"Please walk, do not run while entering or exiting the merry-go-round," says a voice in Barbara Hammer's new film, Generations. "Hold on ... the ride is about to start!"
It's quite a ride. At 71, four years after a bout with cancer, the avant-garde Queer Cinema pioneer has never been more alive, with a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern, and a memoir, Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life. Hammer's visually lush, authentic, raw films (e.g., Multiple Orgasm, 1976) helped make gay women visible in cinema.
This sensate force drives her richly poetic and layered films, two of which Hammer will present Monday at REDCAT: the West Coast premiere of Generations and the L.A. premiere of A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, a Teddy Award winner at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival.
A collaboration with Gina Carducci (Stone Welcome Mat, 2003), Generations is a passing on of craft. Influenced by Shirley Clarke's 1958 experimental film Bridges Go Round, the artists combined and manipulated footage from Coney Island's soon-to-be-demolished Astroland. What results is a celebration of the transient: history as moving target, mirrored architectural memory and the decay of the film medium itself.
It's also a rebirth. The merry-go-round repeats, the film reels again and again through the projector, the artists cast shadows on the sandy shore and the screen. This is painterly work, dislocating familiar imagery in an abstract landscape, a spacewalk into a past continually renewed with possibility.
A Horse Is Not a Metaphor re-creates Hammer's fight with ovarian cancer. With a haunting, visceral Meredith Monk score, Hammer's nonlinear, multilayered imagery takes you from fragility to vibrant hope. She lies in bed, hooked by tubes to bags of poison. X-ray skeletons move and twirl. She walks naked in the woods, "a bald ghost of myself." At last, she's in remission, triumphant on horseback near Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch. She superimposes her eye on the horse's eye, which blinks and reflects Hammer with a camera — another reflecting eye. Her short post-chemo hair compares with close-ups of horse hair, and superimposed marks akin to Cy Twombly.
Hammer's reality is hyperreal, amplified in a druggy way. Her intense, saturated color palette can be quaintly psychedelic, but you can't escape the forced intimacy of her immersive experience. This is a film of firm authority, making the moment felt, the body inhabited.
BARBARA HAMMER: EXPERIMENTING IN LIFE AND ART | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Jan. 24, 8:30 p.m. | redcat.org
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