INTERVIEW: Barbara Hammer Teaches (and Titillates with) "History Lessons"
by Michelle Handelman
(indieWIRE/ 10.25.01) — Having made over 75 films and videos in a 30-year career span, one can easily say Barbara Hammer is the hardest working woman in independent film. This Friday, New York’s Quad Cinema opens “History Lessons,” her latest post-queer documentary romp through the annals of archival cinema. “All of my films have a social purpose, even though you may not think of it when you watch them,” says the 62-year-old Hammer.
Opening with digitally appropriated footage of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the “First Lesbian Conference,” Hammer mines the archives of abandoned film clips and re-appropriates them into a hilariously irreverent lesbian fanfare — deploying visual puns and cheeky sexual innuendo with clips from the Women’s Army Core, girl-on-girl stag, trashy pulp fiction covers and suffragette newsreels. No, not all of these women are actual lesbians but that’s not the point: Hammer recreates history as she sees fit, reclaiming footage originally shot by men and subverting their original messages of female duty and desire. The result is a smart, and at times, ridiculous look at women’s history that conflates gender, manipulates time and begs for viewer interaction.
Hammer is responsible for some of the first lesbian-made films in history including the 1974 landmark experimental short, “Dyketactics.” She started with 16 mm films in the ’70s, moved on to experimental video art in the ’80s and continues to redefine lesbian culture on the web. “History Lessons” is the final installment of her ‘lost queer history’ trilogy begun in 1992 with the Sundance favorite “Nitrate Kisses,” then followed by 1995’s autobiographical “Tender Fictions.” indieWIRE spoke with Barbara about the imperfections of history, the process of editing and her ability to reach a crossover audience.
indieWIRE: “History Lesson” is interesting for all the reasons that it refuses definition. You’ve subverted our sense of what we believe documentary film to be by recontextualizing a dizzying array of imagery, that may or may not have been originally queer, into your own version of a lesbian history. It’s almost like a feminist joke that you are playing on the viewer.
Barbara Hammer: As Jim Hubbard, my friend who started the MIX Festival with Sarah Schulman says, “Barbara, you’ve lesbianized the world again!” I’m not trying to play a joke on the audience; I give them much more credit than that. If anything I’m trying to expose the joke that history plays on us. Humor and irony are such powerful tools so I’ve given that power to the viewer rather than controlling it. That’s more interesting to me. That’s why I didn’t use a narrator’s voice. These new experimental documentaries I’ve been doing are really essay films about ideas. “History Lessons” is the last installment to my “Queer History Trilogy.” The first, “Nitrate Kisses” asks why there are peoples with invisible histories, people who were deleted from history; the second “Tender Fictions” is a post-modern lesbian autobiography and “History Lessons,” is the archival “Mama” that recoups some of our missing history.
iW: I think “History Lessons” also works as a history of cinema because you’ve collected footage from so many different time periods and genres: cinema as entertainment, as medical research, as crime report, as political propaganda?
Hammer: And I think that lesbians have always had a role in cinema; we just haven’t been named. The earliest film clip in “History Lessons” is an 1896 Thomas Edison film. I think it’s the first “snuff” film ever made, a woman is being hanged before our eyes in real time.
iW: That was a totally shocking scene. When I saw it, I wasn’t even sure if it was real. We’re so used to seeing death enacted on screen that when the real thing plays before us it’s just so unfathomable.
Hammer: Oh I know, I know. It was so hard to decide whether to use that or not. I got it from the Thomas Edison collection when I was teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago. Who knows who this woman is? Maybe she’s a prostitute, maybe she was strictly sexual and erotic, maybe she was just your run-of-the-mill lesbian witch! But we do know that lesbians were murdered for their sexual principles throughout the ages, in all different kind of ways. So she stands as a marker of lesbian persecution.
iW: You’ve also added another layer of history by re-staging the Weegee crime scene photos of the ’40s with contemporary female performers and subverting the position of the male gaze through your lens.
Hammer: I wanted to use Weegee’s photographs but I didn’t have a copyright for them so I restaged them with a cast of artists and performers that are a part of my artistic history. East Village performer Carmelita Tropicana plays Weegee, performance artist CoCo Fusco plays the femme in the doctor’s office and David Del Tredici, a well known gay composer, plays the doctor. In a way I am saying that in this age of floating sexual identities anyone can assume those roles as performance. I do the same thing with my lesbian web archive http://www.echo.nyc.com/~lesbians> where people send me their photos and I create a lesbian history for them.
iW: “History Lessons” is going to show with “Dyketactics,” your 1974 experimental short which I’ve heard you describe as, “the first lesbian commercial.” Whose brilliant decision was that?
