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35 mm, 97 min. English.

Christine lives in New York and needs a job. She finds one at the box office of a porn cinema, where she sits between the street and the entrance. Everyone entering the cinema must walk past her. Gradually, she develops a fascination for the porn industry. When one of the customers invites her to a baseball game and suddenly leaves, she decides to follow him. Her obsession takes her to dark streets and fish markets, perhaps into the world of the mafia. The more she follows her desires, the more she seems to resemble the image of a porn star. Her journalist boyfriend distances himself from her, her mother and a friend leave worried messages on her answerphone. Eventually, she tells the man she’s been stalking to meet her at a street corner.
Variety inverts the traditional narrative structure of cinema – whereby a man watches and a woman is watched – without showing, and thus flaunting, the object of female desire. Creating a counter-narrative to Hollywood, Bette Gordon asks the same question formulated by Teresa de Lauretis in “Oedipus Interruptus”: “How did Medusa feel upon seeing herself in Perseus' mirror just before being slain?” (Stefanie Schulte Strathaus)

Bette Gordon was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA in 1955. She studied French literature and film theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also earned a degree in filmmaking. In 1972, she lived in Paris for a year, studying French language and literature at the Sorbonne. Gordon moved to New York City in 1980, where she joined the Collective for Living Cinema as Educational Director. She is currently a professor at Columbia University in The School of the Arts, where she teaches film directing.

Flipping conventions

As a visual artist/filmmaker moving to New York City in the 1980s, I was attracted to the underside of New York, the city I had seen in movies like Sam Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET or THE NAKED CITY by Jules Dassin. Film noir was always an appealing genre for me, not only for its half-lit dark streets but also for its female characters who possessed a dangerous/intriguing sexuality – an unrestrained sense of female sexuality. Hitchcock films attracted me also because they possessed an obsessional quality – VERTIGO, REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO. With VARIETY, I thought… what about turning the genre of the noir thriller on its head – woman as investigator/male as enigmatic figure.  
Exploring New York City – the underground, late at night – I came upon The Variety Theatre – its neon marquee something out of the past. I could not stop looking!
I wanted to investigate the theatre. It had once been a vaudeville theatre, and before that, a horse stable for the Stuyvesant family. Now it was a porn theatre.
More than just a setting or an environment, I wanted to make New York City a character with its own personality, seen in the garish night-time quality of Times Square, the hyper-real, overly-lit look of The Fulton Fish Market, the baseball game at Yankee Stadium looming like a backdrop from a Hitchcock movie.
In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey argues that the pleasure in looking in cinema is connected with the centrality of the image of the female, as object of the male gaze. With VARIETY, I attempted the reverse, to set the female as subject of that gaze. By disrupting the conventions of the thriller genre, where vulnerability and intrusion are expected, I attempt the opposite. The woman transgresses the limits of the situation; she is the voyeur who watches and follows the man. She is not the enigma to be tamed.
VARIETY is a film about looking. I use frames within frames, windows, doorways and reflections in order to visually capture the idea of looking and being looked at. Pornography offered me a way to explore this and to see what it had to say about desire, and what kind of fantasies it mobilises. Pornography substitutes the look for the touch and sustains desire for ever promised but never found gratification. I wanted to address my own sexuality with a voice other than censorship, using fantasy to investigate desire. The heroine of my film, Christine, acts out the fears and fantasies of an entire generation of women coming to terms with their own sexual pleasure.   
Actually, the most controversial aspect of VARIETY was not the inclusion of porn or the fact that the filmmaker was embracing porn as a kind of expression. More disturbing to people was the ending, which did not provide an absolute conclusion. The dark empty street at the end of the film says that between desire and gratification lies an Empty Space – but that space is full of possibilities. (Bette Gordon, December 2018)

Conversation with Bette Gordon: “I didn’t want to re-show the same kind of imagery that porn uses”  

Christine Noll Brinckmann: How did pornography come to be a subject for your first feature film?

