b. 15 November, 1939, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A
d. 28 June, 2012, London, UK

Avant-garde cinema emerged at a time when cinema was still very young and its pioneers had begun their work in the ‘20s (both in the United States and in Europe), however, the ‘60s was indeed the decade in which this cinema succeeded and made a name for itself. The reason is that, in contrast to the previous periods and especially to most experimental films, which were largely concerned with mere images, a kind of style arose during this period that was fundamentally influenced by social, political, and, above all, sexual issues. Among the filmmakers of the genre, we can mention Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and Carolee Schneemann1, the prominent in experimental cinema, whose works significantly broke the taboo of sexual images and noticeably inspired the artists of the time.

It is indisputable, as Raymond Durgnat writes in Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, that the aesthetic extremism, enfeeblement of content, and neglect of deeply intellectual themes pursued by American underground filmmakers also influenced their European counterparts. However, it was in Europe that some filmmakers began to set aside formalist obsessions to some degree and approach what Durgnat called the “dream narrative” form.2 Stephen Dwoskin (1939-2012), who was always admired by Durgnat, was one of these cineastes. He achieved the “dream narrative” form by producing films in both experimental and narrative ways, creating a “personal” – in his own words – cinema.

Originally from America, Dwoskin immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1964, in the early years of the same period in which the world of cinema was witnessing the evolution of experimental cinema in the United States. Nevertheless, since the early ‘60s, he was part of the flourishing underground film and began making films alongside Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, and Michael Snow and became one of the leading American underground filmmakers. After moving to the UK to teach at a university, he remained there for the rest of his life and, with Bob Cobbing, founded the London Film-makers’ Co-op, modelled on Mekas’ The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York. Little is known about why he did not return to the United States at the height of experimental cinema and broke away from the circle of the most famous experimental filmmakers of the time. However, he maintained close and personal relationships with a few filmmakers of the time, including Mekas, and occasionally traveled to the United States to make short films.3 The fact that he suffered from polio since childhood had a great impact on his career. His illness seems to be one of the reasons why he was forced to shoot films in a different area. What set him apart from his American counterparts was the fact that, unlike most of them, he never took spirited and flaming shots, probably because of his disability. Instead, he had a strong penchant for minimalism and shot films with a slow rhythm, and because of this personal interest, he also used minimalist music for his films – mostly by Gavin Bryars. In contrast, we have Christmas on Earth (Barbara Rubin, 1963), the typical and emblematic of the avant-garde and experimental films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which sought to realize a social revolution by demystifying the body and the sexual and presenting them to the public; a film full of images of caresses, touches and making loves between men and women in a New York apartment, accompanied by the songs of the underground bands of the time.

When we look at Dwoskin’s very early short films, we learn one of the main characteristics of his cinema. There is nothing special in the settings of these films, except for an actress, a woman, in a closed space interacting with her body. And this is certainly done through constant and intense close-ups. In Naissant (1964) he depicts the feelings of a young pregnant woman lying on the bed and sinking into her thoughts; in Alone (1963) we again see a young woman lying on the bed and sinking into her sexual fantasies out of sheer idleness; in Moment (1968) again a 12-minute close-up of a young woman lying on the bed and Dwoskin shows us her facial expressions, through which we find out that she is masturbating. His obsession with taking long and expressive close-ups of women in his films – a recurring feature in all his works – led him to be repeatedly accused of voyeurism by some feminist intellectuals of the era – and later in the ‘70s, when his works became better known and at the same time that feminist movements were experiencing their glorious, seminal and decisive period. However, as Nicole Brenez mentions, if one looks at film history, one finds that there were very few filmmakers before him who were able to depict female desire in such a subtle way and his idiosyncrasy of describing the female body in complex ways “represents a turning point in the history of representations.”4



The fact that Dwoskin’s performers are mostly women stems from his own statement that the female body, in contrast to his disfigured body, is the best possible constitution. As for himself, the female body is full of corporeality, and this fullness contrasted with his increasingly deforming body – “the physicality of my eye with the physicality of the body,”5 as he once said. To establish a relationship with the other – for him it was rather something physical – the eyes were for him the most valuable and important organs, sometimes even the only ones. So, because of his movement limitations, he had the possibility to amplify his eyes, which gave him the advantage of an idiosyncratic and unpredictable point of view and the subject also easily settled into the relationship, fascinated by his lack of physicality. Women were thus the best medium to establish a dialogue between the camera and the image, or between the spectator and the cameraman. On the other hand, we know that the disability of some organs can strengthen the other organs and in Dwoskin’s case, it is his mind and his eyes – and ultimately his gaze – that compensate for the immobility of his limbs by inwardly amplifying the movement. That is why, he subsequently gave women some kind of space and provide the space and the settings in a way to induce them to look directly into the camera. So, another feature is added to his cinema: the gaze. But whose gaze? Dwoskin’s or the performers’?

