Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an American experimental short film directed by Maya Deren and her then-husband Alexander Hamid. The text explores how dreams and or deliriums are products of desire, thus presenting a construction of female identity. Meshes is often read as a visual representation of psychoanalysis at work, much to Deren’s personal aversion to cinepsychoanalysis of symbols throughout the text (Rhodes). The film’s recurring symbolic motifs like the key, knife, telephone, the paper poppy, and the mirrors are all symbolic of psychoanalytic discourse. It is important to note that Deren renders the aforementioned objects as unheimlich (uncanny/unhomely) to perpetuate the notion that dreams and desires can become estranged from the subject. However, although this film is rife with psychoanalytic imagery and symbolism, this essay will argue that the text is more representative of the work of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. In Meshes, Deren fragments the identity of the unnamed woman into five distinct imagos/identities; the figure’s identity, therefore, becomes schizophrenic. Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of Desiring-machines and dreaming-machines function to perpetually keep the schizo-identity in flux. Consequently, this essay will argue that Meshes of the Afternoon is more emblematic of schizoanalysis than psychoanalysis through its representation of dreams and desire.
The temptation for a psychoanalytic read of Meshes is self-evident from a single viewing. It is a text about dreams and desire, or more aptly surmised by Marilyn Fabe, a ‘film narrative of seduction and desire [which] ends fatally’ (137). The opening shot of a midsummer Hollywood boulevard with trees swaying in the wind before a prosthetic arm comes into frame placing a large paper poppy on the pavement; the camera quickly cuts to a shadowed arm attempting to grasp the poppy. The shadow pre-empts the unnamed female protagonist (Deren-1 – I will designate the five imagos by numbers 1-5), picking up the flower to start the narrative. This first sequence of shots invites many possible psychoanalytic readings of the poppy’s libidinous symbolism. The prosthesis placing the flower suggests an external force implicating the Deren-1 in rich, potent sexual metonymy; this sexual imagery is repeated throughout the text, specifically when the Deren-1 character later caresses the poppy close to her genitalia before falling asleep. Theresa L. Geller reads the prosthetic arm as the maternal arm objectified and rendered unheimlich by the infant in the crib as it is removed from view or shot (143). Therefore, this psychoanalytic reading presents the sexual desire from the poppy to be based on the Lacanian ‘lack’, the mother’s abandonment. This is accentuated by the lack of a reverse shot, limiting the spectator’s field of view, creating a ‘subjective camera work […] akin to the infant’ (143); Deren’s camera work attempts to translate this maternal abandonment through the camera lens.
There is a reverse cause and effect in play when the shadowed arm reaches to grasp the poppy first but cannot pick it up before Deren-1. Therefore, the shadow presents an illusion of what is real, in both the filmic sense and an invitation to the audience to uncover the illusions present. The shadow is independent of Deren-1; however, it is still just a projection. Nonetheless, this first sequence of shots is indicative of the liminality of what is real and what is dreamt/imagined. The flower motif is one of the clearest examples of repressed sexual desire in the dream being actualised in the real world.
This notion of repressed sexual desire being actualised in the real world is presented much more clearly with the phallic motif of the knife. The knife can be read as an overt phallic symbol as we, and Deren-1, first see it inserted into a loaf of bread. The bread being a synecdoche for capital and monetary allusions is representative of the patriarchal. Additionally, the phallic knife stuck in the bread is representative of the patriarchal control over capitalism. In the entomological sense, the knife acts as an imago, as it is the final stage of metamorphosis for both the poppy and the key. The poppy and the key are libidinous symbols of female sexual desire. Therefore, these transformations into a phallus can be read in two distinct senses: Firstly, the key is dropped before transforming into a gleaming knife; thus, a loss of female sexual independence leads to phallic control. This is shown when Deren-4 slowly plunges the knife into Deren-1; before waking and transforming into Hamid, the knife’s phallic energy is replaced and pacified is by a kiss. Deren-4’s plunging of the knife could be read as an internal masturbatory act, reclaiming the phallus only to be turned off by the male kiss. The reclaiming of sexual desire is limited to Deren’s dreamscape. Secondly, the transformation of the paper poppy, ‘a signifier of sexual difference’ (Geller 147), into the phallic knife reclaims the phallus for herself. Deren, therefore, rejects the historical patriarchal control over female desire. It is important to note that although the kiss ends this reclaiming of female desire, the knife is no longer in the bread when Deren-1 wakes; consequently, the dream world has changed reality. This, therefore, suggests that dreams as formulations of desire are not emblematic of a psychoanalytic lack or negation. They are, however, formed from what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as desiring-machines that ‘can only produce reality’ (26-27).
