Let’s talk film class.
Maya Deren as the protagonist of her short film
Meshes of Perspective
“Meshes of the Afternoon” takes for its subject the experience of dreaming. Though it engages in the representation of a dreamworld and taunts its viewer with just enough narrative to invite voracious interpretation, its main achievement rests not in its plot, setting, or lack thereof, but in its uncanny recreation of the feeling of dreaming. Dreams and the experience of dreaming have, of course, been represented in film as far back as the beginning of the medium itself—indeed, George Meliès himself attempted the subject all the way back in 1911 with “The Hallucinations of Baron Munchausen.” However, for a film to concern itself with the recreation of not only the content of the dream, but the fully-fledged feeling of dreaming is entirely unusual. And what makes it even more so is that, in “Meshes,” Deren and Hammid not only attempt to capture the subjective experience of dreaming, but they succeed in recreating it to such a degree that the viewer feels completely trapped in the dream along with the film’s protagonist, Maya. Deren and Hammid accomplish this feat through the establishment of a complex system of shifting perspective, achieved by means of innovative framing and manipulated time.
What little narrative there is in “Meshes” follows a young woman as she returns home and falls asleep in an arm chair in her living room, only to enter a dream in which she relives this small sequence of events—from walking up her driveway and seeing a distant figure to finding herself asleep in the living room chair—until the climactic moment when all three dream version of herself meet and become one again only to have to confront her real self. Throughout these cycles, the viewer undergoes an intense identification with the protagonist, Maya, by means of a system of perspective shifts, which allows the viewer to feel the experience of the dream on top of witnessing its content.
In order to establish this system of perspective, Deren and Hammid stage their opening sequence—the one that takes place in the “real world” as we and Maya understand it—entirely subjectively, never letting the viewer escape the perspective of Maya. This subjectivity is achieved primarily through their innovative use of framing, though they also employ slow motion in one instance to subject the viewer to Maya’s perception of time as well. In the first shot of Maya, she enters the frame by means of her silhouette, which moves across the pavement towards the camera until the camera rotates round to unify the perspective of the viewer with the perspective of Maya, who is casting the shadow, though she cannot be seen. This simple rotation of the camera serves as a signal that we are indeed in the perspective of the unseen Maya, whose silhouette we see as if from behind her eyes. Following this very literal shift in the cameras perspective to that of the character, Deren and Hammid maintain the obvious subjectivity of the initial sequence through their synecdochic framing, isolating elements of her body—elements which she herself could actually see with her own eyes: her hand, her feet, her silhouette on a nearby wall—to stand in for the whole of her figure, uniting the viewer’s perspective with that of her own. This sequence progresses in a series of close ups and medium close ups of these parts of Maya’s body, acquainting the viewer with her from the perspective with which she would view herself. The camera allows us to see nothing that she herself could not see (her head, her face), allowing us only to understand her in the concrete terms in which she understands herself. These closely framed synecdochic shots, intercut with wider shots directly from her perspective, serve to place us directly into her perspective, making us immediately aware that we are seeing this world through her eyes and experiencing it as she is. This sense of subjectivity is heightened in the moment when Maya, going to open the front door, drops her key, reaches for it, misses it, and it bounces down the steps—all in slow motion. This brief, literal expansion of time imitates her perception of the moment in which she drops and grasps at the key—a feeling of slowed time anyone who has ever dropped something and attempted to catch it has experienced as they are forced to watch it slide through their fingers. This small, but intensely effective moment, serves to cement us firmly in the subjective perspective of the still as yet unseen protagonist. And like we in real life cannot escape the subjectivity of our perspective, we are trapped in the perspective of Maya.
