Erien Withouck

The Significance of the White Queen in Maya Deren’s At Land (1944), A Semiotic Analysis

Or would you draw a circle

And say –

This is the first, the whole, the beginning


Yet you are not only this –

There is the invisible principle of you –


What they leave behind”

-Maya Deren



At Land (1944) is a 15-minute experimental film written, directed and starring Maya Deren (1917-1961). The film’s opening scene reveals a sea. As the camera’s perspective moves to the shore we see Deren’s body, washed up as the sea’s waves move backwards. A scene jumps to her climbing some nearby driftwood. As her body continues the same movements, she is transported into the middle of an evening dinner party. The shots go from the wood to a forest and back to the dinner part repeatedly. As she is crawling on the middle of the table, unnoticed, she moves towards a man playing chess at the other end of the table. She arrives as he leaves. She watches as the chess set starts to play itself. A pawn falls off the board and Deren chases it down a stream, it becomes a white queen. She is unsuccessful in retrieving it. The following shot shows her walking along a path next to a man whose face is replaced four times by four different men. They arrive at a cabin; the furniture is protected by white sheets. On the bed, underneath white sheets, lies yet another man. They stare at each other intensely. We see the reflection of water on Deren’s face, and yet there is no water in the room. A cat jumps out of her arms and she leaves the man through a maze of doors which lead her to the top of a cliff. She slides down, falling onto a beach and walks between the dunes. She collects rocks, too many for her to carry. Eventually we see two women playing chess on the beach. The blonde woman controls the white pieces as the darker woman controls the black ones. Deren observes them and leads them to sit on the same side of the chessboard as she strokes their hair. They look up at the sky, Deren steals the white queen and runs away. While running, she passes herself in different stages of the film: by the chess game, collecting rocks, on top of the cliff, at the dinner part. The final scene shows her running along the shore into the distance.


Maya Deren is the author of eleven short films, four of which are incomplete or lost.[1] The subject of this film is Deren’s third film At Land, featuring composer John Cage (1912-1992) and poet and critic Parker Tyler (1904-1974). The film is produced in Angmansett, Long Island, with the help of her then-husband Alexander Hemmid (1907-2004) and camerawoman Hella Heyman. Deren was not only active as an artist, but she also wrote and lectured on art and cinema. Her extensive writings on her methods and techniques provide a deep insight into her creative process and unique narrative style.


In Deren’s Program notes on her films around 1949, she stated that “under no conditions are these films to be announced or publicized as Surrealist or Freudian”. (Millsapps, 1986) As Deren acts as the producer, editor, director and actor in most of her films, an autobiographical link is inevitable. I have chosen to include her own writings in my analysis in order to understand intentional structures and meanings. This is combined with other’s writings on her films and my own subjective interpretation. It is my aim to reflect on these structures through a semiotic analysis to argue how the autobiographical and subjective can also become universal and/or political.


The film constantly jumps between space and time as the frames change in setting. Her body remains the only constant element. The technique used is Montage Editing, and is seen in several avant-garde films before hers including the famed Un Chien Andalou (1928) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali[2] (Pramaggiore, 1997). Another reoccurring element throughout the film is the game of chess and Deren’s mission to retrieve the white queen. We encounter this in the beginning as she chases the chess piece down a stream and the end of the film which shows her running away with it. The chess motif gives the film a typical quest narrative, but as I will describe using the narrative semiotic discourse of Greimas, she uses these tropes in an unconventional way. I will then analyse her film through the tensive model created by Jaques Fontanille to consider her unique build-up of unresolved tensions. I will focus on the motif of the white queen using the Peircian semiotic triangle in order to arrive at a final interpretant. Building on this interpretant, I will move onto visual semiotics and consider Laura Mulvey’s theory on the Male Gaze.












