Barbara Hammer, an interview: Re/constructing lesbian auto/biographies in Tender Fictions and Nitrate Kisses.
Gwendolyn Foster; It seems like the central theme of Tender Fictions is the constructedness of biography, autobiography, and the self. At the beginning of the film, you introduce the theme that you wanted to write your own biography before one is constructed for you. I'm fascinated by the way that you dance around this question in all its' complexities; the way you almost immediately introduce performative selves and performativity as a means to self construction. For example, at the beginning of the film there is a sequence in which you are dancing on the star of Shirley Temple at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At once, you destabilize the notion of an integrated self that is constituted through the manifestation of the cult of the individual. You intertwine your selves with those of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Shirley Temple and others. You also use the voices of critics such as Helene Cixous, Sue-Ellen Case, Roland Barthes, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Barbara Smith, and many others. I wonder if you would elaborate on the idea of construction of selves?
Barbara Hammer: First, let me say that it has been over two or three years that I began the research on "autobiography" that helped me with ideas and ideology on that subject. I think each of the writers I quote, each of the cultural heroes I show or quote or refer to, are all the different constructions I hang on the skeletal scarecrow of the "self," "the constructed self." For instance, the quotes in Tender Fictions about D.W. Griffith came from his Memorial Service at the Masonic Temple on July 27, 1948. Charles Brackett's words are used on behalf of the Motion Picture Academy and the entire industry. As a pioneer of lesbian avant-garde cinema, I sympathize and identify with Griffith, as one of the pioneers of American narrative cinema.
As Brackett wrote, "I'm afraid it didn't ease his heartache very much," talking about the Academy Oscar Griffith received in 1936, during dark days for him. "When you've had what he'd had, what you want is the chance to make more pictures, unlimited budgets to play with, complete confidence behind you. What does a man full of vitality care for the honors of the past? It's the present he wants and the future."
Now, you may wonder why this quote has resonance for me? I am 57 years old, have made over 77 films and videos, am full of creative ideas and projects for new work, yet I had to take a full time teaching job to insure myself of health insurance, basic needs, and a social security monthly income. Real basic stuff. This is just an example. The use of "he," the application of the moustache over the Griffith soundtrack, further increases the identification. Perhaps the self is made of the cut and paste applications from historic and contemporary culture as much as anything. Today I awoke with the idea that I should go to my studio everyday that I work cross-dressed as a man. What are the power implications that the gender construction would lend to the work?
G.F.: In Tender Fictions you create new ways of looking at truth and its' construc-tedness in autobiography and biography, yet you are careful to point out that history and biography are important political tools; that for example, when you looked back through your mothers, so to speak, you saw no lesbians. You underscore this point with a very touching and playful use of sound and voice. When we here you singing a fragment, "looking for lesbians" it strikes me as a stunning use of humor for an important political statement. This might be a good place to begin talking about your use of humor and strategies of opposites to make the viewer/ listener want to look again. In an interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha that I did, she talked about how some audiences did not seem to be able to approach her films with a sense of humor. I wonder if that happens with your films and I wonder what you think about using humor as a performative political strategy?
B.H.: Humor in a film leads to instant gratification for the filmmaker when she is sitting in the audience. No one has talked about "receptivity theory" in regards to the maker as audience member in an audience community. When I hear laughter or giggles or murmurs at junctures in Tender Fictions and other films that I enjoyed, laughed out loud at while editing, I am rewarded, pleased, feel connected to the community that is my audience. Similarly, when the film falls flat, and I am greeted with silence, I feel anxious, not sure that the film has been read with the intention with which it was made.
Humor is a great way to make a point. I like to pleasure myself while working, so it was with great surprise and joy that I found the over 30 year old Black and White super 8 roll of a kitten playing with my ex-husband's penis. Yes, it was directed!
Filmmaking can be such hard work. When you work as an independent using your own resources or limited grant monies, you are spending time that is your life. I want to enjoy myself as much as possible within the limited time and resources I have, even with a life expectancy of 84. If I am working on a subject that is not humorous, I want to feel deeply.
G.F.: I'm interested in your theories about performative gestures between lesbian couples, and how lesbian couples develop a complimentary set of movements and gestures.
B.H.: I thought that was so funny, to notice the carefully precise back and forth movement in the footage I found of Sally Cloninger and Marilyn Frasca in their motorboat on the Puget Sound. I noticed that within my own relationship I was sensitive to the nuances of body gestures of my partner and myself; nuances that I didn't have with my friends. I imagine if someone were filming Florrie Burke and myself today they would find in the footage the same careful acuity of sensitivity to emotional/intellectual variations of each of us to the other. This borders on the phenomenon of couples picking up each others' habits, ways of wording phrases, even laughter patterns. And, of course, the ultimate is finishing your partner's sentences. "Till death do us part," but it maybe sooner, if sentence completion sets in!
