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Lesbian Images in the Classic Film Era: Beth Mauldin talks with a lesbian film documentarian. (Interview).

Barbara Hammer has produced some seventy documentaries in her thirty-plus years as a filmmaker. Among them are Nitrate Kisses and Tender Fictions, both of which were featured at the Sundance Film Festival, among other film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Last year, Ms. Hammer was awarded the prestigious Frameline Award for outstanding contribution to lesbian and gay cinema. Her recently released documentary History Lessons presents a montage of lesbian images in popular culture, especially the movies, from the 1920's to the 1960's.

This interview was conducted face-to-face in Cambridge, Mass., where Ms. Hammer is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.

Beth Mauldin: Where did you come up with the idea for History Lessons and where did you find this incredible footage?

Barbara Hammer: I've been working on a trilogy of gay and lesbian history since 1990. Nitrate Kisses was my first feature documentary. You could call it an essay film, a film about ideas. It's about the invisibility of gay and lesbian history from about the 1930's up to the present. I shot it in Germany, England, France, and the United States. There are stories about lesbians in concentration camps, about women in New York who used to be arrested if they didn't wear two pieces of underwear. (Butches would sew lace onto their butch panties.) The film ends with Joan Nestle urging gays, lesbians, bi's, and transpeople to save whatever love letters we have, snapshots--anything about our lives so we will never have this invisibility about our lives again. There will be an archive, a library.

I realized then that I should make a film about my life, because I had already been working almost thirty years and made seventy films or so. What about my own archive? So I made a film called Tender Fictions, a lesbian autobiography. After that I thought, What area of lesbian and gay history have I not shown? That was material before Stonewall, from the beginning of film in 1869--from Thomas Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, Melies, PatheCinema--to Stonewall in 1969. Of course, this was the big missing history, and I think the reason that nobody had thought of making it was because it was all negative history. It was all made by men, for men. It was a period of criminalization of lesbians. There was absolutely nothing that "normalized" the lesbian in these representations. So this was fascinating material to work with.

And as for the material, I really found the archivists rather than finding the archives. I found a lesbian named Anne McGuire who had been working in a film archive house for about ten years. Unbeknownst to anybody, I think, Anne had been keeping her own private little catalogue of all this material, which she was looking at and giving numbers to--anything she thought could be read as lesbian. And it was fantastic! Then, on the porn side, Jenny Olson from PlanetOut, who has been involved in the Frameline Festival, loaned me one of her lesbian pornos that I reshot on my optical printer. And then she gave me a list where I could subscribe to other lists for 8mm and Super-8mm pornographic films. They're still sold in little rolls at only $5 a roll.

BM: It was difficult to determine the context of the images since they weren't presented in any traditional chronological order.

BH: I decided to make it achronological because I didn't want an information film. I don't like anything that tells you, that presumes the audience doesn't know. So I thought that we have a sophisticated enough film viewing audience, that you'll make the guesses as I did--by the dress codes, by the kind of slips that are being worn, by the long coats worn by the women who are putting money in the parking meter, by what the parking meters are like (they only cost a nickel). That activates the audience to become more alert and stimulated. So I often make work that is not self-explanatory. Take the Eleanor Roosevelt sequence. We know that this is a 1940 women's conference. Of course she didn't really welcome everybody to a lesbian conference [as suggested by the film], but she could have! We don't know! A friend of mine, another filmmaker, said that I lesbianized the world. I thought that was a good way to look at it.

BM: In History Lessons, you have actors staging crime scenes and a drag-king performing the part of Weegee, the photojournalist best known for his pictures of New York City's criminal underworld in the 1940's and 50's. What is this fascination with lesbians and deviance, not only in your film, but in society as a whole?

BH: Well, I can speak about it in terms of Weegee. He was a crime photographer in the 40's. You've seen his books and shows and they're fantastic. He actually did shoot lesbians, and those scenes are based on his photographs--one woman lying over the truck with her hand out holding lipstick, or the woman on the street who's been shot and the gun is twenty feet in front of her; the camera's really low. Those are all based on Weegee photographs. He also shot in lesbian bars, and those two women sitting at the bar, drinking--that's when the money gets slipped into the net stocking by one of the drag kings.

BM: As you stated earlier, in your film you present a lesbian history and sexuality that for the most part has been invisible. Going back to the photos of the African-American women, could you talk about the differences between white and black lesbian visibility?

BH: In terms of men picturing lesbians, I didn't find representations of black lesbians in pornography. Of course, a lot of the material that I bought was heterosexual, and I didn't find representations of black heterosexual couples either. I think that's because of the systematic racism in this country, and probably another kind of a sexualization of the female African-American that stands apart and alone, separate from a lesbian representation. Even less did I find Asian-Americans. All the porn is white. The educational films from the 50's, the gossip films, they're all white--white and blonde! The men who have controlled the media in the past have only represented white girls.

BM: Last year at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, there was a roundtable discussion about lesbian cinema. One of the most heated discussions was about lesbian sex scenes or the lack thereof. And this led to a discussion about the male gaze and the objectification of women. What can be said about these early representations of lesbian sex?

BH: Those debates about the male gaze are ten years old; I'm talking about the lesbian gaze, the gaze that can incorporate the world into her meaning. And I can look at something--it doesn't matter who made it--if I interpret it in some way, I can appropriate it and use it at my pleasure. I don't know if you know Dyketactics. It was made in 1974. It's the first lesbian love-making film made by a lesbian. That's in 1974. So that was before women's porn--before porn companies run by women started, before Curve magazine, before all that, before Susie Bright. Also a film called Multiple Orgasm. I made a lot of films about women's sexuality.

