On Stephen Dwoskin’s Trying to Kiss the Moon

By Laura Mulvey

In Trying To Kiss The Moon, Stephen Dwoskin tells the double story on memory, bringing together the beauty of its documents and the sadness of its elusiveness. Extracts from Dwoskin’s own films are collaged with photographs and bits of home movies, still vitally alive with the moment they were taken. But their presence is painfully innocent; little did these images know. Dwoskin implies how they would be overtaken by time and become the signs of stories that are half remembered or cannot be told. The film is absorbing to anyone who has undergone this experience with documents of their own memories.

At the same time, the images are marked by Dwoskin’s own idiosyncratic style of film-making and his characteristic use of the camera. His film very often existed, in the first instance, as document: he would film a scene in order to see what would happen, allowing the people in front of the camera freedom to develop their actions and, most of all, the develop an active rapport with the camera. And, as his films are very often about his/the camera’s relation to women, the faces in the extracts look out of the screen inquiringly, or erotically, or angrily, into the lens and – as it now seems – into the future. The camera zooms and records in its hand-held instability the presence of the film-maker; it reframes and allows time to pass, so that the shot gradually turns into a portrait in which the author’s presence is also part of the image. There is, therefore, an acknowledgement of time and of the exchange of looks already there in the raw material; and this material, edited into a film with a further rhythm and significance, returns in this film with all the rawness of the moment when it was shot.

Towards the beginning of Trying To Kiss The Moon Dwoskin’s camera pans around a study, in the film’s ‘present tense’ here in Brixton, London, in the 90s. On t he soundtrack, a voice reads from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, starting with the line: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.’ Just as the poem reaches its litany of lost friends, the voice breaks off with the word ‘remember’ and the film cuts to a home movie of a little boy swinging in a hammock; he falls out, picks himself up and gets back in again, laughing. This transition sets the scene and the main thread of the film, moving backwards and forwards in the time of Dwoskin’s memories and the places in which they were located.

The Ginsberg quotation, evoking the 50s Beats, is one of the few external cultural markers in the film and reminds anyone who knows Dwoskin’s work of his formation as a film-maker in the New York underground movement. The extracts from his own films also refer to a collective cultural memory of London avant-garde film, its aesthetics and its milieu, from the 60s onwards. Then, with the shot of the little boy, another kind of memory and another film-maker are introduced, creating the main thread of emotion and storytelling that runs through the film, giving a narrative, if not chronological, coherence.

Dwoskin’s father documented his children’s lives in still and moving pictures. It is his footage – shot with a bold assurance and freedom that uncannily prefigures that of his son – which allows internal memory to find an external realisation on the screen. Sometimes, for instance, he holds in extreme close-up on a face with the hand-held camera losing and repositioning its subject into a portrait that transcends the home movie genre. He also catches moments of interaction between the children – such as a sudden kiss – which are all the more moving having been performed for the camera.

Trying To Kiss The Moon collects these images together and recuts them with Dwoskin’s own films – extracts from finished works he made as an artist, fragments or tests, and his own home movies. Across the different kinds of footage, the vivid presence of the people on the screen seems to obscure as much as it reveals. The faces ‘screen’ their stories and only the film-maker himself knows the line of thought that links particular image to particular image. But the film also reveals a specific story which lies ‘screened’ behind the texture of its cinema and by its fragmentary, non-linear patterns. In order to understand this central story, the spectator has to collect together fragments of images or scattered moments of film and decipher their evidence. The home movies slowly bear witness to the way that the child, once running to the camera, jumping up and down, was left disabled by polio, able to walk only with crutches. And then Dwoskin’s own film bear witness to the way that the child grew up to be a film-maker.

Dwoskin’s cinematic style is formalist, but at the same time it is illuminated by feeling that goes beyond form. The camera’s zoom collapses the spaces between itself and other people and between itself and places. Under the inexorable and erotic gaze of the camera, women’s faces lose their surface presence, the mask of normality, or the cosmetic mask. Out of this intense preoccupation with the human face, the surface presence of the screen image also seems to disintegrate, losing focus and outline. The camera seems to be reaching behind both surfaces – the screen and the woman – as though for something hidden ‘behind’ a mirror and beyond the sexual.

There is the sense that places materialise in Dwoskin’s cinema when people, particularly women, are no longer present. These times of isolation are also times of immobility and the camera wanders around a room or, more often, stares out of a window, using the lens – to alter the perspective, the configuration, the focus, the frame – to create moments of pure film. But the formalism is grounded in physical and emotional sensation. Trying To Kiss The Moon is punctuated with sections of film of this kind which are filmed in the present and which act as spaces of reflection or transition to the past.

For me, watching this film was also a journey into the past. Steve Dwoskin and I were near neighbours (and fellow film-makers at a Spanish film festival at the time of Franco’s death), and the streets and rooms and scenes that appear on screen bring back to my mind incidents, anecdotes, people and associated memories. But strangest of all was to see myself appear for a second to say, quite calmly, ‘with Steve everything returns to sexuality’. I no longer think this is so.

Vertigo is grateful to the Arts Council for permission to reproduce the above article.

Laura Mulvey is a film maker, lecturer and writer, co-director of Riddles Of The Sphinx, Crystal Gazing and The Bad Sister, and author of Citizen Kane in the BFI Classics series, and ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Screen Autumn 1975)