After some 75 shorts and features, many too didactic or insular for all but a small core audience, 61-year-old pioneering lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer (“Nitrate Kisses”) has pulled off something unexpected: Her latest, “History Lessons,” offers radical sexual politics in a jester’s surprise package of impudent humor and Situationist-style found-footage monkeyshines. While freeform lark may overstay its welcome for some even at 65 slim minutes, this witty, giddy exercise — a sort of “Atomic Cafe” of archaic screen lesbiana — looks a good bet for travel beyond gay fests to niche theatrical play.
Almost entirely a pastiche of clips from celluloid’s more obscure annals, feature announces its prankster intent right away by presenting footage of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing a women’s group — but with her speech tweaked so that she seems to be urging sisters to unite in carnality as well as community activism. From there Hammer builds a vaguely chronological phantom “history” of lesbian in-ya-face-dom throughout the last century, deploying funny visual juxtapositions and cheeky audio manipulations.
A fascinating archival dig, “Lessons” draws on clips as far back as film’s infancy, traipsing further through “naturalist” nudies, newsreels, women’s sports footage (including a Leni Riefenstahl excerpt), WWII Women’s Army Corps glimpses, classroom sex ed pics, “girl-on-girl” stag reels, Poverty Row melodramas, upscale ’62 lesbian angst drama “The Children’s Hour” (with pre-suicide Shirley MacLaine sobbing out her “disgusting” love for fellow schoolmarm Audrey Hepburn), Harlem Renaissance documentation, actual “dyke bar” police busts, antique commercials and so forth. None are identified individually, not even in closing credit crawl, but their relative anonymity works well for the hijinks Hammer is up to.
There are also some broad, fairly amusing staged skits turning the tables on trad “lesbian” imagery (as when a male doctor doing prurient “research” on live “deviant” women gets a dose of his own medicine), as well as a running visual motif of the filmmakers’ alter ego (played by Ann Maguire) poring through a vast warehouse of film cans. Hammer doesn’t limit herself to screen sources; “shocking” tabloid headlines and old pulp paperbacks (“Lust Parlor,” “Strange Sisters”) surface, too. Soundtrack sports a number of songs, many lyrically-tinkered Tin Pan Alley standards sung by Gretchen Phillips.
Result is a shameless imaginative assertion of Gay Pride throughout the 20th century, one that identifies, invents and/or smirkingly implies gleeful lesbian sexuality in every cultural nook and cranny. Not abandoning her avant-garde roots entirely, Hammer varies visual textures with occasional hand-treatment, jumpy frames and raggedly un-restored, deteriorating stock. It’s all quite delightful, though after a while auds in need of a more tangible road map may feel the commentary-free, high-spirited but rather nebulously structured in-joke goes on too long.
Those who enjoy retro-pop-culture pranks and dig Hammer’s subversive spirit, however, will find “History Lessons” a bracing novelty: It’s agitprop-kitsch, never sillier than when most porno-graphic. Tech package is first-rate.