Deleuze and Guattari’s 1972 seminal text Anti-Oedipus offers an unrelenting attack on psychoanalytic theory, insofar that they assert the repressive psychoanalysis model of desire abets the capitalist colonisation of the unconscious. In Meshes, this repressive model of desire is used by cinepsychoanalytic critics to argue that the reappearing visual symbols represent repressed sexual desire. However, as Anna Powell notes, any explicit reference to Oedipus is ‘notably absent’ (8). Oedipal desire is a psychoanalytic model for asserting the child’s forbidden desire derives from the mother’s abandonment. This desire is repressed so the child can function in the phallic male society; therefore, psychoanalysis traps desire to control the subject. Whereas for Deleuze and Guattari, desire is not overcoming abandonment; instead, it is a series of connections and machines that compose the material world (27). Deren’s personal aversion to psychoanalytic readings of Meshes perhaps stems from her time as a Marxist activist with her involvement with Max Eastman and the Young Person’s Socialist League and, as Powell argues, her interest in Eisensteinian theory; exemplified by Deren’s usage of fast-pacing editing to transform ‘content by sudden spatial and temporal shifts’ (10). This allows Deren to present dreams as formations of desire that actualise change in the real world. The most notable example is when Hammid wakes Deren up, the knife is no longer in the loaf of bread; the dream has changed reality. Schizoanalysis is the Deleuzoguattarian method of deconstructing psychoanalytic thought; it replaces psychoanalysis’ semiological reading of the unconscious by locating splits in reality to liberate desire; the psychoanalytic chair is thrown out of the window. The visual-symbolic representations of desire like the poppy or the knife are examples of the ‘overturn[ing] the theatre of representation into the order of desiring-production (Deleuze and Guattari 271). Therefore, they must be read as societal limitations on the flow of desire. Thus in Meshes, the dreamscape acts as a prison for desires, and psychosymbolic readings reinforce this trapping of desiring-machines.
Although schizoanalysis resists psychosymbolic readings, it is important to analyse the symbolism of the phone receiver being off the hook. Ignoring the phallic implications of the dangled wire, the receiver being off-the-hook represents an alienation of the dream world from the real world; communication is one-way. Therefore, desire is trapped in the dream. The lack of communication in the text, accompanied by the absence of diegetic sound, is anti-Freudian, as it denies Freudian word-association. Consequently, cinepsychoanalytic discourse requires visual symbols to present a repressed model of desire. Not only is psychoanalytic discourse repressive for the subject, but the societal implications are also similarly repressive. When Deren-1 first attempts to open the door, it opens slightly, the fiction of it being locked is given away. This fictive presentation of the lock symbolises the illusion of desire as a lack, and therefore if the masses believe the door to be locked, it is locked. For Deleuze and Guattari, this is one of the most significant contributors to the rise of fascism in pre-war Europe. This proves the central thesis of Anti-Oedipus, even if desire is presented as a lack (an inability to enter the home in Meshes), it is still a real productive force that can change reality.
