The only reason that I’m even aware of the existence of Bette Gordon’s 1983 film Variety is because of my internship at a media library, where we kept the DVD hidden within a mess of others of varying kinds. The quote on the cover that really drew me in was from L.A. Weekly, claiming it to be “a feminist Vertigo“. Now if one knows anything about me, they’ll know that such hype makes this film impossible to pass up. Finally getting around to this film marked a thrilling venture into mysterious territory, as I was not at all familiar with Gordon before this flick. What I found was a rather interesting exploration of women’s relationship with sexuality, a topic that I’m sure was relatively radical and totally innovative for its time.
The first thing to be said about Variety is that it’s probably not the film to watch after a long, tiring day at work, which was my situation when I decided to turn it on. It moves at a decidedly languid pace to match the heightened realism and monotony of the unfolding narrative. The narrative itself follows a woman named Christine (played wonderfully by Sandy McLeod) who takes up a job at an adult movie theater and, subsequently, embarks upon a personal journey that borders on obsession. The footage consists of a very documentary-like feel; conversations feel like they were copy-pasted straight from the dingy environment of the inner city. As a result, this film is certainly no thrill to watch and some points even dwell into plain dullsville. Nonetheless, what it does do well is offer an alternative perspective into female sexuality that, even today, isn’t commonly explored.
I haven’t found very much written on Variety, but one of the more interesting subtextual facets of this work is that it was created in response to the anti-pornography movement of second-wave feminism. While criticism of mainstream porn being violently misogynous are rooted in validity, what does that say about women who take pleasure in porn themselves? Imperceptive condemnation of such imagery can also contribute to the ongoing shaming of liberated women for owning their bodies and enjoying sex. Thus, it’s pretty great that Gordon takes such a sex-positive stance on the issue with this film, recognizing the taboo factor porn yet refusing to reprimand it. Working at a porn theater certainly changes Christine, but it is never represented in such a black-or-white standard, for only she can decide what benefits her or otherwise. Even though the men she encounters attempt to offer their two cents with her choice of occupation, her lingering admiration for her own body in a tall mirror gives her all the satisfaction she needs.
Honestly, “a feminist Vertigo” may be a bit misleading, especially since the elements of rampant, super-psychological style in Hitchcock’s masterpiece are seldom to be found here. I think “a feminist Taxi Driver” would be a more truthful moniker that would catch the eye just as effectively. The similarities here are much more prominent: the focus on a single individual, shots of seedy New York in the 80s, even the discomforting ventures inside the sex cinema. Its subject matter is certainly subversive, emitting a post-feminist vibe years before third-wave feminism would come into full fruition. Even more remarkable is that such a stance predates the internet’s submersion into our everyday lives, thus also predating the more substantial ways pornography would insert itself into popular media and cultural imagery. It isn’t by any means an exciting film to watch and is pretty flawed in ways that could be expected from a debut feature, but as a revolutionary artifact in feminism-driven media, Variety is surely important.