Thoughts On: Meshes Of The Afternoon
This is the first film that is part of the…
Maya Deren’s quintessential experimental film.
Much like Un Chien Andalou, Eraserhead or The Holy Mountain, Meshes Of The Afternoon is a film meant to be left somewhat undefined. It holds a narrative, but no tangible plot – the semantic difference between plot and narrative being a palpable idea of a story moving forward; plots are defined as the things that happen in a movie, narratives the bigger, more convoluted, idea. For this reason Meshes Of The Afternoon is a film about ideas. Now, ‘a film about ideas‘ is a pretty pretentious term you hear thrown about a lot, but, if defined, the term becomes easier to swallow. Meshes Of The Afternoon being a film about ideas simply means it hasn’t got any true incidental movement to the narrative. We see this captured by the themes that stitch together the narrative. It’s the recurring imagery of the key, knife, cloaked figure, flower and mirror that build up the ‘story’. In this respect, the ‘ideas’ this film is about are, in other words, the themes. Thus, it makes more sense to say this is a purely thematic film, that it translates its ideas and story through symbolic imagery. We open on these ideas as they are the crux to understanding or seeing this film in the most coherent light. It’s seeing Meshes of the Afternoon through themes and an idea of narrative that enables its presented philosophy of cinema to enunciate itself. However, whilst we’ve touched on the film in respect to theme, we haven’t yet brought up narrative. This is a film usually given the label ‘non-narrative‘. This, to me, is a redundant, ill-defining term. Narrative means story, more specifically, narrative means a story made up of character, theme, plot, motif, metaphors and a plethora of other filmic devices. I think its important to make this distinction of what a narrative is over pot and the non-narrative because it says to both writer an audience how to judge a story. A story is quite simply a concept, its a very loose sequencing of events. You can tell the same story in a book, film, painting, song, dance, joke – anything. The same can almost be said for plot too. If a plot simply says John does A, B, C then D, then this can in all likelihood be presented in a book, on the stage, on the screen – wherever. But, because a narrative is more complicated then these two things it relies on devices and so the specific form of storytelling supporting it. To clarify, to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet through a poem you would purely rely on words, on verse, measures, beats, enjambment, similes, metaphors – all of the terms crammed into you by high school teachers. What the story of Romeo and Juliet looks like on a page in poetic form is an incredibly nuanced narrative. The romance, scope and emotion of the plot, characters and so on would be told to the reader in a completely different way than a film could manage.
What we’re then picking up on with an idea of narrative is a concept of experience. Narrative defines, in large part, the experience of a story provided by the medium or form it’s told in. As mentioned, a poem feels different than a film. Some people hate poetry. Reading Star Wars, Fight Club or Casablanca as a poem could kill them – but seen as a film, these stories could be the best thing they’ve ever heard/seen. This is all because films and poems use different devices. Whilst we have enjambment, stanzas and feet in poems, we have editing, scenes and pacing in films. These different mediums, however, use similar devices and such is made obvious with those like metaphors and themes. All story telling forms – dance, stand-up, painting, composing – use metaphors and themes. However, a metaphor in a book, let’s take a cliched one, an ocean of emotions, would be translated as such. Depending on the context used this would mean one thing or another – someone is steeped in happiness, melancholia, maybe a mixture of emotions. However, the translation of the ocean of emotion on film would be a completely different thing. How would that been shown? Would you show a character’s face, wrought with emotion, before inserting the image of an ocean? Would you use V.O? Would you superimpose? Would you a transition to a new setting with a huge body of water in the establishing shot after an emotional scene? There are many ways, through filmic language, that this metaphor may be translated. What is important however is that an audience views the metaphor in a completely different light than in a book. It’s here that you could delve into the details of a metaphor, the difference between cinema and literature, but the main takeaway is simply that the viewing experiences are, forgive the metaphor, an ocean apart. What this point says to us is that you can take a story, a loose sequence of events, and turn it into a narrative once you apply an artistic medium. Narratives are thus the expression of a form for the large part. However, what happens to this when you bring in an idea such as ‘non-narrative’? Frankly, we should be left flabbergasted, simply asking: what the hell does that mean? What does it mean for a film, book or poem to not have devices, to not tell a story via a medium? There’s two answers to this. The first is simple: there is no such thing as non-narrative because people are inherently telling ‘stories’ by translating a sequence of things to an audience through a medium (such as film). These things could be events or ideas however ambiguous. I’m telling you a story right now believe it or not. I’m using a sequence of concepts from plots to narrative to themes as to build toward a point. And it’s exactly that that we can suppose is the crux of this argument. Stories, just like narratives, have a point. And everything has a point when seen by someone – it’s given or taken, nonetheless, a point is there.
