Affecting Rhetoric in Barbara Hammer's Nitrate Kisses

Curator's Note

Barbara Hammer is considered the “grand dame” of lesbian filmmaking, creating her first film in the 1970s and producing them prolifically ever since.  Her 1992 experimental documentary, Nitrate Kisses, begins with a quotation from Adrienne Rich intimating that the film will be about the present dangers of allowing the past to become or remain “unspeakable.” I suggest that Nitrate Kisses attempts to redress these dangers by deliberately showcasing the taboo images and stories that are silenced even within lesbian communities and history.

Interspersed with footage of elderly women dancing together, the film presents in stark relief the intimacy of nude, aged lesbian lovers.  These taboo images are set against a soundtrack of oral history interviews with elderly women who feel excluded from lesbian communities for their age, for their supposedly anachronistic attachment to butch and femme relationship models, for their loneliness. Hammer repeatedly returns the camera to the nude lovers so that their aged bodies affect viewers again and again.

This is an intentional and rhetorical move.  As affect theorists Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg ask, “how does a body, marked in its duration by these various  encounters  with  mixed forces, come to shift its affections  (its being-affected)  into action (capacity to  affect)?”  I suggest that these unapologetically elderly, nude bodies leverage affect to encourage contemporary lesbian viewers to queer their communities and to eschew the exclusion of difference, so that the history represented in the elderly voices does not, as Adrienne Rich warns at the beginning of the film, become “unspeakable.”

The clip affects viewers bodily--an intake of breath, an accelerated pulse--before cognition can intervene with liberal acceptance of the difference displayed.  This affective exchange of intensities, across a documentary screen, may circumscribe a new sense of sociality. As JE Rice writes, explaining Teresa Brennan’s thesis in The Transmission of Affect: “My body imbibes contextual affects that include what you give off, thereby changing the makeup of my physiology. Consequently, ‘we’ describes the zone of relations that is operative in affective transmission.”   The affect given off by and between bodies in Nitrate Kisses is jarring on a sensory level, creating sociality based on the relational exchange of intensities between a complex “we." The bodily viewer response may have the effect of queering--disrupting, affecting, forging--identification with the elderly women on screen.


Jean, your last sentence here captures really pointedly how I felt watching these sounds and images. I found it profoundly moving, and felt for as well as (strangely) felt with these women on the screen. The tension between voiceover and image, and the repetition of closeups of skin and faces, created a space into which I was drawn. As you put it, my viewing senses were distruped, affected, and new identifications forged. I wonder if part of the impact for me was the tension these sounds and images created with my own political horizon (one which has never directly considered the experience of these women) - sort of amplifying the affects because of how they challenge the epistemic framework?

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