Trying to Kiss the Moon

(Stephen Dwoskin, UK, 1994)


Dwoskin, Centripetal and Centrifugal


The question of collaboration is central to the cinema – cinema understood in the broadest possible sense, as found, shaped and achieved across all available media – of Stephen Dwoskin (1939-2012). He collaborated frequently, with (for example) Robert Kramer, Boris Lehman or Keja Ho Kramer, in co-directed projects or exchanges of video letters; the process seemed to come naturally to him.


With Dwoskin, there is very little of the fraught drama of crossed-wires and mismatched perceptions that emerges (and is painfully documented) in many records of artistic collaboration – whether (in music) between Lou Reed and John Cale, or (in film) between Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, or (in digital video) Víctor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami. (1) Dwoskin clearly displayed an easy-going, give-and-take approach to collaboration: he enjoyed and made the most of back-and-forth, call-and-response games between different pieces of work generated, across the temporal span of a project, by different hands and different minds. The discrepancies between varying personalities and viewpoints arranged as an audiovisual montage or collage were generative and fascinating to him.


There is a profound sense, in fact, in which almost every audiovisual piece ever made by Dwoskin has, at its base, a collaboration. When he filmed one of his many intimate portraits (usually of women), improvising scenes and moments with them, there arises an unpredictable, volatile encounter between the filmmaker and his subject – a moment to moment “performance of the self” by the person framed met with an ever-shifting, observing, reframing response by Dwoskin. The result is a dance of subjectivities, neither of them settled or resolved. His more overtly fictional pieces such as his masterwork Behindert (1974), The Silent Cry (1977) or Death and Devil (1973), even to the variable extent that they were pre-scripted and rehearsed, exhibit this aura of an open encounter to the same degree: when Carola Regnier, for instance, re-enacts the stations (from go to woe) of her intimate relationship with Dwoskin for Behindert, frequently in stark, relentless close-ups, we are shown an often brutally honest testimony, in bodily expression and gesture, offered to Dwoskin’s trembling camera-witness.


What I focus upon in this essay is Dwoskin’s drive to incorporate other people’s footage – home movie or clipped/refilmed fragment – within the boundaries of his own work. This drive arose in different times and different ways, according to varying contingencies: when he went into hospital and vowed to complete Intoxicated by My Illness (2001), for example, there were things he was physically unable to film, and things he believed he would likely never film – because he expected to die. Cameras, therefore, were placed in the hands of others, students and friends, to accumulate the footage. A similar collective process occurred for his final, posthumously completed work, Age Is … (2012).


Here I take a special limit-case: his autobiographical feature of 1994, Trying to Kiss the Moon. Throughout his life as a creator, Dwoskin was able to film himself in many, inventive ways: literally in reflective surfaces or pre-set camera framings, and (more figuratively or allusively, but ubiquitously) through a camera-eye point-of-view that was frequently as mobile as he was able to be, whether seated, lying, on crutches, on the escalator between floors in his home, or cruising around in his wheelchair.


But there is an entire class of images and sounds documenting Dwoskin’s life that originate solely from the recordings of others – beginning with the extravagant home movie productions of his father, during childhood. Trying to Kiss the Moon gathers a wide array of such documents of Dwoskin’s self by others: Super 8 footage, TV documentaries and interviews, experimental portraits made in an affectionate mimicry of his own style, and so on. There are fragments of his own works excerpted in a conventional, cut-in way, but also recorded in a more literally obscure and partial fashion: filmed off a wall, for instance, as the movie projector loudly whirrs.


Before analysing this film in greater detail, it is worth trying to grasp the challenge that Dwoskin’s mode of production here poses to our conventional means of classification. Trying to Kiss the Moon presents itself, in an on-screen description repeated at the start and end, as “an autobiographical film by Stephen Dwoskin” – and there is no further prefatory or explanatory text of any kind. But it is unlike virtually any other feature-length autobiographical testament in cinema, including experimental or avant-garde cinema.