Bette Gordon: In some ways, sexuality was the subject and that’s what led to pornography. A great deal of my work before VARIETY was concerned with sexuality and the representation of images of women. The idea of ‘looking’ was also crucial to my early short films, but the emphasis was on the look of the viewer at the image. For example, in EMPTY SUITCASES (1981), the hypnotic gaze of the viewer is deconstructed in various ways – prefacing each shot with black. This carried over into a story about looking and voyeurism, which brought me to pornography. My work in pornography comes from my interest in cinema as a kind of object that requires the viewer to take pleasure in looking at it rather than from the social interaction of women in this culture who have talked about pornography as either for or against it. I never really partook in those debates before this project. I think the subject of pornography and sexuality in culture is more interesting than whether or not it should be censored. I used pornography as a site to explore what it has to say about desire and representation, and to see what kind of fantasies it mobilises. I wanted to explore the gap between my sexual fantasy and my sexual identity, and in that gap there are a number of issues at the intersection of feminism and film. I was not interested in the argument against pornography, since it reduces sexism to sex and uses explicit sex to demonstrate explicit sexism. I was more interested in challenging the notion of sexuality as fixed identity, and in addressing my own sexuality with a voice other than censorship, using fantasy to investigate desire.

So in VARIETY, we see a woman’s look at the way the cinema looks at her?

Yes, I think that’s really crucial and central – my film takes the leap of equating traditional mainstream cinema with pornography. Both employ the voyeuristic mode to exploit women as object of male fantasy and desire. It has to do with the pleasure of looking, which is central to all cinema. Also, I don't think pornography is a monolithic construction, but consists of a variety of practices operating across various institutions, places and times, and is therefore open to intervention. The codes and conventions can be interrupted; the prevailing representations are not givens or natural phenomena.
Being looked at and looking are two opposite ways in which the cinema posits the representation of the female image. To quote Laura Mulvey’s essay: women in cinema are to be looked at; they are objects of the male look. Men look, women are looked at.
VARIETY plays with reversing this systematic situation. But it's more complicated than that because there's a different relationship set up between the woman and the man in my film. She's curious, she investigates, she finds out intimate details, and yet, for me, it is more about a quest for her own sexual identity than it is a quest for power.
The film takes off from the classic narrative thriller genre where the woman is pursued by a man, and the female is seen as spectacle, as a way to facilitate the male's (usually male detective) exploration of woman as obstacle. In VERTIGO, Jimmy Steward tries to make Kim Novak over into the image of the woman Kim Novak was playing – the wife. He remakes her hair, her clothes, her make-up. My character is not being made over by a man, she remakes herself. I also set up situations where the vulnerability of the woman is established and intrusion and victimisation is expected. Instead, the character crosses the limits of the situation, surveying the man, reversing the expectations of the genre.
I remember a Hollywood thriller where this dynamic of looking is part of the story. The woman in PHANTOM LADY (Robert Siodmak, 1944) breaks a taboo by following a man into a club. She stares at him for such a long time that he is totally unnerved by her look (he drops a bottle), and when she follows him into the night, he is even more nervous. In a blind attempt to escape her look, he runs outside, but he steps in front of a car and is accidentally killed. Men are not used to being the object of the look.

There is considerable restraint in VARIETY in actually showing the pornography that figures so importantly in the plot. Other films that tackle the subject (most notable and deplorably NOT A LOVE STORY) never seem to be able to get enough and they gloat over their hardcore examples as if they were jewels. Can you comment on your decision to show so little?