G.F.: Another section in which you cut together a performance of your cross--dressing with a voice-over describing an entirely different, if related, scene strikes me as an enactment of the slippage in biography itself, between the referent and the signifier. You also embed the notion of multiplicity in the voice-overs which are sometimes read by two or more people of different genders. You have, in post-production, changed the pitch of your voices so that we can no longer "read" gender and we are confronted with our own participation in what Kate Bornstein calls "the cult of gender." You move across subjectivities here and elsewhere. Aren't you, in a way, enacting the call for politicization of location in the words of, for example, Barbara Smith, whom you quote as saying, "White feminists and lesbians should render their own histories, subjectivities, and writing complex by attending to their various implications in overlapping social discursive divisions and their histories"?
B.H.: The voice is my own but the frequencies are changed. I first used this technique (of course, Laurie Anderson used it long ago), myself in a performance at The Women and Technology Conference in April, 1994 at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. In a live performance I noted in my script arrows going up or down (up for feminist theorists, down for male cultural analysts, and normal for my "I stories") and I gave it to the sound person with instructions to lower or raise the frequency according to my directions. This was so successful with the audience (laughter, again), that I incorporated the technique throughout the film as a way of using theory and poking fun at it at the same time.
When I repeat the story of driving around the world on a motorcycle and use a different pronoun with every telling, I am suggesting the patriarchal incorporation of power and words. I heard that the "she" pronoun carried less significance in the story than the "he," and that when I used the first person singular, "I," there was a greater suggestion of truth-telling. All these attached conditions interest me. This is the cultural baggage, be it a pronoun or a moustache.
G.F.: I wrestled with the question of the role of biographer as I was writing an encyclopedia of women directors. I must admit I reexperienced a sinking feeling when you talked about biographers telling other/s stories in Tender Fictions. I was highly aware of constructing selves, highlighting one thing over another, putting things in a positive or negative light, trying to write women directors into a history which has traditionally excluded them. These women had extraordinarily complex lives, as we all do, but I had to look at them primarily as filmmakers.
To some extent I see a parallel in your story of your selves. You include a section on your father and another on your mother. I'm sure you were thinking about the politics of telling anothers story and you do fascinating and moving things with their stories. In the section on your father, who is remembered as being many things, including suicidal, you demonstrate the construc-tedness of truth and biography by having his photograph framed and reframed with mattes that a hand moves in the frame. In the sections on your mother, you capture the elusiveness of the truth or truths of her existence. According to the films multivalent planes, she was either a product of her times, which demanded women to act in horribly confined ways and/or she was a woman who controlled her own destiny and own self. Your work with the dualities of constructions of selfhood here is profound; between the culturally defined self of the televisual and fashion culture, and the self-defined person. Are you working toward a self that can be experienced across subjec-tivities and therefore a different way to look at the familial construct?
B.H.: Definitely, and the placement of the individual within the community is important here. I see myself as defined and defining myself along side of and sometimes within the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's. These were formative years for me as an artist as well as a political woman.
If the rising surge of lesbian/feminism hadn't been happening at that time, I don't think I could have identified myself as one (a lesbian/feminist) without the community. I have always read that a biographer needs to look at the context of an individual's life; but looking back on mine it seems even more profound. More like a tribal context, something we read about in some African cultures where the individual (as such) isn't even a construction. He or she is there only as part of a longtradition that includes ancestry, tribal rites and histories, etc. In many ways, I can see those of us participating in the early culture-making of women who were self-defining, as part of a tribe/community. That's the new family. The "old" family, the "natural born killers," is to be understood, then, left. A few hinges will remain but they are easily seen and so accounted for as the woman springs into her newly defined being (this takes years of course and is a slow-motion spring!).
G.F.: I love the way you weave in a reference to The Flower Thief, a classic Queer film by Ron Rice. It is one of the incidences that we know may not be "true" (but by now we are questioning whether or not it matters if everything be factual). This is how I read it, and of course every viewer constructs their own truth(s). You tell a story about being in an audition and not doing well and being shamed by having to wear a sign that says, "I am a flower thief." It made me think of the "classic" Freudian case, the one referred to as the "Child is Being Beaten" scenario and of course all the Freudian baggage of childhood; questions of safety, pain, pleasure, and punishment. But by bringing in the reference to Ron Rice, it moved your subjectivity into context with an icon of queer sixties freedom; therefore I read it as you having control over the memory, control over the manner in which you wish to reexperience the memory. I was wondering if you were working around this, and were you doing something different in the "I saw a meese" sequence, in which the child Barbara Hammer is forever associated with a tale that is retold in your family, until it becomes as much a part of ones' self as a name'?
