Down & dirty Stephen Dwoskin movies at the BFI

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 – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by ITALO CALVINO on 2009-05-02 13:37:45 +0000

The gaze of the dead is always a bit deprecatory. Places, situations, occasions are more or less what one already knew, and recognising them always affords a certain satisfaction; but at the same time many variations, large and small, become noticable. In and of themselves they could be acceptable, too, if they corresponded to a logical, coherent process; but instead they prove arbitrary and irregular, and this is irksome, especially because one is always tempted to intervene and make the correction that seems necessary, and being dead, one cannot do it. Hence an attitude of reluctance, almost of embarassment, but at the same time of smugness, the attitude of one who knows what counts is his own past experience and there is no point in attaching too much importance to all the rest. Then a dominant feeling is quick too arise and impose itself on very thought: it is the relief of knowing all those problems are other people’s problems, their business. The dead should no longer give a damn about anything because it is not up to them to think about it any more; and even if that may seem immoral, it is in this irresponsibility that the dead find their gaiety.
The more Mr K’s spiritual condition approaches the one here described, the more the idea of being dead seems natural to him. To be sure, he has not yet found the sublime detachment he thought was usual with the dead, nor a reason that surpasses all explanation, not an emergence from his own confines like emerging from a tunnel that opens out into other dimensions. At times he has the illusion that being freed at last from the impatience he has felt all his life on seeing others get everything they do wrong and in thinking that in their place he would get it equally wrong but at least would be aware of his errors. But he is not in the least freed of this impatience and he realises that his intolerance of others’ mistakes and of his own will be perpetuated along with those mistakes, which no death can erase. So he might as well get used to it; for K, being dead means resigning himself to the disappointment in finding himself the same in a definitive state, which he can no longer hope to change.
K does not underestimate the advantages that the condition of being alive can have over that of being dead: not as regards the future, were risks are always very great and benefits can be of short duration, but in the sense of the possibility of improving the form of one’s past. (Unless one is already fully satisfied with one’s past, a situation too uninteresting to make it worth investigating.) A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, “How could I have lived without having read it in my youth!” Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading allos assumes a form shaped by that reading.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-05-02 13:42:36 +0000

Nina Powers writing on Feurbach is very groovy.

Comment by THE POST-SAMPLIST INTERNOTIONAL on 2009-05-02 14:01:33 +0000

Additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis not to mention LA Synthesis were popular techniques before the advent of the AKAI s-1000 sampler brought in a different means of making the right noise 😉

Comment by THE UNKNOWN SAMPLIST on 2009-05-02 14:25:59 +0000

Actually, LA synthesis comes AFTER sampling because it combines synthesis WITH sampling but nevertheless, Michael K’s use since 1999 of audio models like sequencing and synthesis to translate philosophical and epistemological data into usable forms comes into funky in ‘SAMPL:ISM The Impossible History’
A shame The Michael K couldn’t just upload this mutha and free the beast!
PS-Many philosophers have offered critiques of dialectic, and it can even be said that hostility or receptivity to dialectics is one of the things that divides twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy from the so-called “continental” tradition, a divide that only a few contemporary philosophers (among them, G.H. von Wright, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor) have ventured to bridge.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-02 14:44:40 +0000

Actually I was supposed to meet Owen Hatherley at The Foundry too, but Laura told me he’d already gone when I got there. I’d taken my sweet time getting up there coz Laura hadn’t replied to the text I’d sent from the India Club Restaurant asking if they were there… I’d have got there quite a bit earlier if she had replied! But I can’t stand drinking on my own, don’t mind eating solo but boozing alone is so sad….

Comment by Michael K on 2009-05-02 15:12:20 +0000

Never trust a Slovenian but solo boozing is a groove sensation but only if you walk straight in, decide immediately who the most attractive person is and head straight over to them. Whatever you say will get you in, provided it’s nothing ordinary. It’s all in my latest pamphlet ‘The Michael K Guide to Advanced Social Networking’.
I met my fifth, seventh and nineteenth wives this way. Mind you, they were plastered.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-05-02 15:19:19 +0000
Iain Sinclair: Hackney Ascension Day with Kirsten Norrie; sound installation by Susan Stenger St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney – March 2009 Commissioned and produced for London Word Festival

Comment by infinite thought on 2009-05-02 15:37:23 +0000

There’s a curse on our conversation! A hex on our lexicon! Perhaps in 2010 I’ll ask you for the time and there’ll be a couple of seconds to respond before the world ends.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-02 15:47:04 +0000

That would be good, especially as I understood the world wasn’t due to end till 2012. And it won’t really end, it will just start again, but better!
Oh and Howling Wiz, nice to see Susan Stenger’s name, it is too long since I last saw her… Of course she’s mainly in Eire these days… and I also heard recently her husband Paul Smith had been very ill…..
Oh and K, your guide to solo social networking sounds great, but I do hope it covers getting rid of some of the boyfriends and girlfirends I’ve acquired on Facebook etc. !

