Dwoskin employs the sharp contrasts that characterise his work to expressionist effect.
His Oriental predator is at first clothed in black, her ‘victim’ in white; slowly the costumes change, the victim acquiring a veil of mourning, until finally – as if to underline the ambiguity and interchangeability of their respective roles – the colours are reversed altogether. Still more interesting is the way in which, as the game becomes more ambiguous, Dwoskin adds fresh layers of make-up to his characters’ faces, until they become almost caricature masks of their original selves.
Stephen Dwoskin, born in New York on 15 January 1939, is one of the most visually rich and emotionally intense filmmakers in British cinema. After working as a graphic designer and art director for CBS and Epic Records, he made two short films, Asleep and American Dream, in 1961 and became part of the bohemian world of New York ‘underground’ filmmakers. In 1964 he moved to London on a Fulbright Fellowship to research British design, and in 1966 set up the London Film Makers Co-op with two other New Yorkers, Andy Meyer and Simon Hartog. Working as a painter, designer and photographer, Dwoskin established his reputation as a filmmaker with a series of short films which won him the Solvay Prize at the Knokke Experimental Film Festival in 1967-8. His films were characterised by an obsessively intense scrutiny of the (mostly female) figures in front of his static or slowly moving camera, and an attention to image textures, printing processes and hypnotic soundtracks. Whereas most of his contemporaries in the world of avant-garde cinema espoused a modernist aesthetic focusing on the properties of the medium, Dwoskin explored the relations of desire that can be woven between the camera’s way of looking, the subject’s wish to be seen, the filmmaker’s irrevocable ‘separation’ from what he wants to see and show, and the viewer’s relation to this intricate network of imbricated desires. In films such as Moment (1970), Chinese Checkers (1965) and Alone (1963), he allows shadowy narratives to be surmised by the viewer as s/he is gradually caught in the workings of a cinematic apparatus conceived not so much as a technological device than as a way of activating and playing with the desire to look. With these films, and others such as the emotionally overwhelming feature films Times For (1971), Dyn Amo (1972) and Behindert (1974), he drew as much attention to the viewer’s desire to become captivated by the filmed image as he did to the performer’s fascination in being captivated within the camera’s field of vision. The films often extend their engagement with performance to letting the actors improvise and ‘stage’ their own images, as in Central Bazaar (1976), or to near-dramatic narratives, as in The Silent Cry (1977) and Tod und Teufel (1973; an adaptation of a Wedekind play). From the ’90s onwards, Dwoskin embarked on a series of autobiographical films turning the camera on himself and the spaces and people around him. Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994), an autobiographical film-poem, contains poignant home movie footage of his life in the US prior to the childhood polio attack which forced him to rely on crutches and eventually confined him to a wheelchair. It was followed by personal (Behindert) and historical (Face of Our Fear, 1992; Pain Is…, 1997) explorations of disability, made in the context of trying to secure full human rights for disabled people. After suffering bouts of severe illness, he made three profoundly moving video-films, Intoxicated by my Illness (2001-02, Some Friends and Another Time (both 2002), all pervaded by an unsettling sense of death’s proximity, which imbues each image and sound with an almost painful intensity. In London, Dwoskin taught new generations of filmmakers at the Royal College of Art (1973-83) and at the London College of Printing (1983-87). He has been active in various cultural institutions throughout his career, and published a personal account of the American and British avant-garde film worlds, Film Is, in 1975, and a book of his surreal and witty photomontages, Ha Ha! (La solution imaginaire) in 1993.