Maya Deren – The Very Eye of Night (1958)

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Maya Deren, one of the first and most innovative of American experimental filmmakers, made this, her last complete film, in 1958 — one of her best. Still hopeful of making new films, Deren left unfinished Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which was shot between 1947 and 1954, and only completed by Teiji and Cherel Ito in 1985, many years after her death in 1961, at the age of 44.

The Very Eye of Night has gotten a bad rap over the years, when compared to her landmark Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), but it doesn’t deserve it. In The Very Eye of Night, Deren finally figures out how to effortlessly make bodies float through space, to mesh the camera with the bodies of the dancers she records, and to create an ethereal, otherworldly series of images that lead the receptive viewer into her own personal dream world.

As Wendy Haslem notes of the film, “The Very Eye of Night was a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. The film was beset by problems in its production and carried with it a heavy weight of expectation. A shimmering constellation of stars established the background for negative images of figures resembling Greek Gods superimposed on and magically transported along the milky way. Deren called it her ‘ballet of night’, an ethereal dance within a nocturnal space that focused on the spectacle rather than the narrative. Ito collaborated on the soundtrack using tone blocks and bells, recalling the trance rhythm of Meshes of the Afternoon. Prioritizing enchantment over interpretation, The Very Eye of Night proved to be Deren’s most controversial and misunderstood film.”

And as Deren herself noted, shortly before her death, “A creative artist must have, to begin with, substantial reserves in his bank. He must have endured the experiences of life; he must have first earned and deposited his money. Those who have spared themselves the pain and effort of living do not have much in the vault…..

At this point my useful bank metaphor has to be modified….Let us instead imagine that this money is really like books or diaries or records of all we have ever seen, felt, thought, heard, thought, and experienced. The problem of the artist, then, is to rob the vaults only of those riches that are relevant to his need.

The trouble is that these vaults — these archives of the spirit — are not catalogued and cross-indexed. So one begins with the idea; and the intensity of one’s concentration makes, of that idea or concept, a sort of selective magnet which, passed over the mind again and again, draws out the images, sounds. movements, people, reflections, ideas, etc. related to it in kind.

If the magnet is too selective, it will bring up only synonyms and no new, illuminating relationships will be revealed. It is better that it be a little loose, eclectic and liberal so that one starts out with a big choice of possibilities. It is wonderful, of course, to watch a Master at work — and this is what a Zen Master is — when the magnet is of such extraordinary precision that it brings forth the most precisely best and no more and no less. One might even say that Zen is the art of tooling the magnet to its most refined precision and of charging it with the greatest pulling power.”

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