Variety (1983)

“Many of the artists, filmmakers, and musicians from the ’80s…discussed the collaborative nature of the art world at that time: people helping with each other’s projects, the flow between different art forms – playing instruments with no training, musicians as actors, actors as cinematographers, and all combinations. I think it was because the ’80s were not market-driven (there was no market for what we were doing), so nobody was thinking about making money, casting famous people or selling to mini studios. … We were creating our own venues, clubs, exhibition spaces – and the financial aspect just didn’t figure. This created a certain kind of freedom…”

-Bette Gordon, filmmaker

Girl-pervert Neo-noir. The genre I somehow never realized I’d always wanted.

First things first. I hesitate to start this review by going on about the unfair treatment of women in the film industry, but how can I not? Bette Gordon’s phenomenal film is ahead of it’s time and all but lost to history, until now. Some of the most adept, intriguing and groundbreaking films of all time were directed by women auteurs, and yet they are continually excluded from film history. I could go on about that for pages, however it’s inappropriate to displace a review of such a creative film with an extended political tirade.

Anyway: Last week I watched this on Criterion Channel without knowing anything about it. It’s a fantastically engaging film directed stupendously by little-known auteur Bette Gordon, but in many ways the film benefits even further from it’s peculiar script, written by experimental novelist Kathy Acker. Rotten Tomatoes has no rating at all for this film, that’s how little attention it’s received since it’s release. I won’t go so far as to say that Variety is an unearthed timeless masterpiece of cinema or anything like that, but with it’s ’80s punk bonafides and it’s stark depiction of women’s sexuality, I will say that this is very good film that has been robbed of the cult status it would surely have garnered if it were more widely available. I was totally enthralled by it.

You can file this one neatly into the cabinet marked Gritty New York Movies, but there’s a little more to it than that. Rather than a straight crime thriller, this is more of a character piece in which a young woman discovers within herself a desire for the unknown and a penchant for voyeurism, more The Conversation than Taxi Driver. Many movies have chronicled the journey of self-discovery that leads to gruesome, sensational physical violence. Far fewer dare to depict the kind of open-ended psychosexual discovery made by this film’s protagonist. Violence typically sells more tickets. Sex sells, too, but not the kind of sex that Variety is about.

Gordon says, on the website Talkhouse: “I used to go to the porn stores and sex shops in Times Square. There were only men in these stores. I wanted to go where other women didn’t go. I wanted to invade male spaces, like the Fulton Fish Market, Yankee Stadium, Wall Street. I wanted to look back at them looking at me.”

The merits of both Director Gordon and Screenwriter Acker are most fully realized in a scene mid-way through the picture. Christine (Sandy Mcleod) is leaning against a pinball machine, staring at her boyfriend Mark (Will Patton), who is intently playing. Spontaneously, Christine begins reciting a story to Mark. Mark is not paying attention at all, busy playing pinball. The story takes a sexual turn. Christine goes on in great detail, describing a woman’s skin, her nipples, her lips, her hair. Christine’s eyes are as intent on Mark as his are on the pinball machine. Both appear to be concealing their own angers, harboring an increasing resentment for one another. Christine’s discovery is transforming her into a different person, and it’s becoming clearer than ever that the relationship has outlived it’s usefulness. Mark continues playing pinball, but it’s clear that he cannot escape Christine’s fiction. As the story becomes more lurid and erotic, Mark’s irritated denial of Christine has him thrusting at the pinball machine, practically mounting it in a deeply repressed frenzy of agitation. It’s not very arousing, but effectively evokes the extinguished sexual tensions of the relationship, and reveal Mark to be all but repelled by Christine’s newfound erotic predilections. Mark wants out, and Christine wants something that he is not even able to conceive of.

Did I mention that a young Luis Guzmán is in this movie? Also there’s a nasty voicemail cameo by Spalding Gray himself. It’s a great movie that offers the viewer something to think about. I wish I had this one on DVD in high school, it would have definitely blown my mind.

Thinking of a double feature? I might pair this with another low budget thriller about a woman’s self-discovery in the big city, Abel Ferrara’s urban vampire drama Addiction (1995).

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