JULY 18, 2018
LAST AUTUMN, New York Film Festival kicked off an international retrospective of works by the prolific experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer. For 50 years, Hammer has devoted herself to unapologetically exhuming, assembling, and celebrating the lesbian image as no one has before. Her films, produced in 1974, 1997, and 2015, stage lesbians as unabashed hippie separatists, a Jewish sculptor thriving during the Occupation (Claude Cahun), and a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet (Elizabeth Bishop). More than a hundred moving pictures later, many newly restored, there’s never been a better time to know Barbara Hammer — as much as one can, anyway. As Hammer herself mused during the Q-and-A which concluded NYFF’s Barbara Hammer Program: “Do we ever know anyone? I don’t think we do. I think we die alone and we are born alone and I do my damndest to show who I am by making films.”
Instead of focusing on Hammer’s own movies, IFC Center, in partnership with Queer | Art | Film, enriched the retrospective by screening seven early feminist experimental films, selected by Hammer, that motivated her to grab life by the Bolex. In them, we see her fevered adoration of sex, community, and innovative cinema. Dyketactics’s twirling intimacy and idealism echo Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965); History Lessons’s feminist snicker, Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975); and Place Mattes’s erotic fixation on the hands, Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966). Who influenced Barbara Hammer’s work? It is IFC Center’s thorough answer to this question that compels me to ask another one: who is influenced by Barbara Hammer’s work? I recently spoke to several members of the new guard on working in the wake of Hammer. Her presence, while purely administrative for some and literal for others, was always palpable.
The 1980s produced a large bounty of Hammer films and Hammer scions: young filmmakers — sometimes lesbian, sometimes queer, but always feminist-identified. Now in their 20s and 30s, they are eager to grapple with the idea of a creative disconnect between generations. “The most important lesson I take from Hammer is her self-awareness that she is inventing a lesbian voice, lesbian view, lesbian cinema,” Daviel Shy, who premiered her first feature, an adaptation of Djuna Barnes’s biting 1928 chapbook The Ladies Almanack, at The Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on June 30, tells me. “Formally, I may be far more ‘tame.’ But I operate from a commitment to lesbian cinema, history, and culture as a real and living calling.”
Sex is an all-consuming part of Hammer’s early films, from Dyketactics (1974) to the naturalistic Multiple Orgasm (1976) to the acrobatic arts showcase Double Strength (1978). These are the images created, unbelievably, by a woman who was once groomed by her parents to become the next Shirley Temple. Instead, Hammer imagined worlds that are still being reimagined by the avant-garde’s progeny. In Dyketactics, women, having taken “back to the land,” roam barefooted through water and leaves. Their active, idyllic lives are emphasized by the 16 mm film’s diligent crossfades of flowers, candles, and fruit into nude women — all embodying a Nelson-eque sameness, their homemade coiffures and fair skin a tad too homologous.
Liz Rosenfeld’s Untitled (Dyketactics Revisited) (2005), shot in 16 mm like its Hammer predecessor, assimilates the bodies and environments that have been left on an era’s cutting room floor. “The visual skin and mix of the technologies is crucial to the work,” says Rosenfeld. Untitled isn’t so much a glowing tribute to Dyketactics as it is something entirely new, meant to — as Liz tells me — serve as “reinterpretation of queer contemporary moment and proposition queer future while also referencing its past.” Its frolicking bodies are varied, some clothed, some wearing that which is in-between nudity and cloth: the chest binder. Untitled’s playground is a cold industrial city, Chicago, understood by Rosenfeld to be just as much of a queer colony as Hammer’s. When asked about Untitled in an interview with Polari Magazine, Hammer celebrated the throwback to her old work, declaring, “Long live Dyketactics and may there be more iterations!”
In Shy’s The Ladies Almanack, Natalie Barney engages in a tryst with Oscar Wilde’s drug-addled niece Dolly, revealing a series of moon phases tattooed down the actor’s spine. The ink pairs rather nicely with the Almanack’s subtitle: “showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes.” Colette, like Rosenfeld’s Hannah Höch, has a facial piercing. While historically white, Shy’s casting also aids Barney’s salon in getting with the times: Mimi Franchetti is portrayed by a person of color; so are Thelma, Lily de Gramont, and a number of other late 19th-century creatives who, while renowned and often celebrated for their work and sexual deviancy at the time, rarely grace today’s textbooks. Almanack also cleverly recruits established members of today’s feminist literati to portray the women who paved the way for their work: Eileen Myles takes on Monique Wittig; Terry Castle, Gertrude Stein.