Comment by Michael K on 2009-05-02 15:49:24 +0000

That’s the collaborative pamhlet we’re supposed to be working on in the bathroom tonight, dumbo!

Comment by Michael K on 2009-05-02 15:52:54 +0000

I’m warming to your suggested title of ‘How to Undo Yourself With Self-Sabotage and Energy Drinks (and Get Rid of Irksome Tentative Emotional Associations Caused by Total Abandonment of Catechism’ )
although ‘Fuck You All-You’re Just Pixels’ would be my tip for the top

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-02 16:00:34 +0000

And there’s always: “I Thought They Were Just Figments Of My Imagination Until the $$$ Started Pouring In Via PayPal”…..

Comment by The Utterly Fake Al Goldstein on 2009-05-02 19:44:30 +0000

I heard the real army of the night, that is to say the dirty raincoat brigade, were out in force for the Dwoskin shorts at the BFI. Films like Trixi certainly turn me on! I get honry just thinking about my memories of that one, and whenever I see it, well I can’t help touching myself and engaging in a spot of lewd and disorderly behaviour. So SCREW ya and yer limp-wristed attitude towards Dwoskin and porn!

Comment by Andrea Dworkin on 2009-05-02 20:37:05 +0000

Porn is the theory, rape is the practice. I detest Dwoskin and resent the similarity between his name and mine.

Comment by K Mail on 2009-05-03 10:28:08 +0000

I’m a down and dirty clone and I like whipped cream on it!

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-05-03 11:09:09 +0000

Ah Mr Home,
re Susan Stenger, I have never met her, but in the late 70’s/early 80’s , I used to play in some Garage punk bands, and I was often to be found in the same place as some of the musicians she works with nowadays….I was on passing acquaintance terms with her bass player,Mitch Flacko, was on the garage band scene in Hackney, Stamford Hill etc at the time.
All many years ago now — c’mon Toad, let’s go back to our cave. It’s quiet there.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-05-03 15:19:53 +0000

StarShipSofa the Audio Science Fiction Magazine blasted over to Paris to interview science fiction Grand Master Michael Moorcock.

Comment by Anna K on 2009-05-03 21:41:04 +0000

Smash the screen

Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-05-04 01:05:07 +0000

Objectification is a myth that’s only validated when women acknowledge its (non)existence. It’s been my experience that if you behave as an “equal” you’ll be treated as one, even if this means calling a man out and busting his schnoz. What was the topic again? The mere sight of Andrea Dworkin’s name (a few comments above) get’s my dander up…

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-05-04 05:50:55 +0000

I’m not too familiar with Dwoskin, but Dirty is certainly a trip. As you pointed out, this film certainly has a trippy, dreamy quality. The nudity certainly takes a back seat as the rhythm kind of draws you in. Do you think the graininess was to emulate/parody peep shows or early stag films, or was this just Dwoskin’s aesthetic?

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-04 09:43:06 +0000

The look of Dirty is clearly deliberate, but some of Dwoskin’s stuff is much cleaner looking if you can see a good print. Don’t know if he wanted to emulate the look of early stag films, but the result is as I said a groove sensation. Dirty is definitely the best thing I’ve seen by him!

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-05-05 03:46:05 +0000

For those who are interested, Dirty can be viewed at Ubuweb:
You know it makes (no) sense!

Comment by NEOISM IS X$X IS NEOISM on 2009-05-05 13:02:08 +0000

Information involves Sender, Receiver, and Noise, “The Third Man” or “parasite” (which, in French, means “static”).
Sender and Receiver set up a system of communication to defeat The Third Man, The Demon of Noise.
But since these three actors form a system, the demon parasite paradoxically forces the two other actors to integrate.
What looks like noise (or a demon) from one level becomes an integral aspect of a dynamic system

Comment by The Demon Of Noise on 2009-05-05 13:12:20 +0000

I’ve read the ‘Dirty’ by X$X (at least I think it’s by X$X) which is out and about NOW in the Netherlands and Germany but to get it I had to find then assemble fragmented instructions placed across the web, and adopting the name Michael K, publish something which others, behind me in the queue, would use to get to the position I’d just vacated. By the time I entered the bookshop, I was ready to read the book I had myself written.

Comment by Michael K on 2009-05-05 13:47:32 +0000

Digital downloads are a groove sensation. But what is this ‘PayPal’?
Is that anything like ‘PenPal’?

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-05 16:28:12 +0000

I dunno, but if it is anything like free money then it is bound to be a groove sensation!

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-05-05 16:40:32 +0000

I usually have to pay by the hour for my Penpals. It’s not free but it is still a groove sensation!

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