Incomplete Control

| December 1, 2014

Maya Deren is one of those unavoidable names in American experimental cinema. Her works At Land and Meshes of the Afternoon are displayed in film classrooms across the nation and even individuals peripherally associated with independent film know her name. However, Deren was an artist plagued by lofty ideas that, for one reason or another, failed to come into fruition. Sarah Keller’s book, Incomplete Control, views Deren’s unfinished work not as would-be masterpieces – but as integral to the director’s creative process.

Incomplete Control studies Deren’s work and ambitions from Meshes of the Afternoon up until the frayed ends of the unfinished Haitian project at the time of her death. Keller examines the characters, settings, narrative, and embedded semiology to present her thesis of positive incompletion. Thus, at the end of the text, Deren’s incomplete efforts will be adequately contextualized and, hopefully, considered on an equal plane as the completed works.

Unfortunately, like many of Deren’s projects, lofty goals are difficult to realize. A view at Incomplete Control‘s table of contents suggest a chronological study of the director’s work until her untimely death. While chapter subtitles explain what films will be considered in each section, they fail to enlighten readers of the exhaustive micro-managing within the book. Paradoxically, these inner-chapters (followed by inner-inner chapters) are titled with vague headings like ‘Completion v. Incompletion’ and ‘Object v. Subject’. The textual rudder so necessary in a study like Incomplete Control is missing for readers – even with the overwhelmingly curated content.

See this excerpt from ‘Impossible & Experience’:

“Like the sleight of location in the interior apartment settings, the final sequence resembles the first in its exterior, natural environs, but Deren again filmed in a new location, a private estate in the Palisades. Deren links fragmented space through an illusion of continuity, expanding the film’s imaginary terrain proposed by and yet pitted against vestigation of the space the film limns. Study also adumbrates on a more literal register Deren’s ideas about verticality and horizontality, which she would outline as part of her theory of film.’

Certainly interesting, especially Deren’s view of horizontal and vertical narrative, yet readers require a more descriptive title to prepare for such nuanced detail.

The other problem with Incomplete Control is editorial. As the above excerpt illustrates, Keller writes in a winding, wordy prose. There is, of course, nothing wrong expanding the vocabulary of your readers. Due to the poor editing, though, the book is daunted by endlessly repetitive passages that unfortunately render Keller’s prose as hifalutin babble. Thus, enjoyable excerpts like this observation on the similarities between Voudon(Voodoo) and Christianity are sequestered away in the thick trees of the forrest:

“This context, in the late 1940s, was complex and included tension among practitioners of Voudon, adherents of Christianity who primarily constituted the upper classes of Haiti, and the local and national governments. In Divine Horsemen, and in interviews, Deren blunts these antagonisms by underlining the way in which Voudon assimilates principles from other religions, including Christianity. She proposes several consistencies between the two religions, for example citing an analogy between the loa and the Catholic saints… In Voudon, there are pictures of the Christian saints in the peristyle (the ritual space), as several of them correspond directly to the loa (e.g. St Patrick serves as image of Damballah because both are associated with snakes, though in notably different ways).

This reader is unaware if Maya Deren was the subject of a master’s thesis or an amalgamation of a variety of articles on the director. Either way, Sarah Keller and her editors unfortunately make Incomplete Control a better reference than read. Furthermore, the text illuminates casual viewers as well as devotees of Deren that describing the director’s work in matroyska doll detail is not as entertaining as watching her films. Perhaps we should enjoy Deren’s work on the surface, or find a better scribe to sculpt her ethos.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
Filed in: Books on Film
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