Last night I was down at the BFI on the South Bank (the nearest thing you’ll find to a real rock ‘n’ roll club in London these days) to catch the first screening in a series dedicated to notorious underground/art film-maker Stephen Dwoskin, a one time contemporary of Andy Warhol. The first night of this month long season was given over to 5 early underground shorts. After an introduction by William Fowler which laid out Dwoskin’s role as a pioneer in both the New York and London underground movie scenes, the films were screened in chronological order, so Asleep (1961) came first. This shows the movements of a woman’s feet as she sleeps, it appears to have been sped-up and supposedly a whole night’s worth of movement is shown. This is a slight work, with the blanket from which the feet poke proving almost as distracting as the silent movie comedy-style piano soundtrack by Ron Geesin that was added in the late sixties – after Dwoskin had moved from New York to London.
Asleep looks like it comes from a different era to the rest of Dwoskin’s work, it resembles an early Fluxus joke piece and brought to my mind the extensive use of feet and shoes in the collages of Ray Johnson. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Asleep in the programme was useful, since it served to remind viewers that all artists have to start somewhere, and good film-makers develop rather than making their best work first time out. Next up was Alone (1963), which shows a fully clothed girl – identified as Zelda – picking her nose, then smoking a cigarette and moving through various sexually alluring poses. This, like the first short, was a new print and the quality of the film was quite extraordinary (which was not the case with Asleep, due both to inferior lighting and the battering the source for the new print of the 1961 short had obviously suffered over the years). Once again there was a Ron Geesin soundtrack added in the late-sixties after Dwoskin had moved across the Atlantic, but this time it was pulsing industrial-style noise that worked wonderfully with the imagery it accompanied.
The third short Dirty (1965) was shot in London shortly after Dwoskin’s transatlantic relocation. Two nude girls identified as Barbara and Ann, drink booze from a bottle and then frolic on a bed. The camera freezes at key moments and this, alongside the dirty and damaged nature of the black and white print, gives the short a dream-like quality. Dirty almost functions as pornography, but its formalism and minimal soundtrack by Gavin Bryars – again added several years after the film was shot and first screened – will frustrate the expectations of any viewer hoping for a wank fest. I found this film a real groove sensation; but it also left me wondering whether the two women it featured were sex industry professionals, aspirant actresses, or simply acquaintances of the director having a bit of a laugh. The rhythm of Dwoskin’s films is much slower than that of commercial cinema, and after watching Alone and Dirty my head was in a different space and moving at a very different speed from when I’d arrived at the BFI’s Screen 2. Dwoskin can be very trippy, although the effect of his later films is sometimes more like the psychosis induced by too many downers.
The fourth film in the BFI’s shorts screening was Moment (1969). This is shot in colour and shows the face of a girl called Tina Fraser framed on a pillow. The dominant colour is red and this gives the film a warm feel as Tina smokes and either masturbates or simulates this act. We see her face as she works herself up to orgasm, then afterwards in complete relaxation. As a consequence this feels very much like a heterosexual version of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1963). Perhaps Dwoskin felt his short Asleep had provided the template for Warhol’s Sleep (1963), and was calling in the debt. Moment was the most carefully composed of the Dwoskin shorts on show last night. That said, the top right side of the screen is a kind of dead space made up of nothing but reddish pillow, with Tina Fraser’s head on the left of the frame; presumably the shot was set up in this way, with a mild imperfection, to prevent viewers from responding to it simply on the level of visual aesthetics.
The 30 minute Trixi (1970), was the longest of the films screened last night. It shows Beatrice Cordua being assaulted by Dwoskin’s camera. At first she has her clothes on, then they have been removed. As Cordua writhes through various poses, it becomes evident that the camera is metaphorically raping her. At various points we see her face and various parts of her body in extreme close-up. Like other Dwoskin women, Cordua is not particularly photogenic: her heavy eye make up is ugly, her skin looks course and uneven, the hair on her head appears to be dirty, while her bushy pubes could do with a trim. Cordua is skinny and looks like she’s not enjoying the best of health. Perhaps Dwoskin’s subjects are typical of what ordinary – as opposed to photogenic – individuals look like on camera; we’re not used to seeing averagely attractive people on film because Hollywood and the entertainment industry are so fixated with beauty. But this isn’t the only reading that might be made of the state of the women in the Dwoskin’s films screened last night; there are parallels with the drug intake – and thus also the states of consciousness – one might associate with the London underground over the period covered in the last three films: a move from mid-sixties exuberance involving alcohol, speed and acid, to the sonambulism of heroin and ultimately burn out.
The soundtrack to Trixi is simply the endless repetition of this name, and that also reflects the psychobabble one might associate with the counterculture at the dawn of the seventies. The verbal repetition of this soundtrack may hark back to a similar effect on The Cut Ups (1966) directed by Anthony Balch, but the use of a single word rather than several repeated phrases ultimately creates a pulse that resembles a heartbeat. By the end, the viewer – like the counterculture – is strung out and beaten into submission. Trixi is an unpleasant and confrontational film precisely because the camera functions as rapist, but for me it does not fit the reductive notions of ‘male gaze’ championed by the likes of Laura Mulvey and dismissed by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. You’d have to be psychotic to identify with the camera in Trixi, and the film is a formalist exercise because of the sadistic way it forces viewers to acknowledge the difference and distance between themselves and this recording device.
After the screening, I made my way up to The Strand for a bindhi at the India Club Restaurant (2nd Floor, Strand Continental Hotel, 143 Strand, London, WC2R 1JA). This establishment is very broken down and looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1960s, I suspect it only survives because it is right next to the Indian High Commission, and probably attracts custom from there at lunch time. I’ve always liked the non-gastro and undecorated atmosphere at the India Club, although I’ve never thought the food was that great, and it has got worse since I last visited the place a couple of years ago. From The Strand, I moved on to The Foundry in Old Street, where I’d arranged to meet Nina Power and Laura Oldfield Ford. Yet again I only succeeded in exchanging a couple of sentences with Nina before Laura dragged her off to a rave in a squat on Kingsland High Street. I didn’t want to go clubbing and since I hadn’t clocked Foundry owner Tacey Moberly, with whom I might have exchanged a friendly greeting, I decided to check out some action online instead….
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!