You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Porn and Being Poor, Then & Now: Bette Gordon Interview, Tribeca 2009

Porn and Being Poor, Then & Now: Bette Gordon Interview, Tribeca 2009

By Karina Longworth

The Tribeca Film Festival has often shown a predilection for a certain type of New York feature and filmmaker — see this year’s Woody Allen-directed opener, or last year’s opening night film “Baby Mama,” or the many virtually interchangeable Ed Burns pictures that have played the festival in previous years –– all reflecting a version of the city so plasticine that their use of actual locations seems to offer no more authenticity than a Hollywood soundstage. But within 2009’s pared-down, recession-conscious lineup, a number of titles call back to a very different, dirtier aspect of the hometown’s filmmaking legacy, one which seems all the more ripe for a revisit in this climate of financial pain and industrial upheaval. Bette Gordon’s 1984 postfeminist noir “Variety” is the centerpiece of this unofficial strain, and it finds cousins in at least three program mates: Gordon’s latest feature “Handsome Harry” (starring Steve Buscemi), as well as the documentaries “Blank City” (in which both Gordon and Buscemi appear, discussing the downtown filmmaking scene of the late 70s-early 80s) and “Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB.”

If Celine Danhier’s “Blank City” plays as an anthropological study of the interconnected community of downtown artists shooting transgressive provocations for no budget on low-gauge media, “Variety” is the prototype of a product of that community; co-written by Kathy Acker, featuring appearances from Nan Goldin, a young Luis Guzmán and Spalding Gray, produced by Gray’s girlfriend Renee Shafransky, co-lensed by Tom DiCillio and scored by John Lurie. The two latter names would shortly move on the “Stranger Than Paradise.”

Sandy McLeod stars as Christine, a wannabe journalist who takes a job selling tickets at a Times Square porno house to pay the bills. She soon finds herself caught in an economic, moral and generational limbo, surrounded by women who are driven, by some combination of liberated curiosity and economic panic, to explore the sex industry, and yet find themselves in beyond-traditional, passive-aggressive relationships with their boyfriends. Increasingly fascinated with the tension between watching and being watched, Christine begins tailing a regular visitor to the theater, ultimately playing with the option of choosing her own sexual objectification. All of it unfolds in grainy 16mm against the backdrop of a pre-gentrified Manhattan where, as John Waters puts it in “Blank City,” “just walking home was like going to war.”

Speaking over the phone last week, Gordon described the means and tools of production that made “Variety” possible, considers why the film had an impact then and why its assessment of the choppy waters of female sexual empowerment is perhaps even more relevant now, and explains why she doesn’t want to be a “woman filmmaker.” A restored print of “Variety” screens on Wednesday at 5pm at SVA on 23rd Street; it’s also available on DVD.

Spout: In doing research for this interview, I found a lot of reviews of “Variety,” and a lot of academic, theoretical, and analytical writing on the film, but not much in terms of writing on its actual production, how it was made, how that was reflective of independent filmmaking of its time and place. In fact, I’ve read a lot of historiography of American independent film at that time, and it just seems like the film wasn’t explored that much in them.

Bette: That is really sad.

[laughs] It’s surprising.

Yeah. I’ve done a lot of different interviews with different magazines. [But] I don’t know that anybody – We never really did talk process. I think it was always what things mean. You’re right. A little more theory.

When the film came out, it was so striking to so many people. I think maybe the territory I was exploring was new. No one had ever, I guess, really thought about putting the ingredients together that I did. We’ve seen so much Hitchcock, and of course, Hitchcock is a huge influence for me, but I think it was the combination of ingredients, the sort of exploration of female desire and voyeurism, but from a female character’s point of view, and a kind of thriller whose language was the language of desire. That hit people in all kinds of different ways – strange ways and intense ways, that made a lot of people think about what the film meant to say and how the film’s exploration of its themes and subjects raised a lot of questions and issues. So that became the dialogue around the film.