Although originally silent, Deren’s then-husband, in 1952, Tijo Ito, added an abstract assortment of plucked strings and Japanese drums that vary in tonic dissonance and harmony. Ito’s musical score runs parallel to Deren’s visuals with their subtly different repetitious cycles; both create an oneiric experience for the spectator (Powell). Derren’s usage of mise-en-abyme creates an inconsistent representation of time through seemingly repetitive scenes. Time in the dreamscape is out of joint; although occupying the same scene, the terrace sequence displays the mirror-faced figure to be out of joint with her female pursuer, Deren. There are subtle distinctions between each repetition, suggesting multiple temporal planes converge together. This convergence of temporal planes leads to what many cinepsychoanalysists refer to as an ego-split of Deren-1; multiple Deren imagos appear from different planes in the same shot and interact with each other (Fabe). This is where Deleuze’s schizoid-subject comes into play. The splitting of the sleeping Deren character is more emblematic of a schizoid identity, as each imago is identical but occupies a different purpose or desire. Powell argues that these imagos differ by ‘the cross-cutting of out-of-synch planes or dreams of sleeper, pursuer, lover, and killer’ (12). Again, Deren uses mise-en-abyme to create five imagos. However, time is not fragmented here; it is Deren’s identity that has become schizophrenic. Like each repeated scene, each imago is made unheimlich to the other. This is shown when Deren-4 attempts to kill the sleeping Deren-1 while the others passively observe, covering their mouths with hands in shock at the upcoming penetration of the sleeping Deren. The covering of the other imago’s mouths is another example of repressive desire, as crudely put in the famous incipit to Anti-Oedipus, ‘It [the machine] breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits, and it fucks […] the mouth [is] a machine’ (1). The imagos covering their mouths symbolise the repression of the self. Thus, showing how ingrained the capitalist psychoanalytic model of desire is; even in the schizoid-state, repression is still present. The schizophrenic fragmenting of time and identity in the dreamworld bleeds through fissures in the real world. This is shown with the knife being removed from the loaf of bread but with the opening shot of the prosthetic arm. It represents, according to Powell, the Deleuzian ‘deterritorialization of the image’ (11), whereby the film uses fragments of limbs or multiple imagos to constitute the frame, and therefore the narrative as a whole. Consequently, Desire bleeds through these fissures created in the film to actualise reality as a repressed force.
Ian Buchanan’s ‘Is a Schizoanalysis of Cinema Possible?’ essay presents the case that analysing dreams is as intrinsic to psychoanalysis as delirium is the ‘royal road’ to schizoanalysis (1). Therefore, the question of whether Meshes of the Afternoon presents a dream or delirium remains. This essay has explored the visual-symbolic motifs repeated throughout the text and compared this with schizoanalytic discourse to explore Buchanan’s notion. Meshes can be described as an oneiric as the parallels between Ito’s musical score and Deren’s visuals reinforce a languid, dreamlike film. However, the convergence of multiple temporal planes can refute this. As Powell notes, ‘Meshes is more Bergsonian than Freudian’ (13). Therefore, time is condensed, accelerated, repeated, etc, Thereby creating a delirious experience for the spectator. Therefore, if we combine these two contradictory arguments, we can posit a Deleuzoguattarian conclusion. Desires are formations of the dream-delirium-machine; therefore, Meshes of the Afternoon places any concrete definition of identity in a schizophrenic flux.
Buchanan, Ian. “Is a Schizoanalysis of Cinema Possible?” Cinémas 16.2-3 (2006): 116-145.
Deleuze, Giles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. The Viking Press, 1977.
Deleuze, Giles. Cinema 1: the movement – image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Athlone Press, 1983.
Fabe, Marilyn. “Maya Deren’s fatal attraction: A psychoanalytic reading of meshes of the afternoon with a psycho-biographical Afterword.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 25.2 (1996): 137-152.
Frampton, David. Filmosophy. Wallflower Press, 2006.
Geller, Theresa L. “The Personal Cinema of Maya Derren: “Meshes of the Afternoon” and its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-Garde.” Biography 29.1 (2006): 140-158.
Meshes of the Afternoon. Dir. Maya Derren. Perf. Maya Derren and Alexander Hammid. 1943.
Powell, Anna. Deleuze, Altered States and Film. Edinburgh UP, 2006.
Rhodes, John David. Meshes of the Afternoon. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.