When the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics was first introduced, an Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrödinger sought to disprove it by proposing a thought experiment, which ended up being embraced as a good illustration of the theory. In his hypothetical experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a poison that may or may not be released, depending upon whether or not a Geiger counter detects radiation within. According to quantum mechanics, the cat exists in a state of being simultaneously alive and dead (as opposed to being either, as one might normally expect to find the cat) until the box is opened and the cat observed. Schrödinger’s cat has also been tied into Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which basically defines history as disparate but congruently occurring -- like branches on a tree. By this logic, in one universe the cat is observed as alive while in another universe the cat is observed as being dead, and in another universe’s reality the cat is observed as being a BMW 7 Series. Another theory that is touched upon by Deren’s films is string theory, which describes the shapes of particles in space time. In time with a linear structure, a particle that is a sphere actually stretches out backward and forward in time. In time with a cyclical structure, the string forms a loop, or closed string.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
The very title of the film suggests a way this film can be read. Speaking strictly in terms of semantics, the title translates to “fabric of time.” The concept of time as a flat but variable surface echoes forward to Stephen Hawking’s now well-known illustration of the nature of the space-time, in which time is a sheet stretched taut with a bowling ball placed in the center, creating a downward slope around itself.
The initial point-of-view of the viewer in Meshes is always looking down without looking around or taking in the immediate environment. This is the only view which first informs the protagonist’s experience.
A mannequin (acting as a stand-in for human) places the iconic flower on the ground. The flower is one among the many different “constants” that exist within the closed system of the house Maya Deren has created in this film. Thus, when the protagonist picks up the flower and looks forward she sees a man walking away from the house. She tries to follow him, but can’t catch up. This man reappears later, and it is not until we see him find the protagonist’s drowned body at the end of the film we realize how this film pre-references Shrodinger’s thought experiment.
The house is the box of Shrodinger’s original hypothesis, while Deren as the protagonist is the unknown and unknowing cat within the box and the man is anyone who opens the box to observe the state of the cat, not knowing whether or not the being within the box will exist as alive or dead—despite the manner in which Deren first enters the house, to see the knife fall sideways from the loaf of bread which appears to be a piece of information the man must surely know. Whether or not Deren as her own protagonist will actually use the knife once she is in the closed system of the house is unknown, but the fact that the knife is still moving when she walks in would seem to indicate the man who left the house knows of its lethal potential.
This image of the falling knife brings up another conundrum: whether or not the man who walked away was in the house in the first place. When Deren enters, the door is locked. She fumbles with the key to this previously unknown universe and cannot open the door to this experience without dropping the key before she can enter the reality of this new universe. The locked door is a strange visual cue, because as the woman enters the house it would appear that someone was there and left in a hurry. The locked door could obviously signify the man was never in the house, while the knife in the bread, the record player spinning, the newspaper lying open on the floor, the phone off the hook, the unmade bed and the open window all signify he was.
Here, we see an uncanny reference to Everett’s “Many Worlds”: the universe in which the man was in the house and the universe in which he was never in the house are represented simultaneously here. In spite of this bizarre mis-en-scene, our protagonist nods off into a restless sleep. As she drifts off the camera pulls back through a tube, representing either an illustration of a journey into the woman’s mind; or an unwitting illustration of the closed string theory; or both. Through this viewing tunnel we see the previous events played out again: this time the man is replaced with an ominous hooded figure with a mirror masked face who carries the same flower that Deren had picked up off the ground in the first scene. This figure stands for the peril of losing her identity if she is to understand what she is experiencing.
The woman is afraid of accepting the lack of control she has over her place in the universe at large (that is to say, outside of the box that is the house, the observer of the box, the box that is the acutal frame of the film around him, the observer that is the viewer, the box that is the theatre that the viewer sits in as part of the audience, and so on), particularly in terms of her relative unimportance within it. Deren is allowing the viewer to experience the inside of the box from the protagonist’s perspective through all five senses. Sight is everything she observes. The bread represents taste. The flower hints at scent. The telephone acts as a stand-in for sound, while the sharp knife uses pain as a signifier for touch.
As the woman begins to understand her previously unknowable universe she literally delivers the key from her mouth as if giving birth to her own understanding. It is through this newfound enlightenment she realizes that she literally holds the key to her experience in this house. However, as her awareness grows, she learns what she knows cannot be trusted and there are not only an infinite number of ways to experience the universe on multiple planes of reality that is this house, but a multiplicity of selves which are unique only in their actions as opposed to their appearance. The woman is now the observer observed observing the multiple variables of herself. This is a direct illustration of another way to look in on Schrödinger’s cat. Moreover, an interesting parallel is the way Deren references the concept of wormholes when in her dream, the protagonist walks up the stairs toward her bedroom and walks through the door only to find herself as another entity entering the room through a window.