I was interested in investigating what it would mean to use pornography – and I came out of a kind of very strong anti-porn movement that had sort of existed before me that was really pressuring women to regard pornography as oppressive and victimizing, and I rejected all of that. And I thought [“Variety”] would cause a big controversy, and it did to a certain extent, but the most controversial aspect of the film [to the audience] was that the ending did not give a closed door to the story. It left a kind of open-endedness that forced people to kind of project their own desire, their own voyeurism or pleasure onto the screen, [with the] image of the dark street. It’s sort of left as an open question.

So those were some of the issues floating around at the time of the making of the film. The idea of power and sexuality, of switching positions. We’ve seen the woman as the object of voyeurism, but never the subject. Those are the things we got caught up in talking about.

How was the production of “Variety” different from that of your earlier films, which were made in more of a fine art context?

It is interesting when I look back. While I had made films before, [it was] as an artist, it was very hands-on for me. I used the camera. I did my own editing. I did my own sound early on, and that’s how I was trained. [I] moved through that to a one-hour feature called “Empty Suitcases,” which was a huge hit at the Berlin Film Festival. So by the time I got to “Variety,” I had never really worked much with a crew. I had done my own work, learned everything sort of from the ground up.

At the time, I was working at a place called The Collective for Living Cinema, which everybody should know about. It was a great cinema in Tribeca, started by a young group of students who had just graduated from SUNY Binghamton. They were taught by the famous filmmaker, Ken Jacobs, who lives in Tribeca still, and his son just made a movie I think last year. There was nothing in Tribeca when I moved to it in the ’80s. You were lucky if you could find a place to eat! There were no restaurants. Anyway, these were students and they had graduated. They came to New York and they were very dedicated to filmmaking. They were taking exhibition into their own hands. And I joined them a couple of years after they had set up the Collective for Living Cinema. Itwas really interesting, funded of course by things like the National Endowment and New York State Council for the Arts, which hardly is able to finance this kind of thing anymore, but it’s what made the ’80s so great. Small compared to what Europe does for their artists, but at least in America and New York at the time, there was a strong thrust to support the arts by government or organizations.

The collective was really important to me. We showed films on the weekends, anything from old Hollywood films to B movies to Avant-garde films to Jack Smith during a performance to an old Michael Snow film, our own films, our friends’ films, everybody’s films, and it was a great experience doing that. And the woman who was the programmer, her name is Renee Shafransky. After working with her for the years that I did, when I got the green light from German Television to do “Variety,” she came on as producer.

She had never produced a film before, but she had directed the Collective for Living Cinema. We kind of learned as we went along. I mean, we knew a lot about the image, and you can see it in the film. It’s really a film that cares very much about color, light, texture. Framing, of course, is hugely important. That is, I guess, where I came from, that’s what I learned, but never the sort of technique of putting together a crew and how you work and how you budget your day and all of that.

I’m interested in the process of how American independent films got made in this era. So why German Television? Why did you go to them for money and how did that work out?

In New York at the time and in the States, there was government funding for organizations and for filmmakers. You could get a New York State Council for the Arts grant, you could get an NAA if you were lucky. Rockefeller was harder to get. These things still exist, I think, minimally. But the most money you could get was something like $25,000 and we know that $25,000 doesn’t really make a feature. Even in those days, it didn’t quite. Even working with your friends and trying to pay everybody a little bit.

So at the time, one of the strongest funding agencies was German television. They, of course, were responsible for the creation of what was the new German cinema, including Werner Herzog, Fassbinder and some of the other directors like Volker Schlöndorff , Margarethe von Trotta – all of the young German directors who came up through Germany were financed by German Television. Their history in countries like Germany and in France of supporting artists is a history that we here in America don’t have.

So where are you going to go? Luckily, they found us. Most of us were invited to festivals, the Berlin Film Festival being so important to young filmmakers at the time, and there was a section of the Berlin Film Festival called The Forum for Young Cinema run by one of the most brilliant men that I’ve ever met named Ulrich Gregor. Many of us who worked with German TV met the producers there. Why German TV? Because they were looking for the cutting edge, the new, young filmmakers. They don’t support, I don’t think, New York filmmakers or American filmmakers so much anymore. They’re going to the Middle East and to third world countries whose cinemas are more growing and ours is more established.

