Saturday, 25 May 2013

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon
I like film art. On art museums I definitely seek out the film art section as this for me is far more engrossing than paintings or sculpturing. Only installation art can measure up to the fascination I have for film art.

What it is I am getting out of it I cannot really tell. I am no art expert and my analysis of what I see is generally not very deep. Instead it is like a feeling or an impression or most often simply the world being turned upside down that makes me interested. It can also be hilariously funny, either because the artist induces a level of humor turning the installation into a prank or because the artist is so self-indulgent and pretentious that it is just laughable. I am sure the serious art critic would find the later attitude of mine amateurish, but hey, if I am having a good time watching the art, is that not a good thing?

Film art is different from art film. An art film would by me be considered in the same context as any other film. Is it interesting? What is the storyline, the acting, the cinematography like? Am I bored or did I love it. Film art does usually not comply with movie conventions. Cause and action relationships break down. At face value the film often makes no sense at all and the world it depicts may be surreal in the extreme. Therefore the way to consider the film art is as an installation.

All this rambling about film art leads up to the film du jour: “Meshes of the Afternoon” by Maya Deren. This is film art of almost epic scale. As I understand it Maya Deren was to film art what Any Warhol was to pop art. Hugely influential. I cannot say if this is really the case as in all my ignorance I actually never heard of her before, but when I watch her pieces (there are 6 on the DVD I got) I realize how much of later film art points back to this artist and “Meshes of the Afternoon” in particular. David Lynch is a good example. I would claim that he could not have made “Mulholland Drive” if “Meshes of the Afternoon” had not come before. Yet Deren did not invent this branch of film art single handedly. Certainly I see Bunuel standing in the background, not as a chaotic, giggling surrealist, but in the way the film media can be used to tell a story using symbols instead of words.

The first impression of “Meshes…” is that it is rather pretentious in its absurdity. I am reminded of “Ghost world” where the art teacher Roberta presents a similar work called “Mirror, Father, Mirror”. In fact I feel confident that “Mirror, Father, Mirror” was modeled on “Meshes…”. Even Roberta looks like Maya Deren! I think that is really funny.

Yet very soon “Meshes” reveals a lot more content. This is not pointless at all. I will not claim I understand it all and I will also admit that I learned a bit from reading about the film in The Book, yet I  will hazard an attempt at explaining it or at least what I got out of it.

First of all our protagonist falls asleep in her armchair. That tells us that most of what is going on is happening in her sleep or at least on a subconscious level. We are witnesses to the mental reflections of this woman.

Secondly we have a number of objects that seem to carry a meaning.

There is a flower. I take it to mean happiness. She finds it outside and takes it into the house. A stranger takes it away, and the woman loses it. A man (her husband) brings it to her and places it on her bed.

There is a window. The inside versus the outside. She stands by the window and looks longingly out. But she is also falling or at least leaning out the window as if she is being swallowed by the abyss. A life that drowns her?

Then there is a key and a knife. They replace each other so it seems that the key is the knife and the knife is the key. She can unlock whatever she is caught in with the knife. The knife is also in the bed instead of the flower and when she uses the knife on the man she is breaking a window and looks at the sea. Freedom?

So she must kill her husband or whatever keeps her tied to her prison? Yet, she is also looking at a mirror and multiple parts of herself, as if it is not really her husband that keeps her prisoner but herself. Her rebellious self, wearing cool shades takes action and kills her passive self, which is ultimately fatal and her husband finds her dead.

There is a lot more meaning to be found in the story: the unhooked phone, the stairs, the key coming out of her mouth and much more. I am sure it all means something and that is the wonderful thing about this stuff that I keep finding messages in seemingly pointless elements.

But basically this is a story about a woman caught in the prison of domestic life. Her subconscious reflections over her situation leads her in the end to kill herself.

Much much earlier on the List we found the film “La Souriante Madame Beudet”, that claimed a similar message. But where Madame Beudet failed completely on me I am totally buying into “Meshes of the Afternoon”. It works. I sense her frustration, her lost dreams and her radical resolution and it carries an impact not lessened by the dramatic Japanese soundtrack.

I feel quite certain that a more expert viewer and critic would be able to point out a few (or many) mistakes in my analysis and I certainly will not claim my reading to be ultimate truth, but that is the wonderful thing with art that we can project anything we want into it and it is still right and fine. And if I feel like laughing at the wildly surrealist pictures then that is also okay.


  1. It's been too long since I've seen this to allow me to comment intelligently, but I definitely wanted to tell you that this is a very nice review. Very thoughtful, very introspective. Thanks for this! When I watch this film again, I'll definitely be reading your review with it!

    1. Thank you very much! This is a very nice compliment.
      I look forward to read your review when you get to it.

  2. I haven't liked many (or maybe any) of the experimental films in the list, but at least this one did not seem to be trying to deliberately antagonize the viewer like so many others are. For me, that is sort of a compliment for this film. :-)

    1. I agree. It bothers me when a lofty artist seems more intent on annoying me than offer me an experience. It is okay that it is cryptic or convoluted, but I do not like to get pissed at.

  3. I think your explanation is as good as any I've come across. I still don't know what it means, but I know what I think it means, and that's got to be good enough--but I might cop a few ideas from you should I ever need to.

    1. And I think I would settle for that. That makes it a personal experience and hopefully not a too bad one.