USA/UK 1985, 100 mins
Director: Bette Gordon

A contemporary review
Variety is likely to arouse a fair deal of interest on the basis of Kathy Acker’s script credit. And there are certainly elements in the film which relate to the writer and her work, from the basic premise of a woman finding employment within the pornography business (an experience undergone by Acker herself), through the heroine’s bodybuilding exercises, to the whole notion of relocating pornography in contexts where its ‘meaning’ becomes unstable. It seems equally clear, however, that the theoretical motivation behind the film is particularly cinematic, and that in order to engage with it one must move beyond glib invocations of cultural shock value. Compounding the problem is the fact that a certain kind of feminist puritan would see the very subject of pornography as taboo, and thus block any consideration of the issues which the film attempts – with deliberate provocation – to explore.

In this light, it needs to be stressed from the start that Variety is not ‘about’ women and pornography. Various pornographic discourses are scattered through the film – movie soundtracks, the heroine’s speeches, the pages of magazines – but these are seen (and heard) as one kind of story, to be set against other possible narratives. Thus we are told stories about the experiences of looking for work, about union connections with the Mafia, about being arrested by vice cops, about a bar-girl who stuns her male customers by exposing her bald head, etc. This idea is frequently stressed in the dialogue: ‘You want a story, I’ll give you a story’, remarks Christine to her friend Nan in the first scene; Mark describes his union/Mob investigation as the ‘kind of story you get from the edges’; if he has to pass on information to the police, it becomes ‘a whole other story’, a phrase which in turn inspires Christine to launch into one of her own erotic monologues. The point being that for a film so full of stories, Variety remains quite unresolved at its own narrative level. Indeed, the final, brilliant shot is effectively the start of the movie, the point at which Christine’s attempts to inject herself into what might be a thriller plot look likely, at last, to come to fruition. The image, abetted by a bluesy score, is laden with noir-ish overtones – a city street corner at night, with lamplight on wet ground forming a glistening pool in the surrounding darkness (the image actually looks as if it were in black-and-white). But nothing is delivered except the credits.

For the most part, the film remains precisely suspended between narratives, with Christine oscillating between the regime of pornography ­– with its obvious investment in woman as object – and the masculine world of crime and union corruption, where she attempts to function as an investigating subject. The use of pornography is vital, since its subject/object relations are so fixed, to the extent that Christine’s appropriation of the genre’s narratives is enough to suggest the radical dis-location of her whole existence. Her increasing fascination with the pornographic world (the lure of the film sound tracks; the turning pages of magazines; the repeated ventures into sex shops and peep shows) also works as a repetitive, degree-zero parody of the spectator’s insatiable desire for narratives which repeat, with variations, familiar pleasures and then reach appropriate climaxes. It is exactly this kind of pleasure which Variety plays with and finally denies.

The use of a sex cinema as a central setting also foregrounds the issue of looking itself, underlining the point that the spectator’s gaze is never ‘innocent’. This is made apparent in the opening scenes at the swimming-pool. Christine’s body is first dissected by close-ups (to no obvious narrative end), and her conversation with Nan about the difficulties of finding employment is then offset by the overt display of their bodies (emphasised by the use of Christine’s reflection). Thereafter, we are constantly made aware of a distinction between the more or less ‘unmotivated’ look directed at Christine and the hoped-for narrative which would subsume and efface this look through the protagonist’s ‘point of view’. This is emphasised by a split between sound and image (as with the shots of Christine accompanied by off-screen, sex-film sound, or the lengthy scene in her apartment in which she is observed listening to her answerphone messages), and by the evocation of other ‘looks’ (documentary in the scenes with the group of female friends and at the fish market). In this sense, Variety reverses the central device of Bette Gordon’s earlier Empty Suitcases, where the protagonist was represented by various different actresses. Here, by contrast, the central, enduring female presence is constantly asserted as an image: the customary alibi of a relation between ‘character’ and plot is left in suspension. This central tension between image and function is best expressed by Christine herself: ‘Sometimes I think that they [the cinema’s customers] come here because they think I’m some sort of attraction…’

One should add that the look of Variety itself is beautifully rendered by Tom Dicillo and John Foster’s outstanding cinematography, and that the latter is atmospherically complemented by John Lurie’s sparse and moody score. While audiences may have problems with the film’s deliberate lack of pace, the only real structural flaw lies in the trip to Asbury Park, a sequence which merely duplicates Christine’s earlier tracking of her quarry. Otherwise, the film is the most convincing evidence from New York of life beyond punk since Michael Oblowitz’s King Blank, a rather different meditation on similar themes.
Steve Jenkins. Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1984

Bette Gordon on ‘Variety’
My life, my sexual identity, is as a feminist, but my films don’t fit easily into that category – they are not easy films at all, in fact. Films like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, which I really like, and Michelle Citron’s What You Take for Granted, are a lot more comfortable for women to deal with and simpler to use in an issue-raising way. Mine ask difficult, disturbing questions and come from another place, a different category. Or maybe no category at all, which is very exciting for me as a filmmaker. Variety is a curiosity piece. It is there to raise a lot of eyebrows.

Variety comes out of the fact that the whole sexuality question is very big in New York at the moment. Women who have worked together politically for a long time are finding themselves split around issues of what you can show, what you can want sexually, what you can even think. Variety fits right into that split. It is a dividing film, with the project of forcing people to confront things. Some women come up to me afterwards and say thank you for dealing with those issues, while others won’t even talk about it. Even among my friends, there are those who rush up and those who hide. It is as though the film touches something deeply repressed.

For myself, I took the risk of coming out and saying things about my own sexuality that won’t be popular, in talking about things that contradict the positive view of women that you are supposed to show. I guess my view of things is much more like Fassbinder’s: looking at the way things are and hoping that the audience will see that and make changes, as opposed to prescribing the way things ought to be.
Bette Gordon interviewed by Jane Root, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1984

Director: Bette Gordon
Production Companies: Variety Motion Pictures, ZDF Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Channel Four, Arnold Abelson
Financial assistance: New York State Council on the Arts
Producer: Renee Shafransky
Production Manager: Renee Shafransky
Post-production: Michael Carton
Production Assistants: Ayesha Adbul, Elyse Dayton, Jay Krieger, Julie Pelavin, David Spitzer, Louis Tancredi, Christine Vachon
Assistant Director: Tim Burns
Screenplay: Kathy Acker
Script Assistance: Jerry Delamater, Peter Koper
Additional Dialogue: Nancy Reilly
Original Story by: Bette Gordon
Directors of Photography: Tom Dicillo, John Foster
Additional Photography: Bette Gordon
Assistant Photographers: Jim Mayman, Michael Humold
Editor: Ila von Hasperg
Assistant Editor: Cyndy Schneidau
Costumes: Elyse Goldberg
Titles: The Optical House
Music: John Lurie
Additional music: Pat Irwin
Music Recording: John Lurie
Sound Recording: Helen Kaplan
Sound Re-recording: Magno Sound

Sandy Mcleod (Christine)
Luis Guzmán (José)
Will Patton (Mark)
Nan Goldin (Nan)
Richard Davidson (Louis Tancredi)
Lee Tucker (Projectionist)
Peter Rizzo (Driver)
Mark Boone Jr (business manager/porn customer)
April Andres, Suzanne Fletcher, Peyton Green, Cookie Mueller, Norma Rodriguez, Sally Rodwell (women in bar)
Scotty Snider (mother’s voice)
Spalding Gray (obscene phone voice)
Usharbudh Arya (relaxation voice)

USA/UK 1985
100 mins

An Other Parties Film Company release

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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