Dream Age (1979), directed by Barbara Hammer (all images courtesy of the Barbara Hammer Estate and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York)

“Barbara Hammer was one of those people who, even if you didn’t see her work, you knew she was important, because of what she represented as a cultural figure,” Mark Toscano told me when we first met at S(8) Cinema Periférico, an experimental film festival in Spain. A preservationist at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, Toscano has been responsible for restoring Hammer’s vast body of work. Together with KJ Relth, a programmer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Toscano also curated a retrospective of Hammer’s work, Barbara Hammer: Superdyke, which ran in Los Angeles in 2018, while the filmmaker was still alive. Now, in the wake of Hammer’s recent death, Superdyke is coming to the Museum of the Moving Image. Running for two weeks, the series comprises seven programs which showcase Hammer both as a committed gay activist and an exhilarating, multifaceted avant-garde artist.

Toscano recalls his first meeting with Hammer in 2002 at Canyon Cinema, where he worked: “Barbara had a few minutes to visit us, and she ran through our new space and signed our wall—bigger than anyone.” That was the start of their relationship. Over the years, while Hammer was not yet ready to give her films to the Archive, Toscano kept in touch. This relationship culminated with Hammer sending him her prints in 2016, after she found out that the cancer she had been battling for years had come back. She passed away in March 2019. 

Women I Love (1976), directed by Barbara Hammer

A passionate director whose bold, playful, immersive films recorded and enlivened the cultural conversations around her, Hammer was an icon of both queer and experimental cinema. She is perhaps best known for works such as Dyketactics (1974), in which naked women frolic outdoors like animated nudes from a Matisse painting, or Superdyke (1975), a militant feminist lesbian film. These were some of the earliest American films to explore lesbian identity and love (the latter also gives the retrospective its name). Supderdyke is a comedy of sorts. It displays Hammer’s ludic predisposition as she parodies pop culture stereotypes, like the Amazon or Superman. The film crucially gave a voice to the emergent lesbian community in San Francisco. It conveys the wonder of communal thinking and living, a subject Hammer often returned to. Some of her films were intimate, such as the sublime Women I Love (1976), a series of portraits of women Hammer knew. It exults in the sensual, scopophilic pleasure of seeing the female form, flesh, and sex. It situates beauty in the Rabelaisian, orgiastic vein, weaving in a bloodied tampon or the grunting of a hog with angelic faces and the blooming flowers. 

Other communal projects took Hammer to the forefront of cultural and social conflicts, such as Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), in which she confronts the media’s complicity in perpetuating derogative stereotypes around gay love during the AIDS crisis. Still others had her roaming cities and coaxing strangers to connect, as in Would You Like to Meet Your Neighbor? A New York Subway Tape (1985).

From Dream Age

Superdyke offers an unprecedented opportunity, spanning Hammer’s career and exhibiting many new 16mm prints. Taking in the broad scope of her filmography, it’s hard not to be amazed at how hard it is to define a quintessential style for her. She characterizes her short film, Psychosynthesis (1975), which is a self-portrait, in a way that seems most apt: “A gestalt fantasy work,” she says in the voiceover, “uniting my sub personalities of athlete, baby, witch, and artist.” To be multiple, not defined by a single image or label, seems essential to how Hammer thought of herself. Her techniques of fragmentation, collage, and double exposure create a physical dislocation, but also open up visual and signifying possibilities. 

In Psychosynthesis, Hammer manifests her many selves in ecstatic laughter, in images of women heavily made up and posing as witches or shamans, in baby photos in which her smile is toothless and unbound. The joie de vivre of her work is irresistible, even when it’s invoked in something more transcendental and nostalgic. One example of this is Dream Age (1979), in which “A 70-year-old lesbian feminist, seeing little change in the society after years of work, sends out her 40-year-old self on a journey taking her around the perimeters of the San Francisco Bay.” Hammer encounters herself through her alter egos: a guardian angel, a seductress, and a wise woman.  It trades her zest for a bit of Zen. 

Bent Time (1984), directed by Barbara Hammer

Hammer was a consummate borrower. Women I Love opens with the image of a cabbage that evokes the photographs of Edward Weston or the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, and myriad associations around nature and the body. Sequences in Dream Age recall kabuki theater and Asian cinema. Pools (1981), her least narrative collage, may be the most painterly of her works. Filmed at Hearst Castle in California with an underwater camera, it features Hammer experimenting with painting directly on film and shifting into animation. In I Was / I Am (1973), Hammer recontextualizes an image she so loved to use — a naked 20th-century militant lesbian Amazon — this time borrowing from horror and B-movies, spicing the whole thing up with the cool decadence of marginal cinema. 

 Toscano adopted Hammer’s desire for complete immersion as a guiding principle in restoring her work. While about two-thirds of her films were in good condition and only needed to be preserved, others required more work. Bent Time (1984) is a good example. Since the original picture and sound were lost, Toscano had to work from the existing copies to carry out a digital restoration. The color had faded and needed to be corrected. Meanwhile, the sound was restored from the original record, and is now in stereo on the DCP. “I am normally more conservative with restoration choices,” he says, “but with Barbara, I knew that she wanted her work to be fully immersive, to really convey the ecstasy of being alive in the world.” 

While she lived, Hammer was deeply engaged in the restoration. She exchanged messages and emails with Toscano, and approved images and copies. “Barbara was the first to tell you she was a control freak,” he jokes. “Always the director. And she did it in a way that was charming.” This charm and passion linger after viewing Hammer’s work; an encounter with art is as much about surrendering to the flow of sensation as it is about processing it. For Hammer, there seemed to be no divide. She was a witch and a sorceress, a sprinter flashing through the picture, a baby wanting to feel and touch, and an artist who reined in all that shimmer and flux. Forever the director.

Barbara Hammer: Superdyke opens today at the Museum of the Moving Image and runs through July 28. The series is organized by KJ Relth and Mark Toscano, and co-presented by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.