B.H.: In editing I find tremendous control, ability to shake things up, reconfigure and by doing so, make references to my own thievery as well as Ron Rice's. Memory is reconfigured through context and this is important. I recently saw a show at The African Museum here in New York. The Luba use a memory board to attempt to make exact recall of historic events and figures. The board is carved with raised symbols, beads are attached, a few human figures are carved (standing in for gods and goddesses). They remember through touching. I don't know if these locators affirm an exact and ongoing retelling as I believe they are meant to do, or if, each history-teller embellishes or in some way interprets the event/figure/icon from their particular frame of reference. What do we have here in the West as locator boards? scrapbooks, but mainly, snap-shots. Snapshots in the form of pho-to-graphs or in the form of stories. When the "meese" story gets attached to "Barbara memo-ries," the yoking of personhood and familial story become a kind of tribal family memory. This is a bump on my memory board.
G.F.: In Tender Fictions, you utilize several quotes having to do with post--modern experiences of truth, memory and subjectivity. You have a voice-over from Helene Cixous, "Her speech, even when theoretical or political is never simple or linear. She draws her story into history." You include another voice-over from Roland Barthes, stating "The one who speaks is not the one who writes and the one who writes is not the one who is." One of the most profound quotes, however, is from Barbara Hammer: "I is a lesbian couple." Can you place this in the context of your developing theories and experiences as a postmodern filmmaker?
B.H.: As a developing postmodern filmmaker, I must give credit to the many, many literary sources as well as my own lived experience that prompted the statement "I is a lesbian couple." The statement that continues to make me uneasy and confirms my emotional ambivalence to, perhaps, any definition. The chapter "A Signature of Autobiography: 'Gertrice/ Altrude'," by Leigh Gilmore in Autobiography and Questions of Gender as well as Biddy Martin's "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference(s)," in The Lesbian amt Gay Studies Reader were especially important to me. In all my research, these were the only two essays on lesbian autobiography I could find. Shocking.
So "I is a lesbian couple" addresses the dilemma of self-naming and polarities. Since taking a class at UCLA in my undergraduate years on "Ethics," I have been perplexed by the "idea" that one cannot understand 'freedom' without constraint. Similarly, if one accepts the 'genital definition of lesbian' (Tee Corinne), rather than the intellectual definition (T. Grace Atkinson), one knows one's lesbian self in relationship. There are a whole lot of selves, however, that are unknown in relationships and continue to be important functioning, creative, artistic and other parts of play that exist outside of the couple. This has yet to be addressed in essay literary form, but I address it in my film with all the material, and image/sound conjunctions, that come before the introduction of "the couple." As a postmodern filmmaker, I draw from everything I see and read and taste and hear and smell and hold and delight and suffer from and with and more.
G.F.: You problematize the notion of an essentialized, easily defined notion of lesbian vs., hetero, butch vs. femme, self vs. models, etc. It seems to me that you continue to transgress boundaries; that one of your goals as an artist is to confront and to challenge and to celebrate. How do you manage to combine a celebratory energy with a radical political energy and how can we continue the work (and the play) of Tender Fictions?
B.H.: I do take on goals like confrontation, challenge and celebration. The challenge for me is to find the boundaries (my own as well as community limits, systems rules, institutional demands) and then confront them. Confronting these constructed boundaries and deconstructing them is hard political work made possible through play or fun. Take any problem as a challenge and turn it into play while you confront it and you find out you are having fun, celebrating your life energy. Hey, what else is it about?
Ask yourself these questions: what is it I am afraid of? How has this fear been constructed? And, by whom? Then what am I going to do about it? How can I turn it into play? The Lesbian Primer or How To Return to My PreAdolescent Roots and Reclaim my Preheterosexual Self by Barbara Hammer.
G.F.: That's an important concept. Let's talk about your pre-heterosexual identity.
B.H.: I call my pre-heterosexual identity the years up until 13, or more like 15, when I became acutely aware of my interests in the adventures of having boyfriends. Of course, the heterosexist training and cultural conditioning started with my name and from day one, I'm sure. However, what I'm talking about is the time when a girl thrives on just being herself in all her fullness with imagination galore, fear unknown, and turning a blind eye to prescriptive behavior. That was my life from until 14 or 15. I lived without a mind to "femininity," restrictive clothing, ideas on what a girl should or shouldn't do. Even when I became interested in "boys," I chose the ones who were rebels, older than me, and sometimes out of school. During high school and college there is such pressure to date, to attract men, that I can imagine even the hardiest of girls in the fifties trying to conform to some precast mold of docility, etc. So, when I became a dyke, at the ripe old age of thirty, I felt like I was back inside the "old" me of 13 and now I could keep on growing. It felt like a continuum that had been broken was restored. It felt absolutely great and still does.
