Surrealism has always been a major part of cinema since its inception. It is quite a surreal thing to see moving two-dimensional images being projected on-screen when you think about it. Many often brush surrealism off as being pretentious and a waste of time, which is rather naive to do so.
Surrealist, avant-garde cinema is designed to challenge the viewer, and test their patience. Often, surreal and experimental films help to break taboos and bring attention to subjects that are overlooked by mainstream cinema. Even though surrealism isn’t to everyone’s tastes, films like Meshes of the Afternoon should be watched by all those who claim to be serious cinephiles.
Meshes of the Afternoon is one of the most influential works in American experimental cinema. A non-narrative work, it has been identified as a key example of the “trance film,” in which a protagonist appears in a dreamlike state, with situations repeating and being trapped in what appears to be an unbreakable cycle. Time and structure are played around with in this film. Like a dream, there seems to be no clear beginning or ending in sight. To try to describe the plot to Meshes is like trying to explain a fading dream… somewhat impossible to do so.
The film follows a woman who seems stuck in a loop, where she chases after a hooded figure into an empty house, where keys turn into knifes and she meets copies of herself. Of course, this is just a snippet of what happens and it must be seen by the viewer if they want to try and deconstruct the plot themselves.
The central figure in Meshes of the Afternoon, played by Deren, is plunged into her unconscious mind and caught in a web of dream events that spill over into reality. This is a surrealist version of Inception, the ultimate trip inside the world of the dream. Symbolic objects, such as a key and a knife, play a key role within the film. The key could represent a way to unlock repressed memories, and the knife could represent a violent secret. Deren explained that she wanted “to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than to record the incident accurately.”
To chose one shot is a difficult task, there’s some truly hauntingly beautiful imagery on view here. One shot that seems to leave a lasting impression is Deren chasing after the mysterious mirror faced death-like figure. It seems a fruitless task, as she never catches up with death, and in fact it is death who catches up with her. It would seem that death is always one step ahead. This scene keeps repeating throughout the film, testing the audience’s endurance. Even if you are not a fan of this film, there’s something about it that makes it almost impossible to stop yourself from watching it.
The figure pauses from walking in order to turn around to face the camera, this shot almost breaks the fourth wall. Can it see us from beyond the screen? The figure is haunting in a way that is hard to comprehend, and one can interpret its mirror face as being a representation of humanity. We, the viewer, are eager to confront death and believe it to be a supernatural creature, but Deren is revealing the truth to us. The mirror face will reflect the image of humanity. Humanity is the bringer of death.
The mirror also brings into question the idea of identity, when one looks back at their reflection, they simply see a copy of themselves. Deren is implying that the image we project to the rest of society is simply a reflection, a copy, and therefore it isn’t truthful. There’s so much to read from this one shot and sequence alone, that to fully analyse the film’s meaning requires an entire essay devoted to it.
Meshes does what so many films fail to do so, it leaves all interpretation open to the viewer. Through the manipulation of perspective, Deren and Hammid create an abstract dream-like world, that can be read by the viewer in many ways. Meshes is an exploration into the subconsciousness of a woman, who was an outsider in her society, and even in 2018 it seems fresh and original. If you have a spare 15 minuts, make sure you use it to watch Meshes of the Afternoon.