However, the entire film does not progress in this trapped subjectivity. As Maya falls asleep in her arm chair after having briefly explored her house, we, too, experience falling asleep as we see her eyes flutter, casing a direct point of view shot to flicker and dim, as though her eyes were about to close over it. And so, we are forced to fall into the dream with her as we see, through a tube (a literal depiction of the dreamer’s oft repeated phrase “I saw it as through the wrong end of a telescope”), the figure she had seen rounding the corner earlier, walking up her driveway again—though now, in her dreamlike state, this figure is no longer a man, but a menacing, robed figure with a mirror for a face. Then, suddenly, we are back outside with a second Maya—but this one we are allowed to see. This entrance into the dream is marked by a shift away from the tyranny of Maya’s subjective perspective and into a perspective which shifts between objective and subjective. As Maya pursues the figure on the driveway, we are entirely subjected to her perspective, experiencing time as she does, feeling the frustration of running and getting nowhere. However, her climb up the steps to her front door marks a marriage of the omnipresent synecdochic framing of the first sequence with an outsiders perspective: as she begins the steps we see only her legs and feet, but as she finishes them, she emerges from the bottom of the frame into the shot, a full person, whose face we can finally see. This marriage of subjective and objective continues as she enters the house: we see her open the door from the inside, a perspective she could not possibly have, yet the handheld scan of the room which follows imitates the movement of a person’s head as they look around a room, placing us back in her point of view once more. In the dream cycles, Hammid and Deren explore the possibilities of framing to create subjectivity even further when, in the second cycle, she attempts to climb the stairs and apparently loses all control over her environment, whose gravity shifts, forcing her to fight the walls. We experience this sequence subjectively, though we can see Maya’s face, through Deren and Hammid’s use of canted framing, which makes the environment appear just as treacherous and shifting to us as it does to Maya. This sequence ends with Maya’s removal of the record needle from the record, which we experience in a total point of view shot as she extends her hand before the camera. However, immediately afterwards, we get an objective medium close-up of Maya in profile.
All three dream cycle repetitions occur in terms of this marriage of subjective and objective shots. It is this marriage contrasted to the initial omnipresence of Maya’s subjective consciousness that allows Deren and Hammid to imitate the experience of a dream so perfectly. For while in real life we are trapped in our own perspective, in a dream there are no such constraints and we are at once ourselves and watching ourselves as if from an outsider’s perspective. And so, during the dream cycles, one has not really lost the subjectivity of Maya’s perspective, but deepened the subjectivity of our experience of her experience by gaining what she imagines an outside perspective of herself to be. So, though the “objective” shots appear to be objective in the traditional sense, they are not truly so, and are simply another layer of Maya’s subjectivity, allowing us to dream the dream with her, at once experiencing it as she does (through synecdochic framing, perfect point of view shots, canted framing, and further uses of manipulated time, as when she runs up the stairs in slow motion) and as she sees herself experiencing it (through wider shots only possible from an outsider’s point of view).
However, Deren and Hammid do not stop there: there is one more level to their exploration of subjectivity and dreaming. When Maya wakens right before one of her dream doubles is about to stab her, we seem to be back in the “real world” as originally understood at the beginning of the film. However, we do not know this through the logic of Hamid and Deren’s perspective system, but by Maya’s reaction to it: she checks to see if the bread knife is on the table, fallen from the loaf of bread as it was before she fell asleep and it is, so she believes she is back in “reality” and we believe her. However, this last sequence feels no less surreal than those of the dream sequences and is presented similarly in terms of subjectivity. We do not witness Maya in this section as we did at the beginning, through the lens of her own perspective, but instead through the marriage of subjective and objective perspective we were introduced to in the dream cycles. As Maya is wakened by her husband’s kiss, we are trapped in a perfect point of view shot, feeling as though he has just kissed us. Then we see him go up the stairs, but move up them with her, indicating that though we see her “objectively,” we are still not free of her subjective conscious. The sequence in the bedroom feels objective on the surface, but we do not lose the dreamlike sense and deep subjective identification Deren and Hammid’s marriage of subjective and objective perspective shots gave us during the dreams, indicating that we have not yet left the dream, despite what Maya thinks.
This feeling proves to be correct as, after she stabs him, his face becomes a mirror, the shards of which land upon a beach—all clearly elements of a dream world. In the next scene, the husband climbs the steps to the house in shots which directly echo those of Maya earlier in the film and finds the flower she picked up at the beginning on the doorstep. He opens the door and we get a synecdochic shot of his feet, followed by a shot of his face, and then a perfect point of view shot, all of which serve to establish us in his perspective. The importance of this is that it means that we are definitively no longer trapped in the meshes of Maya’s subjectivity. Deren and Hammid have freed us from the dream and allowed us to see things for what they really are through the introduction of a literal outsider’s perspective in her husband. And so, when he sees her lying dead in her chair, covered in mirror shards and seaweed, we know that this is not the dream, but the reality of Maya represented for the first time as an outsider would see her and not at all as she perceives herself.