It’s not really something you can tell your grandkids: once upon a time, people actually had to travel to adult bookstores for nudie mags and theaters on 42nd Street to watch skin flicks. As if the concept of paying for pornography wasn’t bad enough (so inconvenient!), these musky, sticky, badly lit havens for the horny were entirely male and located in only the worst parts of town. Bette Gordon’s singular 1983 film Variety goes beyond being a mere document of its era, calling into question representation of desire and filmmaking conventions that persist to this day. Christine (Sandy McLeod) is an aimless twentysomething with a journalism degree, living in downtown Manhattan and sometimes eating only ice cream for dinner. Looking for any old line of work, she takes a job selling tickets at Variety Theater. Slowly, she becomes more curious about Variety’s programming, reciting scenarios of adult films to her sort-of boyfriend. Louie (Richard Davidson), a mysterious, older wealthy man who frequents the theater, asks her out on a date. When he abruptly excuses himself, she decides to follow him, and finds a strange, corrupt, all-male world . . . located in the South Street Seaport fish market. Probing but never didactic, Gordon’s film is a unique feminist thought experiment that doubles as love letter to Fear City–era New York.
In February, I spoke with Bette Gordon, now a film professor at Columbia University, about her inspirations and collaborators, and this classic of eighties American independent cinema, which plays at Metrograph theater on March 6—with the director in person.
Violet Lucca: Can you talk a bit about the origins of the story and setting?
Bette Gordon: I was attracted to the underworld, the kind of movies I’d seen on late night TV or in film noir: Pickup on South Street, other Sam Fuller films, The Naked City. The idea that a world was underneath. In exploring the night world of New York, I came across a lot of places, especially ones that I was told were dangerous, and they became shooting locations. What attracted me to film noir was the female with a kind of agency that she didn’t have normally have in other genres, a kind of dangerous sexuality that, in a way, threatened men. Sometimes in noir the woman had power, but ultimately she was only there to assist or she was the obstacle. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” changed a lot of things for a lot of people. I was drawn to this idea of seeing and being seen and the status of conventional Hollywood narrative, with the male as subject and the woman as object. I started thinking about taking a detective noir or a Hitchcock and flipping it around: what if she actually did have agency, with woman as explorer and man as enigmatic figure? What about a story in which a woman looks back? This whole question of looking, and the pleasure in looking, and the way in which sexual desire is represented in cinema—I was very inspired by all of that. I wanted to use pornography as a backdrop because it was the ultimate version of cinema. It’s the same thing a lot of people wrote about the musical: the narrative is only an excuse to have these dance numbers in which the body of the woman is displayed. I figured pornography would raise the stakes both for the character and for the film, and it would allow me to explore things like female desire, fantasy, and pleasure. How do we define and represent fantasy? It isn't some monolithic construction, like Women Against Pornography would like us to believe. I loved what pornography had to say about or at least made us think about fantasy, sexual desire for women, and so that’s why I came to it. And I was hoping that Women Against Pornography would be even more incensed than they were—although there was some backlash.
VL: This idea of taking the noir formula and flipping it is very much what Kathy Acker did in her writing, reimagining, and reworking classics of Western literature. Could you talk about collaborating with her? She was sort of the perfect person to write this because of her own experiences working in porn and as a stripper.
BG: Our collaboration took the form of a lot of discussions and talks, and getting to know deeper things about each other. I wrote a treatment that had every scene spelled out. She would write in a kind of prose style. So a lot of her writings were those monologues or some bits of dialogue here and there, and long discussions. It couldn’t be in the film, but certainly she was more than a collaborator; in a way she was role model, but not the only role model.
She saw Christine differently than I did. Her Christine was more like her and my Christine was more Hitchcockian. For all of Kathy’s incredible toughness on the outside, on the inside she was vulnerable and sad. so there were aspects of that vulnerability that she wanted to put into Christine, and my Christine didn’t necessarily exhibit those at all. I used the monologues Kathy wrote, speaking out fantasies rather than showing them, because I was interested in the language as a tool for some kind of reclaiming or intervention. I thought it would be interesting if she speaks her fantasies out loud because when I would hang out at the cinema, I would be in the lobby sometimes and I could hear all this stuff going on and my own imagination would go to visual places. I thought, “Wow, spurring all these fantasies—maybe that’s a way to implicate the viewer more, to let them hear but not see in a film that’s all about seeing.”
I got to collaborate with so many great people on this film. All the women in the in the Tin Pan Alley bar, most of them were just there—Nan [Goldin] worked there as a bartender. Cookie [Mueller] didn’t work there, but hung out there with the bartenders; the women who would come and go. We would often be there hanging out, and it would bring together artists who worked at the Brill Building next door, which was a film editing center, and prostitutes, sex workers, pimps, and Times Square hangouts. It was a great environment because it was eclectic. One other person that I have to speak about is Sophie Calle. She had done a few conceptual pieces at the time, one of which was a piece called Suite Venetian, in which she followed a man over a long time, like a year, but anonymously and he never knew until the very end. Obviously, it was very influential to me.
