1.06.2013

The homosexuals in the text: The women of "History Lessons" (2000)


In History Lessons (2000), Eleanor Roosevelt presides over a convention of lesbians, lingerie models flirt with a blushing bride-to-be, and 1950s schoolgirls titter over postcards of naked women.  The fabulously cheeky faux-documentary, directed by experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, is a free-associative crazy quilt of lesbian images culled (and in some cases created) from some sixty years of archival material—old newsreels, stock footage, advertisements, trashy paperbacks, tabloids, newspaper clippings, B-movies.  In many cases, Hammer wittily makes straight-authored or straight-identified signifiers (like Roosevelt) into sites of lesbian meaning, even if she literally has to put words into their mouths to do so: she dubs salacious come-ons over old film footage, inserts suggestive cutaways, and even stages scenes of her own, such as a vengeful attack on a prurient male doctor by two female patients.  It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, made out of scraps and odds-and-ends, and its rough-hewn quality suggests the extent to which gay and lesbian experience is itself often stitched together out of the leavings of mainstream culture.  In The Celluloid Closet, Susie Bright explains the process by which gay and lesbian audiences learn to salvage “crumbs”—the queer residue that often lurks around the fringes of the cultural mainstream.  History Lessons is a film made entirely out of those crumbs.  It plays like the queerest educational film-strip you never saw in school.

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