Dyn Amo

The Sun and The Moon

Not a few critics – especially during Dwoskin’s career – have been concerned with a kind of voyeuristic gaze in his films, which came into play because of the camera point of view (his sedentary position). Laura Mulvey, one of the leading feminist film theorists and founder of the concept of the “male gaze,” was a close friend of Dwoskin, and her important and epoch-making essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) was inspired and influenced by his films. In this essay, she theorizes about and critiques the representation of women as objects in narrative films (particularly in classical cinema) by bringing the male gaze into play. She also argues for avant-garde cinema6 as an alternative to the representation of women, and to justify her point she intended to cite Dwoskin’s films as an example. She refused to do so, however, because she felt that it would have invalidated her argument. Yet, if she had done so, not only would she have made a remarkable contribution to the introduction to Dwoskin, but she could have made the last section of her essay much more comprehensive for the readers by analyzing some of his films in which there is only one woman and the meeting of the woman’s and the camera’s gazes is the fundamental element of the film. However, she went over his works in some other texts claiming that Dwoskin transforms the “voyeuristic position” with his films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially Trixi (1969). That is, unlike narrative cinema (of the era), he does not eliminate the “intrusive” camera presence but rather, by seizing the woman’s gaze and holding it in a static frame and proving his own presence as cameraman and unseen viewer, achieves what Mulvey posits against “the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions,” namely, “ free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics.”


Dwoskin himself uses the words “participation” and “participant/partner” to describe the gaze and the gaze holder in his cinema, rejecting the terms “voyeurism” and “scopophilia”: “The ‘model’ acknowledges the presence of the camera and the person using the camera. This acknowledgement is the key shift from voyeur (the English sense of voyeur) to participant.”7. François Bovier, interview with Stephen Dwoskin, Décadrages, issue 7 (Spring 2006)] In his films, which have many sexual connotations, the conflict between the gaze of the “model” and the camera thus serves not to construct a voyeuristic relationship, but to create a “real” partnership. In a way that the model ultimately acknowledges the presence of the camera and the cameraman. It is this kind of acknowledgement that takes us from the word voyeur to participant/partner. So Dwoskin’s model has a kind of tropism, a positive phototropism, so to speak. As a singular organ that, while performing and facing the camera, responds to the stimulus, to the external object, the camera itself. But this model is not a Bressonian model, because Dwoskin always invites her to participate. And this is not done by simply asking them to look directly into the camera. Although experimental and avant-garde films always involve improvisation, in most of them we see more or less a predetermined setting. But Dwoskin, who admitted to his inability to direct the performers/actors, tended to create the situation he had in mind only so that the actors could work freely in front of the camera frame. Thus, he only followed their movements in the situation he created, but he himself had no specific role in recreating the performers’ movements. Rather, he was the one who reacted to their actions with his camera, not the other way around. The staging was entirely in the hands of the model or performer. For him, it was only while filming these actions that he could really discover something. 


In the same way, his films are in a sense de-located, and like the theater stage, the space is subjugated by the performer to such an extent that the performer herself becomes the place.7 Therefore, the places in Dwoskin’s cinema materialize only when the people, especially the women, are no longer present there. This absence in the image often happens not simply by the subject leaving the frame, but by making the scene as if there is suddenly nothing there – that is, the partnership that Dwoskin always sought should not be broken within the frame. If this complicity is to end, it always has to happen outside the camera frame. On the other hand, the subject’s gaze into the camera is a gaze in which the more we scrutinize, the more it loses meaning – as Nicole Brenez interprets it – and becomes more complex and more what it really is; “an event that escapes description, language”8. For this reason, Dwoskin suggests that his films should have only one viewer in the screening room. How can one share the endless depthlessness of Dwoskin’s shot with another? 

