Usually, films about female sexual awakening and newfound sexuality are often told from the point-of-view of male directors. I’m not knocking this, but they can sometimes feel a little exploitative, salacious, and misogynistic. They can include more female nudity than male nudity, especially for the wrong reasons or it’s there just to be there. Meanwhile, it’s refreshing to see this type of subject matter from a woman’s point-of-view, and Bette Gordon’s 1983 stunning neo-noir Variety does just that while also providing a revealing character study of a woman rediscovering herself.
The film tells the story of Christine (Sandy McLeod), a young Midwestern woman living in New York City who is unemployed and desperate for work. When Christine’s friend (Nan Golding) tells her about a job as a ticket seller at a local porn theater called Variety, she reluctantly takes it. At first, it looks like a simple job, giving tickets to lonely men looking for a good time, but then she suddenly finds herself drawn to the images that are on the screen and becomes fixated on pornographic magazines, which eventually complicates her relationship with her boyfriend Mark (a young Will Patton). Her obsession really takes a dark turns as she starts following a sinister-looking patron (Richard Davidson) through Time Square’s sleazy sex shops to the loaded world of lower Manhattan, as she loses herself to her new desires, probably to the point of no return.
This film does move at a slow pace, but it takes it time, showing Christine’s transformation from naive innocent to liberated punk feminist. McLeod’s amazing performance is definitely a sight to see, especially in a moment where she is seen wearing lingerie, her hair in pigtails, and red lipstick. You can see that she is starting to embrace this new woman that she has turned into. This is also a startling portrait of a vanished New York, a type of New York underworld that only independent cinema can capture. You will not quite get the same effect from a mainstream film.
Let’s not forget the array of talent surrounding McLeod with not just Gordon’s stark direction, but also with a brisk visuality by cinematographer Tom DiCillo, an early role for great character actor Luis Guzman as the owner of Variety, a fanastically adult screenplay by late novelist Kathy Ackler, and a very moody score by the great John Lurie.
The Blu-ray from Kino has a new, crisp 2K restoration and some good special features including Anybody’s Woman, a 1981 short film by Gordon; audio commentary with Gordon, conducted by writer Hillary Weston; gallery of production stills by Golding; location scouting stills gallery; storyboard illustrations by Gordon and Tim Burns. There is also a wonderful new essay by film critic by Amy Taubin.
Variety isn’t a film for everyone, obviously. Most will be frustrated by the pace and find it boring. Me, I found it enlightening since it showcases a type of cinema that usually gets ignored. That’s unforunate, because you’ll finally get some much-needed perspective from filmmakers whose stories deserved to told, accepted, and taken seriously.