Deren holding the Queen chess piece at the end of At Land (1944)




  1. The Actantial Model (Greimas)


Although Deren puts the most emphasis on visual aspects of her silent films, it is firstly important to examine the way in which she uses classic narrative styles and questions them to create abstraction. Therefore, it is important to analyse her film through narrative semiotics. In order to get to this stage, it is relevant to follow the discourse completed by Algrifas J. Greimas (1917-1992), a semiotician who established the Paris School of Semiotics. Throughout his career, Greimas moved from semantic theory to semiotics. In his discourse on structural semantics, following the narratologist Vladimir Propp (1895-1970), Greimas coined the actantial model, or the actantial narrative scheme. (De Geest, 2003) By applying this model to Deren’s film, I hope to point to elements this model lacks, to further nuance Greimas’ move from semantics to semiotics. Additionally, I hope to show how Deren uses narrative structures, but plays with these conventions to create deeper meanings. 













This model was developed to analyse action which takes place in stories, it suggested all stories can be deduced to an underlying structure. This model is a way to acknowledge distinction between surface level and deep level, and how these structures transformed. Above is an example of the model applied to Deren’s film. The relationship between the object and the subject is one of desire. Deren is moved to obtain the white queen throughout different stages in the film. The upper axis represents communication and the lower one represents power. These three binary oppositions are, according to Greimas, at the base of all stories. He argues, thus, that “all stories share a common ‘grammar.” (Chandler, 2007) The sender is the chess board from which the chess piece falls. The receiver is the stream it falls in. The opponents are the players of the game: a man in the beginning and two women in the end. The helper is Deren herself, in a past state. As she distracts the women players, she takes the queen and runs off.


Using this model, we can state that Deren uses basic narrative structures in her film. However, this surface narrative undermines the signification of each of the separate elements, such as Deren’s different states. It reduces the film to mere basic and static structures which, in the case of Deren’s work, are not the most important elements in her film. In her own words, Deren would describe this basic narrative structure as horizontal; a linear movement in time. She opposes this with vertical depth in space:

“The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by “a poetic structure”) and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramification of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned in a sense not with what is occurring, but with what it feels like or what it means.” Deren, Poetry and the Film: Symposium, 1963


In order to nuance this distinction between horizontality and verticality, we can follow Greimas’ discourse on the semiotic square.


  1. The Semiotic Square


The main critique of the Greimassian actantial model is that it simplifies narratives and does not allow for an analysis of narrative details. Furthermore, it does not allow room for dynamics. We cannot, for example, use this model to analyse the way in which Deren juxtaposes culture with nature, nor the way in which she invokes a frustration of climaxes. Aware of these limitations, Greimas created another model, the semiotic square, which aims to structurally analyse the meaning of a sign by predetermined system. This model visually elaborates on binary oppositions by questioning them. As we will come to see, vertical and horizontal are not absolute oppositions.
















Along the upper axis we find (S1), horizontal, which signifies left and right. (S2) is the notion of verticality which we define as up and down. The elements (S1) and (S2) combine to form a complex axis, which represents a relation between contraries, the opposing terms horizontal and vertical seem difficult to combine, but find themselves in a circle. A horizontal line becomes vertical is we turn our head slightly. If we turn it more it becomes horizontal once again. Every straight line is part of a circle and forms a circle by returning to itself. Along the neutral axis we find non-vertical (-S1) and non-horizontal (-S2), we could combine these terms into a diagonal which is neither horizontal nor vertical. The terms horizontal (S1) and non-vertical (-S2) represent a relation between contradictories and could be combined in a horizon. The terms vertical (S2) and non-horizontal (-S1) signify the path a falling object makes. The terms (–S2) and (–S1) both exist in the process between horizontal and vertical.