The representation of bodies and the proximity and relationship of his own body, as a cameraman and viewer of the people in front of the camera, to the bodies of these people is another quality of his films. Although this kind of relationship can also be seen in his very early short films, it took different forms in different periods and as his illness progressed. Dwoskin himself acknowledged that in the films that resemble experimental diaries, such as his most enthralling and personal films Behindert (1974) and Outside In (1981), one of the most important reasons he included himself in them, and in fact made a film primarily about himself, is that he was able to penetrate, grapple with, and communicate with the personal dimension of subjects, simply more than what an objective documentary can do. Deprived as a child of a so-called normal life, he always considered himself an outsider who was only a spectator, which tempted him to enter what he thought was the real world. Dreaming since childhood of becoming an artist, he saw the image and later the cinema as the only way to achieve his goal. In his cinema, which he appropriately called “personal” rather than “experimental,” he exhibits his body in three different ways; (a) through the performer’s gaze into his camera (especially in the first period of his filmmaking), (b) through the representation of his body as a burlesque exposed to other bodies and through successive encounters with them that lead to comic moments (the second period of his filmmaking), and finally (c) as a weakening body whose deformation and disability are directly related to the creation of subjects in front of his camera (the third period of his filmmaking).


Outside In

While the display of bodies in the films of some other experimental filmmakers and contemporaries of Dwoskin, such as Kenneth Anger, tends to be through the extravagant display of clothing, in his films the body is already separated from everything and is defined only by itself. Therefore, neither in films in which the subject approaches the camera nor in films in which different performers act, does anyone have the chance to come into full contact with another body. For him, the body is defined only by distancing itself from another body. This question can also be examined from another dimension. All relationships in his films (except those with only one performer) fail already at the threshold of their creation. In Behindert, for example, one of his autobiographical films about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, he depicts the failure of this relationship in every scene; and in Outside In, where he portrays himself as unable to establish a normal relationship with someone else because of his physical condition while creating comic moments; and in his longest film, Central Bazaar (1976), which Mekas calls the “bazaar of the senses”. Dwoskin made this film with a group of unknown people who did not yet know each other. They were adventurous people who knew nothing about the film or the filmmaker and volunteered to reveal their sexual and erotic fantasies. But in the end, no one succeeds in realizing their fantasies with the other.

Central Bazaar

Central Bazaar

The one who experiences the most subjective state of filmmaking undoubtedly has autobiographical and diary films among his works (short films such as Dad (2003), Grandpère’s Pear (2003), Mom (2008), and a feature film called Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994)). However, all his films can be described as autobiographical and diary-like. For if we look at his films in chronological order, we see the progression of his physical change and the decay of his body, and consequently the change in the encounter with his subjects. Although his films do not have a conventional narrative style, what emerges from his cinematic career can be described as a tale of filmmaking. In the late ‘90s, when his illness reached its peak, he continued to film by taking self-portraits and depicting himself in the hospital (Intoxicated by My Illness, 2001) or as bedridden (The Sun and The Moon, 2007). Antoine Barraud, one of Dwoskin’s great admirers, with whom he had a close friendship, says that in the last years of his life, when he could hardly separate himself from the ventilator, Dwoskin had no more than forty square meters of space to film. Looking at his films, we find that, with the exception of a few films that he shot with the help of others, he had no more than forty meters to create scenes. We know that Chris Marker was a filmmaker who often did his work alone and is unique in that regard. In an interview, Marker defends the idea of the use of the first person in some films (including his own) and, contrary to popular belief, sees it as a sign of humility. Most experimental films are indeed no exception to this rule, but Dwoskin as a filmmaker who paid the price of suffering, pleasure, illness, and death all alone, who made a memorable figure “out of his absolutely exceptional body,9” is the one who achieves what Marker calls a kind of humility by constantly announcing his presence in his films and making them “personal” films. Because “all I have to offer is myself” 10.

Intoxicated By My Illness


  1. Their notable works are Couch (1964), Flaming Creatures (1963), and Fuses (1967), respectively.
  2. Raymond Durgnat, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema (Studio Vista, 1972), p. 268
  3. He also wrote a book titled Film is: The International Free Cinema (published in 1975) which is a history of international independent and underground filmmaking from the 1920s.
  4. Antoine Barraud, interview with Nicole Brenez and Pierre Léon, Inside out: Le cinéma de Stephen Dwoskin (Independencia Editions, 2013)
  5. François Bovier, interview with Stephen Dwoskin, Décadrages, issue 7 (Spring 2006)
  6. “The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.” Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3 (1975): p. 8.
  7. See Mathias Lavin, “Le cinéma de Stephen Dwoskin ou l’utopie d’un lieu sans espace,” Décadrages, issue 7 (Spring 2006)
  8. Antoine Barraud, interview with Nicole Brenez and Pierre Léon, Inside out: Le cinéma de Stephen Dwoskin (Independencia Editions, 2013)
  9. Ibid.
  10. Dolores Walfisch, Interview with Chris Marker, The Berkeley Lantern, November 1996.

About The Author

Sara Delshad is a Film Studies graduate, freelance film critic, video-essayist, and translator of cinematic texts currently based in Iran.

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