Directing the Avant-Garde: Raymond Durgnat interviews Stephen Dwoskin (1984)

Raymond Durgnat: Do you have favourites among your films?

Stephen Dwoskin: They’re all so different; I have to like them all. I let you choose!

RD: Do you set out to do something different each time, or do they come different, of their own volition? Before your very eyes?

SD: Both. I set out to do something different and, while I’m filming, I realise that it’s coming out different. I’ve been thinking about that, with the retrospectives they’ve been organising abroad. Now the English are joining in, finally – or, at any rate, Channel 4 is.[1] There’s nothing like old movies for setting memories in motion. If only Proust had made some movies … we wouldn’t have had Proust. Now I am back on my films, they fall into phases. The early ones, the ones you keep showing your students at the College, like Alone (1963) and Chinese Checkers (1964) – they’re pretty fixed, minimal. They’re one particular moment or situation. Eyeline situations, often: someone looking into the camera, or someone else’s eyes, or getting around to doing it. There’s a pretty powerful axis when someone looks into camera. Or at anything, if he really looks. Looking into camera was still pretty much taboo in those days, outside Underground movies. Nothing was taboo in the Underground.

RD: That was around 1963, twenty-one years ago. One reason why British Film Institute (BFI)-type radical academics like your films is because they’ve got an eyeline fetish. They think it’s a way of breaking the illusion, so it’s Brechtian – and, on top of that, it’s a way of making the spectator feel looked at, caught out. They think that when you go to see a film you become a voyeur, only worse, because you judge the characters with God-like omniscience. But when the characters’ eyes hit you, this breaks the illusion; you feel you’re being judged, instead of doing the judging. They think it’s Lacan but actually it’s Sartre. So those ideas could have been in the air in the early ‘60s. Did you have something like that in mind then?

SD: Well, the short answer is: no. But if someone decides they want to use my film in any particular way, fine. I didn’t think my spectators would want to feel guilty – but if that’s their trip, who am I to spoil it? Anyway, for those guys, it’s always the guy in the seat next to them who’s guilty. What fascinated me in those films, and still does, is how people use their faces as masks, and keep changing those masks all the time. People are performers. They don’t want to perform and yet, whatever they’re doing, they have to. Even when they’re on their own. Reacting is like breathing. The camera’s there to make them perform. And it’s the best seat in the house; it keeps moving round and in and out. Playing with the eyeline is part of it, I guess. For me, the camera gets to be like another character. A catalyst. Like a psychoanalyst. Concentrating on their face or body. Alone is mostly a body, Zelda [Nelson] lying on that bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking. You don’t know what she’s thinking and yet you do, just from watching her. Moment (1970) is all face, while a woman’s masturbating; her body is off-screen but you sense what’s happening, how she’s breathing.

RD: Alone builds up to Zelda beginning to get into sexual fantasies, and the film ends as she’s about to begin. Moment is like a continuation, only with a different girl …

SD: It’s pretty different. Dyn Amo (1972) is like the culmination of all that. It starts on bodies and moves in on the faces, very slowly, over the length of a feature. Linda Marlowe, while she’s being tortured by those guys, was furious with me, because during those last shots I wouldn’t stop the camera running. I just kept shooting. Did you lip-read what she’s saying to me? I wanted to put the camera into some connection with people, some personality connection. It’s like a disturbance that they respond to, a situation. Or they don’t respond to it. It’s a bit like their mirror. If you’re looking in a mirror you can see yourself, but when you look into a camera you can’t, so you’re not so sure about anything. It’s a bit like the relationship between a portrait and a sitter, only it’s more intense and not so slow-motion.

RD: Those early films remind me of your paintings. Only the paintings are less psychological, less physiological, more into Matisse, decorative flats. But expressionist, somehow. A happy expressionism, is that possible?

SD: Yeah, it’s called the Fauves. The painters I feel close to are Matisse, Kandinsky and Klein. You’ve only seen some of my paintings; they’re closer to the kind of movies I went into directly after Times For (1971). That’s the one you don’t like.

