Stephen Dwoskin (Obituary for The Guardian)
Stephen Dwoskin, filmmaker, artist and graphic designer; born 15 January 1939; died 28 June 2012
There are filmmakers whose work one recognises from just a few frames, and prolific experimental artist Stephen Dwoskin, who died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 73 on 28 June 2012, is among them. A trembling, handheld camera, often observing people from a confrontingly intimate, low angle; studies of women moving, dancing, stripping, making love to Dwoskin himself, or simply looking into the lens with a steely, defiant gaze; a relentless, droning, musical accompaniment. This is the impression left by his best-known films, Dyn Amo (1972), Behindert (1974) or Central Bazaar (1976).
This way of looking and filming came directly from Dwoskin’s physical, bodily situation. Born and raised in New York, he was stricken by polio at age of nine during the 1948 epidemic. “They didn’t expect me to live”, he recalled in 2009. “I was a whole history of polio in one person”. He spent much of his life on crutches, and later in a wheelchair. Dwoskin’s films never hid his disability; indeed, the human body – his own or other people’s, in all imaginable states of pleasure and pain – became his central subject. He developed, across 50 years, a cinematic style to capture, convey and explore these bodily sensations.
Dwoskin began his professional life in 1959 as a painter and graphic designer, after studying under Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers at Parsons School of Design and New York University. Although he continued to intermittently teach and practice design, in the early ‘60s he gravitated toward cinema. In New York he mixed with Andy Warhol and Robert Frank; inspired by experimental film pioneers such as Maya Deren, he made his first shorts, including Asleep (1961).
With a Fulbright Scholarship, he moved to London 1964. In 1966 he helped establish the London Filmmakers Cooperative, and vigorously promoted underground cinema. His major films from this time include Naissant (1964), Dirty (1965), Moment (1970) and Times For (1971).
Dwoskin did not seek mainstream cultural success. His work was exhibited at international film festivals and art events; he accepted small-scale commissions throughout Europe, including for German television. Rather unfashionably, he insisted on the kinship of his film work to poetry and painting. Even within the experimental arts scene, Dwoskin – although he had influential champions, including film theorists Laura Mulvey and Paul Willemen – tended to be a singular figure. His films sometimes incited polemical debate over their depiction of sex and gender roles.
The critic Raymond Durgnat, a friend of the filmmaker, once remarked that, as a New Yorker migrating to Great Britain, Dwoskin “eluded both cultures”. Artistically, he was not a purist; he never devoted himself to a single track of aesthetic research, or aligned himself with any collective movement. He remained outside both the abstract school associated with Americans such as Stan Brakhage, and the formalist school associated with British artists including Malcolm Le Grice.
Dwoskin happily mixed all available modes, in often surprising ways: documentary with fiction, abstraction with concrete observation, theatrical enactments with diary-like recordings, personal fantasy with social issues. This is particularly evident in his most ambitious works, including Tod Und Teufel (1973), Silent Cry (1977), Outside In (1981), Face of Our Fear (1992), Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994) and Pain Is … (1997).
Although Dwoskin’s style of cinema registers as one of the most intensely personal and subjective in the entire history of medium, he was drawn to projects that juxtaposed his ‘first person’ visions with those of other creators. His collaborators included Belgian Boris Lehman (Before the Beginning, 2006), American-born but Europe-based Robert Kramer (Video Letters, 1991), and the latter’s daughter, Keja Ho Kramer (I’ll Be Your Eyes, You’ll Be Mine, 2006). He also worked with artists famous in other mediums, such as Gavin Bryars, who composed soundtracks for him in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Dwoskin eventually faced increasingly serious ailments, including pneumonia. In 2001, “going in and out of the hospital like a ping-pong ball” and contemplating imminent death, Dwoskin made Intoxicated By My Illness, assembled from material shot by himself and friends, manipulated on computer. It mixes morbid, funereal imaginings with extravagant, erotic fantasies.
However, Dwoskin managed to survive for a further 11 years. Intoxicated set the model for the work he was to achieve: filming and editing largely in his home on digital equipment, collaborating with friends old and new, drawing inspiration from literature, fairy tales and mythology. Major works from this period include Oblivion (2006) and The Sun and The Moon (2008). His final film, Age Is (2012), was premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August 2012, after his death.
Dwoskin wrote several books. His survey Film Is (1975) celebrated the diverse forms of what he called the International Free Cinema. His surrealistic photomontages were collected in Ha Ha! (La solution imaginaire) in 1993. At the time of his death, he was writing an autobiography that charted the intertwining paths of his art and life in the same open, ruthlessly honest manner as his films. He was married once (and divorced before he arrived in Britain), and had no children.
Although he was honoured by several retrospectives in recent years, it is fair to say that Dwoskin has yet to receive the full attention and acclaim he deserved. As of 2012, availability of his work on DVD is still slight, and there is no book in any language devoted to his prodigious career. [2015 note: this situation has improved since, especially due to the efforts of the University of Reading, which administers Dwoskin’s large archive and organises events and publications around it. Further DVDs have been produced by the BFI and by Dérives magazine in France.] Hopefully, Dwoskin will one day be recognised as one of the most significant experimental artists in cinema history.
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© Adrian Martin July 2012
Adrian Martin is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), and a writer for Sight and Sound