A flower, a key, a knife, a phone with its receiver off the hook, and a mysterious figure in black. It is remarkable what one can achieve with a few stray images and a lot of imagination. This handful of components are remixed and repurposed in an inventive, circular narrative in the experimental Surrealist short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Made by the husband and wife team of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid on a minuscule budget, Meshes is frequently cited as the film that really kicked off American experimental cinema and as a major influence on later filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. Much like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s avant-garde image-fest Un Chien Andalou (1929), Meshes of the Afternoon taps into the imagery and feel of dreams, but its vision is less confronting and more meditative. It also has something closer to an actual narrative thread: A woman steps into a house and falls asleep in a chair, at which point multiple dream selves enter the same house and encounter different experiences with the five items listed above. The result is a cyclical narrative wherein the story repeats itself in different variations as dream clones of the woman begin to pile up in the house. Meshes of the Afternoon gives the viewer no quarter, drawing you in through its wild imagery and offering no explanation of the meaning of it all — if there even is one. (13 min.)
J. – I feel like this is going to be a tough one to discuss, S. The film is so defiantly strange and unfathomable; it’s also arguably incredibly pretentious. But I have to admit that in the days since we watched this silent short it just keeps coming back into my mind. So it certainly has a pull and a power, I just fear I’m not quite up to explaining what the source of the attraction is. But let’s give it a go…
I suppose the first thing to get out of the way is that Meshes of the Afternoon had a budget of, I think, negative 25 dollars. So this is not the place to go for amazing production values, or even little basics like sound. I don’t say this to demean the film at all, but rather as a way to sing its praises; because the filmmakers achieve a huge amount with their limited resources and I feel like the obvious cheapness of it all just makes it that much more impressive.
I think for me the best starting point for examining the film is the strange feeling of dread and paranoia that it inspired in me pretty much right from the get-go with the ominous shot of an arm coming straight down from the center top of the screen to deposit the flower on the sidewalk. That was damn creepy, and the mood was sustained by initially only showing the protagonist via her shadow, a la the vampire in Nosferatu. And when you aren’t looking at the woman’s shadow the perspective tends to be straight from the woman’s eyes (filmed using a handheld camera) — so you are limited initially to the woman’s perspective and the sight of her shadow or hands. It’s very disorienting and turns tiny actions into revelations, as you see what she sees but don’t know what she knows. That really got me engaged and granted at least the illusion of import to these items that end up popping up over and over again. What is their significance to this women? Why does she dwell on them despite them being everyday things?
S. – I have also had this short film bumping around my mind the last few days and I think that has a lot to do with the way the first person experience pulls you in. It is a similar sensation to being in a role-playing computer game where you stumble around and around a restricted and unfamiliar environment trying to piece together the clues in a mystery that you are compelled to solve. It was eerie and unsettling but not in the same way that I experienced Un Chien Andalou, rather than feeling repelled or disturbed by the images presented it was more a sense of intrigue that was generated. The repetition with small changes through each cycle was very effective at mimicking a dreamlike state, while the focus given to the everyday objects that keep re-appearing in slightly different context made me feel like I was getting a new clue each time the action came around again. The most jarring element I found was the soundtrack, the Japanese musical soundtrack added a layer that didn’t feel quite right to me.
J. – I really like the music, it definitely added to the disturbing aura of the film and made things that much more tense. So I was a little disappointed to learn that the music was not originally attached to the film, and was added by Deren about 15 years after Meshes was made (the composer was her third husband). Of course, now we can’t unhear the music, so we can’t experience the movie as it originally was. But that’s probably fine, because the score was one of my favorite components.
I enjoyed the imagery of Meshes of the Afternoon a great deal, even if I may not have been wholly cognizant of exactly what was going on. There were a few snippets that particularly stood out for me. I loved the stuff when the woman is swooning about the stairs as the camera weaves and bobs, giving the impression that the house has turned upside down. And the fleeting reflection of the woman’s face, distorted in the blade of the knife was very evocative and spoke to the sense of dread — or perhaps a suicidal impulse — being experienced by the woman. But my favorite repetitive motif was the use of the figure in black, always just of out reach or simply terrifying. The decision to use a mirror for this being’s face was genius, and it created a creature like one of the ring wraiths from The Lord of the Rings, only actually scary. I know there were a few images that you really liked, S. Care to elaborate on those?
S. – The film contained many effects that were skilfully executed, which was super impressive given the shoestring budget. I think my favorite was the moment you felt as though you were drifting from the ceiling across the room towards the sleeping version of yourself. This came after that off-kilter walk up the stairs (including an awesome slow-motion running effect) that was very effective at disturbing the usual sense of up and down and let me believe that a flying motion was entirely natural within that dream house. Usually I’m not great at embracing these distorted reality type scenarios, but using the ruse of a dream allowed me to let go of my stubborn adherence to physics. The mood reminded me to a degree of some of the weirder sequences in Twin Peaks, the distortion delivered in a very gentle and mesmerising way. As we mentioned in the intro, David Lynch was influenced by this work and perhaps the memory of it has leaked into his creations.
J. – The dream logic generally was great fun, and I particularly liked how multiple copies of the women end up in the house and even sitting around the table going through some strange game or ritual surrounding the key. But more than that, the multiple selves offered some interesting uses of those first person perspective shots we mentioned above, as what you were often seeing was the woman looking at herself or selves. What a bizarre feeling it would be to look out the window of your home and see yourself running up the sidewalk. That was all handled very well and used some really snappy editing, particularly some unusual jump cuts to both disorient the viewer and give that feeling of the repetitious, circular nature of the story.
But what is the story? A man suddenly appears who is apparently both close to but despised by the woman. The woman is animated to violence but its uncertain whether it was against the man, herself, or both. And the coda in which the woman in the chair is found covered in seaweed feels like a definite homage to the remarkable closing image of Un Chien Andalou. Now, Buñuel’s movie expressly did not have a point and was largely a big middle finger to the audience. But even though Meshes references Un Chien Andalou, I also found it much more inviting to the audience and open to actual interpretation. I confess I’ll be damned if I know what it all means, but I appreciate that it created a sustained mood of disquiet and offered some interesting avenues into exploring the nature of perception and point of view. And while I may be reading too much into it, it felt to me like a story of a woman who felt trapped in a morass of the mundane and was looking for as many escape routes as possible, even if it meant destroying herself. You endlessly chase after the mysterious black figure only to be confronted with your reflection; who wouldn’t break the mirror?
S. – I can’t pretend to know what it means either but I had a similar impression to you, J., that she was searching for the exit from a labyrinth. It reminded me of the frustration you experience when you are puzzling over an issue and you keep running over how to respond in your head. In such a setting seeing yourself reacting one way while you are thinking of another way things could play out doesn’t seem so ridiculous. The appearance of another person offering hope that they could lead you to the exit only to find your reflection where their face should be was a brilliant, and disquieting, twist. For such a short film Meshes of the Afternoon was full of detail and cycled through enough variations to convey the growing desperation without the repetition becoming dull. It has left an impression that has already lasted well beyond its modest size.