But, anyway, that’s how Charlie Ahearn, who made “Wild Style,” Jim Jarmusch, who made “Stranger than Paradise” and I who made “Variety” all around the same time got our financing. The part of ZDF that financed these movies was called “Das kleine Fernsehspiel.” In German, it means “the little television play.” So who knew? They gave us more money, but I also got money from New York State Council for the Arts. I mean, it was, let’s say, a collaborative financing structure. Still, our budgets were very, very, very, very low. Not even as high as indie film today.

How much did you spend on “Variety”?

About $100,000. $100,000, yes. Maybe even a little less perhaps. Definitely not more than that.

I don’t really know how the film was initially distributed. Did that include prints and advertising?

No, it did not include distribution. We made the film and we started to show it at film festivals. Certainly, we started at Berlin, [then] we were invited to go to Cannes. We only shot in 16mm. We did not shoot in super 16. I’m not even sure that we thought we would show it [outside] the Collective for Living Cinema. We didn’t have a sense of how you promote and produce your own work. We just wanted to make it because it was interesting and it was collaborative.

And so, once we were invited to Cannes, we had to blow the film up to 35, and luckily, right around the same time, somebody else who had seen the film at a festival in Miami had offered to buy it for what was called then “home video.” So that money allowed us to blow the film up to 35 and we did the whole thing at Duart, which was an enormously helpful film lab to everybody at the time. The man who runs the lab still today, Erwin Young, was a big friend to independent filmmakers. He would give you good deals, he would help you, give you the guidance that you needed while working on Woody Allen’s and much bigger Hollywood films. They really were supportive so we were able to do that.

Once we hit Cannes, we got a distributor. We ended up showing all over Europe and Great Britain and Canada and North America rights were bought by a company that today is called Kino International, with Don Krim. The first screenings were at the Waverly Cinema, which is now the IFC Center. But we did do a sneak preview when we were leaving to go to Cannes. We rented for the weekend the Variety Theatre [the porn theatre featured in the film]. We cleaned it up. Spalding Gray, who was with us at the time, and was the boyfriend of Renee, came in with incense and put incense all around the theatre. They had a 35 projector, and we has the 35 print now as we were off to Cannes. We cleaned it up and for three nights, lines were around the block as we screened “Variety” at the Variety Cinema. That was amazing. That was the best.

And so it opened theatrically and still does really well, for me. There’s always DVD sales. There used to be more rentals in 16mm, but now that’s all been replaced by DVD. But certainly, I think we must have entered at a time in debate — if you can even call it a debate –– when I hit a raw nerve or I opened up a passage to think about the kind of conjunction of commercial cinema, film noir, women’s cinema And also, the theory that was being discussed around the time, in terms of what is the place of women in cinema?

When I was watching it, I was wondering what the average woman’s experience of porn and sex work would have been like at that time? How much were people really exposed to it?

I think similar to today. Although the porn industry has now shifted from being in these great, beautiful, old theatres, to the Internet, right? I’m sure that there are those women who can enjoy pushing beyond the limits of what they consider to be their place in the sexuality of the culture.

But, everything is part of the zeitgeist, right? Everything you make goes into the great big atmosphere, and all together, everything opens up room for other things. And so, I would say that a movie like “Variety” was just around the time that Madonna was redefining her sexuality, and really putting it out there. And then “Sex and the City” years later came about as a more commercialized version of the kind of women flaunting their sexuality. One thing adds to another, right?

It was interesting. The big debate in the women’s movement around the time of making the film was pro-sex and anti-sex. Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were trying to make it illegal to have pornography shown anywhere, and that debate sparked an anti- group that didn’t support those ideas. Certainly freedom of speech and First Amendment Rights would deny that there could be a law to outlaw that, but a lot of the writing and the speech around that time was about where you stood on that issue. Can women have the same sexual needs and desires as men? The 60s kind of began an explosive movement of women and men, both taking off the shackles of the past.

When I was watching the film, I got this sense that amongst the women, there’s this frustration that they didn’t exactly get what they were promised from the sexual revolution.