Dorothea Fischer-Hornung writes on Deren’s notion of verticality:

“Her vertical movement into an epistemology of depth, which interrupts the horizontal movement of the film narrative, enables the viewer to look beneath the surface of the material reality portrayed, thereby achieving a unique and poetic filmic reality. The immersion into recognition – the moment of trance-like altered reality – is effected in a process comparable to the structure and function of human memory”. Fischer-Hornung, Facts of the Mind Made Manifest in a Fiction of Matter, 2005


Deren uses both horizontal linear structures as well as vertical movement. Another example of verticality in her film is the juxtaposition of a ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ world as she jumps from the wood-climbing scene to the dinner table in the beginning of the film. As Millsapps states in his essay Maya Deren, Imagist: “The fusion of the two image creates a new cinematic meaning not belonging to either image, but to their manipulated combination.” (Millsapps, 1986) The main horizontal element in At Land is the quest for the white queen and Deren’s desire to retrieve it. The film follows the structures of a classic quest-narrative, but it also contains a circular narrative. The protagonist emerges from the sea in the beginning, waves moving backwards creating an uncanny effect, and runs back along the shores at the end of the film. Nothing is resolved. As opposed to many other avant-garde filmmakers in her time, Deren is credited with the first narrative film within an avant-garde context. Theresa Geller points out in her essay The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren, that before Deren, this movement was dominated by abstract representations and formal experiments. (Geller, 2006)


Deren describes vertical as something which doesn’t concern what is occurring, but what it feels like, or what it means. She describes her films as a “constant metamorphosis: one image is always becoming another, it is what is happening that it important and not what is at any moment.” [my emphasis] She compares this to a mother raising a child. The child is always in a stage of becoming and never ‘completed’. She contrasts this language with a Man’s sense of immediacy (In the Mirror of Maya Deren, 2004) I will elaborate on this in the last section when considering Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze. When compared to literature, if we apply this to a horizontal linear narrative which goes from point A to point B in a logical manner, we could state that traditional prose is horizontal in time (although this is refuted in modern literature)[3]. Poetry on the other hand, uses metaphors and juxtapositions, layers in order to signify a single point, it uses vertical depth in space[4].


When considering her writings on how technology has given us a different notion of time and space, medium specificity is of importance. Aeroplanes and radios have created a “relativistic reality of time and space”. Using the film camera, Deren emphasizes this. She extends this even further when considering how she shows herself in past states at the end of At Land. As Deren runs past her different present states throughout the film, she distorts ant linear logical experience of time. We can no longer localise which Deren is in the present and which is in the past. She elaborates on this in her writings:

“In spacial terms, for example, the absolutistic differentiation between here and there loses meaning as here and there, being so mutually accessible, become, in effect, almost identical. In terms of time, the chronology of the past, present and future has also increasingly lost its meaning as we have come to understand the continuity of the past with the future – and prodded on by the actual acceleration of historical processes, to deal with the present moment as an extension of the past into the future rather than as an independent temporal period.”

Maya Deren, Cinema as an Art Form, 1946


Interestingly, the idea of horizontality and verticality is also studied by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist famous for his distinction between the signified and the signifier, who developed a model which specifies the distinction between the syntagmatic (horizontal) and the paradigmatic (vertical) axis (Saussure himself used the term ‘associative’ but this was later corrected by Roman Jacobson as paradigm). “The plane of the syntagm is that of the combination of ‘this-and-this-and-this’ (as in the sentence ‘the man cried) while the plane of the paradigm is that of the selection this-or-this-or-this (eg. The preplacement of the last word in the same sentence with ‘died’ of ‘sang’).” The syntagmatic axis points to possibilities of combination while the paradigmatic axis involve differentiation. If we study this temporally, we can state that the syntagms refer within the text whereas the paradigms refer to signifiers which are absent from the text. Where a syntagm is “an orderly combination of interacting signifiers which form a meaningful whole within a text” (Chandler, 2007), the way in which elements are related in a text or body of work – similar to Deren’s idea of linearity –, paradigmic relationships are ‘contrastive’, where an individual sign may be replaced by another within the same category, the choice of one excludes the other. We could compare this idea of the paradigmatic with a metaphor, comparing and contrasting absent signifiers with signifiers in the text, or in Deren’s case, film. According to Annette Michelson, Deren’s writing argued for “a recognition for the cinema, in cinema, of the duality of linguistic structure, that very duality that Jakobson was to propose… as the metonymic and metaphoric modes on which contemporary film theory eventually builds”. (Michelson, 2001) Deren’s use of unconventional juxtapositions and contrasts point to a paradigmatic dimension in her films. Her logical quest-narrative can be placed along a syntagmatic axis.


