Berlinale 2009: A Horse Is Not A Metaphor

Berlinale 2009
Berlinale

American experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer was present at the Berlin International Film Festival this year with her newest production, entitled A Horse is Not a Metaphor. The thirty-minute film explores details of the director’s biography, with a strong emphasis on her struggle against ovarian cancer. For a public as yet unaccustomed to the work and person of the artist, it was extremely suitable to have her film shown alongside a selection from her experimental films in the late 80s and 90s. In the talk after the showing, Hammer was bursting with vitality and confessed that she is enjoying the return to experimental film after many years of shooting documentaries; although she did not intent to make a film about a tragic period of her life, she picked up the camera as a means of recovering from the torments of chemotherapy. Hammer has been for over two years in remission from cancer; thus the feel of the films is extremely positive, focusing on the moments of recovery and normality which followed the remission of the disease. It took 10 days to put the material together, and an of average 8 hours of unprocessed film was used to obtain 1 minute and 30 seconds of what she calls her “essay film.”

For A Horse is Not a Metaphor, she uses the peculiar music of composer and performance artist Meredith Monk. Powerful images of Hammer in the hospital, unrecognizable as she undergoes treatment, are superimposed on her swimming naked in a river, or riding a horse. The film deals with the fragility of the female body, but at the same time captures feminine strength, in shots such as women rodeo-riders mastering their stallions. Animals play an important part, as a prevailing theme of the film is the close relationship of the artist with the animals in her life. She is shown bathing in the middle of nature in the company of her dog Spooner, or filming from horseback. Dialogue is scarce, incorporated in lyrical phrases describing the artist’s inner experiences, “I want to be a bird migrating”, “Horse and I are one”, intercalated with textbook descriptions of the symptoms tormenting her.

The retrospective contained also Sanctus, and Vital Signs, two experimental films not too distant in subject-matter from A Horse is not a Metaphor. Made in 1990, Sanctus was born out of the serendipity of the artist’s encounter with cineradiograpy; while visiting an old medical centre in New York, she found some moving x-rays belonging to the medical researcher James Sibley Watson, inventor of the optical printer and early experimenter in motion pictures in the 1920s. In this work, Hammer tried to inhabit his spirit, and by manipulating his frames of skeletal human structures, she aims at portraying the liquidity of the body, its hidden fragility and need of protection. One can recognize that her latest film incorporates some of the material in Sanctus.

The 10 minutes experimental film Vital Signs speaks of something beyond the apparent obsession with the body. It seems to explore a connection between eroticism and death, and to bring this into the realm of the personal, through shots like those of the artist dancing with a skeleton in a wedding dress. Even more evocative of her personality is her 1989 film Still Point, shot in super 8 and optically printed, in which she wanted to discover how “4 screens can talk to each other.” This film marks the beginning of her investigation of questions of gender difference and her interrogation of social attitudes to homosexuality. Shortly after having met her life-long partner, Hammer describes the uncertainty and insecurity concerning their gay relationship, having amorous scenes in the desert played against grey, subdued images of New York streets. Barbara Hammer is regarded as a precursor of the exploration of gender issues though experimental film and the artist behind some of the first films in history affirming authorial identity as principally lesbian in nature.

By Brindusa Birhala (’09, Romania)