By Mike Dub
Bette Gordon’s 1983 independent thriller Variety is a sharp, ambitious thriller, and deserves to mentioned alongside other vivid films about the alienated abyss of the old New York City – the ugly, dangerous, vile New York City that is nostalgically eulogized by former denizens who left the moment they could afford it. Shot on beautifully grainy 16mm film, incorporating a litany of sleazy, repugnant locations – XXX theaters, porn shops, dive bars, Yankee Stadium – Variety comes to life with the energy of the city in the same way as the early films of Scorsese, Cassavetes, and Abel Ferrara. Though Gordon follows in the stylistic footsteps of her heavyweight cinematic predecessors, Gordon’s feminist thriller has a much more academic approach, which is unfortunately detrimental to the film.
The first half of Variety is a clever, engrossing story of Christine (Sandy McLeod), a young woman who, after accepting a job selling tickets to a porn theater, discovers her own sexuality. The process is slow for Christine: first, she listens to the movies from the lobby, smoking a cigarette during a break. Soon, she is curious enough to watch from the projection booth. Before you know it, she ventures into the theater, slipping through the red velvet curtain that hangs at the entryway to the theater, as though protecting the outside world from its own desires.
Variety excels as it perceptively confronts the sexual hypocrisy of a male-dominated culture. When Christine confesses her new job to her boyfriend, Mark (Will Patton, who for some reason looks exactly the same thirty years ago as he does now), he shows a look of concern that suggests he may be worried for her safety. But when she admits to watching the movies, we realize it’s her interest in sex itself that scares him, and he flees in discomfort. Sometime later, Christine meets a stripper in a bar who tells a story of how she was coerced into accepting a proposition from a john who happened to be an undercover agent. The absurdity of the prostitution’s illegality in the midst of the thriving sex industry of Times Square would be laughable if it weren’t so crushing.
Later, in a brilliantly constructed scene, Christine curiously enters a porn shop and browses through the magazine section. As she enters, the men in the shop scatter away from her, but continue to eye her in creepy, sexualized glances. The verite-style cinematography manages to capture Christine’s vulnerability without the artifice of melodramatic close-ups. Her mere presence in the porn shop is a threat to the fraternity of male sexual fantasy. Accordingly, like animals, the men are both curious and afraid of this rare creature that has infiltrated their watering hole.
The second half of the film is dominated by a thriller plotline concerning one of Christine’s regular customers, who convinces her to go out with him. It is here that the film becomes mired in film theory, preoccupied with feminizing “the gaze” and reversing the conventions of film noir. Gordon’s attempt is noble, but it is made at the expense of the narrative, which drags at a snail’s pace during the second half of the film. It’s one thing to challenge ideological genre conventions, but Gordon fails to capture the more traditional narrative essentials that make the films she is challenging so entertaining to watch. Consequently, what was effective cinematography becomes bland, patient editing becomes boring, and characters no longer feel real, nor do they seem to be in any real danger.
Though its aim may have been higher than its reach, Variety is still an interesting film to watch, partly because of the amount of young talent that worked on the project. The credits are a catalogue of all-star hipsters who would eventually impact the independent film movement of the 1980s and ‘90s: Luis Guzman, Mark Boone Junior, Spalding Gray, Renee Shafransky (Gray’s partner and eventual producer); director of photography credits are shared by Tom DiCillo (who would later shoot Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise before directing his own films) and John Foster, another successful independent cinematographer. Even the music was scored (brilliantly) by indie great John Lurie.
Despite the problems in the second half, Variety stands as an ambitious feminist project that feels both ahead of its time and a vital document of it. Now absent of the cavalcade of pornography it used to exhibit, Times Square has become a barely recognizable amusement park of consumerism. However, Variety reminds us that while the architecture may have changed, social issues concerning women and sexuality still persist. They may just be masked by the gloss of a shopping mall, the way a red velvet curtain used to protect us from our desires.