To Be Real
Walker Art Center
Friday at 8 p.m.
THE FILMS OF lesbian-feminist director Barbara Hammer prove that, in spite of the tyranny of Hollywood, it's still possible to create some cinematic room of one's own. Like all her movies, Hammer's new Tender Fictions is a documentary/narrative hybrid and an audaciously personal work: a dense mix of abstract prose, cinema studies jargon, journal-entry erotica, home movies, found footage, and family stories. It's also the product of two and a half years of scripting, filming, and editing. Rich and complex through every moment of its 58 minutes, the film begins with the filmmaker's voiceover advisory to "construct an autobiography before someone does it for you." For Hammer, the strongest means of dissent is honest and unique self-expression; not for nothing is she known variously as "the grandmother of lesbian film" and "the doyenne of dyke video."
In her 70-some independent and experimental shorts made over the last two decades, Hammer has sought to make films whose methods owe little to conventional storytelling. Her award-winning doc Nitrate Kisses (1992) began by recounting the story of the closeted Willa Cather (who destroyed her personal records before her death) in order to affirm the importance of preserving queer histories; it then went on to compile obscure footage from '30s gay films in a manner more chaotic and revelatory than The Celluloid Closet.
Tender Fictions makes demands on the viewer, to be sure; but it's also a relief to be given such a generous amount of aural/visual information to pick and choose from. For one thing, Hammer implies that her own struggle to come of age during the hostile conformism of the '50s is akin to making a radical movie like Tender Fictions and getting it screened in the marketplace. And the many stories Hammer tells in the film--some of them from her own life, some playfully fabricated--are enhanced by her use of quotations from various deconstructionist and feminist "authority figures." Thus, her movie remains subjective even as it draws together a solid community of voices:
In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.--William Maxwell. The film's title is a riff on Gertrude Stein's autobiographical Tender Buttons, but it also suggests Hammer's oxymoronic mix of first-person documentary (the "tender") and fanciful narrative (the "fiction"). If true stories inevitably become fictions during the moment they leave the teller's lips (or keyboard or camera), Tender Fictions acknowledges that even documentaries are fictional constructions, and thus stakes out a territory that seems less real but is in fact more so. Hammer is suggesting here that the way to be most real is to be personal, and the way to be personal is to be unconventional. In interviews, she's said that true lesbian cinema can't or shouldn't be made in the form of the standard three-act dramatic narrative (to her credit, she'll never make a Go Fish, although she reportedly liked The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love). The radical world she creates in Tender Fictions is one in which sound and image work as discrete parts, though each enhances the other. (Those who recently caught the DJ-soundtracked Sunrise at the Red Eye will be at an advantage here.)
Her speech, even when theoretical or political, is never simple or linear.--Helene Cixous. Any five seconds of Tender Fictions could be used as the basis for a film theory dissertation; conversely, some viewers will find it preferable to abandon the challenge of trying to explicate the movie and instead let its sound and image work on the subconscious. Still, even the most surreal images are connected to the movie's larger structure: A section about the marriage of Hammer's parents begins with a shot of a kitten pawing at a barely erect penis (not the opening of Un Chien Andalou, but still plenty attention-getting)--while, on the soundtrack, the director reads Sue Ellen Case's theory that "the feminist subject is both inside and outside of heterosexual ideology." There's also a vague chronology to the film, which moves from Hammer's first knowledge of the word "lesbian" ("I think it sounds real good," she says) to her coming out in 1970 and her domestic partnership proceedings with her lover at City Hall, to the final, recent image of Hammer at the editing table.
We are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.--Virginia Woolf. When the director herself appears at the Walker on Friday for a post-screening dialogue with critic Joanna Kadi, it would be tempting to ask how many of her film's stories are true: For instance, whether her father actually used her mother's photograph as a dart board, or whether that tale is merely an apt metaphor for their divorce. Similarly, did Hammer really rob an American Express office in Tangiers with a Swiss army knife, or is that just a poetic way of saying that she has fought the power? Ultimately, if we as viewers were better trained to accept ambiguity and nonlinear storytelling, these questions wouldn't matter. In a culture more open to diversity of expression, it would be clear enough that the film's fictions, whatever their connection to Hammer's own life, are truly hers. CP
On Saturday at 10 a.m., a two-hour critical thinking workshop at the Walker, cosponsored by the Center for Arts Criticism, will focus on Tender Fictions and other films in the Women in the Director's Chair series; call 644-5501 for more information.
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