Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)

Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.


Tender Fictions (1996) [medium-length]

Lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer died recently (in March 2019), and her films are an important trove of work constructing a sense of LGBTQ and specifically lesbian identity where that barely existed previously in cinema. This particular work follows her 1992 film Nitrate Kisses and turns the camera instead on herself, with the film being an attempt to chronicle the way her own identity had been formed as a child, in thrall to her parents’ ideas of her as Shirley Temple, and then growing up and discovering her own sexuality. It’s hardly for me (a cis straight man) to define her importance as a filmmaker, but her style tends towards the abrasiveness of cut-up, roughly-assembled snippets of home movies and lo-fi recordings, overlaid with (carefully attributed) quotes from prominent women, stretching perhaps the nature of filmic representation as a nod towards her own life outside the carefully-constrained boxes of American normative femininity. This isn’t a life as a chronological series of formative incidents, but as an impressionistic melange of sights, sounds and feelings, of influences and love affairs, bursting out from the confines of one person’s life.

Tender Fictions film posterCREDITS
Director Barbara Hammer; Cinematographers Amy C. Halpern and Hammer; Length 58 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 April 2019.


The Female Closet (1998)

An hour-long video documentary that covers three women artists over the course of the previous century, with a specific focus on the way that the presentation of their art by institutions (galleries, museums, societies) occludes their sexuality or can contribute to the diminution of this aspect of the women’s lives. This most clearly functions with the first artist covered, a photographer from the late-19th century, Alice Austen — whose own sexuality is almost entirely erased from discussions of her life, and has to be reconstructed from small fragments and suggestions within the work (provocative poses by cross-dressed subjects in her photos, for example). Barbara Hammer’s film and her interviews clearly indicate that the terminology didn’t really exist in the same way back then, but still manage to draw out clear throughlines within Austen’s practice that suggest her lesbian sexuality. For the second artist, Hannah Höch, the evidence is clearer, but again retrospectives and showings of her work are challenged in the extent to which they downplay her bisexuality. The third artist is one contemporary to the creation of the film, and for Nicole Eisenman, her sexuality is very clearly expressed and is within her works, but Hammer suggests that there’s still an institutionalisation that occurs with respect to sexuality, and notes the way that some of Eisenman’s most provocative works have disappeared into (straight, often male) patrons’ private collections.

The Female Closet film posterCREDITS
Director Barbara Hammer; Cinematographers Kaat Beels, Hammer, Diana Kleine and Carolyn Macartney; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 14 December 2019.

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