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Affecting Rhetoric in Barbara Hammer's Nitrate Kisses

by Ethan Tussey

by Jean Bessette for IN MEDIA RES

Barbara Hammer is considered the “grand dame” of lesbian filmmaking, creating her first film in the 1970s and producing them prolifically ever since.  In this clip of Nitrate Kisses, a 1992 experimental documentary, Hammer deliberately exposes taboo images as an affective rhetorical strategy. The film begins with a quotation from Adrienne Rich that suggests the film will be about the present dangers of allowing the past to become or remain “unspeakable”: exclusivity within lesbian communities. Nitrate Kisses is an attempt 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 presently “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, perhaps creating a new 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.

Nitrate Kisses

clip from Nitrate Kisses

from Nitrate Kisses (1992)
Creator: Barbara Hammer
Distributor: Frameline
Posted by Ethan Tussey