Barbara Hammer’s Living Cinema

EYEBLAZE #3 IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
August 31, 2012
Richard Heslop’s Floating
September 2, 2012
By James Marcus Tucker
American experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer has been described as the pioneer of lesbian queer cinema.  But, making short films in the 1970s at film school, she admits that she was unaware of doing something pioneering. She soon began to realise, however, that most films depicting lesbian lives had been made by men.  And so, treading where men would most certainly fear to go, the hitherto unrepresented images of female sexuality – including the bodily functions of menstruation and female orgasm – became an important, formative part of her exploration.  Perhaps her best known film is Nitrate Kisses (1992) – her first feature which allows older gay and lesbian couples to tell their own “hidden” histories, superimposed with images of Hollywood golden age cinema icons and images shot from her own camera.  In a sense, Hammer was aiming to fill in the massive blanks she experienced in mainstream history and mainstream film.  She questions who makes it into the “official” history books, and recognising history as being the priviledged story of the straight/victors, offers her own  history of the queer/losers.
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Beyond content, her work has often revelled in the fragility and mechanics of film stock and processing itself; in her 1985 film Optic Nerve, she utilises optical printing and rescanning techniques to manipulate imagery.  But more than this, what can be done with light projection itself has always interested Hammer; from her early experimental films where she can be seen inside the frame, literally pushing at the edges, trying to expand the cosseted rectangular image, right through to her recent Maya Deren’s Sink (2010) where images taken by Hammer inside Deren’s old Manhattan home are projected onto a sink that was removed from Deren’s bathroom during renovations.  For Hammer, the image’s texture is not limited to merely what is coming out of the projector. Re-projecting architectural details of Deren’s home into Deren’s sink felt like “ghosting Maya Deren” as she describes it.
Re-invoking this seminal female filmmaker was an opportunity not be missed – the sink literally appeared in the hallway of the Anthology Film Archives one day when Hammer was sat inside the building reading. Hammer explains how Maya Deren was to become an instrumental filmmaker during her early years. Viewing Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) at film school was an awakening – she realised that there was actually room for her, as a female, in cinema. Deren’s “Vertical” filmmaking – the desire to augment a multitude of emotive responses from an audience via juxtaposition of images was to excite Hammer, who felt a similar effect could be produced by superimpositions and layering – a technique that came to be a signature style.
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Adding to her interest in texture and the body – she was perhaps given her most visceral inspiration for a film dealing with figures and fragility when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. A Horse is Not a Metaphor (2009) is a multilayered document of hospital visits, chemotherapy and healing journeys taken in the foothills of Wyoming and leafy paths of Woodstock, New York. We see Barbara herself, walking naked through the trees and bathing in the river – her ageing and battling body exposed to our gaze in all its (culturally feared, ignored and hidden) beauty and fragility.
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It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe Barbara Hammer’s work as both structuralist and sensual cinema. In an interview at the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Hammer explained why emotion and texture are so important in her work. She invokes Jung’s ideas of knowing the world through touching – sensate.
When I look at the world – I look at this rug or this chair – I feel in my body, the way that wood looks. Some people have this sensibility…I try to bring a textural basis to my films, that are of course spectacles because they’re projected light.  But I want audiences to feel it in their bodies, because I feel like we are so disconnected from one another.  Not just from physicians examining patients, but as human beings.  Even more so now with our iPhones…you know we are not listening to the world around us nor feeling the textures of it. (1)
This touching, connection and sensuality is inextricably linked to sexuality, and for Hammer, her lesbianism.  In another interview, talking about her film Dyketactics (1974), she states: “The film’s thesis is the connection between perception and touch is a lesbian aesthetic. My life changed through touching another woman whose body was similar to my own. My sense of touch became my connection to the screen. I wanted the screen to be felt by the audience in their own bodies. That differs very much from the purely perceptual work of Brakhage.” (2)
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Barbara Hammer’s cinema is not an escape into abstract imagery. It is very much of the “real” world around us. It appropriates its textures, exploits its architecture, and feeds back to us its emotions. It reveals secret and ignored histories and, as highlighted by her documentary work during the ’90s with gays and lesbians in post-apartheid South Africa, continues to connect bodies – often fragile and vulnerable but essentially still living – across borders through the medium of film.
There is yet to be a DVD release of Hammer’s work here in the UK. But clips can be found on her Vimeo channel here.
(1) Barbara Hammer Interview, No Bones About It – Barbara Hammer, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUcdub-jeaI
(2) Mousse Contemporary Art Magazine, http://moussemagazine.it/barbara-hammer-elisabeth-lebovici-2012/