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EIFF23: Interview with Variety director Bette Gordon


Bette Gordon’s incomparable 1983 feature film Variety is having a resurgence for its 40th anniversary including a screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 (in partnership with Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered Festival). I was fortunate to be able to discuss the film and other selected works with the visionary director on Sunday morning.


SYNOPSIS: Scripted by the late experimental novelist Kathy Acker, 'Variety' follows Christine (Sandy McLeod), a bright and unassuming young woman, as she takes a job selling tickets at a pornographic theatre near Times Square. Developing an obsession with this erotic milieu that begins to consume her life, Christine finds her relationships with her boyfriend Mark (Will Patton) and Louie (Richard Davidson), one of the theatre’s patrons, profoundly changed. Emerging from the underground NYC arts scene, Variety includes an impressive array of talent, including cinematography by Tom DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion”), performances by Luis Guzman (“Boogie Nights”), John Waters regular Cookie Mueller and photographer Nan Goldin, and a score by actor and musician John Lurie (“Stranger Than Paradise”, “Down By Law”). A ground-breaking treatment of female voyeurism and desire, this is a transgressive and highly personal film and represents a major work of a director who continues to embody the essence of independent cinema along with being a love letter to a grimy, pre-Giuliani era of bygone New York.


AM. So to prepare for watching Variety I sought out some of your earlier films, some of your structural work.


BG. Yeah, the early work was so engaging in so many ways. It was really all about film, the material of film, like an artist and a painting. How do I speak with the canvas? What are my tools, my paint, the thickness of paint, or the material for a sculpture? Thinking about the art-making process. In film you have so many material aspects but the essential ones are space and time. When I started to make films it was how to use the essential elements, which play in all films, commercial, narrative, whatever. If I could take these essential elements and use them to represent and look at the image. I was obsessed with extending time and so the early films I was working with James Benning, who was at first my teacher, and then my partner. We worked together for seven years but only a few years of those in really making the films but in everything we did we were always engaged.


This optical printer was a device that we had. On the one side you would shoot a scene, and the scene could be anything, and on the other side was the camera with a new roll of film and a lens that could see frame by frame, holding the film. If you have ever held film in your hands or seen the frames, the texture and the grain was so fascinating. It was rephotographing film and in that way we would copy sixty times one frame and it began to let you see things that were not perceptible to the eye if you were shooting at twenty-four-frames-per-second because it goes by so fast. It was about expanding time and examining space. Almost playing with that by dissolving one frame, but printed many times into another frame, but you couldn’t do that with splices. It was a way of setting up an A-roll and a B-roll, so the A-roll would have one frame printed sixty times, and then it would dissolve and you would have to go to another lab to have another frame printed sixty times, so it became this kind of pulsating movement. It told you something about how film moves to the camera. It was enticing, and actually I began to think wow the process itself is more seductive than the narrative stories we could tell. Even then like the opening scene of Michigan Avenue...


AM. I actually wasn’t able to find Michigan Avenue


BG. Okay, it has three scenes. The first scene is on the street in Chicago, Michigan Avenue. The second scene is two women who are on the street but we don’t quite see that they are there. And the third scene is them in bed together, and one of them is rolling off the bed. And it is so narrative -but so much about the seductiveness of the frame-by-frame study. It is no different than probably all my films but I think of it as very different, just the process, and it was the one-on-one. Benning and I would spend hours in the dark in the optical printer counting frames. There was no digital so you would basically be “one, two, three, four, five…” and then you would have to remember where you are. And then on the A-roll, which was going to intersect with the B-roll, the next sixty frames had to be black so that the image from the B-roll could fill it in, so then hand on the lens, “one, two, three…”. So now I have this counting disease, where every once in a while I’ll be walking down the street and I won’t start at one, all of a sudden I’ll hear myself counting from way back, “twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…”.


Did you see I-94?


AM. Yes


BG. So that is done the same way


AM. Yeah, I was going to say it is the - one frame, then covering the lens, then one frame…


BG. Yeah, exactly. Putting those two together it almost looks superimposed, but we are never in the same frame at the same time, but we’re having sex, kind of. So that early work was really an experiment. It was just the joy of having film in your hands and manipulating those things that are so unique to film, and thinking about how people see. All my films are still about seeing in different ways, and thinking about what is in the frame and what isn’t in the frame, and the questions you can ask about how people look. Sometimes you want the viewer to be engaged with the whole cinematic experience.


AM. On both levels


BG. Yeah, when you think about just the experience of being an audience member and you go into a dark room and the lights go out. There is no other medium that puts you in the dark like that. Not theatre – whenever I go to the theatre you are aware of who is next to you and the lights are not dark enough. But in the cinema, it is pitch black. And your mind, the unconscious part of your mind which allows you to believe that a person can be in a frame here and then… the cut takes you over, and we don’t even question! That’s impossible. We suspend a kind of conscious thought to get to a kind of unconscious thought.


