“I used to go to the porn stores and sex shops in Time Square. There were only men in these stores. I wanted to go where other women didn’t go. I wanted to invade male space, like the Fulton Fish Market, Yankee Stadium, Wall Street. I wanted to look back at them looking at me. In one store, there were magazines and sex booths in the back. After putting 25 cents in a machine behind the curtain and checking out the three minute peep show, I stopped to look at some magazines. The owner of the store asked me to leave. “Why should I? “He said I was making men nervous. And he wondered if I was trying to proposition the guys. It was okay for a woman to be an image in a magazine or on a screen, but a real woman in their space was too disruptive.”
The quote is taken from an interview which director Bette Gordon gave for Talkhouse about her cult film, Variety from 1983, set in downtown New York City, in the center of financial meltdown and artistic takeover of the neighbourhoods such as TriBeCa, where the director lived and worked when she first moved to New York. It’s been 35 years since the film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, and recently a new generation had the honour of seeing it in beautiful 35mm print at Delphi Palast earlier this year at the 69th edition of Berlinale.
Variety is a woman’s answer to male gaze films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was also Gordon’s inspiration in making her first feature. Gordon wanted to invert the traditional narrative structure and give a woman, the central character, the role of the investigator, where the male character is shown to be weak, followed, looked at, and vulnerable. It’s a noir in colour where man and woman change places and disrupt the usual narrative. Man is the enigma, it is his turn to be pursued and questioned.
Christine, our female protagonist (Sandy McLeod) is desperate for money and a job, and in conversations with her best friend Nan (played by a famous photographer Nan Goldin) decides to take the job at a street ticket booth for a porn theatre called Variety. Her work place is a small and cramped booth, almost like a small cage, where she feels cornered and isolated and always asks for cigarette breaks, smoke being less suffacating then real air. In one of the breaks in between the booth and dark theatre, hearing women moan, she meets mysterious and well dressed Louie who buys her a coke and invites her out. She accepts the offer and becomes somewhat of a detective of Louie’s shady business and life when he leaves her in the middle of the date to go and finish an unsolved business. Sandy’s real boyfriend, which is not completly clear, uptight and conservative Mark (Will Patton) is convinced Louie is involved in a mob. He is also in denial when it comes to the nature of Sandy’s job and he can’t stand listening to her work stories or witness Sandy’s newly discovered power and sexuality when she recites a pornographic story in front of him in a bar, which is probably the wittiest scene in the film.
Christine breaks out of her small booth and feels more and more in tune with her on sexuality, becoming interested in the porn industry and exploring her own new strength and fearlessness. After days and weeks of following Louie all over New York, she makes the effort and calls him to meet him, dressed provocatively, but Gordon leaves us making up our own narrative, as the movie ends with the shot of an empty New York street corner where the meeting was supposed to take place. It’s a very intelligent crossover from the desire Christine is obviously experiencing, to the instant gratification we would have if they actually met on screen. As Gordon has stated in a Q&A, between desire and gratification lies an empty space and this space is full of possibilities. It’s up to us what possibilities have we imagined.
This is where the strength of the film lies, not as much in exploring the porn narrative or objectification of the women, but as in who controls it and what is the nature of the narrative? Whose desires are more important: that of men or of women? Christine is an interesting, young woman whose presence can raise eyebrows in a more mainstream audience, or an audience that is simply not used to the woman’s point of view. Although she is pretty and blonde, she is also incapable of small talk, she confides in almost nobody, neglects her friends and mother, acts passive towards every day affairs and takes pleasure in visiting male peep show rooms and porn theatres on Time Square. She acts like a man and she goes to places that are seedy and dangerous. She does not elaborate her new lifestyle to anybody and that gives her a new found strength and freshness. She is only responsible to herself. The beauty of this film is that it doesn’t make you like her or dislike her for that matter and it’s not giving any moral stand on issues that are still a hot topic in today’s current affairs. As Gordon says alone: “the tyranny of likability: the idea we need to like (or dislike) a character because it will justify some of our own ideas or views on life. Life is, like it or not, an ambiguous affair.”
Variety is the director’s original story, but she did turn to provocative and one-of-a-kind feminist and punk author Kathy Acker to write the script. Acker deserves more then one short paragraph, being one of the most fearless females, true rebel authors in modern literature, a postmodern Colette, with modern, crazy, sexy and painfully maddening writing style. It’s untamed and it’s brilliant. Gordon gathered some of the most creative people to collaborate with on her first debut. Cinematographer Tom DiCillo, known for his films such as Living in Oblivion, Johnny Suede, and Box of Moonlight, to name a few. Will Patton and Luis Guzman have impressive roles and the original score is composed by John Lurie, who is known for Jim Jarmush’s early works but also as a very imaginative and innovative jazz musician.
New York City also plays a big part in the film and one can see a great deal of attention given to colours, lighting, past and present in the city. Gordon is very much influenced by the films of Samuel Fuller such as Pickup on South Street. It’s more than just a setting, it’s the heartbeat of the city by night and day, the corners, bars, fish markets, porn theatres all coexisting and having their own pulse. What makes Variety an important representative of a time long lost, is the collaborative nature of the time when the film took place. New York was a poor and dangerous, but an exciting place that was not market driven. Rents were cheap and affordable, creativity was at its peak. People were not so hung up on money making, selling, and product market placement. Artists were creating their own markets, art studios, venues, clubs, and exhibition spaces where art would be created and placed, sometimes all in the course of the same day. The financial part was secondary. World was smaller and money was not important. It was somehow free, in lack of a better word.