Now that the woman is incapable of setting things straight in this veritable universe of possibilities, chaos theory comes into play with the use of the knife, which cannot only cut through the mesh of the afternoon, but can pose a clear and present danger to her as the identity she has carefully cultivated comes under attack. Her universe ends with the discovery of her lifeless body by the observer who returns to open the box. The act of observation by the man changes the structure of the universe which has up until this point been explored in so many perspectives one last time.
At Land (1944)
Deren takes another a look at time from a more subjective perspective in her second film. At Land follows a woman from her “birth” at the edge of the ocean to the climax of her maturation.
The central figure in this eerily silent film starts as all of us do by learning to crawl. She pulls herself up a driftwood stump to peers over the edge of a dining table full of formally-dressed adults making incomprehensible small talk, her eyes peeking over the edge much in the way a toddler’s might. She singlemindedly makes her way to the opposite edge of the table but finds it slow going. At the end of the table she finds a game of chess being played. The pieces are being moved with purpose, but the she does not yet have the capacity to discern why they move or how. She is trying to understand the rules of her existence in this universe, but cannot at this point in her early development as she has not learned the rules of her existence.
As the central figure of the woman learns to walk, she befriends a man whose image varies from shot to shot. He starts out as fairly young, but does not continue to age significantly and seems to fixed in time as a frozen memory for the woman who might have an innocent “crush” on his bland good looks. This is a commentary on the subjectivity of human perception. While the two characters may acknowledge each other’s existence, they can only make their way into adolescence separately. The woman is beginning to identify with the pawn from the chess game she is carrying, but soon finds it swept away in the whorls of the stream and she cannot retrieve it. In other words, Deren is positing we will all have our futures carried away by forces beyond our immediate grasp or control.
As the central figure continues her maturation by entering the mysterious shack, she enters a room covered in sheets. She has an idea of the general outline of the forms of her surroundings, but no concrete idea of what actually lies underneath. She confronts a man covered to his neck with a blank sheet. She is clearly curious about the opposite sex, but lacks the experience to imagine the physical appearance of what is under the broad white “canvas” of the sheet. She has grown to adolescence, but lacks the ability to know how to order her reaction. As the woman makes her way out of the house, many doors swing open in various directions: a not so subtle play on the Doors of Perception, prefiguring the seminal work by British author, Aldous Huxley.
Fully grown and ready to take on the world, our heroine faces the reality of making her way in adult culture, by finding her career. This is represented in her mindlessly gathering and losing rocks, much like we gather money and possessions. This cycle of gathering and dropping rocks continues until she encounters two women playing chess. They chat with each other without paying much heed to the game which continues without them. The protagonist, on the other hand, takes in the progress of the game very carefully, thinking back on her experience early in childhood of being unable to discern the game’s purpose. Finally, she understands the nature of the universe—it is arbitrary, and fate has no particular interest in the plight of the individual.
Consequently, she attempts different ways to re-order her fate (save herself as an unwitting pawn) by distracting the women by touching their hair sensually. She steals her pawn, thereby taking her fate into her own hands, and re-visits the previous parts of her life, making her presence known to her former selves as if to tell them they have the potential to be in control and not to endlessly go through this cycle. At the end, she returns to the beach she came from, tying the story together into a circle. This may be the only part of the film that can be seen to tie into physics- in particular, this sequence reflects the currently accepted model of an expanding and contracting universe, as opposed to one that started with one “Big Bang.” We exist -- like Deren in At Land -- in a serious of violent births from almost nothing and will return in much the same fashion.
Clearly, it is inconceivable to imagine Maya Deren knowingly based these two films in question on concepts in modern physics. However, in the quest of quantum mechanics and recent physics to come up with a unified theory to explain not only the laws of our universe, but time and space with complex theories which necessarily involve direct observation and thought experiments. What is not inconceivable is the notion Maya Deren could knowingly employ similar methods and theories in order to explain the “realities” contained within her films. Just as with Schrodinger’s cat, the informed observer of these two experimental films is being invited to “structure” the universe Maya Deren has created on her terms alone in order to “explain” it. The fact that these films still engender more complex thought than seems possible 65 years after they were created lends credibility to Maya Deren’s systematic genius of exposition in her first two experimental films.
Hawking, Stephen A Brief History of Time. New York, Bantam Books, 1988, 1998.
Talbot, Michael The Holographic Universe. New York, Harper Collins, 1991.
Macpherson, Bruce R., ed. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005.