Through Narrative semiotics and the Greimas discourse, we have seen the way in which Deren plays with typical narrative structures but simultaneously radically breaks with them. There is no logical or chronological structure, reflecting the ability of technology to register the past. Via technology, the past is no longer merely past, but also always present. We have also seen that her notions of horizontality and verticality are comparable with Saussure and Roman Jakobson’s theories of the syntagmatic vs. the paradigmatic. In order to focus on her sense of rhythm and tension, we will consider the Tensive Model by Fontanille.




 “I had been trying to extend into metaphysical extension; that film is changing, metamorphic; that is, infinite; the idea that the movement of life is totally important rather than a single life. My films were built on an incline, an increase in intensity. I hoped to make a form which was infinite, the changingness of things.”

Maya Deren, In the Mirror of Maya Deren, 2004


  1. Semiotics of passion


Post-Greimassian semioticians pointed to the absence of the subjective body which eventually lead to the semiotic turn, and meant the development of a semiotics of passion. By considering the body in semiotics, this also lead to the consideration of perception within the body. How something or someone experiences a sign. Jaques Fontanille (1948), who was also part of the Paris School of Semiotics, points to two flaws in Greimas’ semiotic square, namely the exclusion of the subject and its binary form which makes the oppositions seem fossilized and leave little room for gradation. He attempts to include the body in his semiotics, which relates perception and signification to the body. This is crucial when considering narrative semiotics as it includes how storytelling signifies meanings. From a semiotics of passion, Fontanille creates a more technical approach in his tensive semiotics. One result of this is the tensive model created by Fontanille and Claude Ziberberg (1938). (Chandler, 2007) 


   2. The Tensive model (Fontanille, Ziberberg)


The tensive model has two axes reflecting two ways in which intensity manifests itself in accordance to the perceiving body, namely extent (time & space) on the horizontal axis and intensity (inside energy) on the vertical axis. The subject and its experience becomes the central part of everything. (Hébert, 2006) Maya Deren who, throughout her career, researched rituals and dance extensively, uses tension in her films in a unique way. In her notes on Balinese rituals she considers the tensity plateau discussed by Gregory Bateson in his lectures on Balinese traditions:

“One might say, in terms of sociological structure, that the purpose of the frustration of climaxes is the channelization of energy which would, in climactic activity, be spent and really dissipated in conclusive exhaustion - that it is converted into a tension plateau which serves the continuity both of personal and communal relations.”

- Maya Deren, journal notes, 1947 [my emphasis]


This idea of a frustration of climaxes is reflected in her own films. On several occasions, Deren builds up tension, but leaves these tensions unresolved. When considering her film At Land we can find at least four of these points: 1) When the man sitting at the end of the table leaves as she is approaching him 2) The pawn which is not retrieved after searching for it in the stream 3) the moment she walks away from the man in the house after staring at him intensely 4) the end of the film, where Deren steals the pawn and runs away. In her essay Frustrated Climaxes: on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Witch’s Cradle, Keller studies the way in which Deren plays with tension in her films and states this constitutes a “circuit that builds meaning through resonances rather than resolutions”. (Keller, 2013) Meaning lies not in the moment she retrieves the queen chess piece, but rather in the dynamic process the viewer experiences.


