Feature image: Welcome To This House
Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms. As the film’s press materials note, “Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.” It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.
In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing “Elizabeth” on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.
There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.
Contemporaries of Bishop’s are seen and heard throughout the film, which roughly follows the outlines of her life, but they never intrude on the work’s altogether successful attempt to bring forth the spirit and essence of the poet – to create a work in service of Bishop’s own art. As critic Barbara Page, Professor Emeritus at Vassar College, notes in the press materials for the film, Hammer’s “insight that Bishop might most tellingly be portrayed through the places she loved pans out beautifully, both evoking the physical, sensual life she lived and observed so intensely and calling out the poignant dynamic of her repeated experience of loving and losing that underlies so much of her work.” Period photographs of buildings associated with Bishop are often juxtaposed with contemporary images of the same structures, to make the film a seamless mediation between past and present, as if Bishop is still very much among us, as a living presence – which of course, through her art, she is. And Hammer is the ideal person to restore Bishop to us.
Throughout her long career, Hammer’s work has revealed and celebrated marginalised peoples whose stories have not been told. Her cinema is multi-levelled and engages an audience viscerally and intellectually with the goal of activating them to make social change. She is most well-known for making the first explicit lesbian film in 1974, Dyketactics, and for her trilogy of documentary film essays on queer history: Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995) and History Lessons (2000).
Starting in the New York experimental film scene in the 1960s, Hammer has been honoured with five retrospectives in the last three years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Tate Modern in London, the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Kunsthalle Oslo in Norway. Her book Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life was published in 2010 by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. It seems the world has caught up with her at last, and Hammer herself is working at the height of her powers.
All of Hammer’s work has been challenging and thought provoking, and often very aggressive in its use of superimpositions and embrace of the unexpected, but with Welcome to This House she moves into a new, more deeply personal style. It is also a work that has been long in Hammer’s mind. As she wrote of her own journey in making the film,
I had always wanted to deeply study only one poet during graduate school but the preplanned nature of universities and their over determined courses of study precluded this from happening. Finally, thanks to the Guggenheim Foundation, I was able to launch a new project… As an artist I believe that the architectural structures in which I live and work influence the art I make. I went in search of Bishop’s homes to explore the buildings and the poetry and paintings she made in them… Bishop was in the closet to the outside world, but she seemed to have as many lovers as she had homes. I globe trotted on her trail and found more and more female lovers emerging from interviews with friends, colleagues, critics and poets.
The finished film emerges not only as an elegiac and deeply sympathetic biography of a creative artist, but also as an evocation of the world Bishop lived in, and the women she loved, with her poems – beautifully read by Kathleen Chalfant accompanied by a restrained, evocative musical score, mixed with natural sounds, by Joan La Barbara – a continuing thread throughout the film, as indeed they were in her life.
Hammer’s film is a work of small details – telling images that encapsulate so much about Bishop’s life, which might easily have been ignored by an artist less in tune with Bishop’s sensibility. Welcome to This House includes not only Bishop’s poems, but also some of her photography, which reveals an interiority of vision that is perfectly in sync with her written work.
The film also notes how the generosity of Bishop’s contemporaries – particularly the poet Marianne Moore – was instrumental in helping Bishop to get her work before the public, and how Bishop was, at one and the same time, a very private and yet a very public personage, eager to get her work out into the world. It’s a telling aspect of the era in which Bishop lived that so much of her personal writing, in the form of letters, survived – in today’s throwaway culture, it seems doubtful that much of this material would exist, having been digitally deleted long ago.
Bishop’s numerous lovers, including Louise Crane, who was a friend and confidant of Bishop’s throughout most of her life, are also remembered, as are colleagues and associates who supported Bishop and her work. Such luminaries as the singer Billie Holliday also make unexpected appearances, and it’s easy to see that Bishop enjoyed the company of a wide range of acquaintances as she moved through her life, while still remaining essentially a very private person.
What’s most captivating about Welcome to This House, aside from the sheer visual splendour of the work, and the easy and meditational style of its construction, is the juxtaposition of contemporary voices who recall the incidents of Bishop’s life, intertwined with Kathleen Chalfant’s recitation of her poems, notes, and other documents, and materials that are clearly the result of an assiduous search of a wide variety of archives.
I have followed Hammer’s work for decades, and seen nearly all of her films, but with this work she moves into new territory, in perhaps the most accomplished film of her entire career. As a queer pioneer in the cinema, Hammer herself is absolutely supportive of the work of others, and her films display a generosity of spirit, accompanied by a keen and perceptive eye, that show the hand of a master at work. Welcome to This House provides a living portrait that both celebrates Bishop’s work and life, and testifies to Hammer’s mastery of the film medium.