Harriet Andersson in Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Third in a series of monthly posts by Henry K. Miller from the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Reading.
When Stephen Dwoskin graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1959, intent on making his way as a graphic designer, New York was in the grip of Bergmania. Five of Ingmar Bergman’s films were on show in the third week of October. His newest, The Face, retitled The Magician, was on at the Fifth Avenue Cinema, on West 13th Street. The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night were both on at the Art Theatre, not far away on East 8th Street. Elsewhere Thirst, from a decade earlier, had been pressed into service (as Three Strange Loves), while Wild Strawberries was in its fifth month at the Beekman, on the Upper East Side. Six months later, Bergman was on the cover of Time; about the same time, in Esquire, James Baldwin published his portrait of the Swedish master, later included in Nobody Knows My Name.
Any cult inspires a backlash, and Jonas Mekas, in his Village Voice column of 21 October 1959, named the ‘anti-Bergmanites: Hans Richter walked out of “Wild Strawberries”: too talky, too theatrical. Robert Frank walked out of “The Magician”: too corny, particularly in love scenes. Maya Deren says Bergman violates cinema; she doesn’t see why all the craze about him. Arlene Croce says Bergman could have made a beautiful film of “Wild Strawberries” if the professor had been a woman instead of a man.’ Mekas himself was, at this time, a Bergmanite. ‘If you look for cinema in New York,’ he had written a month earlier, ‘you have only two choices today: Ingmar Bergman and Cinema 16.’ Cinema 16, the legendary film society run by Amos Vogel, was about to unveil Frank’s Pull My Daisy, a landmark in independent film.
Over time, and under pressure of institutional and commercial prerogatives, these two realms, European art cinema and the avant-garde represented by Cinema 16, would tend to be considered as separate; but we should locate the young Dwoskin at the point where they converged. He had grown up in Brooklyn watching Hollywood films like everybody else; it was in 1959 that he both joined the cult of Bergman and – quite possibly following Mekas’s injunction – sought out the emerging alternative suggested by Pull My Daisy. He would make his first films in the early 1960s, in the ambit of the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op, in which Mekas was the driving force, but he took his inspiration equally from Bergman.
Bergman came first – ‘he was the first clearly in my mind, the first type of cinema that I saw outside of Hollywood,’ Dwoskin recalled in a remarkable unpublished interview with Tatia Shaburishvili, who worked on a number of his films. . As it was for Bergman’s most famous American admirer Woody Allen, another son of Brooklyn from the same generation, Wild Strawberries was the decisive film. Dwoskin: ‘I was knocked out, it was the first time I saw a film that, whatever was going on in the film it was based on the […] imagery of faces’. Allen: ‘With impunity he put his camera on faces for unconscionable periods of time […] close-ups that lingered beyond where the textbooks says is good movie form. Faces were everything for him.’
Dwoskin was avowedly less interested in Bergman’s stories; for him Bergman offered ‘the intensity of looking at someone crying or moving their eyes’, whereas ‘for the most part, most other story films you don’t look at people with such intensity, you follow them around as mannequins in a narrative’. When Dwoskin, who had rapidly found success as a Madison Avenue art director, became an underground filmmaker, in the years after this first encounter with Bergman, and during the period of Bergman’s famous trilogy, he ‘extended’ – as he himself said – the scenes that impressed him in; ‘the certain moment of the [Bergman] film became a long time’ in Dwoskin’s.
Naturally those privileged moments often involved the face; faces were everything for Dwoskin too. And three of the four significant short films that Dwoskin made in New York and retained in the canon (others were dropped, or confiscated by the police), and many of his later films as well, are of women alone – not, of course, something that Bergman invented, but something he specialized in. Dwoskin, in his interview with Shaburishvili, recalls Harriet Andersson’s notable solo scene in Through a Glass Darkly, the first of Bergman’s trilogy, released in New York in March 1962; the major part of it being shot from a fixed angle, one might see it as being ‘extended’ in Dwoskin’s Girl ten years later.
Dwoskin’s Alone, meanwhile, dated ‘New York: 1964’, but given its final form and soundtrack in London, can be construed as an ‘extension’ of Ingrid Thulin’s masturbation scene in Bergman’s The Silence, released in New York at on 3 February that year. The one exception, Chinese Checkers, ‘extends’ the lesbian seduction scene in Thirst – a film that begins with a woman in bed, alone, listless, and smoking, as in Alone and Naissant, another of Dwoskin’s New York films.
Though Dwoskin disclaimed an interest in the narrative content of Bergman’s films, Shaburishvili says at one point ‘I remember once you said about Bergman, sometimes you felt it was about horrors of relationship, horrifying thing trying to communicate, trying to resolve things, horrifying aspect of relationships, not being able to speak, to resolve…’ And these ‘horrors’, not usually represented in dramatic action, but staged in the relationship between watcher and watched, would be central to Dwoskin’s films. Indeed, his theme would be that which James Baldwin identified in Bergman’s films in 1960 – that of ‘the breakdown of communication between the sexes’ under conditions of modernity.
This is the third in a series of monthly posts from The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project, based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.