It does not boast a conventional, documentary-style first-person narration. It follows no discernible chronological pattern or plan in the mapping, evoking or remembering of times and places in Dwoskin’s life – neither a linear chronology nor any systematic back-and-forth from present to past. Very few people who appear in the film, whether on the image-track or soundtrack or both, are clearly identified as they flash by – and the final credits do not sort out many of these mysteries. The vivid extracts from Dwoskin’s own films also go unidentified.


Dwoskin appears to assume that if, as a viewer, you have a found your way to the point of actually experiencing this film, you may know (for example) that the Robert he exchanges video letters with in 1991 is Robert Kramer; or that the academic film experts included in a glimpse of a TV program include Paul Willemen (1944-2012) and Laura Mulvey.


Trying to Kiss the Moon is – to give it some kind of working label or description – a free-associative collage of materials related to depictions of Dwoskin’s self, whether recorded by his camera/microphone or other people’s cameras/microphones. But it is also, as a poetic work, deeply cryptic and secretive. Mulvey has remarked, in her short but penetrating appreciation of the film, that “only the film-maker himself knows the line of thought that links particular image to particular image”. But, more profoundly for her, there is a “specific story” that is “screened”, in the double sense that is simultaneously revealed and covered over, as if a whispered secret. (2)


This story centres on the explicitly unnarrated, yet everywhere evident, fact that Dwoskin contracted polio as a child. Just when and how this happened in his childhood is never pinpointed; there are only the before-and-after images of his childhood movements and activities, as recorded by his father Henry Dwoskin in extensive home movie footage. (The son gives the father special credit at the end for this footage making the entire project possible.) Once again, Dwoskin may well be counting on some prior familiarity on the spectator’s part with his life and career; all the same, this occlusion counts as an unusual decision within the realm of autobiography.


Dwoskin’s autobiographical film is not clean, focused or clear in its announced intent. It is unlike, say, Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996), the two-block structure of which abuts an opening and closing direct address by the filmmaker to the camera with clips from her films that (as we gradually come to realise) reconstitute, no matter their genre or form, recreated fragments of her life, in a more-or-less chronological order. It is also unlike the Australian avant-garde classic In This Life’s Body (1984) by Corinne Cantrill, which collects many audiovisual representations of its maker’s life (from artists’ drawings to medical scans), but places and evaluates them all through the trenchant first-person voice-over of the auteur. The closest comparison that I am aware of to what Dwoskin explores here is Julio Bressane’s equally cryptic (and equally moving) Rua Aperana 52 (2012).


So Dwoskin has not made a documentary (almost every Dwoskin documentary, such as Shadows from Light: The Photography of Bill Brandt [1983], is to some extent cryptic and off-kilter), or a first-person testament. Perhaps it fits under that most fashionable of contemporary categories, the essay-film? Yet here we uncover a strange aporia in current criticism, because works such as Outside In (1981), Trying to Kiss the Moon, Face of Our Fear (1992), Pain Is … (1997) or Age Is … are so rarely discussed or included under this label – even though, manifestly, they are some kind of filmic essay. This must be due to more than any simple, material factor such as lack of availability (the Films du Renard DVD box-set has been around, after all, since 2006.)


This strange situation can be illuminated, I believe, by a comparison with a (rightly) beloved figure of cinephilic film culture: Chris Marker. Although Marker devotees love to celebrate all the indirect, mask-like strategies of Marker’s auto-portraiture (the most celebrated example being Sunless, 1982) – his eschewal of first-person reference, his use of a woman to speak the scripted narration, and so on – there is never, finally, a moment’s doubt in anyone’s mind as to whose “voice” we are receiving: it is always Marker speaking to us, and this is what secures the emotional and intellectual impact of the work. The same goes for another grand and oft-celebrated collage of contemporary video and film: namely, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). (3)


Dwoskin’s collaborative collages offer a more intense challenge to film theory and criticism. This is partly due to their hybrid nature, which puts them beyond easy pigeonholing. Raymond Durgnat, in his typically maverick way, was surely onto something in 1982 when, in attempting to capture the multi-faceted nature of this oeuvre in a nutshell, he conjoined “psycho-formalist representationalisms (between expressionism, Matisse, magic realism)”, and celebrated Dwoskin’s “jagged-edged, infinitely fertile marriage of post-post-modernism & mainstream”.  (4)


