Volume 78 - Number 46 / April 22 -28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


April 22 through May 3
“Variety” screens April 29, 5:00p.m. at the SVA Theater
(333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th and 9th)

Photo by Nan Goldin

Sandy McLeod as Christine

Female voyeur turns table on Times Square pervs

Landmark film pioneered new branch of feminism


A vast catalogue of psychoanalytic feminist literature exists elaborating on the thesis that all cinema (in particular film noir and the work of Alfred Hitchcock) objectifies women — owing to the fact that it was made by and for “the male gaze.” Now, one reaction to that reality might be to boycott all movie and television. Recent generations of feminists, however, have taken an approach more akin to the old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” A pioneer of this newer branch of feminism is Bette Gordon, whose landmark 1984 film “Variety” is being screened in this years’ Tribeca Film Festival.

“Variety” concerns a young schoolteacher (Sandy McCleod) who, out of desperation, takes a job as a ticket taker in a Times Square movie house. The box office is boring, so voyeurism becomes her new stock in trade — as she first watches the men watch the movies, then later starts watching a certain man (Richard Davidson) as he goes about his business around the city. The fact that he is a gangster makes that business very interesting indeed, and allows Gordon to play with all the little conventions we associate with film noir and porn, only flipped on their head. While in some ways a straight-ahead genre outing, the film does contain a couple of experimental gestures, notably the main character’s habit of breaking into long pornographic monologues in an apparently futile effort to get a rise out of her boyfriend (Will Patton, in one of his earliest roles).

Aside from Gordon’s cleverness as a filmmaker, “Variety” contains several ancillary joys that have more to do with the director’s having been in the right place at the right time. Among these is the presence of the voice of the late Spalding Gray as a very funny obscene phone caller; a soundtrack by John Lurie; performances by her friend the photographer Nan Goldin; and a then unknown Luis Guzman. Many of the performances are rough, but since they are played by non-actors (many of whom are portraying some version of themselves), they are closer to subjects in a documentary. Given the fact that the Times Square depicted in this film, as well as the increasingly quaint act of attending a dirty picture house, are both now “history,” it may be the documentary aspect that ultimately imbues this film with lasting import.  

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