But, whilst there is a good argument for ‘non-narrative’ not really being a thing, there is a justification for the term – it’s quite simply that narrative and plot are so delicately intertwined. In fact, it could be argued that all the themes, metaphors and so on we’ve been discussing are the meat tethered to the backbone of a plot. In other words, narratives are made up of a plethora of devices, but is primarily the expression of plot. By taking away plot you may argue that narrative falls floppy…
… leaving it something alien, weird, purely thematic, a movie about ideas or… non-narrative. Because there are these two strong arguments for and against the concept of non-narrative, the only way to distinguish the outcome of the debate is to ask of the purpose of the term. What does non-narrative tell us? It tells an audience that they are going to see something experimental, weird, artsy or untraditional. But, from my perspective, having just easily thrown those four synonyms, the term is redundant – it says only what so many other terms can say. More than this, I see non-narrative as a distraction to anyone trying to analyse or understand a film. By understanding that allegedly non-narrative films have stories, have structure and a point, they stop being splatter paintings, empty rooms with flickering lights or signed urinals and become something no more than a few steps removed from Transformers, Paranormal Activity, heck, even reality TV. Whilst it sounds insulting to say that Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t too different from a Michael Bay picture, or pointlessly pretentious to suggest that a Michael Bay picture isn’t too different from Meshes Of The Afternoon (whichever way around you want to see it) I see the comparison as a respectful nod to both the medium of film and the audience that consumes it. Meshes Of The Afternoon and Transformers are split apart simply only by the weighting of their narratives. Transformers isn’t really very concerned with themes outside of bland, rather empty, statements of patriotism, heroism and morality. In the same respect, Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t really very concerned with robots punching each other in the face. Nonetheless, they are both communicating through narrative and through emotive art. It’s exactly this that brings them together and demonstrates a respect for the art and audience – there is an attempt to say something worthwhile as well as show a good story. The reason why Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t comparatively (to simpler blockbusters) a splatter painting is then that it speaks their language and makes a point – never just asks a question. To clarify, a splatter painting, from my biased and rather uneducated perspective, asks more from its viewers than it gives, moreover, it doesn’t say much to them. You could argue that splatter paintings are a commentary on form, on anarchy, on automation, on human creativity subconsciously flowing from us. But…
… does that really say as much to you? I think not. I see aesthetic, an artistic manipulation of colour to produce something somewhat captivating. This produces a form of art that is inarguably non-narrative – if we had to use the term. It stands only to capture the eye, its point being only to distract. This triggers one to see Transformers as more a splatter painting than Meshes Of The Afternoon. However, such a comparison would be empty. Transformers’ main goal is to entertain, but added to this, it has to juggle character, choreography, editing, writing, themes – a myriad of other cinematic devices. Whilst the Transformer films don’t juggle these devices too well, it sets itself apart from a splatter painting by trying. And the main distinguishing factor is that all Transformers films, whilst having a similar purpose, don’t just look different, they have to say different things. Even if they don’t do this, even if the plot is recycled film to film, that is something you can pick up on as a judgement or critique of the film. When it comes to splatter paintings, they have their point of being purely aesthetic, but no matter how many you produce, no matter how many different strokes you use, you cannot seriously argue they make different artistic points – something that is beyond criticism because of the unnecessary constraints of the medium/technique, something that is then quite clearly not the same calibre of art as a (good) film. A Transformers film can be about a coming-of-age, it can be about terrorism, it can be about betrayal, it can be about love. What can a splatter painting be about? That’s a crucial question, one that can only be answered with the preemptive ‘I feel‘. You can say the painting above makes you feel humbled, aggressive, agitated or whatever, and thus say its about aggression, free flow or displacement. But, where does it says this on the painting? What squiggle, drizzle or drop spells that out? Point me out one, but then do me one favour: show me how that builds into a point, a succinct, intentional statement worth listening to.
It’s that somewhat tangential meandering through Transformers and splatter paintings that brings us nicely back to Meshes Of The Afternoon. This film holds a narrative. It’s in the themes, the succinct, though ambiguous, sequencing of images that a story is told. From the frames of this film comes a point not just on the medium of cinema (just like splatter paintings serve as commentary on the form of painting) but a point on human behaviour and our reality. It’s this exact point that we’re then going to discuss, and seeing it will tell us something not just of human perception, of circumstances and situations, but broaden an idea of what cinema can do.