But, even more particularly in the case of Trying to Kiss the Moon, there are the massively perturbing effects introduced by Dwoskin’s generosity toward a particular kind of collaborative impulse. Unidentified and usually “unframed” in any fashion (clips from other hands are not enclosed in boxes or borders, as we often see in the digital work of Peter Greenaway or Australia’s John Hughes, for instance), these contributions, whether solicited or simply grabbed from elsewhere, incessantly break up any patina of unified style, rhythm or semantic structure.


Heterogeneity rules, across screen formats (video, Super 8, 16mm, 35mm), textures (colour, black-and-white, refilming off walls and fabrics), and sound sources (from the roughest and most distorted or distant document of voices, to the slickest, professional recording of music).


Some speculative theory may help us out here. In his theoretical writings, the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz (who had contact with Dwoskin via a cultural centre in Le Havre, resulting in Further and Particular [1988]) differentiated between the centrifugal and centripetal forces at work in all audiovisual production, particularly evident (in his view) in the microcosmic unit of the filmic shot. Centrifugal forces tend toward the unity of the whole (this incurring a “loss of the film’s poetic force” as inherent in each of its elements, in favour of overall coherence and legibility), and thus point outward; while centripetal forces privilege the presence of each self-contained fragment, thus pointing inward, to a multiplicity of usually contradictory centres. (5) Ruiz’s remarks were oriented mainly around narrative cinema (and its subversion), but the same model can be used just as well to illuminate the documentary or essay-film.


All filmmaking, according to Ruiz, has to contend with the unpredictable tug of war between those two tendencies – a war imposed by the material itself (and the contingent conditions of making it), not by the will or sensibility of its supposed auteur. Most film analysis (whether at journalistic or academic levels) takes, when push comes to shove, the easy, centrifugal, auteurist option by default. It’s the figure of the maker, the artist, who coheres the work, in one way or another: in a classically organic way (Jean Renoir, Samuel Fuller, Clint Eastwood), or in a more displaced, modern fashion (as with Akerman, Marker, Godard or Harun Farocki). The auteur, the felt presence of his or her artistic subjectivity, becomes the ultimate outside, the reference point of sense-making; all the individual pieces of the work fall into place under that gaze, in those hands.


Trying to Kiss the Moon, by contrast, evidences a great deal of material centripetality. Its fragments accede, one by one, to an autonomous life – there is never any cross-cutting between them, and almost nothing that evokes a classic montage sequence of diverse but clearly aggregated blocks (the main exception would be a chain of full-screen clips from a number of his major films). This is partly a matter of rhythm – the parts frequently have a temporal dimension that deliberately drags, that lingers a little longer than we might usually expect – and also of the palpably truncated, actively unfinished nature of so many of these fragments: Mulvey notes the way in which, early on in the film, a sound-grab of someone reading Allen Ginbserg’s famous poem “Howl” breaks off suddenly when it reaches the word “remember”, before it “reaches its litany of lost friends”. (6)


Naturally, centrifugality does not entirely disappear in this ceaseless play of fragmentation, non-attribution, and abrupt transition. How could it? Ruiz posits the centrifugal and the centrifugal precisely as drives that inhere in a process and a work – not as options that a filmmaker can wilfully, exclusively choose between. Of course, it is Dwoskin who makes the selection, arranges the pieces, and makes the montage cuts – and we feel both his emotional investments and his often droll wit in these material decisions. (A particularly good example of his sense of humour comes when, after the long, static preamble to the start of a TV interview, Trying to Kiss the Moon lops it off at the very second that Dwoskin utters, “I’ve been making films for a long time, and – ”.)


