Bright Lights Film Journal

Tender Fictions: Barbara Hammer’s Truth Club

Barbara Hammer continues the groundbreaking investigations into gender that started with Nitrate Kisses – this time using autobiography to tell her truths.

Barbara Hammer is best known for her groundbreaking experimental film Nitrate Kisses (1992), which fearlessly broke two taboos by showing older lesbians in extended erotic embrace, all in richly detailed black and white. Hammer has been making films since the 1970s (she was one of the inspirations for Word Is Out), and wanted to create her autobiography “before someone else does it.” Tender Fictions (1995) is the result – a playful, imaginative, penetrating description of an artist’s life.

Tender Fictions is built from a vast array of raw materials: scratchy home movies; snapshots; overdubs from academic texts; interviews; skewed television programs; reminiscences by Hammer, family and friends, and a string of ex-girlfriends. Images at the beginning center on Hammer’s tenuous link to Hollywood – her grandmother’s position as cook for Lilian Gish and her own mother’s desire for her to be like Shirley Temple, an aspiration she explains with a little-known historical fact: “I was born at a time when Shirley Temple was the highest-paid female in America.” Hammer learned tap dance and elocution, but was rejected by talent scouts because she had no formal training as an actress. Decades letter, she can poke fun at this syndrome, ironically attempting to fit her feet into Temple’s imprints at the Chinese Theatre, and dressing up like Charlie Chaplin for Hallowe’en.

Tender Fictions

Hammer has the same dysfunctional family story to tell that most of us do, but she tells it with an artist’s touch, intermingling voices of “authority” (from television, mostly) with her own. She matter-of-factly describes her mechanic father’s “greasy” hair turning his pillow black, and his calling for a gun to kill himself when his migraine headaches became too intense. A quoted passage describes the powerful influence the mother-daughter relationship has on lesbians, and Hammer provides proof in a striking reminiscence of rejecting her dying mother’s plea that she climb in bed with her: “That’s incest – I can’t!” When she scattered her mother’s ashes, “the wind blew it back in my face.” Hammer expresses alarm at a therapist referring to her mother as “seductive” – like most children, she was unable at the time to see that her parents were sexual beings in their own right.

Part of Hammer’s arsenal is the shocking image, which she intermittently inserts into the film. Sometimes she puts a mild disguise on it, so you’re not entirely sure of what you’re looking at. One example is a shot of a cat playing with an object we can’t immediately place – which turns out to be a hard penis! This process of disguising and then revealing sometimes disturbing truths is a hallmark of her work, and serves another function in commenting on the necessity of disguise as self-protection, especially in a film funded by the NEA.

Tender Fictions follows a loosely chronological trajectory, with a high point in 1970 when Hammer joined a Santa Rosa Women’s Lib group and discovered she was a “lesbian,” a word she claims not to have heard before. “I was a dyke adolescent . . . I followed my clit . . .” Still, she continuously refers back to her childhood, in an attempt to understand the life of the her present self. “When I was little I made up a game called the Truth Club. Once you were sworn into the club, as I did all my girlfriends, you had to answer any questions put to you truthfully. I think the intention of the game was to reveal the secrets and falsehoods I experienced living in a middle-class American family.” Hammer’s career as filmmaker and cultural commentator can be seen as an extension of this seemingly innocuous childhood game. That she is not immune from truths about herself is shown in the comments of some of her ex-girlfriends. One says, “I thought you were treating me like a chair you could sit on . . .” Tender Fictions gains immeasurably by Hammer’s willingness to temper the egotism implied by autobiography with such comments.