The tensive model is split into four different zones; zone 1: low intensity, low extent / zone 2: high intensity and low extent / zone 3: low intensity and high extent / zone  4: high intensity and high extent. If we place these points of tension in Deren’s film into a tensive model they would increase in extent and increase in intensity. The first experiencing a short build-up and the last extending most of the film and leading into an intense ending. Therefore, we could place the points in different models amplifying correlation, each model would include an increasing intensity and extension. This could be compared to an orchestra, using each of the unresolved tensions to build up an overall tension as a conductor adds more and more instruments to a symphony. None however, lead to a final catharsis, the film merely begins again. Deren uses techniques such as irresolution, reflection, repetition and incompletion to generate tensions which are never resolved. (Keller, 2013) This, again, invokes the circularity discussed earlier. The end of At Land shows Deren running by the shore, the beginning shows her washed up at shore (as the waves behind her move in reverse motion), the resolution could be read in the beginning of the film.











Point 1                                                                                   Point 2

High intensity, medium extent                                              Medium intensity, medium extent



Point 3                                                                                  Point 4

High intensity, short extent                                                 High intensity, high extent

    3. Curves of Aesthetic Euphoria (Hérbert)


In Tools for Text and Image Analysis, Louis Hébert elaborates on the tensive model by presenting curves of aesthetic euphoria. This points to a “visual representation of the variations over time in the intensity of the euphoric aesthetic effects that a semiotic act (or semiotized event, such as a sunset seen as entertainment) generates in one or more agents of reception.” (Hébert, 2006) We could visualise these four points of tension into four different curves of aesthetic euphoria as follows:



















The first point builds up tension as she is crawling across the middle of the table. The shot focusses on the man, insinuating she is moving towards him. Right before she reaches the end of the table, the man leaves, the tension remains unresolved. The second point starts as the pawn falls onto the floor and into a stream. Tension builds up slowly and steadily as she climbs the stream. The pawn falls down a stone and Deren leaves. The third point is Deren staring into the eyes of a man in the cabin. The camera moves between her face and his as the intensity of their staring increases. After some moments, she leaves the room without looking back. The fourth point is the longest in extent as it’s duration lasts for most of the film and consist of her attempting to retrieve the white queen in the stream and by the beach. The climax builds up as she attempts to retrieve it, but once she has it, nothing happens. The climax does not lead to anything.


This chapter on Tensive semiotics has revealed the unique way in which Deren builds up tension in her film. This proves her film is not made in function of its ending, is we consider it as point A leading to point B, B is of little importance, it is the way in which she takes us from A to B. Furthermore, as we have seen in the first chapter on narrative semiotics, point B eventually leads back to point A, which is in itself also a repetition. These techniques build up a rhythm in her films and predict her later work on dance and choreography.



“The history of art is the history of man and his universe and of the moral relationship between them. Whatever the instrument, the artist sought to re-create the abstract, invisible forces and relationships of the cosmos, the intimate, immediate, forms of his art, where the problems might be experienced and perhaps resolved in miniature. It is not presumptuous to suggest that cinema, as an art instrument especially capable of recreating relativistic relationships on a plane of intimate experience, is of profound experience. It stands, today, in the great need of the creative contributions of whomsoever respects the fabulous potentialities of its destiny”

– Maya Deren, ‘An Anagram of ideas on art, form and film’, 1946


  1. Semiotic Triangle (Peirce)


Charles Sander Perice (1839-1914), American pragmatist philosopher and logician, - who developed his theories around the same period as Saussure in France -also takes the subjective body into account in his semiotics. Instead of the binary system which was used by Greimas, Peirce developed a ternary system to study not the signs themselves, but the process of semiosis. He regards this process as an endless interaction between three different elements namely the representamen (R), the object (O) and the interpretant (I). This stresses the point that the semiotic process can be infinite, but the aim of the model is to find a satisfactory sign which no longer cause a problem or are controlled by a social consensus[5] (Chandler, 2007). In order to focus more specifically on the role of the chess game in Deren’s film, we can use Peirce’s semiotic triangle to study the process of semiosis:


R1: (Representamen)   Chess

O1: (Object)                White Queen

I1: (Interpretant)          Rules of Chess

In the case of Deren’s film, we can state that the interpretant is dynamic and subjective. My interpretation could vary from the next. However, we can continue to study the process of semiosis by re-questioning the interpretant as such:


R2 (I1): Rules of chess

O2: Civilisation

R3 (I2): Subjection

O3: Crave for freedom

R4 (I3): Breaking out of these roles

04: Suppression

R5: Protest


Every new interpretant may act as the subject of a new representamen and become the starting point of a new semiosis, any interpretation can be reinterpreted. Through this process, signs which Peirce refers to as alarming signs, those which raise a problem, can be contested using the triangle to lead to satisfactory signs. As Maria Prammagiore points out in her essay Performance and Persona in the US Avant Garde, considering Deren’s film At Land, the player of the chess game at the beginning of the film could be seen as a controller of roles, the roles being the chess pieces (Parmmagiore, 1997). The desire to obtain the white queen could be read as a metaphor for Deren to control her own role. Therefore, stealing the chess piece becomes a protest. More specifically, considering her position as a woman filmmaker, and the fact that she steals the queen from the chess board at the end of the film, it could also be a reference to the suppression of women in society as a whole and more specifically within an art world and film industry dominated by men. This is further reflected in the contrast between the manly figure playing the chess game in the beginning of the film, who is replaced by the two women playing chess at the end of the film:



The man playing chess vs. the women playing chess in At Land (1944)


Considering the previous quote, we can contest that Deren was well aware of the potentialities of art and of cinema as an instrument of protest.


On At Land, Deren writes:

“presents a relativistic universe […] in which the problem of the individual, as the sole continuous element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century.”

Maya Deren, Cinematography: The Creative uses of Reality, 1960

Her film reflects and individual’s struggle to maintain a personal identity. We can read this in the way Deren’s body remains the only constant element throughout the film. If we consider the metaphor of the chess game, the chess pieces referencing ascribed and predetermined roles in society, stealing the white queen could reflect Deren taking control of her own role. In the next section, we will see how she further uses this symbolism as a feminist protest.




“I think they are the films of a woman and I think that their characteristic time quality is the time quality of a woman. I think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a "now" creature and a woman has strength to wait, because she's had to wait. She has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness. And she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming. She raises a child knowing not what it is at any moment but seeing always the person that it will become. Her whole life from her very beginning it's built into her is the sense of becoming.” – Maya Deren, in the Mirror of Maya Deren



  1. The Male Gaze (Laura Mulvey)


Deren was very conscious of her feminine and feminist voice, as we have established in the section on narrative semiotics and the above quote, she contrasts a man’s sense of ‘immediacy’ with a woman’s sense of ‘becoming’. It is further reflected in At Land through the man’s face which constantly changes, making him replaceable and reversing the stereotypes of male and female characters. But it is further very present in her visual language.


Although Deren avoids explicit engagement on political topics, she assumes her responsibility as a filmmaker, and does not hide her left-wing political views. She uses cinema in order to debunk the ideologies of dominant cinema produced in Hollywood. By creating an alternative visual and narrative language, Deren deconstructs ‘normal’, or rather dominant identifications. Proving her feminist standpoint, her mode of representation differs greatly from the way in which women are represented in mainstream cinema, in Maya Deren and the Subversive Female Body, Andrew Howe elaborates on this:


“In complicating her own bodily space, she undermines the image that, up until that point, has produced visual stability. In doing so, she rewrites the process of signification engrained into not just filmmaking but artistic production in general. Traditional notions of signification are attacked on the dual, and most likely inseparable, levels of medium and message. Cinematic expectations are undermined, and the female body is liberated instead of constrained.”