The surrealists. I wrote my master’s thesis on Buñuel and the fascinating experiences they did. They said that cinema is the true experiential art. And they would go from one cinema to another cinema never finishing a film, unconsciously building like automatic writing. Buñuel, brilliant! Because he didn’t so much play with the lens or the cinematic stuff that I am talking about. He proceeded very conventionally locating long shots – close-ups, and yet in putting it together he created such a dreamlike situation. I was obsessed with his films, certainly Un Chien Andalou, the slicing of the eye, that’s what I’m talking about! You have to get to the other side sometimes. And our culture is so… Sometimes we stop at the surface, “that’s beautiful” or “that’s stupid”. Movies if they are for entertainment then they don’t want people to work too hard.


AM. Yes, not wanting to work on both levels.


So, because of your former work when choosing to make more of a narrative film in Variety did you start with the form first and then build the narrative in? Or was it the narrative and then the form? Or was it both together?


BG. Both together. Because Empty Suitcases, were you able to see that?


AM. Yeah, I managed to find it, Empty Suitcases is brilliant


BG. Empty Suitcases approaches what Variety does. Every scene is one long shot for the most part, with a little bit of black in-between so it is almost reproducing what happens when the film spins in the camera, well not anymore because we don’t have a shutter that rotates. Empty Suitcases was a story about a woman who is dislocated, who can’t find her place, she goes back and forth between New York and Chicago, and there is the train, this sort of back and forth. I thought of it as a kind of statement about women in culture, and where is their place? Where are they in the frame? And we found her in the booth in Variety. Which is a film about looking, and spaces, and frames within frames. I thought with Variety I am going to take this further, but it did start with the discovery of the Variety Theatre. It came from the thinking of the time, the question of the representation of women, and a very famous article that Laura Mulvey wrote ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema’. And here in Edinburgh, actually there was a huge conference, Laura was there, we talked endlessly about the article. Many women were there from all over, from Holland, from US, from UK, from France, and just this incredible moment in time. Getting back, it was the 80s and I hadn’t made Empty Suitcases then, and I was thinking about the question Laura posed in conventional narrative cinema. The pleasure comes from the centrality of the female character as object of the male gaze and it poses the fact that the audience member would be male. And I said, but I like to watch! I love to watch, I am a voyeur from beginning to end. Just put me in the dark. We all have that instinct and so my character has to watch, be a voyeur.


When I found the Variety Theatre I was looking for what my next film was going to be and I had an offer from German television after my film was in Berlin. “Love the film, we want to do your next film”. Which is a beautiful offer for a young filmmaker in their twenties. I had never thought about it because my films were always cheap and I would make it on like a dime. So I knew that I was looking, and the sort of consolidation for the idea of Variety was the booth, the cinema. I’m walking around, it’s night, I love to go places that I know that I am not supposed to go. I have always been that kind of person, if you say don’t, I’ll probably do it. Just ask my mother, she had to put up with me. I found the theatre and it was gorgeous, just like it looks in the film. The colours - red and blue, green, yellow, calling me from across the street. I look closer. You know, cinemas were beginning to disappear in the 80s. Times Square still had cinemas but in the 80s those multiplexes like the one that we have here… I loved that experience, the excitement when you’d go into the theatre and the booth and the whole experience of it. I saw that and I got closer, and I said this is incredible. But I got really close, I saw that this is a porn cinema and I said “Wow!”. I wanted to go in. Just like when I would walk around Times Square in the 80s there would be barkers, just guys who were physically standing there, and they would have a mic often. “Girls! Girls! Girls! Beautiful girls! Step Right up, live here on stage!” You know when you go to the games? That’s why I went to Asbury Park, because at an amusement park there are those guys that say, “Come on up, step right up, 3 balls, win a prize!” That is so enticing! Wow, I want to be there. Amusement parks, fun houses, stuff that frees you from your everyday reality, which is what cinema does. “Step right up, there’s a screen!” Eventually I met the projectionist who walked by one day. I talked to him, and he asked me, “What are you doing?”, cause not many women are there. I said, “I’m just looking at the theatre, I’m kind of interested in shooting things”. “I’m the projectionist, come on up to the booth”. So I went up to the booth. That is the generative idea for the booth as the place of Christine, who is both the object of the look and also the looker, so it has a kind of mirror-like effect so that it implicates the viewer as the see-er as well. So you are not innocent of that sort of process of following. You’re watching, but you’re also watching a watcher watch, and I love that.


AM. Did you have to try and space out mirror shots in the film?


