Tender Fictions

Considering the rich, interesting life she has lived, Barbara Hammer's personal documentary, Tender Fictions, is a frustrating experience, a densely textured film that doesn't illuminate much the artist or the woman.

One of the weaker entries in a particularly strong year for documentaries at Sundance, this one-hour collage of sounds, images, and quotations is probably best suited for gay and lesbian festivals.

Meant as a subjective memoir that will also highlight pertinent issues of what it means to be a lesbian-feminist filmmaker in American society of the last three decades, Tender Fictions juxtaposes autobiographical materials from Hammer's conservative, middle-class background with observations on the emergence of a candidly politicized artist who's overtly feminist and lesbian.

The loquacious granddaughter of a Jewish-Ukrainian family, Hammer grew up during the Depression at a time when Shirley Temple was making more money and had more influence than any other person in the U.S. It was almost fatefully predetermined that she would pursue a showbiz career, encouraged by her mother to take lessons in tap dancing, modern dance and elocution; her grandma, who worked as a cook for Lillian Gish in Hollywood, introduced her to D.W. Griffith.

Sporadically, Hammer offers some perceptive comments about the insufficient number of books about (or by) lesbian writers, which could serve a vital function in the formative years of young and aspiring lesbian artists. The sequence detailing her marriage and subsequent coming out in the l970s is one of docu's more interesting segments, capturing the fermenting political milieu during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, which was beneficial to anti-establishment protests by, among others, feminist and gay liberation movements.

Regrettably, there's too much narration, which is not always revelatory, and quotes from intellectuals on the order of Frenchman Roland Barthes and African-American lesbian poet Audre Lordes are often interwoven into the personal narrative in a rather arbitrary manner, making the work even more disjointed than it really is. Stylistically, the film relies heavily on montage of brief images and sounds that gives the work a busily thick texture, but undercuts it's overall emotional resonance. Tender Fictions is never boring, but it's exhausting and not much fun to watch.

Produced, directed, edited by Barbara Hammer.
Camera (16mm b&w/color), Hammer, Amy Halpern; music, Pamela Z. Monika, Catherine Jauniaux. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 1996. Running time: 58 min.