Andrew Howe, 2011



In her film, Deren’s body is shown continuously in motion and never static. This contrasts with the representation of women’s bodies in mainstream cinema, who’s motionlessness encourages an objectification of the body and overly sexualised representations of women. In contrast to a visual language in which the female body is controlled, Deren’s body is the controlling component in her own films. (Howe, 2011) As the setting of the film constantly changes, Deren’s body remains constant, this makes it a site of stability and meaning, an anchor inducing a notion of control.


Deren’s films are an example of how the personal, or autobiographic becomes political. As Maureen Turim notes “Deren infuses the personal with her experience as a woman. She then arranges the force of experience into a form that evokes connections to a shared cultural experience.” (Turim, 1982). On the same note, Theresa Geller continues quoting Jaqueline Rose, that Deren “employs “abstract expressionism, fantasy or surrealism” which convey the imaginary, to map the very psychic structures that predate and predetermine both the “eye” and the “I” of the autobiographical (sexed) subject”. (Geller, 2006; Rose, 1986)


Seeing as her films are, for the most part, autobiographical and –following surrealism- show experiments in perception, this combination accounts to experiments in self-representation, or the "imaginative experience". Considering her critiques of the dominant ideologies of mainstream cinema, it seems almost evident that her films invoke protest:

“Thus, the imaginative experience which is, for the artist, a desired normality, is, for the motion picture industry a dangerous, psychic illegality. As producer of a “mass art,” the industry assumes a social responsibility. Accepting a pre-disposition towards evil in even the most innocent, it provides them with a catharsis through the vicarious experience of its seductive aspects.” [original emphasis]

– Maya Deren, Cinema as art form, 1946 (In Essential Deren, 2005)


Thirty years after Deren was active as a woman filmmaker, British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey (1941) elaborates on the way in which women are represented in mainstream cinema. She bases her theory on ‘The Male Gaze’ and points to the way in which mainstream media objectifies the female body, and how women are portrayed from a masculine heterosexual perspective. This holds a controlling political and social power between men and women and establishes the roles of dominant-male and dominated-female within cinema and other media, which are then reflected in gender roles between men and women in general. The female is represented as a passive object for the male gaze of the active viewer. (Mulvey, 1975) This is enforced and presently still an issue in mainstream media which is still controlled and dominated by men. Although Mulvey is no semiotician, her critique on visual culture has roots in semiotics, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and her own experience as an active filmmaker.


As a solution to the Male Gaze, Mulvey primarily proposes a counter-aesthetic:


“A negative aesthetic can produce an inversion of the meanings and pleasures it confronts, but it risks remaining locked in a dialogue with its adversary. Counter-aesthetics, too, can harden into a system of dualistic opposition. But it is also important to acknowledge that negative aesthetics can act as a motor force in the early phases of a movement, initiating and expressing the desire for change.”

– Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989


The period in which Deren made her films was certainly situated in the “early phases of a movement”. It is no coincidence Deren is credited with the title “Mother of the Avant-Garde”. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey primarily neglects Deren in the history of cinema. Influences are clearly present however, in her own film. Zsanett Varga writes in The World of Maya Deren that her film Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) reflects Maya Deren’s use of a circular narrative and symbolism. (Varga, 2015) In her later book Visual and Other Pleasures, Mulvey mentions Deren’s work shortly on several occasions. (Mulvey, 1989)


As we have seen through the narrative and Peircian semiotic analysis, Deren uses symbolism in her films to suggest deeper and underlying structures. She does not only swap gender roles, but further takes control by stealing the white queen and determining her own role. I have chosen to apply Mulvey’s theory on Deren’s At Land for I feel this emphasises the way in which Deren uses her own body and art as a (feminist) protest. I have chosen not to use the Groupe Mu approach for abstraction does not lie on the surface visual language, but rather in the way she contrasts and juxtaposes shots.




The semiotic analysis of the films of Maya Deren has brought an interpretation of her abstract films. Through narrative semiotics we have analysed how Deren plays with conventional narrative styles but uses this to question them. The Semiotic square allowed us to further study her distinction between horizontal and vertical styles. A short insight in the difference between the Saussurian theory of the syntagmatic axis and the paradigmatic axis to compare how Deren composed her film.