BM: Then there's the 1950's educational film that you incorporate into History Lessons--where young girls are being taught the proper way to behave around boys. Did you see any films like that when you were in school?

BH: I remember a film on menstruation, a Disney film. There were little flowers--I don't know why, I guess it meant that it was a girl's film. I was probably in seventh grade. And we were separated off into a different auditorium from the guys. That film was so Bambi-like. It was art cartoons and animation, and so unrealistic that when I first started menstruating, I didn't know what was happening. Another of my films was called Menses. I researched menstruation and I found out how way back to the Greeks, all the mythology holds that if a woman is menstruating, she shouldn't touch a pregnant goat or the milk will go sour; she shouldn't pick a flower or it will wilt. Lots of things like that that followed menstruation and tagged women's bodies throughout history. It wasn't surprising that in 1950 we were separated from men, that our biologies were viewed as so different.

BM: You began making films in the late 60's. How did the radical changes at that time--with the emergence of the gay liberation and feminist movements--affect the way you made films?

BH: I started making film in 1968, so it's pre-feminist for me. I was trying to identify myself as an artist. Then I came out in 1970. But you can't come out without language. I needed the idea before I could act upon or recognize the attraction. I think that's true of a lot of us. So I did some research and found out that "lesbian" was not written as a word in The New York Times until 1920. I hadn't seen it. I really didn't know it meant until I was in this women's group. Somebody said that one of us was a lesbian, and I said "What does that mean?" It was explained to me, and I thought, "What a great idea!" And I went to bed that night with somebody from that group! That was my first over.

But things changed a lot over the years as I started to make all of these lesbian short films. A lot of lesbians didn't understand them. I made a film called Superdyke in 1975, and in a women's bar in San Francisco, people wrote on it that it was Nietzsche-like, that I had created a "Superwoman" and it was fascist. The wrote that all over the poster, and that's one poster I saved. Bu it's a total comedy! These women are wearing Superdyke tee-shirts and they take over the institutions of San Francisco. The go into Macy's and buy vibrators and use them publicly a they're going on elevators, waving them in the air! Our movemeat was so quick to polarize and to be dogmatic about ideas, about films. It's never been generous to an abstract form or a women's cultural history that goes beyond direct representation. What lesbians seem to want is socialist realism.

BM: When you were making History Lessons, were you thinking at all about the Hayes Code and its strict regulations on the presentation of sexuality? How much were filmmakers allowed to get away with at the time?

BH: The Hayes Code, which was in force from 1930 to 1966, covered all kinds of representations that you could not include in Hollywood cinema. You couldn't show a black and white couple on the screen. You could not show any form of sexuality. There was a long list. The way I used it in Nitrate Kisses was to run bars over the screen--the bars are going this way [vertically]--over two gay men making love. An explicit shot of a white ass and a black ass with a black penis in between. It was made for Jesse Helms.

BM: Really?

BH: Yeah, this film was funded by the NEA. I ran into trouble with that, too, of course. At the end of the film, it even says: "This film was funded by the NBA." I had a screening in Washington, D.C., and there was a spy in the audience. The first question was: "You don't think you'll ever get another NBA, do you?" I didn't know where it was coming from, and I said "Well, of course I do. I think this is the first of many." This film got flagged, and the NBA, after a year's consideration, asked me to take their name off of the film as a funder. This is just one of many forms of censorship that I've been through. What a struggle!

BM: Why do you label your work "lesbian cinema" as opposed to "queer cinema"?

BH: Today you could call it queer cinema. "Queer" wasn't used when I started making film. So using the word "lesbian" in the 70's was a political act. And, it was a consciousness-raising effort to get film festivals retitled "gay and lesbian" instead of just "gay." "Queer" cinema means that women and men have equal access to production and exhibition, which still isn't the case. We like to think it is, so that's why this word is used. So, the newer generation comes along and there's a new word for it. But sometimes it erases history. I think that's what we have to be careful of. I don't care if my cinema is called "queer" cinema, but I think calling it lesbian cinema gives it a sense of history. I think the work from the 70's should be called lesbian cinema. It precedes the word "queer." The films of the 80's, like No No Nooky TV, are lesbian films. I come back to identity issues, and I think the name "queer" is borne out of identity politics.

BM: In History Lessons, you recover images of lesbians from history. I was wondering if you know of any lesbian filmmakers that have been lost to history?

BH: That's a great question. The only lesbian film that is specifically about and includes lesbian representation is Madchen in Uniform by Leontine Sagan in 1931. So far as I know, there are no lesbian filmmakers. There were lesbian photographers. Alice Austen was one. She's in The Female Closet. Actually, that's why I decided to make film. There was a blank screen, and it needed to be filled with lots of lesbian filmmakers. In my research, such as at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I didn't find any films at all. Doris Wishman made pornography during the 50's, and she's been recovered--not as a lesbian but as a female pornographer, which itself is highly unusual. I found a whole movie by Alice Austen, which is in my film, which was made in the early 20th century. She documents her Model-A car, ships coming into Staten Island, things similar to those in her photographs, except she documented her girlfriends, as well. You see women drinking beer, sitting on a fence in their hoop skirts with their hands around e ach other.

BM: Do you think the evolution of your work has paralleled changes in feminism over the past thirty years?

BH: I think it does. During the 1980's, however, there was a period in which I took women out of the films. The only woman was me behind the camera because I couldn't get the films shown in museums. I couldn't get them considered as works of art, and it wasn't cool to be a lesbian yet. The identity movement hadn't been born--and now we have "post-identity." You have to work hard to keep on top of these things!

Beth Mauldin is a writer for WBGH in Boston.
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Author:Hammer, Barbara
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
Words:2505
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