Meshes Of The Afternoon is quite simply a film about perspective. What we experience is our protagonist’s, The Woman’s, reflection of self through her relationship. In short, it’s The Man that is the Grim Reaper-esque figure with a mirror for a face. This is a point made clear with the image of his face in a circular mirror and later his reflection being smashed, the juxtaposition of images solidifying a link between himself and the cloaked figure. And by assuming The Woman and Man are in a relationship (boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, brother/sister, simply friends) we can understand why she thinks of him, why they live together and seek each other out. The purpose of The Man being represented largely by a mirror is to suggest that he is a reflecting agent. In other words, it’s The Man that is making The Woman question herself: where she lives, why she is there. It’s this simple assertion that makes clearer the meaning of the flower, the keys, the knives and the confusing representation of time. The flowers represent incentive. They are something The Woman picks up and The Man is drawn to. This could, if they aren’t family, suggest something sexual as emphasised by the bed scene, or possibly something of beauty, or natural ownership. In other words, The Man wants something The Woman has – her body or something closely linked. This combined with the keys further emphasises the house as a feature of their relationship. It’s her way to, or means of establishing, home, comfort, security. To keep the key is to have control – is to be able to keep Th Man out if she wants. However, under the theme of a relationship, a physical key is never going to be enough to keep someone out of your life, out of your thoughts and emotional make up. This is why the key transforms into a knife – a symbol of violence both towards herself (suicide) or him (murder). The key is then her way out of the relationship – allowing us to assume its not a good one. The use of time, of things repeating themselves, The Woman meeting figures of herself, seeing herself in the past, suggests further reflection. She sees simultaneously what could be the mistakes of her pasts as well as the coinciding emotions, thoughts, intentions. What this all says is that we see The Woman on a short journey. She chases the illusive figure – The Man in different form. She cannot find him and so retreats into the house. But, it is disrupted; the phone off the hook suggesting suspended communication, an open, but forever vacant line beyond the world she lives in. In the house she questions essentially what it means to her, what the relationship in this place means. This produces the layering of time and the physical paradoxes that emerge. These all coalesce into the actual Man walking in on The Woman to find her covered in seaweed as if she’s been out at sea. A sea of emotion if you’ll have it. Another interpretation could be that she drowned in the depths of the emotion, or of change, the tides of it. This all leaves her stricken by her revelation or introspection. She either decided she wants out of the house – the man seeing her drowned figure as a representation of the end of her as his, as owned by him. Or, this could imply she decided to end it all, maybe turn the knife on herself, wade into melancholy, depression, suppression – possibly stay with the man.
With the film briefly explained/outlined it becomes clear we have a film that is about a tragic story, a story imbued with hopelessness and a search for reprieve. (I wouldn’t suggest that there aren’t alternative interpretations of the film). However, we’ve seen these stories a million times over in a plethora of differing forms…
What transforms Meshes Of The Afternoon into its own being is the use of these themes to accentuate an idea of perspective. There is no real plot in this film because it aims to be ambiguous, it aims to imply an emotional sequence of events, not a spatial and literal one. This is what makes it an experimental film and an untraditional narrative. It expresses its story not through literal events, but perceived happenings. The fact that The Woman sees this contemplation of the relationship in the way she does speaks of her character, it says she doesn’t know The Man too well, that she is many people both to him and herself. Through the images of the mirrors and multiple selves it’s made clear that there is something of herself she sees in The Man, that she sees him as saying something about her, possibly something about her own weakness. All of this coalesces into a narrative that is meant to appeal to concepts – ideas of relations, trust, isolation, despair, unknowing – but all to speak of a character and for a character. This is then great cinema as it uses filmic devices in effective, expressive and intriguing ways. Not only does it tell us of something captivating through its imagery, but it allows us to experience them (the story) in an enthralling manner. It’s the use of the soundtrack, the editing, the physicality of the handheld shots, the POV, the slow motion, that create an atmosphere that is quite simply entertaining – an enticing cinematic experience. And, as I’ve said many times, it’s the appeal to elements of entertainment as well as more artistic commentary, or an attempt at putting across a point, that makes films great. It demonstrates a care for a movie in respect not just to the audience who endures/watches it, but also the audience subjected to what the film has to say. In other words, as a concept, this film looks good and sounds good, it is both something to experiencing, but also something that has a point to make, something to say.
The takeaway from this film is lastly a philosophy of cinema. Through Meshes Of The Afternoon we see an approach to narrative through character, we see an emphasis on images and filmic devices such as camera movement, the juxtaposition of images, visual metaphors and so on, to express an incredibly ambiguous story, one we have to fill the gaps in by using the provided themes as context. This approach or philosophy of cinema is highly technical, is at first glance a splatter painting, but from behind the chaotic brush strokes comes concise, detailed and irrefutably conscious marks of theme, character and great story telling.
The Conjuring 2 – Modern Paranormal Horror
Repulsion – Metamorphic Cinema
More from me: