Stephen Dwoskin contracted polio at age nine. He would rely on crutches for the rest of his life; eventually he would be confined to a wheelchair. For this man who could never ignore the limitations of physical life, memory, work, leisure, relationships, and above all love became bodily functions, all touched by illness and subject to its constraints. In his many films, now the subject of a retrospective from Anthology Film Archives, Dwoskin proposed a single solution to his condition: look. Gaze voraciously, insatiably. Indulge in close-ups that stretch the bounds of reason and taste. Look until your subject starts to feel uncomfortable—and then look some more. Adrian Martin has called his cinema “hungry”; like hunger, it’s driven by desire, but also by absence and privation, by Dwoskin’s inability to do anything but look.
In the extended dinner party sequence that opens Behindert (1974), Dwoskin zooms in on actress Carola Regnier until a single quadrant of her face consumes the frame, pores over the contours of her smile and meets her gaze until she glances nervously away. For the next eighty minutes Dwoskin continues to study his ex-partner in extreme, rarely-broken close-up, watching her face flit from emotion to (often contradictory) emotion, looking on with something between envy and awe as she glides from room to room. The film’s title translates to “hindered,” and it finds Dwoskin wondering to what extent his well-trained eye can compensate for his hobbled body. He holds the camera on Regnier’s face for minutes when she glimpses his frail legs, her expression somewhere between revulsion, pity, protectiveness, and fear. “What can I do?” he asks her in the late stages of their affair. “Nothing,” comes the reply. “That’s the problem.”
By Central Bazaar (1976), his next feature, Dwoskin seemed to have traded limitation for license: a handful of strangers gather together for what almost instantly devolves into a freeform two-and-a-half-hour-long sexual merry-go-round. Dwoskin’s subjects drift from partner to partner draped in elaborate costumes and moving half-consciously, as if magnetic currents were tugging them together and apart. There are moments of great tenderness, but the whole affair comes off as grotesque—not least because we’re made to feel like an unwelcome and particularly intrusive guest. Dwoskin’s camera roves around, focusing in on a caress here, a clasped hand there, the strap of a pair of leggings, an exposed back: always too close for comfort, yet for the most part excluded from the proceedings. In the spectacle of these able bodies contorting themselves, strutting, dancing, converging, and lounging around, Dwoskin saw a mirror of the world: a place in which human connection was something frightening and alien, something that demanded a performance well outside his range.
As his career went on, Dwoskin stayed faithful to his two great themes—the necessity of human connection and the frustrations of bodily life—but treated them with an ever-widening range of styles. In Outside In (1981), he turned his illness into a dark and bitter farce, at one point filming himself trying to sit down for five clumsy, agonizing minutes. That film’s brief montage of youthful snapshots anticipated Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994),an autobiography built around ethereal clips of Dwoskin family home movies. Here we’re presented with another, more universal sort of hindrance: to be stuck in the present and long for contact with the past. And here, as in Behindert, moviemaking becomes a means of vicariously touching the untouchable, of kissing the moon—whether it’s a frustrated lover or a boyhood memory. By Age Is… (2011), his hushed, intimate last film, Dwoskin had made peace with the present, or at least started to come to terms with its pleasures and limitations. It’s one of his most contented films, but also one of his more muted: the camera rarely probes its subjects very urgently or intrudes on them very much.
For better or worse, Dwoskin’s films work best when they stare with too much intensity, too much longing, or too much need. Near the end of Outside In, he includes a close-up of a smiling young woman, her face softened, hazy, radiant, as if seen through the eyes of a dumbstruck admirer. We want to say that the shot stands out for its formal beauty, when in fact we’re struck by the way she’s looking at us—with affection, understanding, even desire. To watch moments like this—at which Dwoskin comes closest to living through his camera, and taking us along with him—is to compromise ourselves; to inhabit a gaze that’s active, hungry, and very often aimed at women in various states of vulnerability or exposure.
Jonas Mekas wrote in his initial review of Central Bazaar that “there is no forcing, no rape of the camera in Dwoskin,” that the film was “gentleness itself.” He was generally right (although there are moments in that film about which I’m not so sure), but risked ignoring the extent to which Dwoskin’s brand of human connection depends on the mutual and reciprocal use of force. Dwoskin’s gentleness lies not in refusing to intrude on his performers, but in recognizing their right to intrude back—to stare us in the eye, to smile, gesture, and sneer at us, to demand that we engage with them on their own terms. “How are you going to deal with me?” they seem to ask: Carola Regnier, the cast of Central Bazaar,that nameless girl in Outside In. And we don’t have an answer; like Dwoskin, we feel trapped, helpless, hindered. In those staring eyes and their unanswerable challenge, we sense something of the terror of human contact, the shock of being confronted by the expectant presence of another. The movies often give us a convenient chance to dodge that responsibility, to intrude with impunity. Dwoskin doesn’t. He invites those threatening (and threatened) faces to beckon us, tease us, and get impatient, as we shrink further and further into our seats: “How are you going to deal with me? What are you going to do?”