Joey Carducci, an instructor at Pratt Institute, first met Hammer while working as a contact printer operator in Hell’s Kitchen. When Hammer, impressed by Carducci’s lab skills, realized he was an idling 16 mm filmmaker, she insisted they collaborate. Bolexes in tow, the two roamed through Coney Island’s Astroland on the 46-year-old amusement park’s final day in 2008. Carducci films Hammer as Hammer films Carducci; the resulting project would become known as Generations. A bittersweetness hovers over Generations’s 14 minutes and 36 seconds, as though something new is being born from that which one has yet to properly mourn. Hammer the wiser and Carducci the younger brim with newfound creative energy as Astroland illuminates Brooklyn’s dusk one final time.
This phoenix motif is part and parcel of the Carducci-Hammer collaboration. In 2015, Hammer led A Place Called Hope, a public workshop where she generously offered digitized copies of her film outtakes to participants so they could create a work that was both vintage and contemporary, individual and collaborative. Carducci selected scraps from Tender Fictions (1995), Hammer’s follow-up documentary to Nitrate Kisses (1992). Tender is the closest Hammer has come to crafting a traditional memoir film. “I was born at a time when Shirley Temple was making more money than any other female in the United States. I was taught early to perform and perform I did,” Hammer begins in voice-over, lulling the viewer into a false sense of genre security before shifting into an alter ego. “In Tangiers, I robbed an American Express with my Swiss Army Knife,” she continues, thwarting the viewer’s quest for an earnest documentary.
Tender Fictions was the perfect foundation for Carducci, who by then identified as a transman, to come out to his cherished mentor. In A Letter to Barbara Hammer (2016), Carducci uses her outtakes to ask permission to use them in a broader project about his transition, tentatively titled Coming Outtakes. “As queers, if our identities are expansive and self-defined, am I still a ‘Bolex dyke,’ as we had nicknamed ourselves after making our film? Am I still the lesbian experimental filmmaker you didn’t want the world to lose? Or am I a Bolex dude, another white man in the film industry?” he painfully wonders as clips from Tender Fictions roll. Fearless, Carducci’s respect for Hammer and love for experimental cinema eclipse the weight of his coming out. “I was born at a time when Barbara Hammer was making more 16 millimeter experimental films than any other lesbian in the United States,” he says, riffing on Tender Fictions’s opening line.
If queer cinema traditions possess a shared characteristic, it is this preoccupation with our community’s own expansive chronologies and chosen genealogies. Film allows one to go the distance: to compensate for archival limitations, address forbidden intimacies in the frankest of terms, and approach historical repression with a sense of humor.
Hammer’s third decade is defined by her trilogy of 16 mm historical documentaries: Nitrate Kisses, Tender Fictions, and History Lessons (2000). Borrowing its name from the highly flammable film base, Nitrate Kisses, disputed by funders and faith leaders, ponders the same erasure of queer life to which it was narrowly subjected. Hammer’s early trademark eroticism persists, but with a newfound sophistication: as the gay couple make love, the Hays Code scrolls across the picture. Like its namesake, Nitrate Kisses refuses to be extinguished, even when soaking wet.
The same year that Barbara Hammer and Joey Carducci premiered Generations, Liz Rosenfeld released the first in her own trilogy of semi-historical experimental short films, two being shot on 16 mm. Frida & Anita centers on a chance encounter between the artist Frida Kahlo and Weimar performer Anita Berber in Berlin in 1924. Rosenfeld followed Frida & Anita with speculative biographies about Dadaist Hannah Höch (HÖCH), Leni Riefenstahl, and Eva Braun (Die Neue Frau) in 2014.
This time, Rosenfeld, who is based in Berlin, didn’t realize the parallels between her Surface Tension Trilogy and Hammer’s earlier series. Nor did she realize that they shared a subject in Höch (whose history Barbara explores in her 1998 film The Female Closet). “It’s a funny coincidence,” Rosenfeld says. At the same time, this mutual interest in forgotten figures and their stories seems natural, even imperative. “I think that as queer people we do gravitate toward understanding our own histories, especially because they are so untold, lived through the body, rather than written down, and also based on stories passed down, interpretations of films, books, images that have been left behind, and of course, gossip,” mused Rosenfeld.
Shy, who spent three years researching fin de siècle literary communities before adapting Barnes’s text, echoes her sentiments. “Our history was not codified and canonized, thank goodness, so our history is whatever transpired experientially between women.” It is fitting that Hammer also once desired to adapt Barnes’s modernist fiction (the author’s literary executors rebuffed her efforts to secure the rights to the 1936 novel Nightwood).
The “tension” in Rosenfeld’s Surface Tension Trilogy refers to the relationship between the past and present. It engages in its own variations of Hammer-esque smudging and collage. Apart from period clothing, there is little effort to obscure spatial or physical anachronisms. The three films borrow from the few archival materials available as much as they do a present-day understanding of queer connection and community. “For me, history is at the crux of all my work,” Rosenfeld tells me. “I am thinking about past or future histories, and especially in relationship to how history is carried through the body, which is where my work really lies at the intersection of both film and performance.”