When I first began to develop the ideas for VARIETY, I was attracted to having the pornography spoken rather than seen. On one level, I thought that the audience would be forced to imagine their own images rather than simply watching already constructed images of sexuality. I thought that if the viewer had to imagine his/her own images based on what was heard, the viewer would then be implicated more in developing their own fantasies. I've always hoped to create a more active spectator in my work, a spectator who would have to participate in the film process.
Another principle at work for me (as described in an article by Paul Willeman in Screen Magazine) was that pornographic cinema substitutes the look for the touch. While offering fantasy, it sustains the desire for ever-promised but never found gratification. Pornography guarantees that no representation will ever fulfil desire while maintaining the desire for that representation.
I wanted to develop a story that would function in the same way, creating desire but not satisfying that desire.
I also thought that it would be an intervention into traditional pornographic cinema by not showing the sex, but hearing (speaking) it instead. I also didn’t want to re-show the same kind of imagery that porn uses, or to reproduce it without making that reproduction problematic. So there are some brief moments where we see what is on the screen in the cinema where Christine works. But these moments are always identified as images on somebody else's movie screen, they are clearly not reconstructed by me. I was trying to problematise those images within the context of my story, always calling attention to ‘watching’ and ‘looking’. As well, these moments are dislocated from their original context, and are abstract. For example, in a shot of a gloved hand on a part of the body, it is hard to determine which part of the body. Several shots show women’s faces, from the shoulders up, faces that express pleasure and are involved in sex, but we don't see what is going on, just the face extracted from the rest. Initially, I intended to show much more graphic and hardcore material, but the more I looked at those images, the less they intrigued me. I ended up being attracted to the most ambiguous shots from porn movies (perhaps my own sexual desire is aroused more by what I don't see, what I imagine than by what is too present, too visible).
It was also important to me to integrate language via spoken pornography. Freud and Lacan stressed the relation between language and sexual fantasy. Desire is based on language in psychoanalytic explanations of child development.

Does VARIETY differentiate between male and female sexual fantasy?

Christine describes the porn movies she sees to her boyfriend. As she works longer at the theatre, her descriptions are less about the movies and more about her own imagination and fantasies, not necessarily based on what she sees, but on what she wants to see. Speaking fantasies (sexual fantasies), is taboo in our culture, even to those close to you. So I was also attracted to the idea of Christine speaking her fantasies in public to her boyfriend. At first, her boyfriend is made to feel uncomfortable when she speaks this language of sex, he becomes anxious and leaves their lunch.
In the scene between Christine and Mark, he is usually speaking first, talking about his work as a reporter/journalist. When she speaks, it is almost like two monologues, they don’t really speak to each other or communicate. He is quiet, feels uncomfortable and looks around to see if anyone else can hear, he doesn’t understand, ‘Why are you telling me this? Are you O.K.?’ She replies, ‘I’m telling you about my life.’ Finally, on the third encounter, he is playing pinball, she is speaking. He no longer even tries to speak. He is silent. Her language has taken over his. Similarly, in the first scene in the porn store, when she enters the male terrain, all the men near her move away. Other men are complicit, a woman is not, she is supposed to be the object of their look, or of their speech or jokes. She is not supposed to be someone who looks – like them.
I don’t know if the film posits a difference between male and female sexual fantasy. I don’t think so. I think that the language of desire is male (and language is a patriarchal construction) but Christine’s articulation of sexual fantasy represents a new and radical activity. The film suggests that women, even in patriarchal culture, are active agents who interpret and utilise cultural symbols, they are not just passive objects of those symbols. I am interested in pornography as a site to explore what it has to say about desire and what kind of fantasies it mobilises. Christine works on her own problems and relationships by investigating her sexuality, her desire. She takes pleasure in following, in looking. In fact, it is precisely the gap between (my) sexual fantasy and (my) sexual identity that interest me in this film.
I am absolutely not interested in creating a separate or alternative feminist erotica. I am not, since the alternative suggests the marginality – the ‘other place’ outside of the culture to which women have already been assigned. I don’t want to maintain that outside-ness. In addition, dominant forms are expert at incorporating and co-opting marginal forms, so working from a place outside of male culture is no guarantee of autonomy. I prefer to work within and through the existing culture by challenging it, by challenging constructions of sexuality for example. Christine’s act of speaking out her sexuality challenges the role she would have been assigned in representation, she would be ‘spoken’, not speaking.
Audience response to those sections of the film where Christine speaks her sexual fantasies has been interesting. Some men have expressed discomfort while some women identify strongly with Christine at those moments. This is a subversive activity.

The ending of VARIETY seems to be intentionally ambiguous. What are the reasons for this?

