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Stephen Dwoskin

By Al Rees

1.

The films of Stephen Dwoskin defy classification. While his authorship signature is the handheld camera or, in some longer films, the tripod camera's steady gaze, he has moved across many genres in more than forty years as an artist filmmaker.

His early short films, which are still influential, bear the hallmarks of the lyrical/poetic underground style, but even here there is generic cross-over which gets more pronounced over time. In Chinese Chequers the exotic and erotic flow of Ron Rice or Jack Smith meets up with Warhol's cool and disengaged eye, here given a Brakhagean intensity. Dwoskin fused these elements and made them his own. He is not however a 'mythic' filmmaker, in either the grand American tradition or that of the UK 's masters of long-form anti-narrative, such as David Larcher and Malcolm Le Grice. Instead, overarching myth is replaced by a more personal and earth-bound sense of fantasy or waking dream.

Working across the genres appeared early on, most wittily in Dirty, which mixes the rough-edged style of the underground with porn scenes of two girls on a bed. The sense of play that runs through the film is characteristic. Later, even shots of near-taboo action - from a naked woman putting on Dwoskin's (callipers) in Outside In to the violent fantasies of sex and death in Intoxicated By My Illness - are invested with glimpses of humour that undermine any attempt at high seriousness or direct realism.

2.

Dwoskin began making films in New York in 1959 when the avant-garde was led - in contrasting ways - by the twin poles of Jonas Mekas' Film Co-op and, a little later, by Andy Warhol's Factory.

Dwoskin began making films in New York in 1959 when the avant-garde was led - in contrasting ways - by the twin poles of Jonas Mekas' Film Co-op and, a little later, by Andy Warhol's Factory.

Dwoskin identifies himself more with the beat cinema that produced Shadows (dir: Cassavetes), Pull My Daisy (dirs:Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie) and the films of Ron Rice. He brought an authentic whiff of this heady climate to the UK when he moved here in the mid-1960s. Here, around 1966, a cluster of cineastes, social radicals and artists made up the first audiences and makers of the new experimental film. Internal battle lines had not yet been drawn between the factions, so that European New Wave fiction, international political documentaries and underground movies all jostled for attention among the diverse enthusiasts for a new cinema. Dwoskin remains faithful to this inclusive vision, where film culture meets social activism.

The libertarian wing of this movement weakened over the next decade, as bigger hopes for revolution faded. The film groups reformed in stricter and straighter guise in 1976 as the Independent Filmmaker's Association. Its message, and similar pleas for cultural cinema, spread into the television policies that, already in Germany and soon in the UK, funded major experimental films - including some of Dwoskin's - in the 1970's and 1980's. But while Dwoskin has long made the transition from improvised Co-op screening to TV output, he is loyal to the first phase of the underground movement. He preserves a fiercely personal stance with a wider understanding of film beyond film, in its social and documentary aspect. His latest and also more private films are still examples of this.

'When attitude becomes form' might sum up one of Dwoskin's key insights. Both elements are expressed in his incisive account of the experimental film, Film Is, of 1975. An early exponent of the structural film, especially in the related transgressive themes and styles of the Austrian Kurt Kren, and a pioneer of the UK Co-op avant-garde along with Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal, he became disaffected with the theoretical turn made by the movement in the mid-1970s. Increasingly, his films made room for psychodrama, or inner life seen at the extreme. The tilt and pan of the moving camera, or the abrupt patterning of shots that make up his editing matrix, caught the flux of live action.

While his peers and younger filmmakers took this new film rhetoric to more formal and objective ends, Dwoskin remained fixed on the performative act in film. Where Gidal excluded the human figure altogether, avoiding the sense of merged identity between viewer and screen image, Dwoskin courted the human face and body. As with the girl covered in paint for Take Me, or in the implied masturbation of Alone, the discomfort of the woman's stare at the camera in Girl matches the viewer's own gaze at the screen. This Sartrean look of exposure is underlined by the direct address of an actress who calls out for aid in Dyn Amo. By taking private acts and making them public, the film elicits the viewer's uneasy participation. "To use the camera as a character", he said in 1978, "to use the camera so as the viewer is within the action." The voyeurism of cinema is made visible. Absorption becomes theatricality.

3.

Dwoskin is in fact one of the few experimental filmmakers to use actors and drama consistently in his work, albeit in an often improvised and interrogative way.

The jagged edges of his fictional and acted films keep them open to the play of light and chance, just as his free documentary Shadows from Light is focused on formal shape and visual rhythm as well as on its subject, the photographer Bill Brandt. Similarly, he has always deployed music soundtracks, which faded out of the avant-garde cinema until resurrected by new waves and rock videos in the 1980s. The 'long-take' film Jesus Blood of 1974 places Gavin Bryers' plangent loop over long, repeated shots of an elderly derelict approaching the camera. Later, still crossing genres, he mixes classic high opera against domestic scenes or - in the lyrical Some Friends (apart) of 2002 - returns to modernist roots with an evocative score by Alex Balenescu. A film dramatist of alienation and distance, from the 'breakdown' theme of Silent Cry to his latest Beckett adaptation Another Time, he is also a film poet of closeness and empathy.

His stylistic modernism and often abrupt shots, spliced with the early materialist direct and rough-edged printing of films like Me, Myself and I are also linked to the symbolist roots of the modern movement before its formalist phase. Non-linear narrative (like the film medium itself) and private fantasy are symbolist traits too, carried forward by Dwoskin into the digital age. Speech is replaced by song, or by its visual equivalent in the lyric mode. There is little straight spoken dialogue even in the drama films, and in most of his work he stresses the visible gap between shots rather than their imagined unity.

His early reputation was based on lyric psychodrama, or fragmentary evocations of games and glances. Intense moments were his first and lasting interest. They make up the major content of his first films, in contrast to the form-based intensities of contemporaries like Hollis Frampton, George Landow and Paul Sharits. Later he turned to dramas in extended time, in common with such diverse filmmakers as Yvonne Rainer, Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, Michael Snow and Malcolm Le Grice. In style he is perhaps closest to such mainstream dissident directors such as Cassavetes and Herzog, free thinking artists unconcerned for formal values, seeking modern empathy or a modernist sublime in the wake of post-Freudian disenchantment. But in form he is closer to the metaphorical structuralism of his contemporaries Gregory Markopoulos, Michael Snow and David Larcher. Unlike them, however, he is not concerned with metaphysics, landscape and nature. His world is urban, and his map of nature is the human face. What connects these filmmakers is their sense of cinema as heightened and intensified vision.

4.

Dwoskin himself like Larcher, Snow and Le Grice, now works in digital formats, based on previous films in which colour, print stock and light were manipulated directly as part of the production process.

His most recent digital videos are still distinctly cinematic in their sensitivity to colour, form and process. In editing, however, he takes full advantage of the new dimensions of time opened up by digital media. While film allows for blur between frames when the camera is moving, to evoke the direct passage of time, digital editing gives greater control over time in slow motion. His new videos are studies in phased time, evoking the procedure by which the film - a domestic scene or a friend's face - comes into being. In the Pain series, by contrast, he explores a layered visual space, dissolving and superimposing images cut free of linear time, closer to the swirling visions of Anger and Rice that were in the background of his earliest films. This latest period also confirms Dwoskin as one of the great portrait filmmakers in the avant-garde cinema.

Al Rees is a writer and Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art

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