Meditation on Violence

Meditation on Violence

“Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?”

“En garde, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.”1


“According to Stan Brakhage, Meditation on Violence is Deren’s most personal film. She doesn’t appear in it, but, as Brakhage notes: ‘She is the camera, she’s moving, she’s breathing in relation to this dancer.’”

Georgia Korossi2


“When you train for something, you imagine possibilities, meditate on possibilities of action, but you are not involved in it. Meditation on Violence. It is the nature of meditation to look at a thing in one way, then approach it from another, move forward, recede, return. I conceived of photographing this as a kind of cubism in time. The same movement is seen from different approaches just as in cubism, simultaneously different aspects are seen, but here not in space but in time. Although it is true that one meditates and life is infinite, it would be awfully dull if there were no variations of intensity.”

Maya Deren3


“Deren conceived of Meditation on Violence ‘in terms of form as a whole, and particularly in reference to a non-literary continuity for film.’ That is, just as in her other films, and here baldly stated, she is not interested in psychological causality or linearity of a narrative sense. The film’s openness works both in favor of its themes – how violence and inaction are related to one another, for instance – and in its structure, which is circular, recursive, and in excess of a closed system. The film evolves out of this ‘form as a whole,’ and that form is its point: Deren maps the formal ideas based on the notion of a curve describing traditional training movements of Wu-Tang and Shao-Lin schools of Chinese boxing. She charts this movement commencing with her performer Ch’ao-Li Chi executing steady and balanced movements (Wu-Tang) that then increase in intensity and speed (Shao-Lin), culminating with a peak of velocity and violence of motion (Sword Shao-Lin). The third section employs slightly disorienting cuts to keep up with the pace and finally, even more disorientingly, climaxes in the opposite of what one expects of moving pictures: stilness. Ch’ao-Li Chi jumps into the air, and Deren holds him suspended in air for a second or two before resuming his motion and allowing him to land (a similar action of stilling the frame as in the statuary sequence of Ritual in Transfigured Time). Deren explains: ‘The ultimate of an extreme becomes its opposite. Here the ultimate of violence is paralysis.’ From that point of stasis, the action is run in reverse through the same motions through which it just passed, so that it runs from Wu-Tang to Shao-Lin to Sword Shao-Lin to stasis then back to Sword Shao-Lin, Shao-Lin, and Wu-Tang. It sketches an arc that then boomerangs back on itself rather than heading toward an ending, a resolution.”

Sarah Keller4


“It was in 1953 that I first met Maya. I was searching for a copy of An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, a little book, or what Maya called a chapbook, which she had published in 1946. I couldn’t find it anywhere, not even at Gotham Book Mart, the publisher of the book. Because I had been told that it was the most intelligent attack on the documentary film form, and a key to the understanding of Deren’s films, I became obsessed with finding it.

Most of the people I spoke with about the Anagram shook their heads: the book was far above their heads. I have to add that, even today, Maya’s book, which undoubtedly ranks with the three or five most important pieces of writing on cinema ever published, is still approached by most film anthologists with the same kind of fear and trembling.

Finally, a friend who knew Maya suggested that I call her and borrow a copy of the book from her directly. I was just a young nobody from Lithuania: a displaced person, a so-called immigrant. After four years of “living” in the postwar displaced person camps, I was brought to the United States by the United Nations Refugee Organization. I was living at that time on 95 Orchard Street, an escapee from two years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had such great respect for Maya that I felt it was almost sacrilegious to bother her with such a request. But I had no other choice. I was obsessed with the need to read the Anagram. So I called her and asked if I could borrow a copy of the book. She sounded surprised but said, ‘Of course, I’ll lend it to you.’”

Jonas Mekas5


“It's ‘whereas’ and ‘things of that nature.’ It's our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations.”

Paul Beatty6

  • 1Sample from Shao Lin yu Wu Dang [Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang] (Chia-Hui Liu, 1983) in the song Bring Da Ruckus, by Wu-Tang Clan
  • 2Georgia Korossi, ‘Maya Deren: seven films that guarantee her legend,’ BFI.
  • 3Maya Deren, ‘New Directions in Film Art,’ Essential Deren: collected writings on film by Maya Deren. McPherson & Company, New York, 2005.
  • 4Sarah Keller, Maya Deren: incomplete control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014),192-193.
  • 5Jonas Mekas, ‘A Few Notes on Maya Deren,’ Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman (Boston: MIT Press, 1998).
  • 6Paul Beatty, The Sellout. Oneworld Publications, 2016.
UPDATED ON 24.01.2018