Variety at 40
When Bette Gordon released Variety in 1983, independent cinema was still in its infancy. It had been less than a decade since John Waters released works such as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, films that proved you could make masterpieces by casting your friends and doing the writing, filming, editing, producing and marketing yourself.
Working her way through her own connections, Gordon managed to round up a production team that, in hindsight, is almost impossibly stacked: Nan Goldin, Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, John Lurie, Mark Boone Junior, Will Patton and Luis Guzmán in their first ever major on-screen roles. As a result, Variety fizzles with raw talent. A neo-noir at heart, it follows Christine as she gets a job at the ticket desk of a porno movie theatre and becomes obsessed with its patrons. A reversal of both cinematic and Hitchcockian values, the women becomes the seer, the leering presence who follows these men along the neon-lit streets of downtown New York.
To celebrate Variety’s 40th birthday, BFI have restored the cult classic film and ahead of its release, we caught up with Bette to discuss seeing Variety in 2K, working with Kathy Acker and whether she is going to see Barbie.
Barry Pierce: I watched the new 2K restoration of Variety today and it looks amazing. What has it been like seeing the film restored?
Bette Gordon: I worked hard on getting the film restored, I’ve seen it a lot over the years. It opened at Cannes, there was a major celebration of the film when it came out, in France, in Europe, in the UK, but still within the art and film worlds. It didn’t quite seep out beyond that. My work is about the visual aspects of cinema and that’s what the film is about, it’s about the pleasure of looking. I worked for hours on the colour and I’m so happy with how it looks. I have to tell you, one of my favourite pleasures is when people show it in 35 millimetre because the colour of that 35 millimetre… When I see the scratches, when I see the imperfections, I celebrate them, I love them. I love the texture, the grain, the movement, the image moves all the time because grain is not static. Unfortunately, digital is static, it has no life.
Still, ‘Variety’ by Bette Gordon, 1983
BP: You have all this amazing neon in the film, all the shots of New York at night are grainy and it encapsulates the visual language of the film. It’s like watching a new film all over again.
BG: It feels like a new film in these last couple of years. Remembering the 60s and the 70s, films like Midnight Cowboy, the grittiness of the story, the beauty of New York in the late 60s, and then in the 70s with Panic in Needle Park, Five Easy Pieces and Mean Streets. These films break your heart and refrain from telling you too much. The ending of Midnight Cowboy, you wouldn’t see that today. Everybody wants to explain everything to everybody. There’s not much space left for the viewer to have an experience where they have to insert themselves or be complicit with, which is what I wanted to do with Variety and what Variety itself wants to do. Midnight Cowboy spoke for a generation and led to some of the most amazing films to come out of this industry, an industry now that just brands everything. It is the most disappointing industry there is, next thing McDonald’s is going to have a film everybody is jumping up and down about. How do we hold on to the essentialism of this thing called cinema? We’ve lost it all amongst the other – a word I hate more than anything else – “content.“
BP: Does this mean you’re not going to see Barbie?
BG: Not on your life. I wouldn’t see it if it was the last film on Earth.
“My work is about the visual aspects of cinema and that’s what the film is about, it’s about the pleasure of looking.”
BP: You mentioned how films essentially just explain themselves to their audiences now and I think that’s what’s so refreshing about watching Variety in 2023 because there are whole sections of the film without dialogue. That would never work on streaming, because people would be too scared that it would give people the opportunity to get bored and turn it off.
BG: It’s so sad. I think there are occasionally films made today by that generation of filmmakers who really appreciate the image. Going back to the ending of Midnight Cowboy, you have Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in the back of the bus, two men who are lost souls, and then something tragic happens and there’s not a word. No sirens, no this, no that, nothing, you just hold the shot and invite the viewer to experience it, not qualify it, not say whether it’s good or bad or right or wrong, just experience it.
I really think we’ve lost something so essential, but not totally, because there will always be cinema. Those of us who love Tarkovsky will go back and those of us who love Agnes Varda will follow her work and those of us who love Fassbinder and 1940s films and Béla Tarr! I mean, Béla Tarr says spend this time with me and we do.
BP: Are you looking forward to showing Variety at the BFI soon?
BG: Yes, I believe the BFI has actually housed the film for many years, it was the keeper of the 16 millimetre print, I don’t think it ever got a 35. Some of the funding for Variety came from Channel 4, this was when Channel 4 was just on its way to becoming a place where filmmakers could get their films funded, the same for ZDF in Germany. It’s interesting to me that, of course, Variety is a film so much about New York but it was made by Europeans, essentially. But New York is that too, remember, New York is not America, New York does not represent the U.S. of the old A. It’s a mixing pot of so many things.
“Everybody wants to explain everything to everybody. There’s not much space left for the viewer to have an experience where they have to insert themselves or be complicit with, which is what I wanted to do with Variety and what Variety itself wants to do.”
Still, ‘Variety’ by Bette Gordon, 1983
BP: The script for Variety was written by the legendary Kathy Acker, with the story being provided by you, what was that collaboration like?
BG: The 80s in New York were an amazing time. There were a lot of things going on: the economy was incredibly bad, everybody was squatting, buildings were left empty, but neighbourhoods were really important. You made films about where you lived. But for all artists, there was no professionalism at all, you could be in a band without having to train for years, you could just become a filmmaker or a visual artist or a musician. So, it was a time of great collaboration between people. I had seen Kathy perform, my boyfriend at the time had been with her, our sex was all over the place. It was just a wild time.
The main difference between then and now is that if you wanted to be a part of anything, you had to be there. If I’m performing my short stories at the Mudd Club, I’m going to blast the streets of Lower Manhattan with posters for it. There were four places Downtown everybody and anybody would be going to and you would just bump into each other like electrons and atoms bumping off each other. It was so easy to meet people. One minute you’re talking to David Byrne and then Laurie Anderson is there. That’s how I met Kathy. There was this place called The Kitchen and she would walk out there and she would speak her sexuality out loud. What she was doing is what I was already doing in Variety.
I had written the treatment and outline of the scenes, what I wanted was Kathy’s energy. Kathy didn’t know how to write a script, so really she just gave me notes, they were Kathy’s scribbled notes and often messages to me like, “If you change one word of this, I’ll kill you”. I changed many words and she didn’t kill me.
Bette Gordon will be at the BFI Southbank for a Q&A and introduction to the new restoration of Variety on August 11th.