There are some filmmakers who’ve made a formidable amount of work. Stephen Dwoskin, who died 10 years ago this year, would be a case in point. Between 1961 and 2012, he made more than 50 films, working across different technologies and to different scales.
The variation was not so much because of industry change, but because he essentially worked outside of the industry. Taking the approach of an artist, a figure in the 1960s counter-cultural underground, and later as an independent filmmaker, he brought different influences and contexts to bear. Yet his films are always distinctive: some sort of personal, authorial stamp remains firmly impressed throughout all his output. Does this make his back catalogue too daunting to take on, particularly for the uninitiated? I think not.
In his own words, he said he wanted to take viewers “one-by-one”. Directness is key to virtually all of Dwoskin’s work. He often used sustained shots that allowed events to unfold with the actors – or participants (often the lines are blurred) – not just acknowledging the camera but staring back and engaging the viewer head-on. The camera’s perspective is always highlighted, sometimes because he held the machine while also managing crutches or a wheelchair – his legs were unable to hold him up unassisted, due to his contraction of polio at an early age.
Stylish, seductive and challenging in its treatment of desire and sexuality, Dwoskin’s universe can certainly be intense. This is slow cinema – sometimes – but also very much not slow cinema. The works always involve the viewer, and are far from passive, usually because of his focus on the experiential; times shared, memories bridged. His themes extend to questions around diaspora, art history, the experience of pain, mythic narrative, psychodrama, family and memory. Empathy is wielded to many different ends, and sometimes also resisted.
Having watched a number of Dwoskin’s films over the years, not least as I worked to acquire his original 16mm film negatives into the BFI National Archive, it was strangely exciting to one day suddenly find a VHS of what felt like a very hard film of his to see – Times For. This was his first feature, which premiered at the 1970 International Festival of Underground Film to a degree of fanfare given his significant status on the scene. Only a few years before he’d won a prize at the influential Knokke Experimental Film Festival.
Times For was an intriguing object as it lay directly between his 1960s short works – born of his journeys between London and his native USA, with Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and others – and the more structured, networked possibilities of the 1970s when Dwoskin settled into documentaries, autobiography and portrait films enabled by commissions and funding. What would it be like?
On the surface, it recalled earlier works but also styles – even individual shots – yet to come. I was particularly reminded of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s darkly woven Performance (1970). It shared similar themes around mutable identities and bodies, all set within a frame of sensual psychedelia; orgiastic communion being a way to get beneath the skin, or to shed it for some unknown other place.
It also diverged drastically, however. Unlike Performance, this was no bizarre Warner Brothers-backed attempt to cash in on A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – the budget was of a vastly lower scale. And it certainly doesn’t have any A-list stars like Mick Jagger and James Fox (though it does include important figures). It also doesn’t start in the ‘normal’ world and pretend to be a genre film before self-consciously dropping an acid trip.
Instead Dwoskin’s film starts in the other world. The acid trip – as far as that metaphor works – is already coming-on as the blurred credits render themselves on screen. Gavin Bryars’ disruptive, warm, warping drone score of found-sounds and tape-loops holds us – and the actors/participants – together in some Orphée-like netherworld.
The camera remains largely tightly focused on faces, sometimes heavily made-up. These are the landscapes through which to understand the film and its woozy happenstance, as long hair is tossed and tongues flicker. Body parts are isolated and our sense of who they belong to becomes blurred, fragmenting the sense of the individual. Warped circus mirrors, coloured lights, rephotography and projection also undermine traditional notions of realism while looking to the metaphysical interior signposted by intimate facial expressions.
It’s a drama, certainly, but there is no dialogue or script for the viewer to latch onto. Similarly there is no first, second or third act, but rather phases or passages. These centre different characters going through deeply emotional, sensual and sexual encounters. The intertwining relationships also resist the straightforward, naive script of the sexually-emancipated hippy-dream. Instead, darkness, introspection, power play and doubt are given increasing prominence over the pleasures of the flesh.
This deep immersion in dislocated psychodrama, captured on hand-held 16mm, arguably reflects Dwoskin’s borderless, émigré experience. It’s something he shared with at least one of the cast – the important, highly influential, multi-media American artist Carolee Schneemann who appears in the first section and was in London at the time. Other cast members include Verity Bargate (novelist, theatre director and co-founder of the cutting-edge Soho Theatre Company) and Maurice Colbourne (an actor best known for TV roles in the likes of Gangsters, The Day of the Triffids, Doctor Who and Howard’s Way).
Times For is a frequently intense film. It rewires the traditional rules of drama, and even eroticism. Sensuality, empathy, vulnerability and alienation take on equal weight through Dwoskin’s camera and the community of people with whom he worked. It felt like a lightning bolt to see it on VHS, later on 16mm and now in a new high quality digital scan. It’s a keyhole of sorts into Dwoskin’s world, through which other films can be glimpsed and other ideas and approaches visioned.
Times For screens from a new 2K scan at BFI Southbank on Tuesday 1 February and will be available on BFI Player shortly after. An Experimenta Focus on Stephen Dwoskin’s artist cinema continues through February, with a study day on 12 February.