“For if one history is lost, all of us are less rich than before.” — Barbara Hammer
Barbara Hammer’s first feature-length film, Nitrate Kisses (1992) is a landmark of LGBT+ cinema. After a lifetime of teaching and making lesbian films, Hammer realised that so much of LGBT+ life was missing from both mainstream and underground filmmaking. She set out to change that with Nitrate Kisses, by weaving striking images of four gay and lesbian couples with footage of an unearthed and forbidden history, including archival footage from Lot in Sodom (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 1933).
In looking at Hammer’s work we must revisit what it is to construct a visual biography or history, one that has been neglected, omitted, lost or destroyed. Since the late 1960s, Hammer had been making personal films which combine the evocative and the performative in a haunting blend of images and sound and a style which is uniquely her own. With Nitrate Kisses, Hammer re/constructs missing and lost LGBT+ images by interweaving gay and lesbian archival footage (as found footage) with new images Hammer shot specifically for the film, material that adds a level of personal documentary evidence of queer history.
I was fortunate enough to introduce Hammer when she presented the film at MoMA in New York in 1996; later in the 1990s I interviewed her on the subject of Nitrate Kisses as well as Tender Fictions, which also wrestles with themes of lesbian biography, autobiography and neglected or lost visual queer histories. I asked what it was like to look for a multiplicity of lost queer selves, and she talked about the connection between her need for a supportive lesbian community in her formative years and her developing sense of self.
I see myself as defined and defining myself along side of and sometimes within the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These were formative years for me as an artist as well as a political woman. If the rising surge of lesbian/feminism hadn’t been happening at that time, I don’t think I could have identified myself as one (a lesbian/feminist) without the community. I have always read that a biographer needs to look at the context of an individual’s life; but looking back on mine it seems even more profound. . . He or she is there only as part of a long tradition that includes ancestry, tribal rites and histories, etc.1
What Hammer describes is a community that was struggling to find lost selves through communal rituals, inventing new rituals when necessary. In the 1990s there was a proliferation of new ideas about the construction of the self (or selves) growing from postmodernist thought and circling around the idea of constructing identit(ies) from a multiplicity of selves, and a multiplicity of images of selves — much more in keeping with Hammer’s insistence on LGBT+ community and multiplicity of identity than in ordinary heteronormative histories and biographies, which tend to portray life histories as singular and flat. Those lost multiple selves become both concrete and fluid in the many LGBT+ figures viewable in Nitrate Kisses.
What is successful about both Nitrate Kisses and Tender Fictions is Hammer’s insistence on recovering multiple lost LGBT+ histories, not just falsely individualised lost selves. As Hammer told me,
There are a whole lot of selves, however, that are unknown in relationships and continue to be important functioning, creative, artistic and other parts of play that exist outside of the couple … I address it in my film with all the material, and image/sound conjunctions, that come before the introduction of “the couple.” As a postmodern filmmaker, I draw from everything I see and read and taste and hear and smell and hold and delight and suffer from and with and more.2
Nitrate Kisses took on the once semi-secret lesbian sexuality of Willa Cather. When the film was made the sexuality of Cather was still in the closet, but biographers were beginning to out her. Hammer worked to reclaim Cather as a queer author, one who is central to understanding LGBT+ literature. What is notable about Hammer’s treatment of Cather is her playful artistic detective work and regeneration of Cather via experimental film techniques. Hammer told me,
I don’t have to be a historian or an expert on Cather to let the film give the viewer the distinct experience of what it is like to investigate, to look for traces, to uncover and find forgotten or misleading paths. I try to make an experimental cinema of investigation. The viewing audience become the archaeologists, the historians, piecing together the fragments, feeling the emptiness of blurred and over-exposed film, seeing through the scratches of dated emulsion, and finding the memories to recover their own history. For if one history is lost, all of us are less rich than before.3
Hammer visited Nebraska to look for the lesbian history of Cather. This section is quite playful, integrating photographs of Cather in torn photographs in forward and backward stop-motion. Hammer refers to this editing method as “a metaphor for the copy-and-paste and put-the-puzzle-together method of creating the film, of finding the lost lesbian history of Willa Cather.” Hammer also interweaves the lovemaking of an elderly lesbian couple into the film, in this way responding to ageism found across history, art and erotica. Audience responses to these sections of the film are telling in and of themselves. As Hammer noted,
The responses to the older women making love has been universally the most talked about and impressive images of the film. This surprised me. I didn’t make these images to create the amount of attention that they have drawn. In fact, it was late in the editing process when I realized that I was leaving out an underrepresented sexuality. I had included black and white couples, s/m sexual practices, and sex between women of colour. I am conscious that as members of lesbian communities, gay communities, we also sometimes marginalize and leave out of the history of many members of our own communities. I saw that I had left out old lesbians.4
Nitrate Kisses is a landmark film in queer cinema; it was one of the first to include references to passing, coding, the history of the Village and Christopher Street in New York City, issues of lesbians and gays of colour, pulp novel culture, butch/femme, coming out, and ageism in the LGBT+ community. Such themes had often been left out of films because of the Hollywood censorship code of the 1930s. Perhaps the strongest part of Nitrate Kisses is the incorporation of the text of the code with an image of interracial anal sex. Hammer spoke about the significance of that poetic image as a metaphor for lost LGBT+ history:
The sequence became a perfect metaphor. The scripted code rolls up the screen and makes the viewer choose between looking at the beautiful sexuality or read the fascinating “no-no”s in the code. The code acts as a jailer to the image; we must see the underrepresented, the disallowed, through the bars of censorship.5
Barbara Hammer makes the invisible visible by rescuing and inventing lost images in Nitrate Kisses. At once sexy, erotic and confrontational, Hammer’s work operates at the margins between truth and fiction, memory and history, opening up a new conceptualization of LGBT+ biography and visual history.
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Nitrate Kisses (1992 United States 67 mins)
Prod. Co: Barbara Hammer Prod: Barbara Hammer Dir: Barbara Hammer Scr: Barbara Hammer Phot: Barbara Hammer Ed: Barbara Hammer Prod Des: Barbara Hammer Narration: Barbara Hammer
Cast: Jerre, Maria, Ruth, Sandy Binford, Barbara Hammer