Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Stephen Dwoskin (1939-2012)

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Returning from holiday, I got word that the American avant-garde filmmaker Steve Dwoskin had died June 28 in London, his home for nearly five decades.

Dwoskin, a trained graphic artist before he picked up a camera, was a filmmaker for whom the underground movies of the early ‘60s proved a life-changing influence and whose own work would have a decisive effect on the British film theorists of the early ‘70s. A true believer in the liberating power of the medium, he was also the author of an impassioned, programmatically cosmopolitan, personal history of avant-garde cinema, “Film Is: The International Free Cinema,” first published in 1975.

Coming to cinema at a time when the depiction of sex or nudity on the screen was an illegal act of guerrilla warfare, Dwoskin absorbed both Jack Smith’s sense of film as a place where one might be free to “clown, pose, act out one’s fantasies,” and Andy Warhol’s blunt cine-voyeurism, along with Warhol’s discovery that the long take could generate its own behavioral response. (Indeed, Dwoskin somewhat anticipated Warhol’s “Sleep” with his 1961 short “Asleep.”) But, working without the fig leaf of Smith’s ironic aestheticism or Warhol’s detachment, he allowed his most primal sexual preoccupations to become the subject of his work. His films, as his early supporter, the British critic Raymond Durgnat once observed, were “not so much avant-garde as stone-age.”

The quintessential first-period Dwoskin film is a portrait of a solitary naked woman staring down the camera and otherwise reacting to her situation as the object of the viewer’s passive desire. “Trixi” (1969), a 30-minute distillation of an eight-hour shoot, in which the entranced rapport between subject and camera takes on the stylized sexuality of a tango, is the likely the film that prompted Warhol to pay Dwoskin the ultimate compliment: “How did you do it?” Dwoskin, a co-founder of the London Filmmaker’s Cooperative and a teacher at the Royal College of Art, was an inspiration to both local filmmakers and film theorists—notably Laura Mulvey, whose canonical cinema-studies essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” drew in part on her discussions with Dwoskin.

Looking and being looked at were Dwoskin’s main themes—as in his 1976 “Central Bazaar” (above), a languid two-and-half circus of sexual role playing in which, for the most part, everybody is busy observing everybody else—but he also turned the camera on himself. His first such psychodrama was the West German-financed feature “Behindert” (1974), in which the filmmaker, whose legs were withered by childhood polio, played the frustrated lover of an able-bodied woman; it was followed by “Trying to Kiss the Moon” (1994), “Intoxicated by My Illness” (2001), and most recently “The Sun and the Moon” (2007).

Two of Dwoskin’s early works can be seen this month in London: “Take Me” is showing through July 29 as part of an exhibition at Flat Time House gallery; “Alone” is screening at South London Gallery on July 25. His final work, “Age Is…” is scheduled to have its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August.

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