(Stephen Dowskin, Germany, 1974)


Stephen Dwoskin may be recognised more for what has been written about him – such as an influential 1976 Afterimage essay by Paul Willemen on the “fourth look” in cinema, theorised from a careful viewing of Dyn Amo (1972) – than for his own prodigious work. Dwoskin’s career began in the Warhol Factory early ‘60s and continued unabated for over five decades – despite the near-death experience which is recorded, with typically paradoxical voluptuousness, in Intoxicated by My Illness (2001). Hailing from America and based mainly in Britain, Dwoskin, like those similarly magpie filmmakers whose paths he has crossed (Robert Kramer, Boris Lehman, Philippe Grandrieux, Raúl Ruiz), took advantage of production opportunities all over Europe, bending all manner of commissions (collaborating with a dance company, documenting the work of photographer Bill Brandt, filling an experimental television slot for “hour-long single takes”) to his own artistic will – gradually exchanging 16 millimetre for digital video along the way. He was a fundamentally “stateless” artist.


Willemen – like other prominent critics who, each from very different perspectives, championed their friend Dwoskin, such as Raymond Durgnat and Laura Mulvey – was right to zero in on the look or gaze as constitutive of Dwoskin’s cinema. What characterises his work, above all, is the irrefutable, hypersensitive, always volatile presence of the filmmaker’s camera-eye: searching, curious, hungry for all the world’s surfaces, human or otherwise. There is nothing disembodied about this gaze: its height, its point in space, its formidable grappling with lens and focus, frequently returns us to Dwoskin’s position in a bed, wheelchair, or on the floor. His films often foreground the experience of his disability – he was stricken with polio in early childhood. François Albera compares Dwoskin’s body with a camera tripod – a hulking, difficult-to-manage contraption – thus squaring this camera-eye with the cinematic apparatus itself. But there is something more to Dwoskin’s camerawork, and it goes far beyond even the most elaborate theory of the voyeuristic-fetishistic gaze. In his most agonisingly poignant films, like Dear Frances, Dad, and Lost Dreams (all from 2003), Dwoskin’s images register not ocular possession but loss, distance, the fundamental otherness of all the beings who flicker past his camera and through his life.


Behindert (1974) was a revelation for me – an astonishingly intimate recreation of Dwoskin’s time with actor Carola Regnier, who gives a hypnotically intricate performance of her own desires and vulnerabilities. This is Dwoskin’s masterpiece – indeed, I have come to regard it as the one of the greatest works in cinema history. Once again, it is structured in tableaux, almost classically so – from first glance to final parting, it is like the Stations of the Cross of a modern relationship; and is it accidental that it comes only a year after Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973)? Like many of Dwoskin’s pieces, it is a reflection upon his physical condition – the title could be translated as hindered or even handicapped, hence disabled – and the strains it poses on his exchanges with an able-bodied lover. But this is as far from a social problem or disease-of-the-week telemovie as can possibly be imagined – as the perfectly judged long takes, coupled with the relentless drone-score of Gavin Bryars, attest.


Behindert remains Dwoskin’s most daring and artistically successful attempt to splice his first-person mode of cinema with a staged fiction – creating a kind of cubistic complexity from the constantly shuffled perspectives. The fourth look that Willemen intuited – not exactly the look of the characters, the spectator or even the camera-eye, but some other, more forbidding look, like the gaze of society itself – hovers over the interstices between these images, these tableaux, these scenes from a relationship. From a film history standpoint, Dwoskin’s breakthrough here is prophetic: anticipating the ongoing novelistic autobiography of Philippe Garrel’s work since L’Enfant secret  (1982), Behindert plays a thrilling, almost vampiric game with the proximity of real-life experience to its fictive recreation – especially as its principals are the actual former lovers!


It is easy to bemoan the lack of attention which Dwoskin’s prodigious work has so far received within the institutions of international film culture – and to wonder why he is not routinely put up alongside Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Yvonne Rainer and all the rest in the long-established Mount Rushmore of avant-garde cinema – a ranking all too frequently skewed to USA interests. Dwoskin himself seemed to view his precarious (and sometimes invisible) place in the pantheon in a different, altogether positive spirit, with nothing of what would be an understandable ressentiment. Perhaps (as he reflected in 1981) the conventional cinema arrangement of a mass audience before a screen in a darkened hall was never really well suited to his work, which “aims to take the viewer one by one”, in contradistinction to Hollywood which “aims to amalgamate the audience”.  The new era of one-by-one or small group viewing with computers and DVD is one that Dwoskin’s brand of hyper-personal cinema, in this sense, always awaited; but in this context of home consumption, it will surely be a deliciously subversive counterspectacle.

MORE Dwoskin: I’ll Be Your Eyes, You’ll Be Mine, Trying to Kiss the Moon

© Adrian Martin July 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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