There is intrusiveness to the observational nature of the cinematic art form that creates voyeurs of us all. To watch a movie is to observe. To observe a world reflected at us through a specific context that only cinema can provide, and possibly even helping put our world in context through the specificity of its lens. To observe people move through the space created by the lens, mapped out by directors and cinematographers as they deliberately plan ways in which to allow us to view their obsessions. What movies do is they create worlds for us to observe, but that observation does not always feel welcomed. Hitchcock knew the power of the manipulative filmmaker, showing us rabbit holes worth diving into before slowly turning the camera on us and forcing us to confront our deep deranged impulses. In 1983, Bette Gordon created her own voyeuristic noir, Variety, that plays to the Hitchcock tradition while updating the setting to the New York of Scorsese and Ferrara, meshing classical ideas with an updated sensibility and perspective.
Christine (Sandy McLeod), a down on her luck writer, takes a job selling tickets at a pornographic movie theatre named Variety. Throughout the film, she wanders inside and becomes infatuated with the screen’s images, infiltrating a very male-dominated space with her subjective female gaze. We begin to see the sexual porn fantasy spliced through a female lens, confronting this isolationist male space with her own gaze upon a screen. It feels like she is trespassing. Thrilling and taboo.
She begins writing these porn scenes in her head and retelling them through monologues to her sort-of boyfriend (played by Will Patton), which further isolates her from him. Inside a car, with a still camera in the backseat, she begins speaking this explicitly sexual monologue, and as the stillness wraps around the screen with Christine’s voice acts as the narrator, stumbling with words, trying to perfect the language as it leaves her lips. He asks her why she is doing this. She replies that she is telling him about her life. Another time at a pinball machine, as his stiff body mashes buttons and we listen to the machine make the beeping noises that only a pinball machine could make, acting as the soundtrack to another monologue. This time the words flow out as if they’ve been written down and practiced. He doesn’t say anything.
Christine becomes infatuated with this middle-aged businessman named Louie (Richard M. Davidson), who frequents the theatre. He takes her out to a Yankee game and has to leave early. She impulsively tails him. Louie shakes a couple of hands and meets some people, and she begins to suspect him of being in the mob. However, what’s fascinating about the movie is that Louie, as a character, has no real definition beyond the impression of him seen through Christine’s eyes. We are viewing a woman’s burgeoning fascination, and we are watching these observations merge with her awakening sexuality through pornography until Louie just becomes an empty street draped in shadow, not given an ending because he does not earn one. He fails to exist beyond the totality of the movie screen, while Christine’s journey is the one that will imprint itself into our collective memory.
Bette Gordon’s Variety is overtly feminist in its explicit exploration of sexuality and its intrusion on the comfortability of the male spaces that exist around pornography—flipping the noir tradition on its head by exploring the voyeuristic gaze through a female point of view before we notice the voyeurism in our own eye upon the screen. That is where the film might slightly depart from Hitchcock venturing on its own path. In contrast, Hitchcock alerted us to our voyeurism through his manipulative lens, as we indulge the most salacious parts of ourselves. In Variety, We observe a woman’s obsession, but the film never makes her fixation the audience’s preoccupation. Instead, we slowly fall into the spell of existing within the same space as her, and we soon realize that the man this woman is following only matters in the context of understanding who she is through this rabbit hole that she fell through. And then the movie ends. Or it doesn’t. It simply stops. There is no conclusion.
Gordon makes the conscious decision of cutting us out of the remainder of this story. Our voyeurism, our curiosity, our active engagement with the text of the film is unrewarded. All we are left with is an empty street. The story goes on without us, and there is something meditative in this kind of rejection of traditional filmic language. There is something reflective in this outright rejection of continuation. As Bette Gordon rejects the notion of punishing “immorality” in the way that was baked into the noir tradition as classic noirs generally fought to both subvert the production code while conforming to its rules, particularly when it came to punishing characters who “deserved” it. Instead, Gordon takes the power of a conclusion away from us.
Variety exists in a world draped in lush reds, masked in shadows and silhouettes, and reflected through mirrors and windows. Introducing a character and allowing us to see the world through their lens, reflecting an image of her perspective. Lights from a movie screen dance on her face as she takes in this sexual fantasy upon the screen, almost feeling like a trespasser upon the male fantasy until she becomes ingratiated within that setting. A woman follows a man who she believes may work for the mob. She then sits in a theatre and imagines her on a bed with him walking into the room. An empty street. A blue dress with smokes filtering out of the lips of the woman who wears it. A neorealist noir about the voyeurism trapped in the reflection of the movie screen, caught within the gaze of the viewer, melded with the charged sexuality of a woman waking herself up to her own fantasies. Variety is one of those movies that you watch in silence as it washes over you, and then you allow yourself the freedom of contemplation. Slow naturalism enveloped in beautiful photography—what a picture.
Variety is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, set to leave the service on November 30th.