Hammer: I was asked to put a short with “History Lessons” which is a 66-minute feature so I chose “Dyketactics” because in a way many of the same motivations are at work. In “History Lessons,” I’m looking at images made of women who might have been lesbians from the beginning of cinema until Stonewall 1969. They were mostly shot by men and they’re mostly negative, highly sexualized, criminalized. When I made “Dyketactics” in 1974, I was told it was the first lesbian love film made by a lesbian and so, in a way, the beginning of lesbian cinema. But I “lesbianized” them too, because these women in “Dyketactics” weren’t necessarily queer. I directed them as “actors.” I call it a lesbian commercial as there are 110 images in 4 minutes. They all have the sense of touch, the representation of touching — but that is another story I have explored filmicly in my film sync touch. I consider the sense of touch to be the basis of my lesbian aesthetics.
iW: How many years did it take to complete “History Lessons”?
Hammer: I collected images for five years. But the editing started in February 2001 when Michael Lumpkin from the Frameline festival called and asked, “Can you have the film done by June 10th?” So, I finished “Devotion” February 21st and the next day started on “History Lessons.” So, about three months of editing on the flat bed, with a terrible mag for the sound, argh!
iW: That’s amazing. That’s a lot of work to complete in three months.
Hammer: I know, I know. It was the first time I really felt rushed. You know I just collect, collect, collect, collect. And then when I think I have enough I memorize, memorize, memorize, then I separate it and put it in rolls. And then I just jump right in. The scenes in the archive were always going to be the structural framework since all the material was found in archives, but after that it was a free for all and Eleanor Roosevelt seemed like a great place to start. When Eleanor Roosevelt welcomes everybody to the “First Women’s Conference,” we took out “women” and digitally altered in the word “lesbian.” I was giggling the whole time I was editing. It gave me immense pleasure.
iW: There certainly is a lot of sex and exercise footage. (laughter)
Hammer: Well, you might consider sex a sport. (laughter)
iW: There’s also a lot of military footage and it’s the way that you juxtapose these images that amps up the humor. It’s really a hot film. Do you have any expectations of what the audience response will be? Do you think this will be your biggest crossover film?
Hammer: This is a really great question because this is only my second time that a distribution company has had the courage to pick up something that is in an experimental vein. And the first person to come to me was Elliot Kandar, who runs and owns the Quad Cinema. Many companies would have taken it if only it had been more like the “Celluloid Closet,” if only it had that knowing voice-over. Listen, I want to give my audience more credit than that. Also, I think we are in dire need of new voices other than mega-conglomerate Hollywood Productions and that goes for PBS as well; audiences are ready for something that is challenging, experimental, funny. Something that opens the door for them to other kinds of thinking and that is what I try to do. First Run Features had the guts to say we want to release this. They may re-release “Nitrate Kisses” theatrically in a year or so. And you know what I really would like to have is “Nitrate Kisses,” “Tender Fictions,” and “History Lessons” all shown in some kind of grouping because they all address this marginalized history that gays and lesbians, bi-sexuals and transgendereds have had and we don’t have a basis for our culture unless we rebuild it.
iW: You’ve certainly played a major role in that reconstruction.
Hammer: You can say that I’ve tried to document my life as a lesbian during the 20th century, and of course, now it’s the 21st. My early ’70s -lesbian identity films, celebrated sexuality and the physical aspects of being a woman, menstruation, multiple-orgasm, then I moved into the ’80s and you’ll see my optically printed films, work that really made a mark in experimental film.
iW: As artists, we’re constantly financing our own projects, and if you were to talk to anyone in the independent film world, or even public television, they would say, “What, are you crazy spending your own money making films?” How do you manage to convince yourself you’re not crazy spending your own money on your projects?
Hammer: Well, you know, I started out as a painter. I used to go and buy $100-200 dollars worth of canvas and another $100-200 worth of acrylics. To me it was a lot of money back then. I didn’t have 400 or 500 dollars, but I would always spend money on my art and it didn’t matter about clothes, it didn’t matter that I didn’t own a house, that I didn’t own a new car. Of course, I did have a motorcycle (laughter). But those things just don’t matter when you’re an artist. Personal expression is what’s important, I mean, maybe it’s idealistic but you just have to do it. When I was able to get my first significant grant from the Jerome Foundation, that really kick started things. From there, it’s all been easy. Not in the sense that I don’t spend months of my year writing grants and honing that craft but now, all my films are funded. My new film is funded to the tune of $60,000, “Nitrate Kisses” got made for $20,000, and “History Lessons” was around the same. So, it’s been about 15 years for me of being funded by NYSCA, NYFFA, AFI, NEA, Creative Capital. We all should be so supported. The problem is that it takes so long that you become an aging artist by the time you finally get the money (laughter). Meanwhile, you have to know your youth is spent out of your own pocket, making sacrifices to make your work.
[Michelle Handelman is an award-winning video artist and writer who teaches on extreme media in the Media Studies department of The New School University. Her documentary, “BloodSisters,” won the 1999 BRAVO Award and her experimental films and videos have shown at festivals and venues worldwide.]