Why is there such a resistance to considering the theoretical reflections by filmmakers as examples of 'real' film theory? Nobody explicitly announces this bias, but the truth of it is everywhere: works of theory by film directors are duly quoted — they are sometimes even revered, as in the cases of Notes on the Cinematograph by Robert Bresson and Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky — but they are regarded as something special, apart: poetic at best, merely eccentric, whimsical or amateurish at worst.
Today, when the study and transmission of film theory has become such an academic speciality, even dear old Sergei Eisenstein's montage theories find themselves treated in a condescending way: like Raúl Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema books, they are regarded, principally, as mirror images of the artist's own work — a fancy, somewhat narcissistic justification of his own experiments and singular thought processes. But seemingly of little relevance to wider questions of cinema.
However, despite occasional, respectful attempts to map the area, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of this global field — many doors unopened, and rich terrains unexplored.
These thoughts occurred to me recently upon re-reading Maya Deren's slim book An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, first published in a limited edition by a small, New York bookshop in 1946. Deren had in fact completed it three years earlier: around the same time as making her classic Meshes of the Afternoon, at the stunning age of 24.
In nine short, tightly interlocking essays — which, structured as an anagram, can be read down across, diagonally, forwards (deductively), backwards (inductively), and like a rhizome with the ideas in each 'box' bordering three or four others — Deren covers an enormous amount of intellectual ground. The ambition of this hardly 45-page text puts most later film theory to shame: she advances not only a theory of film aesthetics, but also a model of history, science, religion, nature, and the anthropological origins of art and ritual.
Deren is a filmmaker who — and this must make her shudder in her grave — has been endlessly labelled a surrealist, and whose work has been subjected to psychoanalytical decipherment deep and shallow. Furthermore, her art has been both revered and dismissed as the self-projection of an individual woman's private, inner experience. Turning to the Anagram, we find, with no ambiguity at all, that she detests surrealism and Freudianism (which she regards as an "alien system" of interpretation); and that, for her, art's true destiny is neither to be a mere, objective impression (she rejects the category of documentary cinema), nor a self-centred expression. Rather, art should strive to be — once again, as it was long ago in tribal cultures — a ritual form, timeless and impersonal.
An especially acute passage in the Anagram poses a strong, eternal challenge to all film critics. "When an author is delicate in reference to love or sex, it may very well be that he intends it as a delicate experience (as contrast and deliberate counter-point to other experiences in the work); or, as artist, he may prefer to leave such lyric, exalted experience to the imagination of the audience, rather than confine or limit it by the crudities of his technique. And what right have we then to shout out that which he intended to have the qualities of a whisper; or destroy his counter-points; or to define that which he, in considered humility, found, himself, undefinable?"
In this passage, Deren suggests that the tone of a film — something we, as spectators, must try to fully intuit and feel — is more important than its decipherable meaning. And, given the historic moment she was writing — at the end of World War II — she had already encapsulated Serge Daney's conviction, over 40 years later: that "there are experiences which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach — yet its dignity lies in the attempt".