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Thoughts in motion for Media Studies & H.O.C

Analysis Project #2: Formal Analysis

Filed under: Class Assignments — Natalie Bernabe at 6:57 am on Friday, December 9, 2011

Natalie Bernabe

History of Cinema II

MEDST 144

Prof. Amy Herzog

The Materiality of Mesh in the Afternoon

            Within every movie, there is a plot, or a storyline. One that draws us in, allowing us to envelop ourselves to the lives of the characters and their actions. Rarely do viewers remember the director and what they are striving to portray, which is an idea or thought they wish to share. However, there are certain films that filmmakers have succeeded in drawing the viewer’s attention to the ‘materiality’ of film, or the physical attributes that make up a film, such as the camera and frames. These films are notable for their either daring content or in the interesting way they have filmed the movie. These films are called avant-garde films, or experimental films. One such film that has drawn our attention to the materiality of the film is Maya Deren’s 1941 avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon.

However, there are many different types of avant-garde films that can draw one’s attention to the materiality of the film. What sets Meshes of The Afternoon apart from the rest? For one, there is the film’s storyline, which does contribute in drawing our attention to the filming rather than the film, which was a bit unusual. The entire piece revolves around a surreal dream-like environment that relies heavily on imagery and the use of cinematic techniques, and was a film that dealt with devastating psychological problems, inspired by many French Surrealist films, such as films made by Salvador Dali. The film is made without the use of special effects by computers, which was unavailable in the 40s, but there were other methods. How does the film Meshes of the Afternoon depict a surreal dream world without the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI)?

One scene in particular drew my eye to notice the materiality of the film. In the video, the scene is 2 minutes and 22 seconds long, from 4:17 to 6:39, as the video is 13 minutes and 30 seconds long. The scene starts with a medium close-up of a woman, who is played coincidently by Maya Deren, who opens a door to a living room, where she scans the room. Here, the camera has a horizontal take of newspapers on the floor, some furniture until it reaches some stairs which has a butter knife facing down. Earlier in the film, we had seen a similar scene, yet the camera took a take of the center of the room, and there was a telephone instead of a knife. There is an uncanny feeling in the silence of the room, and how similar the scene prior to this one was. Then she goes up the stairs, and we see the camera focus on only her feet ascending the stairs. Prior to the scene, the stairs were the only thing depicted of her going up the stairs. While she is going up, the film is now in slow motion, showing us an approximate 23 seconds of a slow motion action of walking up the stairs, and then her face from a high angle shot as she reaches the railing. We then see her slowly walking through some black curtains in a light room, almost as if she is in another dimension. It feels unnatural, and is very captivating; it does not look like it would happen in real life. This slow motion editing of the film makes us conscious of the materiality of the film, for the filmmakers did not simply press a button on a computer to slow the frames down, but had to edit them physically; frame by frame. The use of slow motion in this film helps to depict a surreal dream environment without the use of CGI.

 

She now enters the room through the window in real time, and looks down at the bed, where a phone is unhooked on the pillow. As she reaches to uncover the blankets, there is a loud humming sound and we see her uncover a knife. Now, the camera is zoomed in for us to see a close-up of the woman’s face in the reflection of the knife, where the light makes it seem as if her face is moving to the side, and gives her face an eerie quality that looks unnatural. She puts the phone back on the hook, and is now moving backwards into the window and drums are being hit, and a flute is being played. She moves backwards into the railing and looks around frantically with her arms waving about, meanwhile the camera is turning. Although she is only on the stairs, having the camera turned into a specific angle makes it seem as if she is trying not to fall into the ceiling. Her hair blowing and her hands desperately clinging to the ceiling make it seem as if she was propelled there and as if she is literally stuck to the ceiling. The camera’s angle shot of her torso and under her chin emphasizes this as well. She finally reaches the arch into her living room. We only see a medium shot of her as her arms are splayed across the wall, she could very well be standing on a chair, but the wind and her actions make it seem as if she is stuck there. Then we see a high angle take of the room. The two things that drew our attention to the materiality of the film were the camera angles, and the Maya’s portrayal to an uncanny circumstance. The camera angles and shots helped depict a topsy-turvy world  where up was down and nothing seemed aligned, but this effect was strengthen by the Maya’s acting out a ‘falling’ victim with her movements of her body and arms. It was similar to that of Alice dropping down the rabbit hole, and had that same surreal quality to it, which is what drew our attention to it. It did not have to rely on special effects such as CGI to capture the same feeling, and our attention was tied with the camera’s movements.

We then see her reach from the ceiling down to the phonograph, where she turns it off, and is now on the floor looking at her double sleeping on the chair near the window. She now touches the window, where we see her reflection for a brief moment, as she stares down to a figure cloaked in black holding a large flower. As well as herself from a high angle shot running towards the figure. Both her hands are on the window as she stares at them, and the shot reflects the trees in the window glass, which makes her hair seem as if it is turning into leaves; giving her an ethereal quality. Meanwhile, strings are being pulled along with the distinct humming. This is how the scene ends.  The use of the split-screen technique in this scene was truly effective because it really emphasized the dream-like quality of the scene; the fact that one of the doubles was watching one sleep and one run. Dreams do not usually make sense, and this portion of the scene was very unusual and fantastical. The shot of her and her reflection, although perfectly normal, felt as if it foreshadowed the arrival of a new double; which did arrive. The entire film had the recurring scene of her trying to catch up to the cloaked figure, which was shown in this scene. The last shot by the camera, where her hair looks like it is turning into part of the tree, was exceptionally creative. This was one of the best techniques used to and again, added to the surreal dream environment, without CGI.

 

This short scene has depicted numerous ways in which a surreal dream world can be filmed, without such special effects specifically by CGI. We became conscious of the director’s vision, and the filmmaker’s efforts in portraying that image. The filmmaker’s effects and work clearly paid off in the making of this sort of experimental film. We focused more on the editing and styling rather than the plot. It became a visually captivating, and poetic story, which didn’t require over the top effects to get a reaction to the surrealism and materiality of the film.

All rights to Supercinema77 on Youtube: Maya Deren – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

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2 Comments

11

   Steven Rengifo

December 12, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

It was either going to choose La Jetee or Meshes in the Afternoon for my analysis assignment. I chose La Jetee instead because I had more to work with because it was longer. Great analysis of the short film. It was interesting how the argument throughout the entire assignment was mainly about how the movie did not use any special effects. It was a creative decision from the director to shoot this movie with crazy camera turns and swills, that helped make this film feel dream like. In my opinion, the slow motion chase up the stairs was the best scene throughout the whole short.
As an audience member, I truly felt like I was floating up the stairs as well. It sort of make me want to go into a dream and feel like I am floating going up the stairs. Also, its interesting that you point point out that when Maya was looking out the window, there was a reflection of the trees. The trees branches then looked like Maya hair, giving her an “ethereal” quality to her hair. That was really great that you broke that shot down very carefully.

12

   Amy Herzog

December 14, 2011 @ 3:40 am

Thanks so much for this, Natalie. You really hit your stride when you get into the detailed description of the sequence. Such an interesting choice for this assignment because, as you note, the elements that make us conscious of the hand of the filmmaker are slightly more oblique than in other experimental films. It’s not the use of effects or techniques so much as the surreal juxtapositions. I’ve really enjoyed your posts all semester, and your fantastic sense of humor!

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