Variety (1983)

Directed by Bette Gordon; Written by Kathy Acter and Jerry Delamater

Theaters with sticky seats and that smell of strong Lysol first thing in the morning are not places most people take a good look at, let alone enter. Least of all, a place you expect to find a wide-eyed, blonde 20-something tearing tickets, taking dollars from men with collars popped and downcast eyes who hurry inside, or worse yet, who make a point in holding her gaze and touching her hand when she gives them their ticket.

Yet that’s the case for Christine, a young woman a long way from her native Michigan, now living in New York City. Down bad for a job, she gets in the booth at Variety, a cinema peddling X-rated movies to those who like their porn to be a communal experience. One cinemagoer engages Christine somewhat innocently, and something unlocks in her, marking the beginning of an obsession: with this man, what he represents, her own sexuality and what it holds. 

The subject matter is already uncommon, but the treatment and creative direction behind Variety makes it table-flipping subversive. Gordon looks at this sodom as a place for growth and is thoroughly unapologetic about telling a story about a woman exploring these spaces for own personal gain. Voyeurism and a woman having any sort of relationship to pornography is still hard for society to accept, and to see it done forty years ago only makes Gordon’s work more exhilarating in how much of a maverick it really is. 

As Christine, Sandy McLeod has the model-like beauty to appear outside her element in these ultra-male spaces and the soft voice to make her vulnerable, yet the steel spine she infuses Christine with is what convinces you to go along with her. It’s a largely non-speaking role, but McLeod’s body language says it all. 

There’s some fun jabs at narrow-minded middle class attitudes along the way. Will Patton is great as Mark, Christine’s journalist boyfriend who’s gung ho for uncovering mob racketeering down at the city docks, but almost chokes on his food when Christine tells him about her new job. There’s wicked fun in watching him fall into hopelessness as he learns about this dimension of his partner he’s fully unequipped for. Investigate that!

Variety is also journey inside the world Robert Delaney detailed in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. A part of the city now overrun with tourists used to be shady and mostly concerned with happenings below the belt; it had peep shows, X-rated movies, porn mags, sex workers line the streets and the good  folks of New York City weren’t meant to be caught dead there. Beyond its creative daring, Variety is an unflinching social document of the city at a time before gentrification swept it all away to make room for Gap, Starbucks and Sephora. 

Variety is lurid, and depending on your tastes, sordid stuff. It’s horny, and it’s particularly horny for what polite society would rather not consider: a woman with sexual agency. Gordon’s film is an insistent friend calling attention to that fact, plunging into it. John Lurie’s jazzy score lends noir tones to Christine’s nocturnal amblings through a dirty city, making it a pleasure to watch and listen to, if still gritty. 

It’s real filth, and a real nighttime watch to titillate more what’s in between your ears, than what’s in between your legs.  

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