In order to explore how Deren builds tension in her films, the Tensive model emphasizes the amplifying correlation inherent to Deren’s points of tension. This, again, reflects her interests in rituals and dance, creating a unique rhythm in her films. Focussing specifically on the white queen chess piece, I deconstructed the process of semiosis via Peirce’s semiotic triangle. This section concluded with the idea of Deren’s film as a protest against assigned and predetermined roles in society. Via the theory of Laura Mulvey, this was further specified as a feminist protest against dominant visual representations in mainstream cinema.


If the space of this paper had allowed it, a study on the myth through theories by Roland Barthes would have been interesting, as would a cultural semiotic approach. I chose to limit myself to these three sections in order to be able to focus on them in depth. I chose these models and theories for they allowed me to focus on key aspects of Deren’s At Land.


The films of Maya Deren are open to interpretation. Although we may find meanings in her ‘imaginative experience’, these are dynamic and subjective. Through her own writings we can conclude that Deren was politically conscious and aware of the dominant power of Hollywood. But simultaneously, her films remain open. In the end, even if they are not read as a feminist protest or revolutionary in the way they use and question conventional narrative structures; they were, and still are, visually stunning.







Butler, Alison. “Motor-Driven Metaphysics: Movement, Time and Action in the Films of Maya Deren.” Screen, 48:1 (2007).


De Geest, Dirk. “La sémiotique narrative de A.J. Greimas”. Image (&) Narrative, n°5, (2003)


Deren, Maya. “From the Notebook of Maya Deren 1947.” October, 14. (1980): 21-46. 


Deren, Maya and Bruce Rice McPherson. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: Documentext, (2005).


Geller, Theresa L. “The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and Its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-Garde.” An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 29. 1 (2006): 140-158


Fischer-Hornung, Dorothea. “‘Facts of the Mind Made Manifest in a Fiction of Matter.’” Prose Studies 27, no. 3 (2005): 280–98.


Hébert, Louis. “Louis Hébert , Tools for Text and Image Analysis : An Introduction to Applied Semiotics.” (2006)


Howe, Andrew. Body Politic: Maya Deren and the Subversive Female Body. International Journal of the Image , Vol. 1 Issue 1 (2011): p109-116.


In the Mirror of Maya Deren. DVD. Directed by Martina Kudlacek. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2004.


J.L. Millsapps, “Deren, Maya, Imagist”, Literature-Film Quarterly, 14 (1), (1986)


Keller, Sarah. “Frustrated Climaxes: On Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ and ‘Witch’s Cradle.’” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 75–98.


Maas, Willard. “Poetry and the Film: A Symposium” Film Culture, No. 29, (1963): 55-63. 


Michelson, Annette, “Poetics and Savage Thought: About Anagram” in Nichols, Bill (ed) Maya Deren & The Avant Garde, London: University of California Press, 2001, pg 26


Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Springer, 1989.


Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16.3. (1975): 6-18. 


Pramaggiore, Maria. “Performance and Persona in the U.S. Avant-Garde: The Case of Maya Deren.” Cinema Journal, 36.2. (1997): 17-40.


Turim, Maureen. “The Ethics of Form: Structure and Gender in Maya Deren’s Challenge to the Cinema.” Nicholls 77-102


Varga, Zsannett. The World of Maya Deren. Americana 11:2. (2015).






[1] For an extensive filmography see publication of her collected essays Essential Deren edited by Bruce R. McPherson

[2] Specifically the scene where a woman leaves a second-story apartment and ends up on the beach

[3] A typical example of a novel which contests this linearity is The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne

[4] She further elaborates on filmic horizontal motion and vertical element in her essay An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film originally published in 1946

[5] The neccessary ending of the semiosis has been contested by several theoreticians after Peirce including Jean Jaques Thomas in his study on the semiotics of Michael Riffaterre