Saturday, 30 May 2009

Steve Dwoskin's The Sun and the Moon: Eroticism and the Filmic Avantgarde

I have never seen as strong a piece of experimental moving image as Steven Dwoskin’s The Sun and the Moon (what a sweeping statement that is!). As a piece of ‘personal cinema’ it intensely provides an insight into - not just the camera as a tool for the representation of the world (as a profound, obscured and obliterated entity) - but also the ever-present and ugly phenomenon of sex (yes it is! - even when conducted by the most ‘beautiful’ of people). Abstraction and sex incontestably sit side-by-side (as of course do art and sex historically). Sex only ever seems to make sense before and during, both then merely introducing the inevitable occurrence of post-coital guilt and confusion: What is this act? What does it actually involve? Why this consistent and depressing desire to partake? Through an acknowledgement of the inevitable degradation of the human body (accelerated by physical illness), the unfathomable urge for sexual interaction, and an overwhelming obsession with the moving-image avantgarde, Dwoskin's filmic abstractions are unbelievably compelling.


It is said that The Sun and the Moon is a lyrical evocation of the Beauty and the Beast story. Four directors shoot a 69-year-old Dwoskin showing the scars from the poliomyelitis he suffered in his childhood and the oxygen mask he wears since contracting pneumonia. However, what can seem terrible is not: does eroticism exclude certain bodies? Dwoskin's favourite writer, Georges Bataille, knows well the depths of Eros. Tears, aversion, terror and tenderness: Dwoskin re-establishes light into his marginalised body and claims an eroticism without words for himself. (Cece, 20th April 2008, translated by Jose de Esteban – quoted from the BFI notes on the current Dwoskin retrospective)



Dwoskin claims, not just a personal eroticism through the actions he conducts as a subject in his own film, but also the consistent maintaining of a weird sense of the erotic through the filming itself: the camera moves in an overtly sexual manner: zooms in and out, blurred close-up confusion followed by resting steps back into momentary clarity, 360 degree rotations, and dizzying changes of angle and general camera position (all filmic metaphors for sexual movements, it seems).

The film features three characters, Dwoskin himself, a brunette middle-aged woman (Beatrice Cordua) and a young-ish Scandinavian girl (Helga Wretman). Dwoskin sits uncomfortably on a bed, his face covered by an oxygen mask. He sits-up, lies-down and rolls around grunting, rasping and masturbating while the younger woman parades around naked and the older woman cries and screams out from the sidelines. The entire film is slowed down into recondite, grainy video with obscure time-stretched sound. Dwoskin has the various camera operators zoom in close on his body, revealing his strange form up-close, the texture of his paled skin full-screen, and the wispy fine hair that lines his stomach and chest: these shots are not abhorrently pornographic, more considered, abstracted images of the human body through close swoops and zooms with a modest hand-held camera.  

The various shots appear to fall into two categories: those that show the room itself and the placement and actions of the three characters, and those that reduce the characters themselves into bare-breasts reflecting in mirrors, screaming mouths, and rolling lumps of naked flesh. The older woman seems to represent Dwoskin’s anguish as a disabled, but never-the-less sexuated subject with her time-stretched yelps and howls, while the younger blonde combines looks of potential lust for Dwoskin, with teary-eyed stares for a man that may not be able to fulfil the expected rigours of sexual performance/ritual. For 61 minutes this harrowing yet strangely beautiful affair continues. The viewer is lead away into textural abstraction, before once again being reminded of the reality that is taking place between the three characters: all bodies are gradually and progressively becoming eroticised.


The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity. (Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood, 1967.)


Eroticism, then, is a breaking down; a replacing of structure and order with dissolution (disunion, disintegration, decay). Dwoskin reveals the point of tension in this decay: is his body capable of performing a sexual act? As in several of his other works, will the women actually engage in any tactile sex act? Or, will they just eroticise their movements in space, simply providing entertainment for Dwoskin’s self-gratification through masturbation? The point of tension is this brink between stripping, nakedness and heavy-petting; the point between being naked in a space with another body, and actually engaging in some form of tactile intercourse. This tension is paramount throughout the entire film, and it dictates its extraordinary atmosphere.


Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self. Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity. Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognised and stable individuality. Through the activity of organs in a flow of coalescence and renewal, like the ebb and flow of waves surging into one another, the self is dispossessed, and so completely that most creatures in a state of nakedness, for nakedness is symbolic of this dispossession and heralds it: particularly if the erotic act follows, consummating it. (Ibid)


Shots of the moon are cut with those of Wretman’s naked body. The female form eclipses the moon, pushing back a celestial body only to replace it with an eroticised one. The eroticised female seems controlled by the moon’s glow, working for it through a strange double reflection. 

In another film, Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994), Dwoskin edits together archive footage of his father’s video tapes, creating an autobiography in black and white footage with classical music accompaniment (Sibelius’ violin concerto, amongst other pieces). He talks of his move to London from New York in 1964 and the strange affect it had on his career as an artist and filmmaker. Apart from the following video interview for Lux, this was the only footage of Dwoskin’s work I could find:


Stephen Dwoskin - vodcast