Maya Deren’s most famous film may be Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) but it more than often overshadows the rest of her filmography. This overshadowing places her other work in obscurity. This week, I’d like to highlight Deren’s 1948 Meditation on Violence.
Like the majority of her films, Meditation on Violence is short, coming in at around just 12 minutes. In those 12 minutes, however, Deren creates an elegant cinematic spectacle of the human body. The film has no plot. Instead, Deren films Chao Li-Chi performing Chinese boxing to the tune of first, a tranquil flute and later, a frenzied drum. In combination with her camerawork and editing, the result is a mesmerizing display of physical achievement.
The film begins with Chao Li-Chi seemingly warming up. His movements appear slow and calculated. The flute transitions from the credits into the opening of the film, providing a fitting meditative (pun unintended) atmosphere. Halfway through, Deren shatters this image with the build-up of a drum. The drum here works to punctuate Deren’s masterful and subtle, yet wonderfully simple, editing technique. That is, the reversal of the film.
The sound of the drums overtake the flute until the latter no longer remains. The film then begins to play backwards yet the grace of Chao Li-Chi’s movement isn’t lost. Instead, the editing highlights the fluidity of Chao Li-Chi’s martial arts because of the emphasis Li-Chi places on flow.
The drums serve as more than just a punctuation but also work towards changing the atmosphere and interpretation of Chao Li-Chi’s performance. Where the flute creates an atmosphere of peace, the drums create one of orchestrated chaos, transforming Li-Chi’s movement into a frenetic dance. To this extent, Deren films Li-Chi using sweeping camera movements which arc across his body, resulting in a further emphasis of the violent nature of Li-Chi’s dance.
Like Meshes of the Afternoon, there are even further displays of Deren’s knack for experimental editing, aside from the already mentioned reversal of the film. Utilizing two different match cuts, Deren moves the film between different realms of grace and beauty, highlighting the duality of Li-Chi’s performance.
At first performing in an empty room, Li-Chi jumps only to land in the next screen. This time, he’s outside and performing with a sword. The weapon along with the increased speed of the drum are used to show Li-Chi’s dance at its most violent. Soon thereafter, like the beginning of the film, we once again get an instrumental build-up, this time around the flute.
Meditation on Violence then comes full circle. The sound of the flute overtakes the sound of the drums. Li-Chi once again kicks his way back into another spatial frame, and the film returns to its more quiet meditative roots.
Like the name of the film suggests, Meditation on Violence is as about Li-Chi’s dance as much as it is also about the audience’s reaction to the film. It’s a short film that wants you to think about how the interpretation of Li-Chi’s dance changes, and the repercussions of the change. Nevertheless, Meditation on Violence is indeed a beautiful film.