What happens when the use of pop music is neither celebratory nor liberating? When it is the soundtrack to emotional pain and social oppression, and may be said to contribute to, or even generate such pain and oppression?
In the opening reel of Dyn amo – one of the most extraordinary yet most unwatchable works in the history of cinema – Stephen Dwoskin proposes just that. In a grimy Soho strip club, a stripper (Jenny Runacre) goes through the motions of her act to three pop songs – The Rolling Stones’ “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” (1965), Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness?” (1963), and Phil Spector’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (1962), performed by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. These scenes are intercut with the opening credits, scored to Gavin Bryars’ menacing, minimalist drone.
These two aural strands are fused after Dwoskin’s directorial credit. Bryars isolates the rhythm track from ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ to create an inexorable pulse. Barely audible underneath is the ghost of another song, perhaps echoing the groaning souls of the damned (Dwoskin illustrated Dante’s Inferno in 1965).
The image at this point changes from a kind of documentary to Expressionism and horror. Whereas the dancer had seemed in control of her situation and body, wielding a chain and protecting herself from the exploitative display of her person through irony, boredom and mockery, now her face is trapped in Dwoskin’s frame, separated from her body, the harsh, lurid light exposing her mask-like make-up, her attempts at smiles failing under the relentless gaze of a camera operated by Dwoskin himself. This camera stands in for both the unseen punters and pimps who will appear later in the film to torture and crucify the final stripper (Linda Marlowe); and the spectator himself. ‘Can I get a witness?’ indeed. ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’, originally written for Disney’s notoriously nostalgic Song of the South, and derived from a pre-Civil War tune performed by minstrels, may cause us to reinterpret the chain Runacre wields as she walks on stage, and to read her red cravat as a kind of slave’s collar.
The three songs are played in reverse chronological order, and straddle the period when Dwoskin left his native New York for London in 1964, where he would stay for the next half century. Dwoskin loathed England – its insularity, hierarchical class-consciousness, lack of creativity and imagination, cramped spaces and continual rain. In turn, he remembered his early years in New York – where he was an active member of the Film-makers’ Cooperative and close to figures such as Jonas Mekas, Ron Rice and Jack Smith – as a kind of Utopia from which he was forever expelled.
The use of music in the first reel of Dyn amo is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), a film Dwoskin revered. Dyn amo shows the creative possibilities of Anger and the New York underground wilting in the basement of a London slaphouse during the leaden 1970s. Dyn amo has usually been read in terms of feminism, but Dwoskin often said that his films were actually about himself. Dyn amo is a cry for help from a New Yorker stranded in dispiriting London, where the dreams evoked by American pop music and underground film are muffled and ultimately drowned out.