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Whitney Pow: Barbara Hammer's flipbook fusion

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published March 15, 2010

There is a flipbook on the pages of queer filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s memoir, “Hammer!” The images are all shot in black and white and the bodies in the pictures move ever so slightly with the turn of the page — the minute shifting of hands, heavily shadowed, over thighs and breasts. The movement is almost imperceptible when crawling through the book, page by page. When the page edges quickly flip past one another beneath the release of a fingernail, however, the image comes to life — the book becomes a five-second film filled with sensual, continuous movement.

This mixing and mingling of the ideas of the viewing experience in film with the sensual, visceral experience of books peeks into the idea of inter-medial art — looking at the ways in which film transgresses the film cell and leaks into literature.

Hammer is an experimental queer feminist filmmaker who began producing ground-breaking films in the 1970s, and her works have been presented in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial and the Berlin International Film Festival. Her book “Hammer!” was released only a few weeks ago on March 1, and she arrived last Thursday in Ann Arbor’s C.C. Little building, zipper-sweatered and with silver, spiky buzzed hair. I sat in an awkward, uncomfortable swivel-seat that made horrible, screeching cat-in-a-bathtub sounds when I moved just a tiny bit to adjust my spine, and then she read from her book, walking up and down the aisle with grand cadences in her speaking voice, long and loud.

Hammer herself is a down-to-earth woman of 70 years old, and her book is composed of works written during the span of her life as a filmmaker, with pieces from the 1970s to the present. In 1974 she was in her 30s filming “Dyketactics” on 16mm film, walking naked in a field, hair short, shaggy and reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s androgynous drummer Moe Tucker. Other pieces include 2009’s “A Horse is Not a Metaphor,” which was recorded in digital format. In this film, she presents herself as a cancer survivor wading in a pool of water, similarly naked, in some shots head peach-fuzzy and in others slick and shiny from chemotherapy.

Hammer’s films are sometimes experimental, non-narrative pieces that move from image to image with a striking attention to sensory detail in what she calls an “active cinema,” or one in which viewers can almost feel the bristles of hair under their palms when watching a shot of a hand moving over the gray hairs of a horse. Hammer frequently uses this visceral quality of film in creating montage in her works.

In “Dyketactics,” the shots move from one to another with many cuts and short takes, presenting naked bodies rolling in the grass in one scene and salamanders crawling across skin in another. All of this elapses with the sound of moog synthesizers — the odd, dissonant, sometimes atonal plunking of synth keys Hammer had recorded herself.

At the end of the film screening that night in C.C. Little, I asked Hammer about how she felt her book communed with her sensibilities as a filmmaker. She responded that “both the book and my films use montage.” In creating her book, Hammer took the film-based idea of short vignette-like collections of shots, or sequences and montages that stand by themselves as meaningful entities. She brought this idea to the idea of the page. The book itself contains short sections of text that could stand on their own stylistically and thematically all mixed and mingled with photographic images and film stills.

And while each section of the book is montage-like as a collection of different ideas that are self-contained and stand-alone like a sequence of shots, these book sections are similarly united through Hammer’s filmic sensibilities, as one film still is placed on each page of the memoir. This flipbook format brings together this idea of film and book, with the book itself becoming a tiny movie projector, the flicking of pages becoming the film reel moved quickly over the lens — the lens being the human eye, perceiving the motion of hands over bodies.

Even in her written pieces, Hammer brings filmic vision to the way she writes, providing immense visual detail to scenes written for the page. In Hammer’s “After Gertrude Stein,” a piece written with no punctuation, one can imagine the camera extending over images hand-chosen and illuminated by Hammer: “she was a flower a pink and ebulliently tender petalled wild berkley rose that hung from the fences on may day.”

Hammer’s works are united through visual and written language as combined through the memoir, which also unites various knots in her life line, tying herself as the shaggy-haired woman of the ’70s to the silver-haired woman of present.

To be honest, I was smitten when I met her. I bought a book from Common Language bookstore and sheepishly asked if she would sign it — a kind of awkward “Will You Sign My Yearbook?” act that I haven’t done for years. Either way, it was worth it. And I’ve been flipping through the memoir, watching the moving image that flickers beneath my thumbnail.


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