Frida & Anita is shot in the style of a 1920s silent movie, with a letter the artist sent to her father while in Berlin occupying the intertitles. The anachronism bleeds through her entire series, beginning with our introduction to the strip-teasing Anita Berber (Richard Hancock), who is presented as an illustrious transwoman. The line between Cabaret and RuPaul’s Drag Race becomes increasingly slim.
An ambitious undertaking, Shy’s The Ladies Almanack, filmed with Super 8 and spanning 86 minutes, also uses the anachronism to link the past to the present. A cast of over 25 is essential to depict the revolving door of writers, artists, friends, and lovers who moved through Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon at 20 Rue Jacob, Paris. While the performers boast the mannerisms, language, and vintage filter of Radclyffe Hall, Djuna Barnes, and Romaine Brooks, the salon’s constituency simultaneously resembles a group of patrons at Henrietta Hudson’s on any given Friday night. This is deliberate. “Any period piece says more about the time it was made than the time it portrays,” says Shy. “My film does not try to fight that fact. The process was always about finding corollaries between them and us, then and now. The anachronisms are to bring them closer, not to give history the middle finger. There is a philosophical and emotional faithfulness to the book that I was trying to adhere to, and to do that honestly we would have to enter the picture.” Like its source text and the almanack form it appropriates, the film occurs over a calendar year, broken up into monthly chapters.
“Recently, I decided to call myself a ‘hystorian,’” Shy tells me. “For us, or any person whose past has been abridged, erased, or doctored, one has to modify the popular story of what happened in order to burrow closer to the truth.” Rosenfeld’s and Shy’s imaginative approach to articulating the past has clear roots in Hammer’s own work. “History Lessons is one of my favorites,” she explains. “I think playing with history is important, and to engage deeply with any material one cannot be overly reverent,” she acknowledges.
Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sasha Wortzel’s work focuses on an undocumented regional history that isn’t as debaucherous as Weimar Berlin or bygone as bohemian Paris. Her first feature documentary, We Came to Sweat: The Legend of Starlite, which premiered at Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2014, details the rich past of her neighborhood’s oldest Black gay bar, recent attempts to shutter the hub, and the community members who, valuing the Starlite’s past as much as its future, resisted its closure. Wortzel has also tampered with form to connect a current audience with its past. In 2011, having accumulated footage of an elderly lesbian in the wake of her partner’s death, she jerry-rigged these vignettes into a typewriter. When a key is pressed, a clip plays through a screen situated near the obsolete device’s paper table. Titled 42 Butter Lane, the installation features interviews about the quotidian (wallpapering disagreements, anecdotes of homophobia) and shots of the survivor’s half-empty home.
Wortzel’s Butter Lane parallels Hammer’s short No No Nooky T.V. (1987). An Amiga computer emits Valentine-like drawings-in-progress and feminist declarations that symbolize the ebb and flow of Hammer’s short-lived summer romance. Crafted at the height of the debate on film versus video, Hammer decided that she wanted both and filmed her computer. Like Butter Lane, Nooky combines incompatible forms of technology to capture the weight of a lesbian relationship that’s reached its end. In both works, death of format and death of lover collide, albeit in inverse. Wortzel insists that the digital appreciate its elder: the analog.
When asked, “What do you wish for?” in an 2001 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Barbara Hammer responded, “I hope that before I die I can start a Barbara Hammer Fund for queer filmmakers who use experimental form in their work and do not replicate the status quo.” Sixteen years later, that wish came true. Yet Q|A|M’s Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant should not be viewed as the Hammer’s first act of creative altruism. Rather, it commemorates the work she has been doing for young filmmakers, unsung, for a number of years.
Daviel Shy first met Hammer at her book launch. “We chatted and she signed my book with the words, ‘Daviel Shy, what a name — as good as Hammer. Go for it — in film and art, Barbara Hammer,’” she recalls. “Hammer came back into my life once more as a staunch supporter of The Ladies Almanack. At our fundraiser at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, she did an impromptu plea for donations and read her favorite passage from Nightwood.” Hammer, who turned 79 this year, has shared films with Joey Carducci, collaborated with Sasha Wortzel, and screened her work alongside Liz Rosenfeld’s.
When asked what she was thinking after the screening of her films at New York Film Festival last year, Hammer responded, “I thought of all the films we are not looking at tonight. All the exploration of what history is, how we’ve been left out of history, this empty hole that is now being filled by courageous, queer, wonderful, diverse, expansive lesbian, gay, and trans community.” Today’s queer experimental film community is the one she has been waiting on since she became the first. “The construction of sexuality and sexual expression seem to me to be fluid and changing. This is most important and interesting, for it leaves open the doors of possibilities for future constructions of sexual histories,” she wrote eight years ago in her memoir.
Doors that, thanks to Hammer, new filmmakers are passing through in strong numbers.
Sarah Fonseca is a publicly educated film writer and essayist from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, IndieWire, and the Lambda Literary Review, among others.
Feature image by Alice O’Malley.