RD: I didn’t like the Wobblyscope – the camera moving round the outlines of people.

SD: It was my way of being formalist. The whole avant-garde was becoming formalist then – like Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal. They didn’t like my films because I kept subject matter. But Malcolm’s come round to narrative thinking since then. They were into investigating the photograph, but what I was after, really, was searching for the spontaneity of drawing. Grabbing things real quick. Reacting to movements, little things. Finding them. Actually moving down to find them.

RD: Detail hunting on unpredictable action – you do that in Central Bazaar (1976), too.

SD: Yeah, but that’s a Happening as well. More than Dyn Amo, because that was a play by Chris Wilkinson. Pre-constructed, even if I didn’t keep too much of it. There’s a lot of eyeline games in that, too, but much less of them in Bazaar. The eyelines are between the people.

RD: And as you can hardly ever tell where the people are in relation to one another, funny things happen to their eyelines on the way?

SD: Yes, I saw your article: they get lost.[2]

RD: It’s about looking as a search for response?

SD: Right. The idea of a bazaar was that it’s a place where it seems that you will have everything you could desire, but you never do. This is a sort of fantasies bazaar. It developed out of that ‘doctor’s surgery’ idea we had, remember? Attack of the Puppet People?

RD: The one about strangers in a doctor’s surgery, eyeing one another up, speculating about one another, fantasising the other person in bed, or whatever. On the loo. Only, at the end we realise they never even spoke to one another. And never will. All too British.

SD: In Bazaar they do, it was a Happening which we worked out for filming in advance, a kind of rough scenario – but still a Happening, it almost got out of control at times. As well as whatever they brought, I laid on a load of props and clothes; people could choose their fantasy or what they wanted to be. We started with a few meetings and improvised a rough outline out of what people felt. By the end of the first week, they agreed on a theme of becoming the other person’s fantasy. We shot it over five weeks. It became a kind of mental stripping out of the people whose fantasies it was. And a physical stripping. At first the men all stuck together and the women all stuck together. Then the women began quarreling among themselves. Then the men quarreled. You see them nearly come to blows in the film. When eventually everyone did get together, there were real frustrations about what fantasies to play out. In the end, it was a choice of desperation.

RD: Games People Play; sounds like a Robert Altman picture. Perhaps it is.

SD: It’s a funny mixture of fantasy and cinéma-vérité. Whichever way you try to look at it, it breaks down. That’s the idea – or it became the idea, because that’s what happened. People get very uncomfortable watching that film, because it’s not quite fantasy. It becomes a kind of no-man’s land where everything is edgy. Nothing is really big, and yet everything is like a thorn in your finger. But I realised that desperation would become the film’s point.

RD: There’s a real Three Act structure in that film. Act III begins when Carola Regnier intervenes. A fascinating personality she has; very strong emotionally.

SD: Yes, she’s the granddaughter of Frank Wedekind. He wrote Lulu, the play that became the Pabst film [Pandora’s Box, 1929] with Louise Brooks. His daughter was Carola’s mother. Her father, Charles Regnier, is famous in German theatre, too. I put them together in Death and the Devil (1973). We only had her for two weekends in Bazaar, so we used her as the stranger. She appears just as everyone is sinking into their fantasies, and she’s a completely different kind of catalyst. Because she’s detached from everything, she sees it from outside.

RD: Not that anything so terrible happens, but the feel of it is so sleazy. It’s much sleazier than Warhol because he’s got no soul; he’s not funky at all. This never becomes an orgy, or someone having his nipple pierced; but it’s far worse than if it had, because you feel all the surface prickliness that stops them getting down to relaxing, even that provisionally.

SD: We kept moving the paintings around, to fit the rest of it.

RD: They’re mostly your paintings?

SD: Yes, they all are.

RD: You cast Carola opposite her father in Death and the Devil. In a play written by her grandfather. With her father playing her seducer?