G.F.: Nitrate Kisses begins with some words from Adrienne rich about the importance of recovering what has been "unnamed." Both films deal with the issue of loss, recovery and retrieval of lost histories and narratives of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and "others." Going back even further in your work you were already, of course, exploring these issues. I'd like you to elaborate on that and talk about how you came to this material, particularly the sections on Willa Cather.
B.H.: It wasn't easy. Everything at the Cather foundation was "under covers," but I found a sympathetic person there who pointed me in the direction of some articles she Xeroxed for me, and a host of archival photographs that included the ones I eventually purchased for use in the film. I had a thick biography of Willa Cather by James Woodress, yet I could not find "lesbian" in the index. This was the initial impetus that eventually became the beginning of Nitrate Kisses. After Sharon O'Brien published her biography on Cather, I felt better.
I attended a lecture Sharon O'Brien gave at the New York Historical Society. When I asked her about her courage in writing of Cather's hidden sexual preference, she gave the frank answer that she had no intention of doing so and was going to continue the tradition of secrecy until she talked with William Curtin, who absolutely knew Cather was gay from firsthand knowledge and who encouraged her to publish the lesbian facts.
G.F.: I am especially drawn to the beginning of Nitrate Kisses in which you perform an active and living biographization of Willa Cather. Living here in Nebraska, I am familiar with the way many literary biographers, teachers, historians and Nebraskans in general choose to erase her lesbianism lifestyle. What lam struck by is how you turn this appalling situation around and make her history alive again. I'm interested in the way that you bring out the visual evidence--what should be quite obvious evidence, photographs of her crossdressing as a young girl, calling herself Will, the testimony of her lifelong lesbian relationship--but instead of simply stating these things as fact you reenact them in a way, onscreen. How did you arrive at the strategy of exposing the uncovery/recovery process?
B.H.: Traditional cinema uses a story line of ever changing events to keep audience interest. This is boring because it is so programmed and predictable. Experimental cinema presents film in a new and changing light either through content, formal concerns, or exhibition practices and awakens me to myself, stimulates my ability to perceive, gives me pleasure of process and imagination. That's why I like to watch it and why I like to make it. I don't have to be a historian, or an expert on Cather, to let the film give the viewer the distinct experience of what it is like to investigate, to look for traces, to uncover and find forgotten or misleading paths. I try to make an experimental cinema of investigation. The viewing audience become the archeologists, the historians, piecing together the fragments, feeling the emptiness of blurred and over-exposed film, seeing through the scratches of dated emulsion, and finding the memories to recover their own history. For if one history is lost, all of us are less rich than before.
G.F.: In this same section on Willa Cather, you use the visual image of torn photographs of Willa Cather that, for lack of a better word, "regenerate." You intercut this with on-the-road footage in which you go searching for the lesbian Willa Cather. Would you say this is in some ways comparable to what you are doing in Tender Fictions with auto/biography? I'd like you to elaborate on your feelings about how we can use experimental cinema to regenerate.
B.H.: Experimental cinema for me knows no scripting. Filming can take place through adventure, or chance proceedings, but develops with energy when "a way is found." I filmed the torn photographs in forward motion, but because I had put the camera on the copy stand incorrectly, the images came out backwards, making the photos being put back together rather than torn apart. I liked this much better than my original more traditional idea and incorporated it-as is-with glee. This was a metaphor for the copy-and-paste and put-the-puzzle-together method of creating the film, of finding the lost lesbian history of Willa Cather. It was similar to the road trip from Lincoln, Nebraska to Red Cloud where I looked and saw only horizon lines and a broken down building as sites for Willa Cather. Ultimately, Willa Cather is a place in the imagination and represents the many lives that have been lost through a false but codified history.
G.F.: Both Nitrate Kisses and Tender Fictions feature the use of multiple narrators. One sequence that struck me as particularly self-reflective and performative was the section in which we hear a female voice-over intercut with what I assume is the male voice from a recording that one would hear at the Willa Cather home. This authoritarian voice gives us the "official" biography of Willa Cather and she is treated almost as an ethnographic subject. Naturally, the official version tells us nothing about Willa/Will that has to do with her sexuality. In this sequence, I get a sense that you are asking the viewer to participate in the regenerative process of the recovery of lesbian history, no?
B.H.: The tour guide's voice that you hear with the photos of Willa Cather's home in Red Bank is even further removed than you think! The guide's voice is piped in from a pre-recording and as visitors walk through the house a different sequence is played. It was very funny. The feminist author who visited Willa's home herself and who wrote a book on mid-western women, Sandy Boucher, is the other voice you hear telling the story that hasn't been told. I believe we need multiple voices to present multiple viewpoints. As light can neither be defined by particle or wave theory, it seems to me varying phenomena need different approaches. There is no reason we can't hold several "truths" to be self-evident.
G.F.: Both Tender Fictions and Nitrate Kisses are political call-to-action films. In addition to all the other things that you accomplish with these works you encourage, demand, and insist that lesbians write their own stories. You also have a website that is a communal lesbians biography in the making. When you reach the site, you are asked to participate in the rewriting of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Trans-gendered history. What has the response been?
B.H.: The response to The Lesbian Cyberspace Biography has been exciting. A few weeks ago I received a posting from a young woman in Korea who was in her late teens and who felt that she was a lesbian, but had so far found no place to explore these feelings. That was a good feeling for me, to find a way to communicate with someone with that need. I want to go deeper with the website, have more inter-activity, more visuals. I want to hyper-link the stories, images, and countries. I want to print out the material and post it in a gallery space with a computer setup ready for visitors to enter in more data.
G.F.: What are the political implications of someone, like myself, who, though bisexual or heterosexual, is not of the lesbian community; how do you feel about non-lesbians working in the field of recovery and regeneration of lesbian history?
B.H.: A person who describes her/ himself as a non-lesbian would have difficulty in understanding and interpreting cultural innuendoes, just as lesbians from different generations can easily make errors of interpretation by not knowing the coding, the subtleties, the distinctions that are generational differences. Anyone can be a lesbian, but I still agree with identity politics, in that difference is best illuminated by those members of the self-inscribed group.
One of the more challenging ideas that has come from the internet is the possibility and practice of assumed identities. These "masked" selves can be heroes, personify of inanimate objects, project sexualities. Anyone can be a virtual lesbian in cyberspace. This is so different from the 70s, when we limited our identity to particular women who wore particular clothes and hairstyles and who practiced a particular type of sexuality. There is such strength and sureness now in identity practices around sexuality that the door can be opened, the reins loosened, that the sexual horse can canter into the field without fences. I hope that metaphor didn't run away in all its freedom! If everyone can be a virtual lesbian than there are no non-lesbians and everyone can work in the recovery of marginalized peoples, their history as well as their contemporary contributions to late twentieth century politics, economics and culture. Of course, I still think Tee Corinne's "genital definition" of lesbian practice is criteria for the card-carrying type. Do I contradict myself? Well, well.
G.F.: In Nitrate Kisses there is a recovery of a tremendous outpouring of lesbian testimony, especially that of older lesbian women. There is a lot of hot sex and eroticism and playfulness between these women that makes the film, again, a performative vehicle. Your camera-eye finds pleasure in the beauty of age itself, as well as the retelling and staging of lesbian auto/biographies. This film must draw a strong response, especially from older lesbian women, but I am sure all women. I watched it with a friend of mine who is gay and he could not stop talking about the beauty of these scenes. I think he liked them even more than the scenes of gay male sexuality and storytelling. I want to ask you: what has the response been from various different members of different communities?
B.H.: I have admired older women since I came out at 30. The wrinkles and loose skin tell me about experience that goes beyond my own. Everything can be eroticised, and it is especially exciting to take the more maligned physical features of aging and find them erotic. When various people think they are complimenting me with a "You don't look 57," I respond to the ageist remark with "This is what 57 looks like."
The responses to the older women making love has been universally the most talked about and impressive images of the film. This surprised me. I didn't make these images to create the amount of attention that they have drawn. In fact, it was late in the editing process when I realized that I was leaving out an underrepresented sexuality. I had included black and white couples, s/m sexual practices, sex between women of color. I am conscious that as members of lesbian communities, gay communities, we also sometimes marginalize and leave out of the history of many members of our own communities. I saw that I had left out old lesbians.
I'm glad you see the older women making love as performative, as, indeed, it was. Many viewers immediately "believe what they see" and inscribe notions of relationship longevity onto these bodies. In fact, these two women had never had sex before. They were friends and were willing to be directed by me in the shoot. One of them is bisexual and the other is a lesbian. So stop it girls and boys! Stop reading in the narrative you want to see, the myth-making propaganda slipped into your bedtime reading materials.
This response of seeing these women as a stable couple who continue their erotic practices is very common. Another response was from two young women, perhaps in their late teens, who left the film as soon as the sexual expression of the older women appeared. I confronted them in the lobby of the theater and asked why. They weren't able to articulate their feelings. I flashed on the thought that they might have seen the women as their mothers and this was the greatest taboo: don't watch your parents having sex. When I suggested this might be the cause of their discomfort, they agreed.
Gay men are often amazed and provoked in different ways than women at the older couple. Gay culture is vastly different from lesbian culture. There is such an emphasis placed on the fit and youthful-looking body. Some guys just can't even imagine that two old gals could go to town in this manner and that the camera could so lovingly celebrate their wrinkles. Hey, when does lesbian culture get to influence gay and heterosexual culture?
I am very interested right now in the construction of the closet, both by deceased female artists who were lesbian or bisexual or by the contemporary institutions that "protect" or "represent" the artists and their work. I think I have to understand the contextual historical situation of the period of time in which these artists lived and practiced artmaking before I can make statements, judgments, or anything of the like. That means I have to talk to cultural historians and read people like Lillian Faderman, Jennifer Terry, Terry Castle and Adrienne Rich to increase my knowledge. It is more difficult to find historical societies, museums and individual art collectors who allow a contemporary sexual reading of the artists whose work they own. This I fear is blatant homophobia and it is also based on economics. I think it is feared that if the photographer is considered to be a lesbian, her work will be worth less.
G.F.: As you know, my special area of interest is women filmmakers. I'm especially interested in recovering the history of early women directors. I find it really frustrating to deal with the erasure of sexualities in these cases, especially because looking through the photographic record and reading the biographies of and around these early women directors it seems obvious to me that there was a strong lesbian community directing and writing in the teens and twenties. Everyone know that Dorothy Arzner was lesbian, but I think there were many many more lesbians and bisexual women working in Hollywood at that time. I sure hope someone is writing a book called Queering Hollywood, because I think it is so important to recover as much L/G/B/T sexual history as possible. And what about cases where, such as that of Willa Cather, certain lesbians go to extreme measures to hide their sexuality from the public and from historians? For example, it is strongly rumored that Ida Lupino was involved in a long term lesbian relationship. I guess this gets us into the politics of outing?
B.H.: The "politics of outing"? On that topic, I'm reading The Sewing Circle: Holly-wood's Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women by Axel Madsen. We don't consider politics involved in the uncovering of an ancient Scythian tomb, an archeological site, where a slave to a prince is found buried next to his master. Surely our "interpretation of class strata" can be of no less interest and importance than "our interpretation of sexual preference." Must we find two female skeletons entwined in embrace before we might tentatively be led to the important historic definition of these two women as lesbians? Do Willa and Edith have to be buried on top of one another before their importance and particular lifestyle is credited?
G.F.: I found the images of decay and loss equally compelling in Nitrate Kisses. For example, I wanted to discuss the black and white images of rubble that are reminiscent of W.W.II documentaries. The tracking shots along the rubble reminded me of the loss of the history of sexualities as well as the constant war our society wages against sexuality, especially Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered people and practices. I was struck by the element of performativity in these strong images. You lay them as a bed under the voices of women and men who talk openly about their coming out and living in the world as Lesbians and Gays. It has a transformative effect. Do you generally pre-plan this sort of idea, or do you do this more intuitively in post-production?
B.H.: I was living in a home in the Oakland Hills that was nearly destroyed by the catastrophic Berkeley-Oakland in October, 1991. Many people lost their lives or their life work in this fire. When I drove through the rubble a few days after the fire, I felt a terrible loss. A loss that could have been my own loss of work.
I think a distinguishing characteristic of my films is that they all come from deeply-felt personal experience. An image will have personal resonance for me and I will use it. I trust that there will be enough of a collective reading of the emotional text in the image to be useful, to propel the forward movement of the film.
In the editing as well, there are many personal meanings that I hope are understood. For example, in the older woman section, a dyke historian, Frances Doughty, is commenting on how people will inscribe history if there is a blank background. The image is of a naked older woman's back without clothing. To me that is the background onto which we viewers inscribe meaning: the lesbian body.
This work is not pre-planned. I find meaning through the process of making. I use intuition to guide the research, filming and editing of picture and sound. In these films I did not use a script, and only wrote the script afterwards from the completed film so that translations for subtitling could be made in Germany, France, Japan and Taiwan.
By the way, I have just finished my first feature film script, Nothing Could Be Worse Than Two Dykes in Menopause, and I'm looking for a producer. It's a romantic comedy. Kathleen Chalfont, the great Broadway actor, is interested in one of the leading roles!
G.F.: Great title! In Nitrate Kisses you cover so much political territory in such a brief period of time: Passing, coding, the history of the Village and Christopher Street, issues of lesbians and gays of color, pulp novel culture, butch/femme and beyond, coming out, being closeted, sexuality, etc. Would you elaborate on how you manage to cover so much in such depth and complexity, in such depth and complexity?
B.H.: There is so much covered in so little time because the lesbians I interviewed who were in their sixties, seventies and nineties, had so much to say, they had so much lived and felt experience. I only intercut four stories, each one rich with dense references. My idea was not to make a definitive film on any one of these issues, but to make a film about how history is made. Questions of who makes history and who is left out: the processes of history-making is the subject matter of Nitrate Kisses.
