BFI Classics: Meshes of the Afternoon

Author: John David Rhodes

In 1943 Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid set out to make a film in their LA home on a budget of $274.95.  The 15 minute short that these newlyweds shot in their bungalow near Sunset Boulevard would go on to be hailed by future generations of critics and filmmakers alike as the single most important film in the trajectory of American avant-garde cinema. Meshes of the Afternoon stands alongside its European counterpart Un Chien Andalou as distant summits in the landscape of modern film.  Buñuel’s eye-ball slicing and Deren’s spectral doubling have become iconic scenes parallel to anything you’ll see on the glossy show-reels of the Oscars.  We need only to think of Lynch and films like Mullholland Drive to see how direct an influence Meshes has had on modern mainstream cinema when it’s at its most daring.

This recognition of Meshes and its influence is in no way novel or even insightful.  These ideas are simply ingrained in the architecture of the historical framework that our collective understanding of modern cinema is built on, which is ultimately an elaborate way of saying they’re basically clichés of film studies.  It’s a testament to John David Rhodes’ new book Meshes of the Afternoon that his monograph avoids this type of boring waffle regarding the film’s historical importance. Rhodes simply references it on his way to articulating an interpretation of the film that presents it as the result of combining Deren’s modernist aesthetics and radical politics with Hammid’s technical virtuosity. 

Rhodes’ writing is clear, lucid and authoritative regardless of whether he’s discussing T.S. Eliot and symbolism or the variety of American cinema that came in the wake of Meshes.  It’s exactly this grip on his subject matter and the various angles he’s willing to look at it from that makes Rhodes’ book both accessible for the uninitiated and interesting for the more experienced Deren fan.  The problem with striking this balance though is that it limits Rhodes’ study far too much to do justice to the complexity of the points he raises. By the end of the book one wonders whether he may have been able to do more to develop his interpretation of Meshes as a landmark in film that is as complex politically as it is aesthetically if there were less biography and more analysis. 

The chapters on Deren’s youth and academic background could definitely be condensed as Rhodes spends half the book discussing them, alighting only briefly on Hammid’s biography in the process.  This ultimately limits the analysis of the film whilst it completely eclipses any appreciation of Hammid’s actual contribution to Meshes.  Rhodes’ categorising of Hammid’s influence as being purely technical seems suspicious when we read it alongside his understanding of the film’s politics as being specifically feminist.  This neglect of Hammid’s influence also allows him to disregard the influence of European avant-garde cinema on Meshes, as Hammid was far more versed in its development than Deren having spent most of his life immersed in the art and film world in Czechoslovakia.  This strikes me as a particularly troubling omission from Rhodes’ argument as it seems that an overt effort has been made to present Meshes simply as the product of Deren’s feverish imagination and interest in modernism rather than as a film developed out of a much broader movement in avant-garde cinema itself.

This however is ultimately a problem with form rather than content.  The BFI Film Classics series provide interesting jumping-off points for wider appreciations of the films they cover, and in this sense they are more like city-guides than historical studies of city itself.  For Rhodes to articulate what is essentially a very engaging and consistent argument whilst being informative about the film and its makers in general terms is actually another testament to his writing, it’s just that the crux of his argument seems hamstrung.  His assertion that Meshes’ brilliance lies in its seeking of an approach to formal innovation that can be politically conscious gestures towards so much that is wholly relevant today in cinema, let alone in the 1940s that it could have warranted another hundred pages, maybe more.  This is not to say though that Rhodes fails in any way; he actually manages to present his argument with such economy that it drives you to ask what else he would have liked to say had his publishers let him.

Kieran McGrath

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