SD: Yes, and the director was her lover! Quite a mix-up. Wedekind might have enjoyed that. The play has never been performed, even on the stage, I believe; it’s too short. We updated it but kept the basic structure. A suffragette visits a whorehouse and a sort of gentlemanly pimp who’s there talks her around to his way of life. I put a more modern, feminist-y language against his talk of sensuality.

RD: Sensuality as per the ‘60s?

SD: Well, quite a lot of Bataille, too. But the pimp’s closer to Wedekind than the woman. The other change was that each of them keeps contradicting themselves. In the original they’re pretty consistent, but I thought it would be more interesting if they weren’t.

RD: Any feminist reaction?

SD: Not, to my knowledge, in Germany. Carola and her father are heroes of the gay culture there. I don’t think it’s been shown here [in UK].

RD: It’s a very linear style, rather slow.

SD: Mostly face and pauses on face. No-one looks at the camera. It’s pretty objective; it was the first film where I try to get back to a more accessible style, more conventional. But also very precise, visually.

RD: That would be your fourth phase, getting into more public themes and a more mainstream style? The third phase having been working off Happenings?

SD: Yes, could be. The Silent Cry (1977) was inspired by a girl with anorexia nervosa; we see the world through her eyes. Not always physically through her eyes, but mostly. Especially this father who’s very kind, in a stifling way, and treats her like a little child. I knew the person it’s based on; it’s pretty accurate clinically, and the characters are quite close to the real characters. I got the actors to improvise back towards them, but there was a written script – which we kept changing all the time.

RD: Did the girl get to see it?

SD: Yes, she [Bobby Gill] plays the lead in it! The German end of the production didn’t want a specific reference to anorexia, as that seemed too fashionable to them. So I restricted it to the previous stage, that developing self-deprivation.

RD: Behindert (1974) and Outside In (1981) are about you and your disabilities. Polio. With you playing yourself. Very auteurist: written, directed, produced by, starring, and about, yourself.

SD: I’m just there as an example of something that everybody speculates about, anyway. I only use myself to get into the personal side of things, more than an objective documentary could. I didn’t want to make a picture that’s just about physical difficulty as such. There is that about it, but what both films are really about is what it does to relationships, how it makes you see the world and other people differently. Most people have wondered what it would be like. But they get very nervous about how to talk to you. They treat you as if you weren’t there or were feeble-minded. Because you’re on crutches.

RD: Now that your films are into obviously social problems, have the BFI been forthcoming?

SD: No, they refused to come in on Outside In, even with a completion grant, after the Dutch and the Germans. The BFI has been pretty unfriendly.

RD: First, they wouldn’t have anything to do with the London Film-Maker’s Co-op because they hated all the Underground films.

SD: Then, when they did realise the avant-garde was important, they shot to the other extreme and put Malcolm Le Grice on the Committee. He told me he blackballed all projects that had stories! Mine included! The BFI was a pretty discouraging set-up altogether. Malcolm considered himself a friend, but it was a matter of political conscience with him. Narrative was bourgeois. He could always sway the rest of the committee – which was pretty vague about the avant-garde ideas, especially. Then the heavy-duty Marxists moved in. It’s the same problem with the radical feminists. They want films that say that political action is the answer to everything: anorexia, polio. They think consciousness is mostly political, but they still want the politics spelt out. They’re pretty hostile to consciousness.

RD: Well, they think they’ve abolished the human subject. The Silent Cry is quite like Virginia Woolf, really. There’s a kind of sadness-like deprivation in Shadows From Light (1983), too, the film about Bill Brandt’s photographs. That’s Arts Council backing, isn’t it? That would fit your turn to more social subjects, because he was such a Social Realist in the ‘30s, in Picture Post magazine. But actually, you concentrate on his later photographs: nudes in ultra-wide angle, foreshortened, crouching in corners or spaces or against windows. Brandt comes over as a very withdrawn man, timid, sardonic. It’s bleak. The perceptions of a withdrawn persona: it’s rather like The Silent Cry, in a way. The Silent Eye. Is it about looking?

