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By Merle Bertrand | April 13, 2004

There’s good news and bad news about veteran filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s “History Lessons.” The good news is, the film is full of what my colleague Anthony Miele might refer to as, “hot lesbian chicks.” (Oh, grow up. I bet Ms. Hammer would agree.) The bad news is, most of these “chicks” are long-since dead.
“History Lessons,” you see, is an experimental documentary comprised primarily of archival lesbian-oriented footage dating back to the days of Edison and Melies. If nothing else, this is an impressive collection of stuff. Clips of vintage lesbian melodramas, sepia-tinged peep show loops, and tacky lesbian adult films all combine with other, not necessarily lesbian oriented items such as military propaganda films, sports clips, and sex-education films from the 1950s.
Hammer also mixes in some vintage erotic lesbian artwork, photos from exploitative tabloid articles, and the covers of adult paperback novels. Occasionally, she alters her imagery, over-dubbing audio on an Eleanor Roosevelt speech, for example; nicely comic touches that combine with the overall context of the film to plant the subliminal message that all women have at least a touch of lesbianism at their core. Once Hammer plants this seed, the audience fills in the blanks, giving a humorous double-entendre to even the most innocent comment in a military film.
The end result is an offbeat look at lesbianism prior to the Stonewall uprising. This film is at its strongest when it depicts, not only the sexism rampant in “Leave It To Beaver”-era America, but the paranoia bordering on hysteria concerning lesbianism and other “unnatural” such behavior. Had it stuck to its archival footage to drive this theme home a little more forcefully, it would have been a much stronger film. As it is, Hammer stages and shoots scenes, including one long and tedious gangster tangent that completely disrupts her film’s flow. Such sequences muddy the waters on a film that has little natural story arc to begin with.
Lacking this central driving theme, one tends to tune out the movie after a while; the novelty of watching vintage lesbian footage just for the sake of watching eventually wears off. This underscores the idea that there is such a concept as too much of a good thing.
Even cool lesbian chicks.

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