Darragh O’Donoghue explores aspects of Jewishness in the work of Stephen Dwoskin.
Stephen Dwoskin (1939-2012) was a Jewish American graphic designer, painter, illustrator, photographer, filmmaker, writer, teacher, photomonteur, and activist who arrived in Britain in 1964 on a Fulbright Scholarship, and remained based in London for the rest of his life. He was a founder member of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op in 1966, a pivotal organisation in the history of the artist’s film in the UK.
Dwoskin made often transgressive, confrontational, and controversial films about the body, desire, gender power relations, identification, identity, memory and illness. In addition, for the Arts Council, he produced documentary portraits of photographer Bill Brandt, writer Brendan Behan and the Ballets Nègres troupe that toured Europe after World War II.
Dwoskin’s early work was influential on key theorists of the emerging discipline of film studies in the UK, such as his friend and neighbour, the feminist Laura Mulvey. He contracted polio at the age of nine and became progressively disabled, an experience that is a recurring subject in his films.
Dwoskin’s first directly autobiographical films, Behindert (1974) and Outside in (1981), both made for German television channel ZDF, were read by contemporaries and later critics in terms of an emergent identity politics. The identity that was emphasised was that of Dwoskin as a disabled man. Lazy critics began to see his work solely in terms of his disability. This became pronounced after the release of Behindert, when the fact of Dwoskin’s disability became publicly known outside his circle. It became the default mode for critics to cite his childhood polio and resultant paralysis of the legs as the ‘reason’ why Dwoskin’s films look the way they do.
Disability is often central to Dwoskin’s experience as a person and to his deeply personal films. But there is another facet of identity at play in his oeuvre, even if it is often elided with a disability, and even if it is mostly a buried one: Jewishness. Dwoskin was a Jewish New Yorker of Russian and Ukrainian ancestry whose films often foregrounded either himself or members of his family. Nevertheless, these are rarely exhibited as Jewish films or discussed as Jewish subjects.
Beyond these directly autobiographical films, it is possible to locate Dwoskin’s engagement with Jewishness throughout his work. For instance, on the cover of his artist’s book of photomontages Ha, ha! La solution imaginaire (1993), Dwoskin collaged a picture of his naked body into that of a female nude, creating an androgynous or hermaphroditic figure. Like Ha, ha! itself, this image is inspired by Dada and Surrealism, in particular the motif of the hybrid figure.
The androgyne is, however, also central to the Jewish Kabbalah, and the Jewish antisemite Otto Weininger’s contentious study of gender, Sex and character (1903). Weininger’s book would inspire James Joyce’s conception of his Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom in Ulysses (1922), who in the hallucinatory ‘Nighttown’ episode metamorphoses into a ‘womanly man’. Bloom is frequently humiliated and despised by his fellow Dubliners, but Joyce’s multifarious account of his protagonist is ultimately celebratory, and Dwoskin’s imaginary assumption of the ‘womanly man’ role in Ha, ha! is an exuberant rejection of the limits imposed by others on the disabled. Ulysses was frequently cited by Dwoskin in writings and interviews and was the inspiration for two early films, Soliloquy (1967) and Times for (1970).
The representation of Jewishness in Dwoskin’s work can be problematic and contradictory. It takes two broad forms. First is the ‘positive’ representation of Jewishness in the aforementioned images of his family in autobiographical films where the treatment of identity and family, haunting and ghosts, history and memory, generational transmission and blocked communication, accord with many of the Jewish-inflected readings of psychoanalysis put forward by Stephen Frosh in Hauntings: psychoanalysis and ghostly transmissions (2013), a work that draws extensively on both earlier Jewish psychoanalysis and Jewish religious and folkloric writings.
Dwoskin’s films about recently or long-dead relatives – Dad (2003), Grandpère’s pear (2003) and Mom (2008) – have a solemn, ritualistic quality, and may be seen as cinematic versions of Jewish lamentation or the Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer for the dead, recited by the deceased’s immediate family, especially the son. The Dwoskins were a sufficiently observant family to bury Stephen’s father Henry in 1976 according to Jewish ritual. Dwoskin had an immediate example of converting such collective ritual into personal art in Allen Ginsberg’s long poem ‘Kaddish’ (1957-1959/1961), written and then published as Dwoskin was coming of artistic age in New York. ‘Kaddish’ is a complex part-ritual, part-narrative response to the protracted and painful death of the poet’s troubled mother. Linguistically, imagistically and thematically, the poem offers many intriguing parallels with Dwoskin’s later work; he knew Ginsberg in the early 1960s in New York and cited him as an influence throughout his life. Ginsberg’s later poems about his family and Jewishness, such as ‘Yiddishe kopf’, ‘Death & Fame’ and ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’, are contemporary with Dwoskin’s turn to these themes from Trying to kiss the moon (1994) onwards.
More troubling are Dwoskin’s representations of his own body. These occasionally take the positive, exuberant form of the Ha, ha! self-portrait, but Dwoskin’s sense of identity and self-worth was often expressed in negative terms – those of disgust, shame, abasement, humiliation, with his body portrayed as a site of weakness, vulnerability, failure, unlovability. This is most directly expressed in his diaries, but in films like Behindert, Outside in, Another time (2002), Visitors (2004) and The sun and the moon (2008), the autobiographical body is abject, decaying, animal- or machine-like. Such works range across his career (Behindert was planned at least six years before its eventual production in the early 1970s), which implies that these were painful issues that engaged Dwoskin throughout his life. In Behindert, he films himself rolling across the floor like a worm; in Outside in, he is washed in a shower from a broken toilet; in Another time, the Dwoskin-figure is so abased he is removed from the screen, present only in a paralysed gaze and a bestial growl.
Such representations are apparently and solely images of disability, but they link to similar abject bodies in works by Jewish artists of Central European origin such as Erich von Stroheim (e.g. the murder and dumping into a sewer of Count Karamzin in Foolish wives, played by Stroheim himself, who usually performed provocatively hateful characters – he was billed as ‘The man you love to hate’ – and concealed his Jewishness beneath a fabricated biography of aristocratic origin), Roman Polanski (e.g. the mental and physical breakdown of his female alter-ego in Repulsion, or that of the transvestite he plays himself in The Tenant), and Franz Kafka (such as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, who turns into an insect and is abused by his family, and The Trial where Josef K is persecuted and brutally executed). Kafka’s work, in particular, written by and focusing on ‘the Jewish patient’ (in Sander Gilman’s formulation), is a recurring and fruitful intertext in Dwoskin’s films.
The subject of Dwoskin and his relationship to Jewishness is a complex one that demands further research. Themes to pursue might include the representation of exile and marginality; Jewish concepts of the book, reading and interpretation; and humour, the affinities between Dwoskin’s work and that of Jewish comics he admired, such as the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen, each of whom foregrounded Jewish masculinity, dismantled the codes of classical Hollywood cinema and more broadly attempted to overthrow accepted cultural modes and social attitudes. Certainly, any account of Dwoskin’s life and work that omits his Jewish background is only telling part of the story.