SD: No. It’s about seeing.

RD: Visual thinking? Perception as thought? What filmmakers influenced your thought?

SD: Influence is hard to say; it’s more affinities. The American Underground of the ‘60s. I worked alongside them before coming to England in 1964, so maybe there’s influence by osmosis. Jack Smith and Ron Rice especially – I was inspired by what they were trying to do. Then [Ingmar] Bergman had a great impact on me – as the same kind of person they were, in a way.

RD: How’s that?

SD: Well, visionary, but full of gritty detail, fact, reality. Then, later on, [Jean-Marie] Straub influenced me, and vice versa. The way he treated narrative, his respect for the image vis-à-vis dialogue – History Lessons (1972) and Moses and Aaron (1975).[3]

RD: How did you influence him?

SD: I wouldn’t say directly influenced, but he got carried away by To Tea (1970), and rang me to find out how I managed to edit it so precisely.

RD: In teaching film students, what do you find yourself wanting to pass on?

SD: Kids have become so afraid of being subjective. It’s been proscribed. Or else they only seem to watch TV, so their film language is confined to all those restrictions. The ‘60s seem to have vanished without trace – all the things Brakhage and other people were setting free. They’ve forgotten all that, so they got blocked with Godard.

RD: Yes, he’s back to Square One; not that he ever got further than Square One-and-a-Half. Brakhage and your people and you have all been written out of film culture by those obsessed with politics. If their theories about language and ideology were correct, none of your films could ever have existed, because bourgeois language is so monolithic. Until they can’t ignore you any longer, because the French discover you.

SD: And I broke the attendance records at the Museum of Modern Art.

RD: Right – that type of radical doesn’t know what to do. Plenty of feminists here attack your films as sexist pornography. [Paul] Willemen defends them as a sort of crisis of voyeurism – but with a defence like that, who needs enemies? Basically he sees them the same way [Laura] Mulvey does.

SD: They’re very possessive about me now, though, Ray. They don’t want heretics like you writing about me. Even the [London Filmmakers] Co-Op gang should come around now. I don’t know if they can still influence the Production Board like they used to, though. Someone said I should forget about the physically handicapped, and make films about Black Lesbian Irish Catholics – because that’s the kind of handicap they can understand.

RD: It’s strange how physical disabilities don’t interest radicals. Nor does anti-Semitism, anymore. Neither fits their politics of consciousness. There’s a lot of psychodrama in political obsession. It’s the new form of religious mania, really – and just as infectious. When I showed Chinese Checkers at the College, the last of the militant students were furious because the women kiss at the end. How dare a man show lesbianism? When I said that it would fit a Gay Pride concert very well, then they dimly began to see it. But I doubt if they would ever have thought of it. They’d been taught to denounce everything that didn’t denounce anything.

SD: The feminists from the Women’s Building in San Francisco gave me a little prize, a picture book called Lesbian Love. They inscribed it: “Thanks for everything”. Same with the French. The Digne Festival showed all my films with Marguerite Duras’; her followers understood them right away. There’s something very negative about the English just now. When I came here first, they were easygoing compared to the Americans; now, they’re the most paranoid anywhere. Why is that, Ray, you’re so full of theories about the English?

RD: And Shadows from Light? You respect Brandt’s photographs and moods so utterly, but you place them against walls or windows that are like very, very strong frames. And give the pictures strange energies.

SD: You remember it ends with me filming him photographing me? Well, they’re the last pictures ever taken of him, and the last pictures he ever took. His first wife said to me: “He looks just how he did when he was young”.

First published in Films (UK), Vol. 4, No. 5 (May 1984).

Editorial Notes

[1] In March/April 1984, the television station Channel 4 in UK screened a season of Dwoskin’s films.

[2] Dwoskin may be referring to Durgnat’s “A Skeleton Key to Stephen Dwoskin: Outline for a Text Not Written”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 586 (1982), pp. 252-253.

[3] Straub’s films are co-directed by Danièle Huillet.