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Lust, Caution: Barbara Hammer’s ‘Nitrate Kisses’

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Lust, Caution is a bi-monthly series of essays that examines films within the label of “queer cinema.”

Barbara Hammer is often called the “grandmother of lesbian film” due to her pioneering work in expressing lesbian bodies, sexuality, and political ideologies in non-narrative, avant-garde short films of the 1970s. Her seminal short film Dyketactics was a tactile dreamlike expression of love-making between women. It was a coming out film in a lot of ways for Hammer, as the film showcased the nirvana of expressing love, and the freedom of capturing that action on film. Dyketactics is transgressive, like much of the director’s work, and within the time it was made, there were very few filmmakers in the United States portraying lesbians in this manner. Hammer’s cinema is also politically motivated, and by reclaiming the female body and gazing at it through her camera, she was subverting a classical sense of the male gaze as well as celebrating her own sexuality. In Dyketactics, there is a fondness towards close-ups of a vagina instead of the more often looked at in cinematic terms, breasts. Hammer uses dissolves so images move in and out of one another gracefully with a proclivity on hands and touch, as they are sexual organs, in many instances, of queer female sexuality. When she finally stops using dissolves, Hammer focuses entirely on the female body. Her camera glides through the curves of the two women on display as if she were making love to them herself. This beautiful portrait of a filmmaker’s sexuality is a key film in the canon of queer cinema, and that directness of shooting queer sex with honesty and love makes up an abundance of the images in her first feature length movie, Nitrate Kisses.

Hammer assembles Nitrate Kisses as a queer biography, and a call to arms for lesbians, gays and anyone else whose sexuality and gender expression do not meet societal norms to tell their stories. After some text, the film begins with voice over discussing a woman who liked to dress in men’s clothing and lived with another woman for the majority of her life. Her name was Willa Cather, and her entire sexual history is lost to the world, because it was burned after she died.

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The task of the biographer is to recall the life of a subject, but it is impossible to tell that story when that story has been denied existence. Willa Cather made sure a part of her life was hidden, but this denial of narrative reached far beyond Cather’s decision to muddy her history. It expanded all over the entire world from America to Germany and everywhere else. In one scene, a character discussing the Hays Code recounts the restrictions that censorship ruling had against gay and lesbian art in cinema. From 1931 up until the late 1960s, it was clearly prohibited to tell the stories of gays and lesbians in film unless it was under heavy subtext. This period is referred to as “The Dark Ages” by many in Nitrate Kisses, and the folks discussing cinema recall the difficulty of living in that time period up through the raid on Christopher Street. The Hays Code did not bring about the ending of gay and lesbian censorship, but as one woman put it, “It brought about a time for stories where we’d be punished for our sexuality.” The Hays Code directly effected the type of stories Americans were seeing in their motion picture houses, and as a direct rebellion of those outdated-hateful rules, Hammer uses a close up of one man’s penis dragging across another man’s ass as the prehistoric code rolls up the screen. It’s our very own Star Wars.

The Hays Code came about at the same time when blues music was becoming incredibly popular, and throughout Nitrate Kisses, there is a soundtrack of old queer blues songs to punctuate everything the characters are saying about a denial of artistic narrative. Hammer, ever the playful filmmaker, inserts these songs over long sex scenes between men of the 1990s. This clashing of cultural queerness creates a striking balance of the past and present. One can’t help but have a wry smile on their face when you see one man go down on another as “If you can’t find me a woman, find me a sissy man” plays over the scene.

Hammer works in fragmented imagery, and many of the ideas behind Nitrate Kisses come and go just as quickly. A collage of lesbian novels from the 1940s and 50s such as The Price of Salt will cut to a scene of elderly lesbians dancing and discussing Ageism within the community. This fragmented approach gives her film a kind of realism to the nature of life as it moves through different thoughts and ideas on queer history, art, and personhood. Hammer is attempting to give a story to homosexuals of the past whose narratives were denied their entire lives, while also trying to capture current attitudes of gay individuals through their representation and stories as well. What this fragmented approach creates is a sense of diversity around culture, instead of singular ideas of what constitutes as gay, lesbian or transgender.

The director ties these themes and ideas together through the recurring imagery of sex, and Hammer is a master at filming people in the act of love. Her camera is never static and constantly moving along to the rhythms of her subjects. The heavy grain obscures the image, but it also gives the scenes a warmth and even an underground feeling that is appropriate for queer sexuality at the time. In direct contrast with her 1974 masterpiece Dyketactics, there is a lack of colour in the image to hearken back to the time of black and white movies (and the Hays Code) to once again rebel against cinema of the past. Older lesbians are seen performing cunnilingus on each other, and the camera never forgets to capture their smiling faces or the passion in their eyes — this scene calling directly back to the claims of ageism within the lesbian community as Hammer tries to fix their lack of a cinematic history with this film in the 90s. There is also a sense of equality in the filmmaking. Hammer is an outspoken lesbian, but her camera treats the men in this film similarly to her women. At one point, a character tries to discuss the “queer gaze” and simply states it is a “lust in the eyes,” and Hammer’s lens remains lustful for everyone she filmed.

Queer history is a ramshackled affair whit broken storytelling, rumours, tale tales and burned books with the ashes of our ancestors lives being lost by way of time. Nitrate Kisses is constructed through a cut and paste form, but that’s always been how our history has been assembled. Experimental cinema lends itself to this kind of creation as the rules of linear narrative can often be tossed aside for ideas, feelings or political motivations through a challenging cinematic form. While being wonderfully charged with sexual imagery and Hammer’s trademark lyrical, tactile understanding of bodies, this is first and foremost an activist picture. Before there are any images in Nitrate Kisses, there is an Adrienne Rich quote which reads “Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult to come by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language- this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.”  The quote can be summarized as a warning that whatever isn’t written or discussed is in danger of being wiped out or misunderstood. The dark ages, as they were referred to earlier in the film, were a period of that deep misunderstanding that kept gays and lesbians on the fringes of society despite living in the same world as anyone else. When Willa Cather erased her history, it brought into doubt anything we could have ever known about the love she had in her heart for other women. Nitrate Kisses prays that we’ll never have to do that again.

Willow Maclay (@willow_catelyn) is a freelance writer currently residing in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She has written for The Vulgar Cinema, Cleo: A Journal of Film and Feminism, Movie Mezzanine, Seventh Row and maintains her own blog, Curtsies and Hand Grenades.

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