Yes, yes. The 60s promised this idea of openness but actually, things closed down again, and I think they remain closed even today. There’s a certain belief that men don’t really want women who are open to sexuality or sex in the same way that they are. Eventually the open sexuality, I think, in a way backfired on women and put them in a much more vulnerable position than men.

Somehow we ended up as a culture, I think, settling ourselves for a more standardized practice of marriage and family. Certainly marriage and family have always been the American values that we have lived with and fought for, but I don’t know. Are we a more conservative culture today than we were then? I guess that’s a question I don’t know how to answer. I can’t help feeling that there was a kind of backlash against the women’s movement, and what happened from then until today is a question for all of us who fight for representations of women that are strong and interesting and colored with many different colors, not just the standard representation of a female character. We hope that things have changed, but sometimes I wonder.

How about you? How old are you?

I’m about to turn 29.

OK, so what do you think? Your generation, what do you have to live with? I’m just curious.

Well, I think everyone speaks in code, but I think it’s absolutely still true that what men say they want is not always the reality of what they actually want. It can be really hard to find the courage to be open sexually and to be open about even an interest in the dynamics of sex.

Yeah, yes.

Today I was reading the review of “Variety” that Janet Maslin wrote, and she keept commenting about how Christine’s alone all the time and doesn’t talk to anybody. To me, that’s so silly because, of course, if you’re exploring this stuff, of course you’re going to be alone, because who are you going to do it with? It’s a private thing.

It’s a voluntary experience to really discover your own sexual fantasies and even go into a territory that you’ve been told you don’t belong. And, as an example, when Christine goes into the porn stores, [it’s reflective of] my desire to go where no women are told they can go, your mother says don’t ever go so and so. [She says] don’t ever go to Avenue D at night? Well, where are you going to go? Avenue D, alone at night. If you’re somebody who is an adventurer. I shot a lot of the stuff in Times Square myself, because I had a little camera and even though I had wonderful DPs, Tom DiCillo and John Foster, I also know how to operate a camera. So I’d go around with my little camera, my Bolex.

But, one day, without my camera, I walked into a sex store. I just wanted to look at the magazines. I was probably looking for my magazine that I use in the booth for Christine that she brings back from Asbury Park. I was asked to leave by the management. And I thought, “Jesus Christ, I can’t even… This is a public place, I can be in here.” And I think the idea that women can’t inhabit a space that’s a male space, that really was an interesting experience for me. I put it into the movie. It was true that when I went to the magazine rack, all the men moved away from me. I thought it was just because they couldn’t…that a woman on the page was one thing, but that a woman in flesh and blood, standing next to them, made them feel uncomfortable. But, also, I think the management asked me to leave because they were afraid I was a prostitute and I would be trying to get customers.

So, yeah. I don’t know. Yes, you can be alone, because it’s a solitary kind of experience of shadowing somebody. There’s an implicit sexuality in that in terms of desire, that they don’t know they’re being followed. And yet, there’s an agreement about — not an agreement — there’s a relationship between the seer and the seen that develops. And it’s not a public one. It’s a private one.

Also though, she did talk to her friends in the bar scenes. That is Tin Pan Alley. In the ’80s, we used to go there a lot. It was right across from the film building, 1619 Broadway, on 49th. That was our favorite place to hangout in those days. A lot of my friends were bartenders there. Nan Goldin was a bartender. Kiki Smith, who is an artist, cooked in the kitchen. Ulli [Rimkus], who now has Max Fish, she was a bartender. She was there. At night, you would get artists mixed with whatever; gangsters, prostitutes, Times Square types. It was a great mix of people. The woman who ran the bar really had a kind of interesting clientele. So she let me shoot two scenes there. But they have that discussion about obsessions, following, what they would do with men. It’s the kinds of women who were hanging out there anyway. There are certainly two big scenes where those issues are kind of thrown around a little bit by the women.

So I do think that her explorations, Christine’s exploration, and also Kathy… Well, let’s go back. Kathy Acker. I think Kathy Acker was similarly the same way that I was in “Variety.” She had been writing material for a long time that sort of reversed the polarity that took male characters and made them into females, Don Quixote or Great Expectations –– taking classic male literature and inverting it. Her work was interested in the same things that I was.

