History Lessons

A tongue-in-cheek montage of images appropriated from newsreels, industrial films, pulp magazines and novels, porno movies, underwear ads, tabloid newspapers, personal photographs and other sources, this film by longtime media artist Barbara Hammer (she made her first short in 1968) addresses popular depictions of lesbians with a sharp sense of humor. It's...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A tongue-in-cheek montage of images appropriated from newsreels, industrial films, pulp magazines and novels, porno movies, underwear ads, tabloid newspapers, personal photographs and other sources, this film by longtime media artist Barbara Hammer (she made her first short in 1968) addresses popular depictions of lesbians with a sharp sense of humor. It's the third part of a trilogy that began with Nitrate Kisses (1992) and continued with Tender Fictions (1995). Among Hammer's finds — her materials date from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s — are vintage photographs of "mannish girls" and early erotic images of women together. One montage of photos is set to a blues number about a "buffet flat"; an anonymous voice explains that in the teens and '20s, buffet flats were notorious gathering places for lesbians and gay men, and often served as exotic bordellos for sexual adventurers. Faced with a paucity of authentic, unimpeachable images of gay women, Hammer casts a wide net: Old newsreels of women in the military, hardcore stag loops (obviously made for men), footage of female athletes and little girls playing together are all included and given a retrospective lesbian reading. Hammer juxtaposes scenes from an earnest educational movie about the dangers of high school gossip with hardcore footage of women having sex, and stages interstitial sequences involving a Weegee-like crime photographer (lesbian comic Carmelita Tropicana) and a shadowy woman (Ann Maguire) rummaging through a film archive. The film opens with newsreel footage of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt addressing a group of women; by replacing some of the sound, Hammer makes it appear that Roosevelt's audience is an assembly of lesbians. Hammer later does the same thing to a classroom film about college friendships, making it appear that a gaggle of straight-laced sorority girls is chattering about having sex with other women. Hammer manipulates images as well as sound: Filmstrips are streaked with scratches and layered with shadows of corrosion and decay, as though even these fleeting, ambiguous fragments of lesbian history were in danger of crumbling into nothingness. Neither a conventional documentary nor a work of complete fiction, Hammer's film constructs a secret history, part imagination and part reality that is both revealing and slyly entertaining.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: A tongue-in-cheek montage of images appropriated from newsreels, industrial films, pulp magazines and novels, porno movies, underwear ads, tabloid newspapers, personal photographs and other sources, this film by longtime media artist Barbara Hammer (she ma… (more)

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