Noisy Water Review

Infinity in “Meshes of the Afternoon”

Diane Chapman

Trying to fully understand the world and an individual’s place in it is the most confusing and convoluted journey to embark upon. In Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental film “Meshes of the Afternoon,” the filmmaker aims to take the audience on this journey, attempting to unveil its destination. Deren uses a unique style of non-narrative, which doesn’t have to rely on the constraints of linear order, but rather uses its incongruity to suggest character transformation. By immersing the audience within an individual’s dream world, she suggests that a dreamer's ability to perceive is far beyond what a waking person could perceive. Within the dream, time loops around several times in order to allow the Dreamer to view herself in three different perspectives (past, present, and future self) within one world. The drama of her struggle, and the destructive end to which it brings her, attests to humanity’s inability to cope with infinite reality. The message Deren is conveying is the Dreamer’s psychological struggle with a sense of helplessness when trying to perceive the reality of infinity, thwarted by the human need to classify the world in terms of subjective and objective reality.

Before the character begins dreaming, Deren presents her in shadow in order to signify the character’s entrance into a new reality from one obscured by objective perception. The camera is so intimately close to the character that we view the world much as the character would: without seeing her face or her full body, but the world around her and the shadows she casts. The way that shadow bends itself in accordance with the world upon which it is cast reflects the character’s perspective that reality is concrete as the stairs in front of the house—an unchanging reality which she is changed by. Deren thereby crafts her film to immediately bring up the question of whether reality is built around us or by us.

Deren then introduces the extraordinary concept of infinity into the world of her film by rooting it in the ordinary. The film’s first image of a disembodied hand is otherworldly, arriving seemingly out of nowhere to drop a flower onto the street and disappear back to wherever it descended from. However, when our character first encounters it—though she may not realize what her finding it will lead to—it appears insignificant as any other flower. As a symbol of the natural cycle of birth and death of all life—a cycle which continues throughout time, further than an individual can witness—the flower is an essential symbol in her dreaming world. By coming to see those beginnings and endings as one and the same, the flower will later be the catalyst with which she breaks through the bounds of her own perception of reality.  Reflecting on the film after its finish reveals this finding of the flower fated, as if something did indeed drop it from the sky simply to direct her on her journey. In the same way that the flower is initially a mundane part of her reality, so will the figure disappearing around the street corner, the phone, the knife, and the key each play an essential role in her dream. In reality as well as in the dream, they are each examples of her limited perception of something much greater.

After finding the flower, the next image that will resonate in her dream world is of a darkly dressed figure ahead of her on the street, who disappears around the street corner just as she looks up. This character, outside of the dream and within, represents a larger perspective, just out of reach. Not only does its image slip from her sight just when she first glimpses it, but it is also able to see around the corner of the street, somewhere the character and audience never can. Continuing on her initial course, the character attempts to enter the house and in doing so, she drops the key.  As it falls down the stairs it is continually just out of her reach, echoing the disappearing figure. What is vaguely unattainable continues to present within the home. Except for the one facing the street, the windows are all closed, allowing only one view to be had, just as she can only have one perspective. The phone’s receiver is off the hook, barring communication from the outside, just as only so much of one’s reality can ever be communicated to another. The knife, which is embedded in the bread (as its routine function would place it), falls out exactly when she looks at it, as if suggesting it has another purpose. These realities show up in the surreal dream world to signify that what is infinite is not necessarily “unreal.” In fact, the infinite could not exist without the finite. It is only our understanding of what is finite as it exists throughout time that defines it as such. If perceived differently, as the film’s character comes to do so in the dream, each item becomes a tool rather than a boundary to aid her in comprehending the vastness of time, and the limited scope of her individual perception.

To bring the audience into the dream, Deren uses an extreme close-up on the character’s eye, signaling an intended focus on perception. The world becomes veiled as she closes her eyes, as does the view outside the window. While at first the dream begins with a tunneled vision of the street, as soon as the hooded figure makes its first entrance into this line of vision the character becomes immersed in the dream and finds herself on the street, as she was in waking life only a few moments ago.

The hooded figure is an unsettling combination of many aspects of the waking world the character just experienced. It is draped in billowing black, just as the bedroom window had black curtains that were blowing in the wind.  The figure also holds a flower in one hand, signifying a relationship of some kind with our character, as she also held the flower. Also, the hooded figure has a body frame similar to the figure she saw turn the corner ahead, and indeed follows through with that action after briefly pausing to face the character. In this pause, the one aspect of the figure which is most unsettling is made apparent: where a face would be, there is only a mirror. The fact that the hooded figure lacks a face and is instead identified by a flat, false reflection of the character who follows it, delineates that the hooded figure represents our character’s perception of the future. It is always ahead of her, though she may try to catch up, and while she would like to identify it, she can only perceive it as a reflection of where she stands behind it. Throughout her dream she gets closer to the figure by degrees, though she never truly catches up to it. In fact, the point of the dream is not to finally perceive this “future” figure for what it is, but to realize that the distance between the character and the figure is objective, is based on time. In an infinite reality, this distance is inconsequential.

The character comes to reject the limits of this objective distance with each repeated sequence of the dream. At first she must see herself as three separate entities in the dream, because that is how any individual processes the world around them—through terms of subjective and objective. But eventually all three come to exist at once, and even share discourse as the dreamer comes closer to understanding infinite time. At first she defines herself by time in terms of past, present, and future, but the reality is that each of those selves is in fact the same.

