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At Land


By Tom BakerPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read
Maya Deren "At Land" (1944)

The beautiful, incomparable Maya Deren directed this surrealist exploration of desperation in 1944--a year not well-disposed to women and their longing to escape from the oppression of bourgeois, corporate American boardroom society. It was still the War Years, and freedom, liberation from spiritual tyranny, was thrust into the backseat behind the existential threat of global fascism.

Be that as it may, this is an inescapable erotic fantasy of being liberated from the confines of a world that imprisons, because it lacks or even destroys beauty. Natural beauty; wondrous driftwood across the face of a beach.

Deren herself stars in the film, as in Meshes of the Afternoon, but in a different context of course. Here, she is reborn, from one fantasy (of sinuously and sensuously crawling across the long, slender table at a boardroom meeting, where men and women eagerly smoke, indulge in polite banter, and insufficiently reach each other, caught in the cold confines of the fictitious spaces they occupy) to another, of a lonf flowing edge of surf.

Cast upon the sand, like Rimbaud seeking to find escape in a similar passage in Season in Hell, Deren is lost, mirroring herself between two worlds, neither one of which seems to be objectively "real"; but one is a world of regiment, formality, and stricture.

Aphrodite-like, she is reborn from the surf, gets up, grasping a piece of driftwood that seems conveniently placed as abstract sculpture. Perhaps it is a symbol of male potency; perhaps it's just a visual prop. Either way, she uses it to pull herself up, to stand, as it were, in the roiling surf.

Reaching up over the barricade of driftwood, she realizes she is back in the confines of the board room, capitalist confinement she longed to escape. She sees a vision of a chess board where the pieces move about, "playing themselves." A metaphor for the internal "game" being played here, the various illusory realities created by and for Deren, the dreamer seeking an escape from the dream.

She walks a short pathway with a young man, before realizing he has deserted her. Before her, she sees a home, but the furnishings inside are covered by dust cloths, as if the place is deserted, and in the bed, the inert figure of a possibly-dead older man is seen.

Frantically, Deren chases the falling pawn from the chess game. More frantically, she goes about the beach, seeking to pick up and hold the "Stepping stones", keys to her eventual destination, her journey out of the ever-shifting landscape ("At Land") of her mind, which alternates between fantasies of confinement male power, freedom, and the absolution of beauty represented by the seashore.

Three women play chess at the edge of the water. Deren approaches, and laughing with them at the "game" they find themselves thrust into playing, throws back her head, exultant. The three call to mind, oddly, the Tarot card of the "Three of Cups", the unity of female energy. But this is artifice, the game is waged by them against them, by a patriarchal establishment that confines their feelings, offering them only illusions of themselves. These illusions shift between an abandoned suburban home, a corporate boardroom, and grasping toward male potency, male energy in the form of driftwood and huge twists of coral. Alternately, Deren makes her way through flowers (symbolic of female sexual organs) at one point.

Looking up from her laughing, she sees her double running down the length of the beach, her arms held aloft as if in a motion of surrender. Her footprints trail behind her in the sand.

Maya Deren is so uncommonly striking to look at it is always a pleasure to watch her in a film. This particular dream-vision uses the metaphor of shifting, illusory "realities" to tell a tale of oppression, which is well worth the viewer's time. It is a small, brilliant piece of cinematic poetry.

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About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.: http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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