One thing I’ve found to be more common in lesbian-directed biopics or documentaries about legendary queer women is that they tend to provide the full truths about their subject. This is true for Dee Rees‘ Bessie, Nancy Kates‘ Regarding Susan Sontag, and now Barbara Hammer‘s Welcome to This House. By “truths” I mean the queerness of the women they are focusing on is not shied away from, or given a brief once-over to say they’ve touched upon it. Instead, their relationships and the work inspired by them are delved into with the necessary clarity and wonder that is deserved. Suffice to say, I loved Welcome to This House.
images via Welome to this House
Barbara Hammer is a legendary lesbian filmmaker and artist who was one of the first to create moving pictures that specifically spoke to and about lesbian women, including Dyketatics, Superdyke meets Madame X, Nitrate Kisses and Tender Fictions. Her new film about award-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop is a continuation of her work, exploring the many homes Elizabeth had (from growing up in Nova Scotia to spending time in New York City, Key West, Brazil, Seattle and Boston), and the romances she entertained while living in so many different locales. Barbara interviews people who knew Elizabeth—a woman who worked in her home with lover Lota de Macedo Soares, poets who studied under her at Harvard, an old friend who she knew from summer sailing camp in Cape Cod. Historians, too, and those who appreciate Elizabeth’s writing and the time she dedicated to her craft.
Elizabeth was born in 1911 and lived until 1979, dying at her home by the water in Boston. The eras she lived in were greatly homophobic, and so she was only out to friends and those who knew her well. Though she never said the word “lesbian” in describing herself, Elizabeth’s poetry was very much about female-on-female desire, and she spent her life in romances (though sometimes unrequited) with many different women—Lota being the most famous, and there is also a 2013 film about their relationship, Reaching for the Moon. Others include heiress Louise Crane and Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway.
Welcome to this House tells the stories of the women, the writing and the homes of Elizabeth Bishop, not shying away from her obsessions and dark relationship with alcohol. Using photographs, recorded audio, a voiceover reading her poetry and actors portraying her throughout her life, the film is beautifully done and answers the questions fans of “Bishie” might still have, as she never wrote a memoir and tried to get rid of the last journal of her work before she died. (A friend knew this might be the case, and he copied every page to publish after her passing.)
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the greatest poets of the last century, and she was an unapologetic queer woman whose work reflects her life, and the lives of so many others. Barbara Hammer’s documentary about her is a telling tribute that will leave you wanting to binge on her work and fall in love with her all over again.
Welcome to This House is currently playing at the MOMA in New York and will also screen at several other film festivals in the near future. Visit the Facebook page for further information.