The first self the character dreams of is the Past Self. This self is the first to glimpse the hooded figure, and the one furthest from an understanding of what the hooded figure means. Much of the house is the same as it was in the waking world to this self. Though the knife rests blatantly in her path to the stairs, she is unaware of what it is for, and passes it to ascend. This climb is filmed in slow motion, not as though it is in fact hard for her to do it, but because it is as though she is remembering doing it, sensing that this action belongs a past time. However, though she has already climbed the stairs, the Past Self does not know where they will lead. When she turns the corner of the stairs and peers into the bedroom, she is suddenly obscured by the drapes and enters the room through the window. This displacement is meant to suggest that her Past Self has now been displaced in Time.  She sees the phone’s receiver lying on the pillow and finds the knife on the bed (where it will later be found), as though the future use of the knife is calling to her. Though she sees her warped reflection in the knife and feels that her sense of Self is shifting, she cannot yet comprehend it because she is still rooted in that sense of Self which is rooted in a past time. She retreats, only to be buffeted about the house by a wind stronger than herself. This wind symbolizes her being overwhelmed by the change she is going through. By seeing the Dreamer, the Past Self becomes grounded again, and when viewing the street and another self on it, it is the Past who comes to understand the key to infinity is within. She takes this key from her mouth and holds it in her palm, only now able to grasp it.

The second self is the Present Self. When this self enters the house, it is windy inside, just as it was for Past Self, because she is still struggling in the wake of change. Present Self is the one who comes close enough to see the hooded figure go upstairs. For her, the climb upstairs that was remembered by Past Self as easy has now become almost insurmountable. As her perception is shifting, so does the world around her continually shift. She comes closest to an understanding of the future, by witnessing the hooded figure place the flower on the bed where the man later will. However, though she comes close enough to see it, when the figure disappears she once again does not understand, and remains dumbfounded on the stairs. Time becomes abrupt, and she finds herself downstairs, next to the Dreamer. With enough objective distance to have seen the Past Self and glimpsed the future (though with minimal understanding), it is she who realizes that the key is also a tool, and it therefore becomes the knife.

The third self is the Future Self. She doesn’t see the hooded figure at all, because the Future follows after no one, but leads. When she comes into the house, where she once held a flower, she now already holds the knife because she already understands its use. She attempts to explain it to Past and Present, and although they can pick up the key, they can’t maintain their hold on it. It isn’t until Future takes it and shows them that in her already stained hand it becomes the knife that they can understand. Yet even in their understanding they are afraid, and the Dreamer stirs in her sleep behind them. It is after these three Selves have faced each other and all three have attempted to “grasp” the key that the Future self makes her move to destroy the Dreamer. With eyes rounded, reflective, and so large that they extend outwards from her head, she can see much differently than her counterparts, and knows that the knife’s destructive power can free the Dreamer from her own limited perception. As Future Self comes closer, her feet are shown to approach from a beach, cross fields, pass over cement, and finally cover the space of carpet between her and the Dreamer. This symbolizes that she now has the knowledge necessary to travel from the vast reality of infinite time which she has come to be a part of, to the Dreamer’s finite reality.   

The instinct to survive leads to the Dreamer’s false awakening. Her mind organizes all three selves into one again, but as the “waking” world continues to mirror her dream, she becomes more and more distrusting of the man who "wakes" her. She scrutinizes his actions, and seems unwilling to easily lie back down to become only an object within his perception of reality once more.  The view of the man looking into the mirror reminds us that he is bound by his sense of perception as well, and reminds us that he too must still be following his own hooded figure—a false reflection of himself. When he touches her it is in the same way she touched herself before the dream began, and this synchronicity triggers her full awareness of her perception and the power she has to change it. Once this is realized, the flower (passive, beautiful and inactive object) transforms as the character does, into the knife (active, reflective and destructive object). With the knife she breaks through her last attachment to subjective reality—another’s perception of her—and can finally see the ocean of infinite perspective behind it.

In the last scene, the man comes home and we see his actions mirroring the woman’s in the first scene.  He unlocks the door the same, he enters the house and surveys it in matching perspective to hers. This signifies that what happened to her character is intrinsically part of his perception, and his reality. She was, at the beginning, interconnected in a finite way to the world as he perceives it. Since he is still bound by his perceptions, and therefore still connected with the finite world, all he finds is the body she has left behind there. Having slit her throat with a shard of glass in retaliation of that false way of viewing self, she lies covered in the kelp she pulled into subjective reality from infinity.

Our character has left the finite world behind because of her own inability to fully realize the infinite reality of the world through her limited perspective. It is clear that she had to destroy herself to destroy the limits of perception to fully know infinity. However, it is significant to note that her eyes remain open, even in death, signifying that perhaps there are still more realms of perception beyond life as we view it. If Deren’s film suggests that an individual is unable to know infinite reality because of perceptual limitations, then why is this individual driven to seek it? Why does the character chase the hooded figure? This question is the ultimate message Deren means to leave us with: that as humans, we are paradoxically driven to attempt to understand even what we aren’t humanly capable of understanding. That even when we are unable to see what is out of reach, we can’t help but want to look.

Works Cited 

Meshes of the Afternoon. Dir. Maya Deren. Perf. Maya Deren. Mystic Fire Video, 2002. DVD.

> Return to Top