BG. No, I just do them whenever. I love them, whenever I see a mirror…


AM. I love the hall of mirrors effect you get in the red room towards the end


BG. Yeah, that was my bathroom! I didn’t know where I was going to shoot. I lived in Tribeca which was this downtown space at the time, nobody lived there except for artists, and we had big spaces, like industrial. So I just took a can of spray paint, the walls were not even finished, they were like sheetrock, and I sprayed it all red. So we set it up, and Nan was there, Nan Goldin. Cookie came, the great Cookie Mueller! She said, “Sandy, I’ll do your hair today”, cause we didn’t have stylists or hair and make-up people, we did our own. We hung out and we shot, it was such a fun scene to do. We didn’t play music or anything but John Lurie, the great John Lurie, we worked together so beautifully for the score. The hall of mirrors! It is a film about the frame. I teach a directing class at Columbia, sometimes I give them those throw-away cameras they have really no lens just a peephole, and I say just shoot a roll, just process it, and I want you to think about what is in the frame and what isn’t. And it is interesting when they come back. I don’t want the phone look, I like the shape of these little throw away cameras. What did you shoot? What are you naturally drawn to? And then we would talk about that. But the frame itself and composition gives you as much information as the narrative does, but you don’t know it, it sneaks it in. If it is a tight frame, if there is a reflection, or if it is a big empty space with one character, then that is narrative information given to you the way that only cinema can give it to you visually. You get more, even if you don’t know it, you feel something different.


AM. Sorry to bounce around a bit, but you made Anybody’s Woman before it, how does that fit in?


BG. Yes, because I was trying to figure out, how was this going to look on film. And I still didn’t know completely what the story would be, I knew that she would get a job. So I got this Super8 camera that I had, and I just went to the theatre, and I invited two friends, Nancy Reilly, who worked with the Wooster Group, and Spalding Gray, who did too. Spalding Gray is a very famous monologist and a friend. I said that I don’t know what I really want to do, but Nancy, we’re going to shoot around the cinema, you’re going to be in the booth. It was a Sunday morning, I think they didn’t open til 12 or 1 or something like that. So I played around with the camera and I found a lot of stuff. Like when she is wandering around the lobby, I was just getting my angles. I saw the coke machine there. Then I sat them in the theatre, it was kind of stinky and gross. And I said, “Spalding, tell me about your experience going to see porn movies”. He is brilliant, do you know his work?


AM. Sorry, I’m not really familiar


BG. Swimming to Cambodia is a monologue film he did which is really great. He could talk about anything. So [in Anybody’s Woman] he tells his story, and Nancy is there and she is talking about the strip bar that she worked. The last shot, that is where the Collective for Living Cinema was, which was the place where I went to work with this collective of people who started their own cinema, just in a loft. It wasn’t even really a cinema, we put the chairs down, we had a great screen, we built a little projection booth. On the corner was Babydoll Lounge, where sometimes friends would go to dance, or just because sometimes you would want extra money. There was a great poster out there and our cinema was down the street. So I said, “Stand in front of this, and I am just going to ask you questions, and you just answer”, like a Godard [film]. Like Vivre Sa Vie.


AM. I had seen that you had said that Godard was an inspiration, and there are these advertising moments across several of your films, they feel kind of…


BG. Godardian… Kind of a comment on…


AM. This is it, upfront, in your face, is that what you were thinking?


BG. Yes, and also thinking about the whole Women Against Pornography, and censorship. How could you censor porn when you have advertising that is doing the same thing? And doing it in your face? It seemed like I was pulling and pushing. Especially in that opening scene, I found all these old glamour photos and advertising, it is one and the same, it is even worse. It existed in Times Square, but then Times Square was all these theatres, and so interesting, the population of people. The film business was up there, the porn world was there. We would go to the bar which was kind of combined film world people, strippers, dancers, artists, musicians… And now it is all ads. It is as pornographic but worse. These giant bodies…


AM. And it is acceptable.


BG. Yeah.


AM. One of the most interesting scenes for me in the film was when she takes the porno mag back and we are watching her looking at these women.


BG. When she is on the bed?


AM. Yeah, as in what are we doing here? We are watching her, looking at these women, that have probably been photographed by men. How did you come up with the idea for that?


