Ahead of a screening of his final work at Tate Modern later this month, Yusef Sayed celebrates the career of 'the last filmmaker'.
Often discouraged by filmmaking convention, in the interests of not shattering the illusion of the fictional worlds created onscreen, the look directly into the camera lens has nevertheless been used to striking effect, by directors from Hitchcock to Haneke.
Stephen Dwoskin, who passed away earlier this year, seems to have pushed this break with a cinematic norm into previously unexplored realms, of compelling portraiture and drama. For the entirety of 1990's Face Anthea a single camera is trained on one face.
But it is just one aspect of Dwoskin’s wide-ranging approach to filmmaking, that encompasses personal history, documentary (notably on photographer Bill Brandt and Ballet Nègre), material experimentation and theatrical adaptation. Moving to the UK from the US, where he grew up, Dwoskin helped to set up the London Filmmakers' Co-operative in 1966, promoting 'underground cinema', for which he will no doubt be remembered. In 1982 critic Louis Skorecki claimed that "the death of cinema is momentarily postponed", calling Dwoskin "the last filmmaker".
The people in Dwoskin’s films, usually women, as well as the filmmaker himself, become somewhat familiar to us through the intense proximity of Dwoskin’s camera, and their relenting and unguarded displays of both emotional frankness and nudity. Yet they retain their individual mysteriousness within their gestures and expressions. Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay on the gaze, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' was inspired by conversations with Stephen Dwoskin and the late Paul Willemen wrote about the 'The Fourth Look' in 1976, after studying Dwoskin’s Dyn Amo (1972).
Dwoskin contracted polio as a child and his subsequent reliance on crutches and a wheelchair became an extension of the film apparatus. From the time when he began making films in the early 1960s, Dwoskin was prone to shoot his films personally, taking the camera, sometimes shakily, along with him on his explorations into the people around him; their lives, their pleasures and their pain.
Dwoskin’s physical disabilities are often foregrounded in his cinema and his distinctive voice – sometimes used for the purposes of narration – becomes recognisable after one listen. He put himself into his films, often identifying himself as the cameraman, and/or as a character, as in his shattering masterpiece Behindert, which is based on his own relationship with actress Carola Regnier.
Dwoskin did not ignore the humorous, if uncomfortable, situations that he might find himself in as a result of his disability. 1981's Outside In enacts many awkward day-to-day encounters, either imagined or based on experience, in his love life, his work and social life. Writer Michel Barthelmy, in the liner notes to the invaluable 14 film boxset released by Les Films du Renard, charmingly likens Dwoskin’s negotiation of a swivel chair at a job interview, to a Buster Keaton gag: 'Steve's face, like Keaton's, remains impassive.'
In 1981 Dwoskin, co-programmed a series of 22 films for a season called Carry on Cripple, the first season of films focusing on representations of disability, and made a feature for Channel 4 on the subject of disability, Face of Our Fear, in 1992. His later films were heavily focused upon his own diminishing health.
Questions abound in all sorts of ways in Dwoskin’s work. His film Pain Is… and his last film, 2011's Age Is… which premiered at this year’s Locarno Film Festival convey the filmmaker’s curiosity through their titles alone. Pain Is…explores many aspects of pain; it was commissioned by Fondation de France but was rejected by the BBC, perhaps for its inclusion of sadomasochistic sexual elements.
His book 'Film Is…' also asks what has shaped and typified the medium of cinema, and the ways in which innovative artists have tried to open up its possibilities in all sorts of directions. The book is a valuable history of avant-garde cinema, or 'international free cinema' that demands to be reprinted today and included on any film fan’s bookshelf, next to Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art. It displays Dwoskin’s knowledge and interest in all of the arts, particularly the shifts which followed after John Cage.
The filmmaker often collaborated with experimental composer and Cage collaborator Gavin Bryars, whose experimental, often minimalist, compositions are by turns enchanting and unsettling when edited together with the images that Dwoskin’s camera records.
In Central Bazaar, the clash and gel of miscellaneous instrumentation – glockenspiel, drones, prepared piano, guitar – mirrors the collision of personalities and emotions in the room, with the underlying drone giving the room in which the film’s action takes place its own characteristic tone. And there are brief, captivating moments of synchronicity between the sound and the image that seem to arrive by chance.
Dwoskin’s own soundtracks are often equally stirring, typically mixing samples of recorded music and ambient textures, as in the family history, Dad. Orchestral excerpts are pitched down and slowed, in tandem with the film images in Grandpere’s Pear and Dear Frances, and the electronic processing of sound is mimicked in the film and video frames themselves which are slowed, repeated, magnified and treated so as to bring their material specificities, their peculiar textures into the foreground.
In Grandpere’s Pear, the image becomes almost pointillist. Rhythmic and filtering variations in the score find a visual echo, whether it be a cut, the repeat of a few frames, or contrast changes, reflecting a musical sensibility that seems to have been given little consideration to date.
Television commissions from France and Germany provided Dwoskin with opportunities to undertake his filmmaking and so it would be wrong to perceive the work as intended for a sparse arthouse cinema or gallery crowd alone. However, Dwoskin had specific ideas about how his films might ideally be seen. He said: "My filmmaking is much better suited to being watched by a single viewer. I take my viewers on one by one, unlike Hollywood cinema which aims to amalgamate the audience."
Stephen Dwoskin's final film, Age Is..., will be screened for the first time in the UK at Tate Modern on Wednesday November 21.