At Land (1944)
We see the ocean. Waves cresting and breaking. The tide rolling across the shore. And then a woman lying on the sand. At first she seems to be unconscious. But her eyes open. She gazes at gulls flying overhead. A large, twisted chunk of driftwood lies nearby. She reaches for it, wraps her fingers around a broken branch, and starts to pull her body up….
This is the way Maya Deren’s At Land begins. A woman, played by the filmmaker, is left on the shore by the tide. The film follows her as she explores a world that is constantly shifting, constantly changing, where different realities seem to exist on intersecting planes. Climbing up the jagged driftwood, she suddenly finds herself peering down a long table in a huge dining room. The woman pulls herself onto the table and crawls slowly down it, while men and woman on either side talk and laugh, drink and smoke. They all seem completely unaware of her presence.
At the end of the table she discovers a chess board, and she is transfixed by the pieces as they move about. A pawn is taken, and rolls off the board. In the next shot we see the pawn floating in water that soon carries it tumbling over jutting stones. The woman follows, stepping seamlessly from the dinner party to a river in the wilderness. This might seem like a jarring leap, an absurd juxtaposition, if we were to view it from the same narrow window that we usually watch the world from. But Deren offers us a new window. The film flows naturally from one scene to the next because she’s following an inner logic. She creates her own reality, and invites us to experience it with her.
The woman keeps moving forward as the landscape continues to shift around her. As we follow her from the beach, to a dinner party, to a river, to a lonely road, we experience what she does. We see it all through her eyes. There is a story here, but not the kind we’re used to. We’ve been brought up with stories told in familiar terms, we’ve come to expect that stories will describe the world in a way that we can readily understand. But Deren discards all that, speaking to us with images instead of words. She leaves the world of rational explanation behind, instead relying on her intuition and asking us to do the same.
In some ways Deren’s movies are direct descendants of the avant-garde cinema of the twenties and thirties. Rich in symbolic references, charged with sexual tension, her work seems to be exploring the unconscious in the tradition of Germaine Dulac, Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel. But though Deren may have learned from these and others, her films are very much her own. In fact they’re some of the most intensely personal films I’ve ever seen. Her strange and startling images offer a vision of the world that is unique. In the history of cinema, there is no one else like her.
Deren’s fascination with dance is evident in At Land. This is a ballet and she is the central character. Whether she is walking or running, crawling or climbing, her body expresses what she’s feeling. Often she seems to be fearful, anxious, ill at ease. The woman’s journey brings her in contact with a number of different people, but she doesn’t connect with any of them. Walking along a path, she chats with a man, who is suddenly a different man, and then another different man. This last man walks ahead of her and disappears into a house, closing the door behind him. When she follows him she finds herself in a room with yet another man, lying in bed, covered with a sheet, staring at her. The woman stares back, watching him intently. The tension between the two of them is palpable. Later she returns to the beach, where she finds two women, a blonde and a brunette, playing a game of chess. She stands behind them, stroking the brunette’s hair. The three laugh, and for a moment it seems as though she’s at ease, enjoying their company. But it’s a ruse. As the chess players go on laughing, the woman reaches down and grabs a pawn, then runs off with her prize.
And as she runs off, we see that she is also standing with the chess players, the three of them regarding the figure running along the beach with curiosity. She is also watching herself from the edge of a cliff. She is also watching herself as she peers over the table. And she is also watching herself as she clings to the driftwood. These are the film’s final images. The woman regarding herself from multiple perspectives, looking on as she herself runs down the beach, leaving a trail of footprints in the sand, until she finally disappears into the distance.
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