowledged. However, by definition, this new film genre contained a paradox since lacking the support, “chamber films” were condemned to waver between private and public space, between an amateur’s practice and an accepted profession. Moreover, “chamber films” echo what Deren wrote in her seminal article “Amateur versus Professional” (1959):

“The major obstacle for amateur film-makers is their own sense of inferiority vis-àvis professional productions. […] Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom — both artistic and physical.” ⁵

Deren advocated for a cinema manipulated solely by its auteur, liberated from a capitalist mode of production and from overwhelming machinery. By disassociating experimental film from Hollywood mega-productions, she defined “avant-garde” film in the American context. Same as the chamber music, performed by a few instruments, “avant-garde” cinema was for Deren a crafted art, distinct from and beyond the movie industry. In a way similar to Deren, Jean Cocteau would also strived to separate the art of film from any financial system or profit, and interestingly so, he also chose chamber music as a metaphor. Referring, among others, to the cinematographe, he wrote:

“There are then set in motion those waves which few receivers pick up, which resist an official control of success or failure and whose influence can neither be analyzed nor confined. To disregard them, not to be wary of them, is folly, because they glide silently into the tumultuous events of the day. Who tunes in on these waves? The few ears that listen everywhere to what other ears hear not at all. This is what Nietzsche called our chamber music.” ⁶

Jean Cocteau in Flair Magazine, February 1950.

On a larger scope, the articulation and perception of space and architecture played a key role in Maya Deren’s thinking. A few years before applying the term “chamber films”, Deren had described her films in a letter to James Card by saying that:

“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.

Alternatively, “chamber films” can be viewed as a site-specific term. Same as chamber music was originally meant to be appreciated in private, so do “chamber films” relate to “home movies” who, in their turn, relate to the notion of home, literally and figuratively. For Deren, home signifies both a place of action and conceptual support where inspiration happens. In an interview, describing her apartment in New York, she once said:

“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 in her apartment at 61 Morton Street.

More precisely, Deren’s apartments at North Kings Road in California and, later, at Morton in Greenwich Village, were the set of her films. Her New York loft also served as her editing studio and it was the place that hosted her screenings for friends and special guests. Nevertheless, Deren strived to escape the domestic space by legitimizing her artistic practice through a series of radical acts such as project her own films by bypassing the commercial modes of distribution, co-found the Creative Film Foundation in order to support independent film productions, try to penetrate in art institutions and universities, etc. These radical acts show the many ways by which Deren attempted to establish a status for independent film. In this light, the term “chamber films”, far from being a concept designating films for a privileged few, described an emerging art form open to everyone. Nevertheless, due to the lack of financial support and institutional recognition, the “chamber films” were inevitably limited to a “noble” audience, just like chamber music was. Trying to justify the “exclusive” character of experimental films, Jonas Mekas once wrote:

Haitian bedroom, c. 1947–52. Photo by Maya Deren.

“There are films which will never work in large theatres, films like those by Maya Deren, Maas, Brakhage — introspective films, personal, subtle experiences. I can well imagine them if projected in the City Center; they wouldn’t be what they are any longer, the content would be different. Like making a confession of love in Madison Square Garden before 28.000 eyes. The only time I really enjoyed a Mozart Quartet was in a private-home performance. The only time I really enjoyed the Ninth Symphony was in an open street, with air-raid sirens blasting the city.” ⁹

And, despite Deren’s efforts to speak a universal language through her films, her “chamber films” were, as film critic Arthur Knight once called them, “far-out” or “more often talked about than seen”, due to their rarity and weak distribution, limited to university screenings, museums, and ciné-clubs. What Deren wished for her films, to be “for everybody”,¹⁰ remains, until today, unfulfilled, proving Mekas right when he said that “film poetry will ever be understood and felt by very many”.¹¹

By and large, Deren tried to lay the foundations of an art that is challenging and engaging, universal, and for everyone. Today, in the midst of global transitions and humanitarian crises, where the question about the role and impact of culture in today’s societies is more pressing than ever, Deren’s critical thinking and the invention of a new vocabulary — on- and off-screen — can be viewed as an exemplar of resistance. Still, the question rising from her ever-contemporary term “chamber films” remains: who has the key to enter this chamber?

A Private Life of a Cat, 1947. A film by Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren shot at their apartment in Morton Street, NY.

[1]”Excerpts from an Interview with The Legend of Maya Deren Project: The Camera Obscura Collective”, Camera Obscura, Summer 1979 1–2, p.187.

[2] From Maya Deren’s unpublished letter to a neighbor.

[3] On the same film program, we also find Hans Richter’s film, Dreams that Money can buy (1947).

[4] DEREN, Maya, “On Hollywood and the Chamber Film” (August 25, 1960), in Film Culture, 1965, no.39, p.54.

[5] DEREN, Maya, “Amateur versus Professional”, in Essential DEREN: Collected writings on film by Maya Deren, Kingston/New York: Documentext, 2005, p.18.

[6] COCTEAU, Jean, Lettre aux américains (1949), Les Cahiers Rouges, Paris : Grasset, 2003, pp. 93–94. The English translation of Cocteau’s A Letter to Americans was partially diffused in Flair magazine in February 1950. In October of the same year, Maya Deren also published an article in the same magazine called “Haiti”. Since Deren was fully aware of the content of the magazines in which she contributed, it is appropriate to assume that she was familiar with Jean Cocteau’s text.

[7] DEREN, Maya, “Α letter to James Card” (1955), in Film Culture, winter 1965, no.39, p.31.

[8] From Maya Deren’s unpublished interview for Flair magazine.

[9] MEKAS, Jonas, “Movie Journal”, March 16, 1961. In Movie journal reader, p.105.

[10] DEREN, Maya, “Statement of Principles”, in Film Culture, 1961, no.22–23, p.161.

[11] MEKAS, Jonas, “Movie Journal”, February 25, 1959, op. cit., p.15.

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