G.F.: In Nitrate Kisses, while we are watching images from an early experimental gay film, Lot in Sodom, a man speaks on the soundtrack about the complexity of sexuality and sexual categorizations. I think he speaks for a lot of us when he says that the categories don't always work, in fact they are boxes that few people fit. This brings up the unnamable again, and it is important to note that this is lyrically demonstrated or performed by the experimental film we are watching. Neither are easily explained. Both subjects are difficult. What would your position be on categorization?
B.H.: On categorization, I was teaching my Feminist Film Seminar last week at The Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, when an African-American student said she felt it was demeaning to have her work put in the context of a Black Film Festival or a Woman's Film Festival. Films made by men were not put into a White Film Festival or a Men's Film Festival. That's the catch. We get the screenings, but we're categorized. People think of my work as lesbian. I think of my work as experimental or documentary or now, dramatic, or any combination of the genres. Some of the work deals with lesbian representation, some of it is purely formal, some of it confronts death or the fragility of film. Categorization is unidirectional, linear and un-lifelike. Stop it.
G.F.: I would like to ask you to discuss the importance of the sequence in Nitrate Kisses dealing with the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. In the film you run the text of the code as a crawl title over anal interracial sex. This strikes me as a performance of transgressive activism which works on a number of important levels. Not only is this funny and politically and sexually charged, but it has a visceral effect on the viewer that takes me back to what we were talking about earlier: the unnamable. The text is scored with an opera, and there are again multiple voices speaking about how the code itself was designed to work against "The Mixing of the Races" and a host of other social taboos, including homosexuality. This sequence has elements of the performative documentary, it reads like a post-modern opera, erotica with commentary, a poem. How would you describe this sequence?
B.H.: In selecting the four separate couples who would have explicit sexual relations in the film, I searched for couples that historically or contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities might censor. We have our own issues about acceptability and presentability. No community is without its own censoring phenomenon. I chose old women, an S/M leather couple, two tattooed and pierced women of color, and the black and white gay male couple to represent some areas of experience the gay community, itself, might censore.
The most exciting element in the gay male scene was the beautiful shape of the rounded butts of different color, almost an abstract shot that went on and on. The Motion Picture Code completely forbid representation of "mixed races" on the screen for twenty five years. I was making this film with NEA monies and trying very hard to not self-censor in the conservative time when the agency was under attack. The sequence became a perfect metaphor. The scripted code rolls up the screen and makes the viewer choose between looking at the beautiful sexuality or read the fascinating "no-no"s in the code. The code acts as a jailer to the image; we must see the underrepre-sented, the disallowed, through the bars of censorship. I, as a filmmaker, must make the invisible, visible.
The operatic references come from the late and great experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert, who directed me to Don Carlos, and suggsted that the love songs between the Don and his best man could be appropriated and seen as "gay." The two women of color make love to a duet between Octavian, a young gentleman dressed as a woman and often played by a female on the stage, and The Marschallin, Princess Wer-den-berg in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.
G.F.: Another postmodern technique you use is the inclusion of texts themselves as images. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Su Friedrich, Sadie Benning and many other experimental filmmakers use this strategy. I love how you integrate a long quote for Michel Foucault, whose words almost read like a battle cry. He called for us to free ourselves from repression and he said it would take what amounts to a full-scale overthrow of dominant ideologies. That we must transgress laws, lift prohibitions, and, perhaps most importantly, reinstate pleasure. This is exactly the kind of art you are performing and generating, both in yourself and in the audience. What is your philosophy when it comes to the role of the artist and the need to create "a new economy of power" (in the words of Foucault)?
B.H.: Artists should unionize! Artists should form their own code of ethics; have our own organization much as physicians and lawyers do. We should use our physical presence in demonstrations, our monies to make political announcements. We should make a general attempt to raise the consciousness of the American public about the profession of artmaking, the necessity of imagination, and the life-giving source art is to the individual and society. When I first moved to New York City, I would feel I was a part of a profession when I was out and about in the city. I saw other artists on the street, collecting materials, posting their mail, buying supplies. I felt like a cultural worker, which is exactly what I am. There is a visible community of artists in New York. That community has never received the recognition and support it deserves from the general society. It is time to demand it and to organize.
G.F.: Finally, I have not really talked to you about your influences, and perhaps even more importantly--who you are influencing in the artistic and filmmaking, and performative community? I am thinking of figures going back to Alice Guy Blache, and up through Marie Menken, Gunvor Nelson, Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, Marlon Riggs, Chantal Akerman, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Barbara and so many others.