And there are also many echoes, rhymes and reversals to be discovered by the spectator, transversally, across the play of block-fragments – virtual potentialities of reading cleverly arranged, with a light, unostentatious touch, by Dwoskin. Indeed, it is remarkable how much restraint he shows in avoiding, for the most part, the heavy-handed type of direct juxtaposition-transition – say, between able-bodied child and disabled adult – that most filmmakers, in this circumstance, would have revelled in.


More significantly and tellingly, Dwoskin, in the overall organisation of this large-scale montage, has managed (as he often did) to dilute, by intuitively following the line of the inherent, centripetal tendency, his evident mastery as an artist and filmmaker, in at least one crucial sense: he opens the work up not only to an idea of otherness – other people, other minds, other lives, other sensibilities and literal their points-of-view – but also to the concrete traces and effects of this otherness, transforming his own style in the process. Wasn’t that what Dwoskin’s cinema always aimed for and longed for, right from its very beginning in the early 1960s: the collaborative encounter with Otherness?


Let us, to conclude, return to Laura Mulvey’s reflection on the film. She insightfully relates the cryptic nature of the text to the common experience of an ageing person looking back over past, mediatised traces of themselves, such as still photographs or home movies: these images “become the signs of stories that are half remembered or cannot be told”; they are shadowed and often entirely corroded by the forceful work of psychic and emotional oblivion (and Dwoskin himself would make a film titled Oblivion in 2005.) Dwoskin brings together, according to Mulvey, “the beauty of its documents and the sadness of its elusiveness”. (7) This is indeed expressed in the film’s title, which finds its belated expression in the final scene: Dwoskin’s camera shakily tries to focus on the moon, to get closer and closer to it, while his voice off-screen comments that he is trying, through this apparatus, to kiss it, but “can’t get any closer”.


All of Dwoskin’s cinema resonates with this impossibility – sometimes anguished, sometimes playful – of getting close enough to kiss, to fuse with, the subjects and objects that it films. The fusion represented by such intimacy is an erotic ideal and a longing for complete empathy between human creatures; but it is also, and equally, a dream of “total recall” for the individual monad who is, as Dwoskin frequently documented and depicted, at diverse moments and phases of life, left alone, in solitude. In Trying to Kiss the Moon, it is very often the landlocked, housebound Dwoskin’s intense, observant camera-gaze out through his windows that appears to trigger the free-association of personal memories tied to places, streets and cities in other countries.


But is it only, finally, a matter of angst, of – as in the great, classic lament of so much modernist art – signifiers that can never access, never truly touch their real-world referents? The anguish of representation, or language (of whatever kind), itself? As an artist, Stephen Dwoskin found one way to resolve this collectively felt crisis, through opening himself up to the inevitable interplay of the centrifugal and centripetal forces in his work – exaggerating their drift, and their tension.


His collected work is undoubtedly a rich body of self-expression, often with a directly, indeed nakedly autobiographical element; but he also discovered an inventively flexible means of getting out of himself and the prison of ego – by inviting in the heterogeneous fruits of collaboration, arranged in diverse kinds and series of montage-assembly.




1. John Cale with Victor Bockris, What’s Welsh for Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale (London: Bloomsbury, 1999); Wim Wenders, My Time With Antonioni: The Diary of an Extraordinary Experience (London: Faber and Faber, 2000). back


2. Laura Mulvey, “On Stephen Dwoskin’s Trying to Kiss the Moon”, Vertigo, Vol. 1 No. 5 (Autumn-Winter 1995). back


3. On this work, see Michael Witt, Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013). back


4. Raymond Durgnat, “A Skeleton Key to Stephen Dwoskin”, in Henry K. Miller (ed.), The Essential Raymond Durgnat (London: Palgrave/British Film Institute, 2014), pp. 198, 201. back


5. Raúl Ruiz, “The Six Functions of the Shot”, Screening the Past, no. 35 (2012); see also my “Hanging Here and Groping There: On Raúl Ruiz’s ‘The Six Functions of the Shot’”, in the same issue of Screening the Past, no. 35 (2012). back


6. Mulvey, “On Stephen Dwoskin’s Trying to Kiss the Moon”. back


7. Ibid. back

© Adrian Martin July 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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