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Sixth in a series of monthly posts by Henry K. Miller from the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Reading

It is difficult to think of two filmmakers whose stated aims, and whose theoretical frameworks, were as different as those of Stephen Dwoskin on the one hand, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet on the other. It’s for this reason that their apparent sense of kinship during the 1970s tells us something unexpected about the film culture in which they were celebrated. Straub/Huillet were Brechtians (though their critical supporters were far more so). Theirs was an aesthetic of anti-illusionism: characters speak as if they are quoting; where there are narratives they are deliberately unabsorbing, and the conventions governing the framing and sequencing of shots – instrumental in stimulating narrative absorption – are frequently ignored or subverted.

Dwoskin’s aesthetic, on the other hand, coming out of a quite different tradition, was one of intensely personal engagement – between filmmaker and (almost always female) performer, and between viewer and screen. Sexuality, not a major concern of Straub/Huillet’s, was vital to Dwoskin. In his book Film Is, published in 1975, Dwoskin wrote such things as (of the silent film), ‘the essential communication was the recognizing, through an alter-ego experience, of the image representing a living reality […] the confrontation with an image of living reality, in the form of another person, no longer remained “fictional”’ […] the associative reality cause by recognized body and facial gestures in a filmed subject, has been my primary concern in my own films’.

Ad for The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, April 1970

The reference to silent cinema is significant here, since Dwoskin, true to the tenets of the 1920s avant-garde, tended to eschew dialogue. Straub/Huillet, on the other hand, were determinedly makers of sound films, with plenty of talk. Music – especially that of his two close collaborators Ron Geesinand Gavin Bryars– was integral to Dwoskin’s films, but from a certain point of view he was a ‘silent’ filmmaker all the same. That point of view is provided by Andi Engel, in an early chapter on Straub/Huillet published in 1970: ‘most films made today are not sound films, but silent films with added dialogue and sound effects’. Dwoskin’s films with Geesin were shot silent and had soundtracks added years afterwards; Straub/Huillet used direct sound.

All of which is to say that both Dwoskin and Straub/Huillet were answering the same questions. One of the central sets of conventions in narrative film, the orchestration of looks, was something with which he and they were closely concerned. In what is still probably the best-known critical work on Dwoskin, Paul Willemen’s ‘Voyeurism, the Look, and Dwoskin’, published in 1976, Willemen followed Laura Mulvey in distinguishing three cinematic looks – ‘1) the camera’s look as it records the profilmic event, 2) the audience’s look at the image and 3) the look the characters exchange within the diegesis’, then identified Dwoskin’s work ‘as an isolated example of an attempt to work through this particular problematic’ (using the latter word in its proper sense), then credited him with working through a fourth look – ‘the look at the viewer’.

Straub/Huillet, too, worked through this problematic, but with radically different results. Their deconstruction of the system of looks, as established in the dominant cinema during the 1910s and little deviated from since, led to a cinema of broken sightlines. The conventions by which we understand that x-character in shot 1 is talking to y-character in shot 2 – and by which we are enabled to overlook all trace of separate ‘shots’, and of the materiality of recorded sound – go by the wayside. An extreme is reached in From the Cloud to the Resistance (1978), in which more than one dialogue sequence is shot in its entirety – and all in one shot – from behind the speakers, memorably as they ride on a horse and cart through the Italian countryside. The viewer is not looked at – the viewer can barely see their faces.

Nonetheless, Dwoskin would tell Raymond Durgnat in 1984 (after saying Ingmar Bergman ‘had a great impact on me’) that ‘later on, Straub influenced me, and vice versa. The way he treated narrative, his respect for the image vis-à-vis dialogue – History Lessons (1972) and Moses and Aaron (1975)’. (It should be said that for a long time Danièle Huillet did not receive equal credit.) ‘How did you influence him?’ was Durgnat’s understandably bemused next question. Dwoskin replied: ‘I wouldn’t say directly influenced, but he got carried away by To Tea (1971), and rang me to find out how I managed to edit it so precisely.’ One would like to know more about this phone call, but it tells us among other things that Dwoskin and Straub/Huillet moved in the same circles.

Artificial Eye flyer circulated at Cannes, May 1976

They found themselves in the same cultural space – namely The Other Cinema – by diverging significantly from the traditions in which they had been schooled. Straub had been an assistant to a number of major French filmmakers before striking out with Huillet into independent production, but they never comfortably fit the art-house pattern, even at the modest level attained by Robert Bresson. Dwoskin, meanwhile, became semi-detached from the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, soon after he helped found it, and began to produce feature-length films with similarly dim prospects of exhibition. That, however, did not deter Andi and Pam Engel, founders of the distributor Artificial Eye, from taking on both Dwoskin and Straub/Huillet; and that is how they ended up on the market at Cannes. But that is another story.

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This is the sixth 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

Read the fifth Dwoskin Project blog post

Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.