Entering the forbidden zone: Bette Gordon’s Variety at 40

A new restoration is screening at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered alongside films inspired by post-punk New York in the 1980s and a strand of blacklisted directors

10 July 2023

By Rachel Pronger

Variety (1983)
Sight and Sound

Arguably, the power of cinema rests on one question – who is looking at who? The complex dynamics between the gaze of the filmmaker, the onscreen subject and the spectator generates an exquisite tension which provides the source of film’s magic. “It’s the place of the look that defines cinema,” wrote theorist Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “the possibility of varying it, exposing it.” Mulvey, who was writing from an explicitly feminist perspective, first presented Visual Pleasure’s thesis in 1973, triggering a discussion about the role of the male gaze in cinema that continues to resonate 50 years on, influencing countless critics and filmmakers.

One such filmmaker was Bette Gordon. In the late 1970s, Mulvey’s ideas offered a provocation to a young artist finding her voice. “Her argument was so powerful,” says Gordon, speaking to me 40 years after her cult classic Variety was released: “It was kind of a challenge, a call to me.” This response eventually found expression in the film, which centres on aspiring writer Christine (Sandy McLeod), who finds unexpected liberation when she takes a job selling tickets at a porn cinema. It ’s a subversive reflection on the nature of the gaze which maintains its potency today. Or, as Gordon puts it: it ’s “a story about looking”.

A new restoration of Variety is released in the UK in August, but it will screen first at Cinema Rediscovered, an annual celebration of classic cinema in Bristol in July. The film is part of ‘Down and Dirty: American DIY Restored’, a strand showcasing post-punk US underground gems, but Variety also speaks to the festival’s overarching theme, ‘Other Ways of Seeing’. It draws on Mulvey and the recent resurgence of interest in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), exemplified by its crowning in Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films poll last year, to explore how revisionist theory is reshaping the cinematic canon.

Variety (1983)

The roots of Variety can be traced to Gordon’s childhood – she dates her fascination with cinema to a formative teenage viewing of À bout de souffle (1960), which made her vow to go to “Godard’s Paris” and become a filmmaker. It wasn’t Paris, however, but New York that provided the catalyst for Gordon’s defining work. In 1980, she moved to Manhattan and was swept up in a thriving counterculture. The DIY ‘No Wave’ scene was flourishing amid economic turmoil, as filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick and Beth B. rubbed shoulders with musicians and artists, from Sonic Youth and John Lurie to Nan Goldin and Kathy Acker, in downtown squats. “We would just take the work and show it to each other in clubs, in empty spaces, and make our own cinemas,” says Gordon. “It was a performance of life for each other.” Detachment from the marketplace created a fierce independence, which led to radical perspectives. “We didn’t want to be part of the mainstream, and the mainstream wasn’t interested in us anyway.”

From this grit and excitement Variety was born. “When you move to New York, one of the first things your family says is, ‘Don’t ever go out alone at night,’ ” says Gordon, “but of course all I did was go out alone at night!” One night she stumbled across the Variety, a dilapidated vaudeville theatre turned porn cinema, and was transfixed. “Its neon marquee [was] right out of the past, right out of a movie. It looked delicious. I couldn’t stop looking, the lights. It was like candy, it was just calling me.” The sight of its glittering Times Square façade brought into focus ideas that had long preoccupied Gordon. Growing up, she’d loved Hitchcock ’s thrillers and the half-lit aesthetic and femme fatales of noir – especially the sleazy New York depicted by Sam Fuller and Jules Dassin. When she first began making films, Gordon had become obsessed by “the seduction of the image”, reprinting and reframing images taken with her Bolex in a process she describes as “a striptease of the frame”. At the same time, by the early 1980s film theorists (influenced by Mulvey) were becoming increasingly interested in the politics of the gaze, while the subject of pornography and sexual desire had become a divisive issue for feminist activists.

In this context, Variety took shape as an inversion of noir, an exploration of female sexuality set in the city’s seediest corners, steeped in No Wave spontaneity. Gordon describes drawing inspiration from Vertigo (1958) and the idea of what might happen if instead of James Stewart stalking Kim Novak, the roles were reversed: woman as ‘Investigator’, man as ‘Enigma’. “With Variety, I said, let me see if I can have the female as subject. [Christine] transgresses the limits of the situation. She’s the voyeur.” This collision of politics, art and cinephilia resulted in a rich, ambiguous feminist touchstone, as we follow Christine’s evolution from guileless writer to amateur detective to glamorous seductress. The idea of voyeurism – of who is looking at whom, in both art and life – provides Variety’s thematic and aesthetic central pillar, encapsulated by a recurring image of Christine sat in her ticket booth, on display, looked at but also, crucially, looking back at us.

As the film develops, Christine increasingly disrupts expectations of passive objectification. In her break, she sneaks into the cinema, fascinated both by the men in the auditorium and by the explicit images of women on the screen. As her obsession grows, she increasingly transgresses boundaries, forcing her way into the male-dominated spaces – a baseball game, a sex shop, a nocturnal market – where real business is done. A sequence in which she dreams, in tight close-up, of a parade of men shaking hands, provides a masculine equivalent of the dissected women’s bodies familiar from both mainstream cinema and porn. Meanwhile, scenes shot in Tin Pan Alley, a real bar frequented by sex workers and bohemians, depict women sharing frank anecdotes about sex and commerce. Many were Gordon’s friends, including Goldin, while the writer and countercultural icon Acker co-wrote Variety’s screenplay. These candid scenes capture a collaborative spirit and ground the film’s theoretical elements in the lived reality of women’s lives. As Gordon puts it, Variety becomes “part-document, part-narrative, part-desire-filled-landscape of New York at that moment in time”.

Unsurprisingly, given its formal and thematic audacity, Variety divided audiences. At an industry showcase, where the film screened alongside Blood Simple (1984), Gordon sensed unease. “I remember being in the bathroom and there were women talking about it, saying, ‘I don’t know what this film is? What did you think?’… Even some of my friends wouldn’t speak to me.” While the Coens’ first feature was immediately acquired, distributors didn’t know what to make of Variety. The film was released independently and screened at Cannes, where the audience split 50/50 into boos and cheers.

Aside from its provocative politics, part of what unsettled early audiences seems to have been Variety’s unresolved quality. Like Jeanne Dielman, Variety withholds narrative catharsis, as Gordon acknowledges. “ The ending didn’t offer what the audience wanted… There’s not always an answer to curiosity. Between desire and gratification lies an empty space.” Unlike the porn that Christine watches from the back row, Gordon refuses to offer a satisfying climax, withholding the pleasure we expect from mainstream cinema.

Yet it is this “empty space” which is the secret of Variety’s ongoing appeal, providing room for interpretations to evolve in line with shifting politics. At recent screenings, Gordon has been struck by how audiences seem increasingly receptive to the film’s provocations. “For me, I want to enter the forbidden zone. Variety forces the spectator, the viewer, to recognise [their] own complicity, [their] own voyeurism… I don’t want to suppress the imagination. And maybe Variety is open to the imagination.” As the film returns to cinemas, Gordon’s enigma remains as baffling and beguiling as ever.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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