VL: Christine goes to these different bars, one with a large Latino clientele playing merengue, or the porno shop—transgressing racial and gender boundaries in places that are no longer around. Could you talk a little bit about finding those locations and the act of “paring down” New York City?
BG: Transgression is a big part of a lot of the work coming out of the early 80s by women directors and writers like Kathy. Crossing boundaries or crossing into an area that’s designated male was really one of the objectives of what I wanted to do: to cause a disruption and also to look back from within that place. Coming home from clubs late at night, sometimes going underneath the FDR Drive right at South Street, we would come upon this area by the water where hundreds of men were selling fish under the brightest lights, like Las Vegas. It smelled great. I said, “Oh my God, this is a male terrain, I need to be in it,” so I would hang out there. I took a lot of still photographs and eventually we shot the scenes there.
Then there’s Yankee Stadium, which is only men, right? No female baseball players. What I really loved was a Hitchcockian idea of the recognizable backdrop, whether it’s Albert Hall or the race track. I had also explored shooting other places like Asbury Park, because, as I walked through Times Square, I was so attracted to the voices of the barkers: “Girls, girls, girls, beautiful girls, come on in, come on!” That got me thinking what else in life has that kind of seductive call, so, of course, that idea of boardwalks and amusement parks. That idea of, “Give me 50 cents and I’ll give you four balls and see if you can hit this, play this game, get four baskets, get a prize.”
VL: I really loved the scene at the Pink Flamingo hotel where she steals his porno mag. Really, I love all the parts with Louie, because it’s such a strange thing to ask an adult woman: “You want to go to the ball game?” Everything about him is so strange. I completely understand why she needed to follow him.
BG: The mysterious man . . . I cast [Richard Davidson] because I thought he looked like Jean-Louis Trintignant. But it wasn’t just him—it became the following itself that is the seduction, and the desire between the object and the subject, or the gap between those two things, and what is desired but ever promised but never found. Cinema and pornography substitutes the look for the touch. You can never have what’s on the screen. So it maintains a desire for something, gratification promised but never found. What was most frustrating to people, especially at Cannes Film Festival where we premiered the film at Directors’ Fortnight, was not so much the porn but the lack of closure at the end, which is a cardinal sin in narrative. That ending was more subversive than the porn and monologues. Antonioni used open endings many times, and while I guess a certain element of movie-going culture would be upset with that, in the art cinema language it was perfectly acceptable.
VL: That’s very true—it’s only acceptable in certain types of films. Something that kept drawing my attention was the style. There are these very long takes, mostly static shots, which are now associated with “slow cinema.” But at the time, that’s how pornos were shot. So formally, what were you thinking of or trying to get at with that approach?
BG: I think I was attracted to framing itself. Composition has always been very important to me for what it has to say about meaning. Windows within windows, doorways, reflections—really taking one’s time to allow the structure of the frame to add another layer of meaning. You see this sort of young, youthful cinema today, which to me seems to be all about dialogue and not about cinema. The frame should be able to comment on the story. Also, not using shot-reverse shot. I don’t think this anymore, but at the time intervening in that conventional structure was of interest to me, so that there was this slight distance between the viewer and the subject and you weren’t so bound to the formal, conventional narrative. Allowing the image to speak, so you had time to see the landscape outside the train Christine takes to Asbury Park. People sometimes still tell me that they love that very long tracking shot, where the landscape becomes a blur. It was even longer but my editor, Ila von Hasperg—who was wonderful and who had worked with Fassbinder—finally convinced me to cut it a little bit shorter. She was right.
VL: Can you talk about John Lurie, who did the fantastic music?
BG: The music was so important. The key to noir is finding the mood and the tone of the whole film. Jim Jarmusch, Sarah Driver, my husband, and I were all Lounge Lizard devotees. We were just always hanging out. John was like from another world. Everyone was torn jeans and spiky hair, and here was John, a classic throwback. I knew that he was absolutely the right person. We would have these phone conversations, and he would have some little harmonica and play me things over the phone. John recorded it with all the guys from the band, but he wanted another sax player, so we just pulled a guy off the street. He was really great. I could have even had more music, but there’s also something beautiful about the silences, like her footsteps when she goes to the Staten Island Ferry Building.
Everybody always asks: what was it like in the 80s? And I’ll tell you, the best thing about the 80s was that there was no market for what we were doing in the way in which the market is defined today. What made it so free—and I think more creative than anything—was the sense that it wasn’t market-driven. You didn’t have to prove that you had famous actors. You didn't have to think, “Where am I going to show this later?” You made it because you loved it. You made it because you wanted to, and your friends wanted to help you. Later, independent films of this kind became absorbed into a much more conventional form. I mean, it’s great that independent films get support now, but it’s only a certain type of independent film. I find that it’s clubby and exclusive. Back then there was no sense of worry. It was pure pleasure, and it was pure enjoyment. But I like to think that there are those people on the outside who are still making films for the love and the joy, and for what they want to say about the world.
Violet Lucca is Film Comment’s digital editor and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Brooklyn Magazine, and Little White Lies.