Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time

This story was published on the website of Film International magazine. Go to the link and scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the film by Maya Deren.

Last summer, in the midst of the blockbuster movie season dominated by sequels, 3-D animation and superhero offerings, I stumbled upon a cinematic treat from a forgotten era. While eating my lunch at my desk one afternoon, I went to YouTube to look up some alternative music bands. After a while, an impulse made me type “Maya Deren” in the search box, and I soon entered the hypnotic world of the late choreographer, dancer and experimental filmmaker.

Several years ago I had watched Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and read her essay “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality” in Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (1974). I was exposed to filmmakers like Deren, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein while studying for my master’s in film and video in the early 1990s. Yet one does not need to understand film theory, semiotics, psychology or feminist theory to appreciate Deren’s work. When some selections of Deren’s movies popped up on YouTube, I opted for Ritual in Transfigured Time, a short silent film from 1946.

The black and white, slow-motion images washed over me and I sat there transfixed by the surrealistic scenes. I think this may be the best way to explore Deren’s films – to know nothing about them except the title. Then the viewer enters Deren’s dream landscape and soon abandons all preconceived notions of the film medium and the carefully-constructed plots demanded by Hollywood. You surrender to the hallucination and, in doing so, you accept the idea that all art, including Deren’s work, is open for interpretation.

And while we do not get a linear storyline, character arcs, a three-act structure or a clear resolution, Ritual in Transfigured Time spurs questions in the minds of viewers. Who is this woman (Maya Deren) leaning against a doorway and playing with yarn at the outset? Is she waiting for someone? A lover? Or another version of herself? Why do the dancers at the party switch partners so frequently? Are the lead dancers in the park lovers? What do they represent? And why does it seem the female dancer is afraid of the male dancer? What has provoked this fear?

These questions then marinate in the brain and the result is a narrative that can only be completed by the audience. Everything is left up to our imaginations. We fill in the details and attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course this means each viewer develops his or her ideas about the story. I can’t tell you the meaning of Ritual or even give you a clear plot description. There is too much ambiguity at work within the frame. I can only tell you it draws you in and you don’t want to look away.

I would like to point out a few memorable moments from Ritual, as these scenes have brought me back to YouTube for repeated viewings.

At about the 7-minute mark, we are placed in the middle of what looks like a house party attended by well-dressed guests. The men and women begin to dance, the figures moving from one person to the next. They do not dance so much as merely shuffle between partners. They exchange a few words, shake hands, latch on to shoulders and dance from side to side before turning to the next person and repeating the process. I wonder if this is a dream sequence, a party game or a meditation about the fragility of romance – the second you grasp on to it, it is gone. Affection blooms and withers and other people step in to replace our former lovers. But if this is the case, then why are so many of the “dancers” at the party smiling, their happy faces revealing no hint of despair?

Later at the party, at about the 8:20 mark, the lead actress and dancer, Rita Christiani, and the lead actor/dancer, Frank Westbrook, draw close to each other and nearly touch cheeks. The scene then cuts from the house party to a park, with the same two people holding hands. In this location, we also see women standing together and dancing. The shirtless male dancer tosses Christiani skyward, and her arms are extended in the air as she takes flight in slow motion. She remains suspended for a moment.

A short time later, we see Westrbrook in a low-angle shot against what appears to be the background of a stadium. He makes motions from side to side with his arms. His frame is taut and every muscle in his body stands out. Later he hops, spins in place and twirls in the air, his image frozen briefly. He expresses the joy of movement and he reminds me of a puppy wanting to play with its owner.

At the 11:38 mark, a wrought iron gate opens and Christiani enters a garden. We see Westbrook standing like a statue on a pedestal. She walks toward him. But now he breaks the plaster pose by looking at her. She displays fear and runs away. He remains standing momentarily and then gives chase, jumping after her. At 12:35 she disappears down a hill with Westbrook in pursuit, leaping along the way.

At the 13-minute mark we come to a courtyard and Christiani continues to run away, now passing stone archways. Westbrook follows. At 13:27 he tries to grab her; she escapes his grasp. But now it is Maya Deren fleeing, running under a wooden pier and rushing out into the sea until her legs disappear and the water swallows her.

At 13:50 we cut back to Christiani making motions with her arms, and then in a negative image, a white dancer falls against a black background. This is repeated a few times. The last image is a close-up of a female dancer’s head. The woman lifts a veil covering her face and then opens her eyes, and it’s hard to tell whether this face belongs to Christiani or Deren.

There is no doubt Ritual in Transfigured Time offers rich potential for psychological interpretation. But the more I watch it, the less I care about trying to decode its meaning. I think the combination of bodies in motion, dream-like images and underlying tension is enough to satisfy me. Answers are not necessary for me to enjoy the ride. I also realize that with the power of YouTube there are countless other experimental films waiting to be discovered on my lunch hour.