There were a lot of people that were what we were, maybe what you would call transgressive, in your face. There was a part of the women’s movement at the time that thought, “Oh well you can create something called the women’s literature,” which they still teach today-Women’s Lit or Women’s Studies. We were not like that. We thought it was important to take what existed in the culture and turn it around and make people see it in a different way; be subversive, if you will.

That is interesting. I recently wrote this piece about Katherine Bigelow, and how I think that a lot of people tend to only talk about her as a female filmmaker and not really consider what’s going on in the movies beyond that. The fact that she’s “a female filmmaker” becomes a barrier to considering the work itself.

I knew Kathy from these days. She was in New York maybe the first year I was there and then she moved out to LA. Her early short was a very violent work about a fight between these guys. Her work has always been very aggressive. I think that she goes into a territory that many women don’t, so people have to talk about that. She can play as tough as James Cameron or David Fincher.

Do you ever feel like it is a burden to be a woman filmmaker?

Yes. I don’t want that title and I don’t use it either. Although, I would like to see more women directing. Although, I would love to see more women in television world where I notice that there are many, many young boy directors but not that many young girl directors. What is happening? So I don’t want to use that label at all. But when you see who is talking at the Apple store this year –– I would have loved to have done that! They didn’t invite me to. It is almost all men. I think there is a female actress.

So I am looking at this old New York Magazine while I am talking to you because I saved it. It says, “The New York Wave,” and then it has Joel and Ethan Coen, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson. It is all these male profiles. It is very provocative. I don’t know. And then Julian Schnabel on the inside. So I wonder does it allow for the same…

Julian Schnabel kind of links it back to the boys club of art in the ’80s.

Yeah, absolutely. And women, I think, were more successful in the art world breaking through; it seems to me, than in the film world, because film is still highly technical. When you get on that set there is a lot of technology. So the technology, I think, is very male in that sense. And also you have to command a huge group of people. Not to get into that whole thing, because I don’t know that I want to define myself as anything but a filmmaker, although I would like to see the world open a little bit more. But it goes back to the question of sexuality and what men really do or don’t want. I think that was the impetus at the time that I was making “Variety,” too — to think about what a bold woman might do in a situation.

And also the idea of fantasy and exploring your own sexual fantasies, that was a positive thing. And there was no such thing as a politically correct fantasy — that whole idea of being politically correct, which was coming from the other side of the women’s movement, saying things like pornography should be banned. They would use advertising a lot to show how women were subjugated, which is interesting to see if you look at ads, even today, in the selling of the female body. Then, of course, if you have to ban pornography, you would have to ban advertising. We know that is not going to happen, not in this capitalist culture.

How did the restoration come about? What excites you about showing the movie to audiences today?

Women in Film and Television have a women’s film restoration fund. A couple of years ago they showed “25 Years of Women Calling the Shots.” It was kind of a retrospective of films made by women. At that time, Terry Lollar, who was the director, said, “Why don’t you put in for a film restoration for ‘Variety’?” So I did.

We just made a brand new print and we added and punched up the colors, and it was great to see again. It was as exciting to me now as it was then, in a way, just to be able to think about the ideas that I had when I was younger, and to see that they are still relevant. And at the same time, the people respond to the film so strongly today, it means… What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me. Does it mean that I just hit upon something that goes deeper than a time period? That I hit something that has to do with desire and pleasure and that, for both men and women, is something to think about.

I know there was a review when the film came out on video, the person writing said something like, young filmmakers talk about the first time they saw “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” and they talk in these sort of hushed tones, and Scorsese’s gritty, disturbing, etc. She said, “Well, they also talk in the same way about seeing ‘Variety.'” Which also has that kind of gritty, explosive quality and “Variety” is a female protagonist, “Mean Streets” the great Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, etc. So, I think there’s something to that. Hooking into the cultural moment and then letting that play, but there’s something about that cultural moment which lives on. You still see “Mean Streets” and you think, “Oh, my God. This is a great film.” It just hit upon something in the culture at the time, it was New York at a certain time. I think that must be true with “Variety” as well.

This Article is related to: Uncategorized


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *