At Land – A very serious analysis

Here’s a little story for ya: back in 2017, I briefly became fascinated with the works of American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. First of all, let’s just let the fact that 2017 was 5 YEARS AGO sink in. Done? Okay, so whilst I was studying fine art at college, I ended up working on a project that involved watching some arty-farty films. Some of them were good, some of them sucked. I can’t remember what this project was exactly about, but that’s not the point – the point is that two of the films I watched were Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land, both made by Maya Deren. These films captured my imagination in ways that are quite hard to describe, which is probably why I ended writing 2 massive essays about what Meshes and At Land might be about, mainly just to satisfy my own creative curiosity. I’ve always planned to revisit these essays and rewrite them from scratch, but never found the time or motivation to do so. Instead, I just thought I’d reupload the old ones I wrote from 5 years ago for your viewing pleasure. There’s probably a few mistakes in them, but they can’t be that bad, right?

The first essay I wrote was for At Land, which is the one I’m going to be talking about today. I’ll shortly upload a follow-up article with my essay for Meshes of the Afternoon. I’d also recommend actually watching these films yourself before reading any further, otherwise the rest of this article will seem like gibberish. You can find them easily on YouTube and they’re only about ten minutes long, plus it’s not like you’ve got anything better to do with your time. Ready? Link to At Land by Maya Deren on Youtube

Maya Deren - At Land painting 1
This is a painting based on the film that I did during the time I was originally studying At Land. I don’t have this painting anymore, as I sold it to a friend.

In this essay I will do a scene by scene breakdown of At Land by Maya Deren, in which I will analyse all the metaphors and symbolism in the film to figure out what they represent. On Wikipedia it is suggested that the film is about the struggle to maintain one’s personal sense of identity. I couldn’t find any evidence of Maya actually saying this herself but upon watching the film through several times, it’s obvious that personal identity is a core aspect of the film as I shall explore in more depth later on. It’s important to state that my analysis of the film may differ from that of others and the creator’s original intentions as the film is very cryptic and open for interpretation.

The film begins with Maya being washed up on the shore by the waves, which is likely to represent being lost in an unknown place, or being “thrown away”. After this scene the waves then wash back out to sea, an effect which is created by playing a shot of the tide washing in backwards. Shots and editing techniques like this are very prominent throughout the film and are used to create an illogical sense of space and time, which suggests that this film is a dream like scenario or represents a journey into the subconscious. In the next scene she then notices a collapsed tree trunk next to her and uses it to pull herself up from the ground. She climbs up the roots and ends up in what appears to be a posh dining room filled with people talking to each other at a very long table. This transition is used to reinforce the illogical state of space and time I noted at in the previous scene, which make it clear by this point in the film that the normal rules of reality don’t apply where and when this dream like sequence is taking place.

At the end of the long dining table Maya notices a man playing chess, who is played by graphic designer Alvin Lustig. She then proceeds to crawl along the table towards the man while the other guests appear to not notice her. This scene is used to convey a sense of isolation and indifference towards Maya, as there appears to be a disconnection between Maya’s on screen actions and the way the people that surround her react to her. Other characters in the film are presented as unreal and temperamental as if they aren’t really there, which make it more obvious that this film and the characters and places within it are representations of her inner psyche- a psychological journey through her mind. As she crawls along the table towards the man, the scene repeatedly cuts to Maya crawling through greenery, which could be some kind of forest. This could represent a disconnection between mind and body, or a longing to be somewhere else. Due to the ambiguity already inherent in the film it’s hard to tell which reality Maya actually resides in during this scene. Maybe she’s in one place but thinks she’s in another?

Once she nears the end of the dining table the man gets up and leaves to speak to the other guests. When he leaves Maya looks at him and then back at the chessboard. There are multiple ways that this scene could be interpreted, for example the act of the man getting up and leaving could represent the loss of something, introducing the first major element of the theme of the loss of identity, which becomes more present later in the film. It’s also possible that Maya was actually waiting for the man to leave so she could have the chessboard to herself for reasons that will become more evident in the next scene. It’s also plausible that Maya didn’t want him to leave and is sad that he left, which ties back to the theme of loss, though not necessarily of identity. I think a combination of the three interpretations is likely the true intention of the scene.

While she is looking at the chess board the chess pieces appear to move around by themselves. The scene is cut and edited to appear as if Maya is moving the chess pieces around with her eyes. This is possibly symbolic for Maya taking control of the world around her and shaping it her image, further suggesting that the world where this film is taking place is of her creation. While she’s moving the pieces around the black bishop takes the white pawn which then falls off the table.

After this, the film then immediately cuts to Maya on some rocks by a waterfall, where the pawn from the chess table falls into the water. The pawn then gradually makes its way down the waterfall where Maya continues to follow it. The white pawn is arguably the most important aspect of the story of At Land, so in order to fully interpret this scene and the rest of the film we need to understand its meaning and relevance. My interpretation of the white pawn is that it is a metaphor of Maya’s personal sense of identity that she is trying to hang on to throughout the film. It is the driving element of the film and the sole reason she came here in the first place. Reasons for this will become more evident later on in the film particularly towards the end.

The next scene shows Maya walking down a path in the woods. During this scene a male character walks up next to her and they start talking to each other. Over the course of this scene the man is replaced with four different men, first played by Philip Lamantia, followed by Gregory Bateson, then John Cage and finally Alexander Hammid, who is Maya Deren’s real life husband. Since the film is silent we can’t hear what they are saying. My theory is that this is supposed to represent a disconnection between the audience and the characters on screen, that they know something that we don’t or that there’s something that Maya doesn’t want us to know about. Judging by their facial expressions in this scene whatever they are talking about is very important and personal.

In the following scene the male character leads Maya to what appears to be an old wooden shack of some kind. The Man goes in through the door while Maya climbs in through the window. The house appears to be very nice inside which juxtaposes how it is outside, as if the two are different places which reinforces the illogical state of space and time already present in the film. In the room she sees a man lying upon a bed, who is unlike any of the other men in the previous scenes as he appears to be much older. The two stare at each other for a while before she decides to leave the room. The old man is likely a metaphor for death and aging which Maya is forced to come to terms with in this room. While they are staring at each other, a cat appears in Maya’s hands and jumps out of her hands. I’m not entirely sure what this means but it could represent a sudden realisation about herself which causes her to leave the room, this realisation being that she needs to find her sense of identity or purpose before it’s too late.

As Maya decides to leave the room she opens the door and looks out into a corridor some kind, which appears to be in a different location to the previous room as the layout is incongruent with the rest of the house. She then begins to navigate her way through a series of doors that appear incoherent with the surroundings, which represent themes of venturing out into the unknown that have been highly evident in the film so far. After this scene she arrives on what appears to be a cliff face and begins to make her way down by climbing, jumping and sliding her way down. When she reaches the bottom she ends up back on the beach where she was originally washed up. She looks back at the rock formation and sees some kind of metal structure, which suggests that the world is changing around her as she makes her way through this land.

After this scene she then continues to walk along the beach a while picking up rocks and dropping some of them along the way. Eventually she falls over and drops all the rocks and starts the process all over again. This scene gives us a sense that at this point in the film Maya feels overburdened by the chaos around her, or that the rocks could represent aspects of herself that she is trying to hold onto in a changing world (evident in the way that the world morphs around her into different shapes as she makes her way through the story of At Land). After a while she looks off into the distance and drops all of the rocks, as she sees another depiction of herself watching two people playing chess. The chess game is a call-back to a previous scene with the chessboard on the dining table. The two contestants appear to be talking to each other, though once again we can’t hear what they are saying as the film is silent. She then begins to start stroking the hair of the two contestants and notices a white pawn on the board, similar to the one in some of the previous scenes which she then steals and runs away with. The hair stroking was likely done as a distraction to draw the constants away from their game so Maya can steal the white pawn. This final scene is where the themes of personal identity really come to fruition.

My personal theory on the loss of identity is that it is caused by the impact of society has on us. For example as children we feel that we have more freedom do and say what we want, but as we age we feel more constrained by the expectations of those around us. This could just be me projecting but I find that these themes are reflected in At Land. For example the act of stealing the pawn from the people at the chess table at the end could represent Maya taking back what was taken from her- her own personal sense of identity which is likely the central theme or message of the entire film. While she’s running away at the end previous iterations of herself from earlier in the film look back at her, suggesting some kind of cognitive dissonance within her as other aspects of herself are mistrustful and unsure of what she is doing. It could also mean that she is leaving other aspects of herself behind to escape from this place and reclaim her identity.

In the end At Land leaves the audience with more questions than answers. I’ve stated that my interpretation of this film may differ from that of other artists or even the true intention of the film (if there even is one), partially because my analysis of this film has been largely based on me projecting my own ideas into the film. While this may not be the most objective way to uncover the meaning of the film I do think it emphasises certain qualities about the film, such as the depth and meaning of its symbolism which has been the core of my analysis. To an extent I do think that At Land was to be interpreted in this way to allow for a further discussion of ideas and to allow the audience to take away something that has an individual meaning to them.

One Response to “At Land – A very serious analysis

  • Kande Kapuge Srinath Chathuranga
    11 months ago

    A Very good try out to understand type like her movies !!

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