Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

In 1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid made a 14-minute experimental film called Meshes of the Afternoon. While the scenes play out in mysterious and elliptical fashion, the title presents at least one clear direction for the film: the woman who stars in the film—played by Deren herself—walks around her neighborhood and home on a sunny afternoon, but is trapped, or enmeshed, in the domesticity of suburban life.

With abrupt cuts, repeated images, and bold symbols, the film addresses questions of traditional gender roles, ossified social structures, the isolation inherent in society, and the deep fears that threaten to overtake us all. The opening scenes of the film, following the woman as she walks down her street and into her home, refrain from showing her entire body or face. Instead we get glimpses of a flower she carries, her feet as she walks, her hands as she swings them, or her shadow as it flits across blank walls.

Deren shows us a woman not fully in the world—a mere shadow in the walled and isolated environment in which she finds herself. When a man eventually appears in her home, he is more a stranger or intruder than he is a comfort or companion. One recurring image makes the struggle of the heroine clearest: from outside her window, the camera watches her as she stares through the glass. But across the window in reflection are the branches and leaves from a tree just outside. Even here, in a moment of mental escape from the domestic snares laid for her, the woman remains trapped.

Told with dream logic, including repeated scenes of the woman dozing in an overstuffed chair, the film presents a terrifying portrait of her gradual breakdown. Long before Freddy Krueger used nightmares to kill teenagers in the real world of cheap slasher flicks, Deren and Hamid showed their audiences that the dreamy existence of 1940s suburban life was far more dangerous than it appeared. Meshes of the Afternoon questions humanity’s ability to continue to exist in a world built to isolate us from one another, where fear has become the primary means of relating to one another and death the only avenue of escape.

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