BG. I would always look. You know, when I went into the porn store, I wanted to see. These men are looking at these pictures, and some of them I found, ‘Oh that’s sexy’, just really engaging. We always say that you can’t look at that. Why? If they can look, I can look. Of course, when I did go into the porn store, you see it in the film, I was trespassing, but not really, and they all moved away. And why she takes the magazine, is that I took magazines home. I wanted to look, and be the looker, as opposed to just being the reflection of me on the page. When she goes into Louie’s room, she is looking for answers, answers for what? Is he really engaged in mafia? That is an interest that brings her into it, because her boyfriend the journalist is working on the story, but on the other hand, he becomes her story, and she weaves her story around this guy who, it’s never really about him, it’s always about the journey. And when she looks in that little black suitcase - as in the song I used at the end, I grew up hearing that song, it is a group called Little Anthony and the Imperials, it was all like The Temptations, it is this really great song. “How I love to look inside your little book”. What is that? It’s another kind of taboo. To read something, to take your hands… Putting your hand in a suitcase also is sexual. And in that kind imaginary moment, he [Louie] puts his hand inside [she gestures as if putting a hand inside one’s jacket to take something from an inside breast pocket]. It is in any day, everyday activity, like handshaking. But taking the porn book, it was his little diary.


AM. But then she is looking at it alone, in her own space, she is no longer just invading male space publicly


BG. Yes, she takes it. It is all about redefining those spaces and inhabiting them.


AM. Even privately.


BG. They’re mostly male spaces. I guess that says a lot about me as a filmmaker. I have never been interested in creating ‘a women’s cinema’, or even if I would define myself a filmmaker, a woman filmmaker, a feminist filmmaker, I don’t want the label. I’m just interested in disrupting, or making something problematic, so that you, the viewer, would go, “Hmm, what is that?”. That is more engaging than saying, “I am going to build this other world, and call it something with a label so that it becomes marginalised or even mainstreamed…” You know, “how many female filmmakers do we have?” I think I have never been comfortable with that, I think I have been more comfortable disrupting, playing like that. That magazine, tiny tits and cute asses…


AM. So you mentioned that you have been here before, to Edinburgh, and I had a quick Google but the internet obviously doesn’t have everything we want to know on it, have your films been shown here many times before?


BG. I think I came here the first time with James Benning, I think it was ’75 or something like that. I forget what he showed, maybe 8 ½ X 11, which was one of the first longer films he made. 8 ½ X 11 was a thirty minute film, I think it was that. We came and it was fun. Or did we show United States of America, so maybe we showed that, that year or another year. I came alone to the Women’s Event, I think I was showing a short film I made. And Lynda Myles was here, I haven’t seen her yet.


AM. There was a talk for her yesterday


BG. I can’t believe I missed it!


AM. Yeah, there was an event for her, and there are two documentaries being made about her. So there was a talk and a screening of one of the documentaries in progress


BG. So, I think I was showing a movie called Exchanges which unfortunately never got digitised because it faded so much, Anthology Film Archives couldn’t do it. I have the film version, and it is also at the filmmakers co-op. It was shot later than the other ones but I guess the filmstock wasn’t as good. Anyway it was a short film called Exchanges, and it was kind of almost a prototype for Empty Suitcases, and it was image and text, and I think I showed that here in the Women’s Event. It was my film Exchanges, Sally Potter had a short film, La Bohème [Thriller], and a lot of short films.


AM. So a few times


BG. So I came for USA, I came when maybe Benning did 8 ½ X 11, and I came for the Women’s Event with Exchanges. Never any features. I don’t think Empty Suitcases… Cause it was in Berlin, they could have invited it, and there were a few times I contacted them and they didn’t invite me.


AM. Well, that was their loss


BG. I think all the work that I have done… Luminous Motion is a fantastic film, based on a book… I think all my films are a little bit ahead of their time.


AM. Are you glad for it to be still showing now, and that everyone is appreciating it? Or do you think, “I wish we were beyond this”?


BG. Both. I’m in the trenches, hoping to have a new film off the ground, that I am going to shoot next summer in Iceland. I’m very excited about that, so that is driving me more. What I do care about is that after I’m gone what will remain is a body of work. And I’m hoping that the entire body of work will be seen, and that Variety will make sure, that Variety will take care, it needs to take care of everything else. It will bring people, even if it is the most well-known. It always pains me that people always want to go back. Like Marty Scorsese says, “I’m not talking about Mean Streets anymore”. But Mean Streets – it’s so good. So you can’t not have that, but you also want people to use Variety more to examine why each film that I have made since, in some way, has a lot in common with Variety. They all have an element of road movie. Even with Variety, when she follows him, there is this sequence where they go to Asbury Park. Luminous Motion is a mother and son live in their car, and they are basically on the highways, in motels etc. until one day the car crashes. And Handsome Harry is about this rediscovery of a betrayal, and what happened back then. The Drowning too… They’re all so reflective, and they are visually. They are all conscious of how they are showing what they are showing, maybe not as much as Variety or the other ones, but it is there.


AM. You could almost watch Variety as an essay film even


BG. Yeah. Yeah.


AM. Just to end then, that film in Iceland, I read that you planned to make it on an iPhone, is that still the case?


BG. I would never make a film on an iPhone! Well, maybe a small film, but not this film in Iceland.

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