B.H.:. I began to make films in my late twenties and it wasn't until I was thirty that I enrolled in college courses in filmmaking. There I saw for the first time Meshes in the Afternoon (1943-1944) by Maya Deren. I saw a cinema of difference, a cinema of woman. I felt that there was a blank screen in terms of women's cinema and I could try to begin to fill it. There were very few experimental film classes at San Francisco State University where I received my M.A., so it wasn't until I moved to New York City and saw the work of Marie Menken at The Anthology Film Archives that I was taken with the vigor and freshness of her films. I researched her life and films at the Archives. I had felt for a long time that "art was energy," and here it was exemplified in the extraordinary and unpretentious physical and perceptive films by Marie. Gunvor Nelson's films, especially her early films used symbolic imagery that influenced me. There is one image of a bicycle tied to a tree, wrapped round and round by a rope, that I will never forget. Yvonne Rainer and Trinh T. Minh-ha challenged me to regard the possibilities of "a thinking cinema," a more complex viewing experience that challenged and engaged the audience intellectually.
I was aware after I made Dyke Tactics in 1973 that something unusual had happened. I projected it at Film Finals at San Francisco State University. Several professors ran up to me afterwards with exclamations and congratulations. Later, I was told that this was the first lesbian lovemaking film made by a lesbian. Connie Beeson confronted me when I repeated that statement, and said that she was the first with her film, Holding. Holding did precede Dyke Tactics, and is a beautiful film. Connie told me she identified as a bisexual, so I continued to think the pronouncement was right on. Now, I don't think "firsts" are THE important thing. Simultaneous invention, cultural constructions, the sexual liberty that was "in the air" all contributed to the making of both of our films.
I was aware that there had been none or little lesbian filmmaking before me because I looked for it and couldn't find it. I strongly felt that Maya Deren was bisexual, and later study has confirmed this, but at the time there were no biographies on her life. I decided quite intentionally that I would put my life on film (of course, in my own manner), so that at least one lesbians' life in the twentieth century would be known. Today I can laugh at that presumption: 1) that what we see on the screen could be considered "true" and "a life" and 2) there is a wonderful flood of lesbian, dyke, queer film now.
The entrance of The Independent Television Service on the scene made a major difference for me. There was an opportunity for major funding that would allow me to envision a much larger project than I had up to this point. In my first grant application to ITVS (one I did not get nor have I been funded by them up until now), I wrote expansively, researched a large project of "searching for lost lesbian and gay culture," and proposed a budget to match the project's scope. In my usual manner, I couldn't wait to see if I were funded, but began to shoot almost as soon as I had conceptualized the ideas.
Immediately upon finishing the grant application I left for a tour of Germany and France with my films. In Hamburg, Berlin and Paris I borrowed Super 8 cameras, hunted out the only source of Black and White Super 8 films, cajoled transportation from my hosts, and began to film. By then I had found I didn't enjoy "touristic" travel and was much happier pursuing research even when I was on a screening tour. The days were intense, but I like them that way.
It wasn't until I began teaching Feminist Film Seminars that I found the forgotten history of the first narrative filmmaker in the world, Alice Guy Blache, and the two hundred films she made in her lifetime. Barbara Kruger's use of text has always amazed me, especially the last show she had at the Mary Boone Gallery in Soho where the floor, walls and ceilings were covered with her astounding red, black and white image text. I felt as if I were entering a feminist church of the 21st century when I walked into the space that day. Reassemblage was the best film I saw in 1985. Trinh T. Minh-ha's sound/image cutting introduced a third space in film, the floating space between the soundtrack and the picture that does not have to correspond exactly, but that works as a "third track," an area of disruption, an "unsettling." Today I recommend the freely moving narrative in the optically-printed masterpiece, Chronic, by the young filmmaker Jennifer Reeves.
There are artists who achieve a certain level of recognition with a particular body of work and who spend the rest of their art-making re-doing, re-fining, re-thinking that work. That seems the "easy way out." Art making for me is a commitment to a lifetime work of exploration and process. I could continue to make the optically printed work of the eighties (Optic Nerve, Endangered, Sanctus), but I chose to attempt a longer form, a more documentary form, a form that used text as image (Nitrate Kisses, Tender Fictions). With the feature narrative Nothing Could Be Worse Than Two Dykes in Menopause, I would like the opportunity to direct and bring a narrative vision of issues around aging and commitment to a large screen near you!
* This interview originally appeared in Vol 16, No. 3 (Summer 1997) and is reprinted with permission of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.
Caption: Barbara Hammer, 1996. Photo courtesy of The Walker Art Museum.
Caption: Shirley Temple and Barbara Hammer in Tender Fictions, 1996, a film by Barbara Hammer.
Caption: A scene from Lot in Sodom (1933) as used in Nitrate Kisses (1992) by Barbara Hammer.
Caption: Barbara Hammer and Florrie Burke in Tender Fictions. Photo: Joyce Culver.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
|Previous Article:||An interview with Jamie Babbit.|
|Next Article:||Tradition and the individual artist: reflections on modernism in Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog.|