I did not try to tease the spectator, or to avoid the issues. I wanted to set up a narrative structure that would parallel, and point to, the structure of pornography. As I said earlier: pornography offers fantasy and sustains desire for ever-promised but never found gratification. It guarantees that no representation will ever satisfy desire while maintaining a desire for the representation itself. And after all, what is there to actually see? It is one’s own imagination and fantasy that fulfils desire.
But more importantly, I wanted the viewer to continue the investigation set up in the film. I wanted to invoke a condition of analysis and self-analysis in the viewer.
In terms of the more narrative reasons for the ending, the film really concludes with the second to last scene, when Christine makes a phone call to Louie. The phone call is her way of saying ‘I know’ or ‘I’m ready’ for a new story to begin. Christine has reached an equality of balance so that now something else can develop. The last shot is the location for the next story to begin. Christine and Louie can’t be there yet.
Actually, at the time of the first screenings of VARIETY, the most controversial aspect was not the inclusion of porn or the fact that the filmmaker was embracing porn as a kind of expression. More disturbing to people was the ending, which didn’t provide an absolute conclusion. The dark empty street at the end says that between desire and gratification lies an Empty Space – but that space is full of possibilities.

Why is there so little of the classic shot/reverse shot pattern in VARIETY?

VARIETY contained more shot/reverse shot patterns than any other films I had made up until this time. EMPTY SUITCASES for example, made in 1981, uses a more distanced and static camera, with no cutting within each scene, only between scenes. This was a choice made by me to work against character identification and to provide access to the issues raised in the film, rather than a distinct personality. But it was also a film about ‘looking’, and the black between scenes/shots provided a kind of framing device.
VARIETY uses minimal shot/reverse shot, as well as some long take sequences. The narrative reason for the minimal use of this structure is that Christine’s relationship in the film with other characters is distant. When she meets with her boyfriend, they hardly speak to each other, each one speaks almost in monologue. In the care scene with Louie, both he and Christine are facing front, not looking at each other and also at the baseball game, only glancing sideways at each other. Christine’s relationships are distanced, through the device of the telephone answering machine we see a one-sided conversation. She gets messages from her mother and from her friend Nan, who is more interactive. Yet, even in the bar scenes with other women, Christine still is holding back. She remains a bit apart, she is alone and following the man – it is a solitary activity – one that would be difficult to share with anybody, even a close friend.
The stylistic reason for minimal shot/reverse shot had to do with my own visual preoccupation for mise en scène at the time, letting the action play itself out within the frame. The action within the frame is always in some juxtaposition to the choice of frame. Windows, doorways, glass, mirrors, the colour red – they are all comments on the action. The scene with Mark and Christine sitting in a car, eating Chinese food in Chinatown, is done in one shot (a long take or sequence shot), mostly for the already mentioned narrative reason to do with a kind of lack of communication. Also, the car’s front windshield acts like a movie screen, they sit watching the outside – people passing, lights glaring, life on the street. It’s a reference back to cinema – Christine is describing a movie/fantasy. As people pass by the car, the lights outside flicker on and off as they are covered up, and then exposed.

(Based on an interview with Christine Noll Brinckmann)

Production Renée Shafransky. Production companies Variety Motion Pictures (New York, USA), ZDF – Das kleine Fernsehspiel (Mainz, Germany). Director Bette Gordon. Screenplay Kathy Acker based on an original story by Bette Gordon. Cinematography Tom Dicillo, John Forster. Editing Ila von Hasperg. Music John Lurie. Sound design Ila von Hasperg. Sound Helene Kaplan. Commissioning editor Brigitte Kramer. Digital restoration New York Women in Film and Television's Women's Film Preservation Fund, DuArt Film and Video. With Sandy McLeod (Christine), Will Patton (Mark), Luis Guzman (Jose), Nan Goldin (Nan), Richard Davidson (Louie), Mark Boone Jr (Man), Cookie Mueller (Girl in Bar), Suzanne Fletcher (Girl in Bar), Peyton Smith (Girl in Bar), Spalding Gray (Obscene phone caller).


1974: i-94 (3 min.). 1975: An Erotic Film, Noyes (4 min.), Still Life (3 min.), United States of America (25 min.). 1976: An Algorithm (10 min.). 1979: Exchanges (15 min.). 1981: Empty Suitcases (55 min.). 1983: Variety. 1986: Greed Pay to Play (20 min.). 2000: Luminous Motion (97 min.). 2010: Handsome Harry (93 min.). 2017: The Drowning (98 min.).

Photo: © Kino Lorber

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