Birkbeck Cinema introduction to this 35mm screening:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York-based filmmaker Bette Gordon produced a series of works that chart a major shift in experimental practice from the rigor of structural film to a theoretically informed interest in fragmented narrative and subjective experience that Noel Carroll would dub the “new talkies.” With her best-known work, 1983’s Variety, Gordon moves fully into the idiom of independent narrative cinema, but her concerns remain consistent: questions of sexuality, labour, and gentrification are pursued within a critical interrogation of filmic language. Hers is a cinema at once politically urgent, formally sophisticated, and emotionally compelling. Taking its name from the Times Square porn theatre where its lead character, Christine, gets a job as a ticket-taker, Variety is a narrative film about sex, pleasure, work, gendered looking, and the cinema itself. At the time of its release, one critic dubbed it a “feminist Vertigo,” and its affinities with the feminist film theory of the time are striking. But this Kathy Acker-scripted movie also pushes back against the anti-pornography feminism taking shape in New York City in the early 1980s; Christine is no kind of victim. The actions of groups like Women Against Pornography directly facilitated the gentrification of Times Square, turning the spaces of Variety into a vanished world by the end of the decade. Variety reminds us not only of this lost New York, but equally of a pre-Miramax age when American independent cinema was truly independent and in direct dialogue with experimental practices across media.
Chicago Reader review:
Bette Gordon's independent feature is a little overambitiously formal at times, drawing in references to Chantal Akerman and Jean-Luc Godard, but it works very well as a hauntingly subjective character study. A young woman takes a job as a cashier in a Manhattan porno theater; the sounds emanating from inside seem slowly to seduce her, and she focuses her fantasies on one of the regular customers—a mysterious older man who appears to have crime-syndicate connections. Gordon is not gifted with dialogue, but the film's long silent sequences spin an enveloping otherworldly atmosphere.