Richard M. Davidson
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
Variety August 3, 2020
ariety (1983), Bette Gordon’s startling, uncanny tale of obsession and voyeurism, stars Sandy McLeod as Christine, a young, out-of-work writer who, after a long period of professional flailing, takes a job as a ticket-taker at the titular Times Square porn theater. Christine doesn’t plan to keep this job long — just until she gets to a sounder place of financial security or some sort of writing gig.
Whichever comes first. But the job, after some time, significantly affects how Christine sees herself and, eventually, her sexuality; she isn't so sure she wants to immediately leave as she'd originally thought. The film, written by feminist novelist and erstwhile sex worker Kathy Acker, uses Christine as its focal point to ruminate on, among other things, how female sexuality can be at once something desired and commodified by the straight male while also, in another breath, trivialized by the straight male. Christine isn't exactly sure how to externalize her change in self in part because of those two hindrances.
Acker and Gordon use an assemblage of men to get their point across. When Christine first reveals during dinner her new job to her on-off boyfriend, straight-laced investigative journalist Mark (Will Patton), he leaves early, and says he doesn’t want her to come over later. He doesn’t say it outright, but it’s as if her sex appeal has somehow evaporated, to his taste, just because of a job she’s taken on. Later on in the movie, when Christine makes up erotic-fantasy-style stories as inspired by the movies she can hear from the lobby so clearly (picture her as a spoken-word poet in the arcade in which she's currently standing), Mark is totally disinterested, barely listening. Christine and her sexuality are only worth considering to Mark when they harmonize with his tastes, or at the least appear to be in sync with his desires.
Christine eventually builds a rapport with a frequent Variety patron — a middle-aged, nebulously wealthy man named Louie (Richard M. Davidson) who buys her a coke at the theater one evening, then invites her to a baseball game. It's intimated that he has mob ties. He seems interested in Christine mostly because she has a connection to the “seamy" sexuality as displayed at the porn theater without ostensibly being “infected” by it. Christine, having a hard time finding a conduit for her new sexual interests given Mark’s resistance to hearing anything about her job or what it has brought out in her, focuses her attention on Louie. She starts stalking him in the evenings. (There is much silent wandering in Variety; it underscores Christine’s loneliness, her feelings of being stuck inside her head, and also the film’s working as a sordid-chic time capsule of early 1980s New York.) She seems to have become rather obsessed with Louie sexually, and the masculinity radiating from the world he occupies. The ambiguous ending of Variety suggests that she will be turning this fuzzy fixation into something substantial, touchable. We do not know for sure.
When customers see Christine at the ticket booth, they usually assume that she is in actuality one of the actresses in a given blue movie doing some additional advertising work. Even if she isn’t, there seems to be a parallel in how customers view the women in porn movies and Christine in the booth, in that they are something onto which to project. The height of the booth requires that Christine look slightly downward at patrons. The harsh lighting inside of it and the thick walls dividing the box from the outside world render her indirectly a sexualized object.
Christine cannot put a finger on what exactly is shifting in her by working at the Variety. But Acker and Gordon subtly indicate that through being there, she has found that she likes leaning into her voyeuristic tendencies, just like the men who have a tangible (for customers), financially gainful (for distributors) outlet to do so. She soon becomes someone who looks through dirty magazines once in a while. She talks in her off-hours with sex workers about what their experiences have been like. This feeling — this wanting to indulge in voyeurism and more outward sex-positivity — was one Gordon herself had been experiencing before she made the movie, as she’s noted in interviews. So often in film are male protagonists given a channel for their “liking to watch.” Such was most notably glamorized by director Alfred Hitchcock, who with 1954’s Rear Window and 1958’s Vertigo spotlighted characters who leaned into their voyeurism. They were characterized mostly as complicated heroes.
It’s a lot rarer to see such behavior embodied by a woman character and dramatized by a woman director. Variety is the rarity. The film also seems a response to, or at least a film-length questioning of, the way straight men make the bulk of porn for straight men, and the frustration that can arise when there are so few equivalents for women. (When there is an equivalent, it tends to be made more niche in the popular imagination.) With the patriarchal, unavoidably capitalistic ethos underlying pornography, and broader mainstream depictions of female sexuality, there comes an additional exploitative element, too. There can as a result be an incorrect distinguishing of some representations of female sexuality as seedier than others. There are some “right” and acceptable and some irredeemably wrong and taboo; in both cases, definitions are often defined in the mainstream by men.
Christine is stymied in so many ways — wanting to explore her sexuality but feeling disregarded, feeling like she cannot; having an interest in consuming titillating art, but being made to feel out of place for having that interest. It's just one representation of how damaging the internalization of popular, ultimately repressive sexual mores can be. Variety, so wound up and tormented without a singular release, haunts. A