An erotic ellipsis: the ending of Variety (1983)

The tantalising final shot of Bette Gordon’s enigmatic neo-noir offers more questions than it does answers, befitting a film that revels in the thrill of mystery.

Variety (1983)

Bette Gordon’s Variety is a knotty, invigorating neo-noir steeped in counterculture and the avant-garde. Made on a micro-budget, from a screenplay by experimental novelist Kathy Acker, it explores the grubby world of New York ’s sex shops and skin flicks, bristling against the likes of the Women Against Pornography movement and their 1979 March on Times Square.

The film follows an aspiring writer, Christine (Sandy McLeod), who takes a job as a ticket seller for a seedy porn cinema. Far from being repulsed, Christine often sneaks a peek at the movies that are playing and becomes gradually obsessed with an apparently well-to-do businessman, Louie (Richard Davidson), who frequents the establishment. Initially, the narrative seems to be setting her up as the object of his tenacious desire, but Gordon flips these expectations. Frequenting places she is not expected to be, Christine assumes the role of pursuer and investigator, in a world where she is expected to be alluring prey.

The ending of Variety consists of two scenes, one that takes place in the bedroom of Christine’s apartment and a closing shot that observes the empty corner of Fulton and South Street. The penultimate scene shows Christine as she sits on the floor of her bedroom, which over the course of the film has come to resemble the aesthetic of the theatre, flooded now with neon light and adult movie posters. She plays ‘The Diary’ by Little Anthony and the Imperials on her record player. As Jerome Gourdine’s vocals describe a man’s wish for insight into the inscrutable private mind of a woman, Christine sits in the middle of the floor, upset, agitated, and ultimately unreadable. She gets up to grab a cigarette, revealing that she has been sitting on the poster for A Place Beyond Shame – about a woman reconnecting with her libido. After lighting her cigarette, she composes herself and makes a phone call, leaving a message for Louie. Moving on to the bed, to sit directly beneath the pink glow spilling through the window, the phone rings. Christine answers and describes to Louie various elements of his movements over the previous days and reassures him that she’s not a cop and that she doesn’t want his money. She arranges to meet him in one hour at a designated spot. The final shot is a minute long, and observes the empty, rain-slick street corner, lit only by a streetlamp – before anything can happen, the film ends.

Variety (1983)

Variety is, in one aspect, all about assertion and agency and these themes come to a head with Christine’s phone conversation. Right from the film’s earliest moments, Gordon is interested in the disruption of space, often using mirrors and reflections to do that literally. More importantly, this is undertaken narratively by inserting Christine into heavily male-coded locations; from the porn theatre itself to the nearby peep shows or her night-time forays following Louie to shady business dealings and nocturnal markets. The men at the porn theatre are regularly nonplussed by Christine’s presence – particularly when they bump into her as they are exiting the auditorium, quickly doing up their flies. Her boyfriend Mark (Will Patton) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her immersion in this insalubrious environment. To Christine, he becomes a boring prude against the erotic promise of an illusory Louie. As the lines between fantasy and reality blur, and Christine adopts the roles of both subject and voyeur, she begins to take control of the narrative, reaching its zenith when she firmly insists on the meeting on the corner of Fulton and South.

The film’s final shot, of that street corner in the rain, is often spoken about in relation to the closing sequence of Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) and would certainly seem to pay homage to it. Where Antonioni’s urban landscape coda arguably creates a sense of the cyclical, Gordon’s feels like more of an ellipsis. As the viewer watches the street corner, they are left to wonder about when they are seeing it. Are Christine and Louie about to arrive, in which case who will show up and what will happen? Have either or both of them already been and gone? Or is the screen vacant because neither came? On one hand, the scene is the perfect, unresolved ending for a film as enamoured with the thrill of the mystery as it is with any solution. More pertinently, perhaps, the ending might serve as a reminder that the power and pleasure of fantasy lie, to some extent, in the fact that it is exactly that.

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