Dwoskin Project Blog #22: 2 Avant 2 Gardes

Twenty-second in a series of monthly posts from the Dwoskin Project based at the University of Reading

Henry K. Miller 6 Apr 2021

Peter Wollen’s essay ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’ is so well-known as to have exhausted all possible commentary, and surely no longer requires précis; but nevertheless and just in case…

The essay looks back from the mid-1970s to trace the lineages of the two avant-gardes of the title, the first of which was epitomized by the London and New York film-makers’ co-ops, the second of which was more difficult to define, but was almost exclusively European, and represented above all by Godard and Gorin, and Straub and Huillet. To understand what separated them, Wollen performed what he assuredly would not have called a deep dive into the two schools’ lineages in the 1920s, with the co-ops looking back to the avant-garde filmmakers of Paris and Berlin, often associated with Dada and Surrealism, and the second avant-garde looking back to the leading Soviet directors; hence Godard and Gorin calling themselves the ‘Dziga-Vertov Group’.

He said much more, and much more could be said, but all in all Wollen’s essay is largely taken up with aesthetics. Towards the end he says that ‘To go further, I would have to discuss as well the institutional and economic framework in which film-makers find themselves’; and while I may be missing something – this is only a blogpost – I don’t believe that this avenue has been pursued very far, despite the essay’s fame, and it ought to be. 

Straub and Huillet’s Not Reconciled (1965)

The first avant-garde is in some ways easier to characterize, and for Wollen it lay ‘in artisanal production, with film-makers who do as much as possible themselves at every stage of the film-making process. If there are performers involved they are usually few, generally friends of the film-maker, often other film-makers.’ The essay names Dwoskin as a representative of this school, and it fits his modus operandi exactly, at least for the first part of his career, as a filmmaker uniquely associated with both New York and London co-ops.

It was theoretically possible, then, for anyone of modest means to make a film of the first avant-garde; though of course in reality access to this first avant-garde was controlled by a great intricate and fascinating web of institutional and social relationships. As Wollen said, the co-ops were ‘closely tied’ to the art world, which in New York spelled money. The leading figures within the London co-op, meanwhile, including Dwoskin, tended to be associated with art schools. Nevertheless, for all the internal complexity of the first avant-garde, Wollen defines it more clearly than he does the second.

The films of the second avant-garde could not have been made without finance; they were not artisanal. The money for a film like Vent d’est or Othon had to come from somewhere. But where? Wollen finds it much harder to provide even a sketch of the second avant-garde’s institutional and economic framework. What he says here follows on directly from his characterization of the first avant-garde’s arrangements, quoted two paragraphs up; it’s complicated and needs to be gone through sentence by sentence:

The other avant-garde has its roots much more in the commercial system, and even when filming in 16mm Godard would use stars known in the commercial cinema. The difference is not simply one of budgets – Dwoskin or Wyborny have made films for TV as well as Godard, and Dwoskin’s are clearly much more conventional, yet they are almost automatically assigned different cultural places. It is much more one of the film-makers’ frame of reference, the places from which they come and the culture to which they relate.

The first thing to say is that Wollen all too quickly retreats from the institutional and economic, back to the aesthetic. The institution and the economic barely get a look-in. Klaus Wyborny, like Dwoskin, was identified by Wollen elsewhere in the essay as a member of the first avant-garde, and this leads to aesthetic comparisons that are for the moment beside the point. The more important question is what Wollen means by having roots in the commercial system, or what the significance of television financing might have been. 

To put it another way, and to invoke a term that Wollen manages not to use, this second avant-garde overlapped with art cinema; it grew out of it; and art cinema is not simply (or even complexly) an aesthetic designation – it’s barely that at all – but an international set of related institutions, down to the bricks-and-mortar cinemas where the films are shown. Godard obviously came out of this nexus, however difficult the relationship. Another of the filmmakers Wollen named as being part of the second avant-garde was Miklos Jancsó, and as it happens Jancsó had a film on at the Academy Cinema, London’s main art cinema, the time Wollen’s article appeared in late 1975. It is not really possible to talk about the second avant-garde without discussing its relationship with post-war art cinema, which is a more pertinent context than the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s.

Poster for Jancsó’s Elektreia

As is reasonably well-known, TV finance was beginning to play a central role in financing art films, particularly in West Germany; and as Wollen suggests, Dwoskin was one of the beneficiaries. At the time Wollen’s article appeared, he had made Behindert (1974) for the ZDF station, which in these years also gave money to the likes of Ulrike Ottinger and Chantal Akerman. Part of Wollen’s difficulty at this point in the argument is that he treats Dwoskin as part of the first avant-garde regardless of the character of the films he had turned to making, and regardless of how they were financed. To put it simply, if we regard the second avant-garde as an institutional and economic, rather than purely aesthetic phenomenon, then Dwoskin had moved over to it. It is he, Wollen, who is assigning Dwoskin to a different cultural place from Godard and the rest of the second avant-garde.

And what is odd about this is that at least in Britain, Godard and Gorin and Straub and Huillet occupied exactly the same cultural space as Steve Dwoskin, namely The Other Cinema, the pre-eminent distributor and exhibitor of second avant-garde films in the 1970s. As of 1975, Dwoskin’s early shorts were still in the catalogue of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, but six of his films, including Times For and Dyn Amo, were with The Other Cinema, which had shown Tod und Teufel at one of its regular screenings at the Collegiate Theatre, part of UCL. Within the Other Cinema catalogue he was up there with Godard and Gorin, Straub and Huillet, Ousmane Sembène, Fred Wiseman, and Glauber Rocha. And indeed Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, whose debut film Penthesilea was also included in the 1975 catalogue.

It is true that Dwoskin had a different frame of reference from Godard and Gorin, came from somewhere else, related to a different culture; but this is a good thing, and is largely true of the others just named as well. The second avant-garde had to consist of more than just two filmmakers, and Jancsó was another with a quite different approach from the latter-day Brechtians Straub and Huillet, Godard and Gorin. That is part of the second avant-garde’s richness, that it was not tied to a confining aesthetic theory – as the first was, under the sign of structural film. Wollen thought it crucial that ‘the two avant-gardes should be confronted and juxtaposed’, meaning within the one film, and arguably this was achieved in films like Nightcleaners, also in the 1975 Other Cinema catalogue. But Dwoskin’s trajectory from first to second avant-garde is another kind of cross-fertilization of the kind Wollen was looking for, even if he didn’t recognize it, and I think Behindert – a pioneering subjective film inspired by Dwoskin’s life as a disabled man, with a Gavin Bryars soundtrack – is less conventional than, say, Tout va bien in any case.

What happened next, to The Other Cinema, to Godard, and to the Dwoskin catalogue, is part-tragic, part-comic, but it will have to wait.


The Dwoskin Project is based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Visit its website: https://research.reading.ac.uk/stephen-dwoskin/

Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and author of the forthcoming The First True Hitchcock.

Featured image: Cannes flyer for Dyn Amo (1972).

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