Bette Gordon’s re-control of the cinematic narrative

A showcase celebrates a female filmmaker who boldly reversed the male gaze

Sandy McLeod as Christine in Bette Gordon's "Variety" (1983)

“I like to dig under things and subvert, be naughty and playful.” — Bette Gordon

That is exactly what filmmaker Bette Gordon accomplished with “Variety” (1983), her first feature film. By exploring the sexual curiosity and desires of a young woman working in a porn theater, she cleverly repudiated the anti-porn campaign of feminist activists Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

Austin Film Society presents “No Cover: Films by Bette Gordon” Feb. 23-26, with the filmmaker in attendance. See austinfilm.org for the schedule and tickets. 
Gordon took an idea for an erotic story to the fearless feminist author Kathy Acker who wrote a script. And Gordon turned that script into a visual tour-de-force drenched in the seedy neon lights of the 1980s pre-Disney Times Square.

Early in  “Variety” we see aspiring writer Christine (Sandy McLeod) and her friend Nan (played by photographer Nan Goldin) in a women’s locker room. Goode shoots the scene with the locker room mirrors positioned so that we are not sure which figures are real and which are reflected multiples underscoring Christine’s uncertainty about her future in New York City. Nan suggests that she apply at the Photoplay Theater, where Christine’s midwestern good-girl looks land her the ticker seller job.

Christine’s job places her in a street-side ticket booth, metaphorically caged and almost as much on display as the women on the screen inside the theater. But Christine’s imagination is free to roam as she begins learning about male sexual fantasies she realizes her own hidden desires.

On a coffee break in the theater’s lobby, Christine meets Louie a nicely-dressed older gentleman who soon invites her out. However, Christine’s boyfriend, an investigative reporter, convinces her Louis is a mob operative. That only fuels Christine’s fascination with Louie and she follows him to mysterious appointments involving handshakes and secretive black bags.

Unlike the women in the porn films she sells tickets to, Christine becomes the voyeur gaining a new sense of strength and fearlessness. One night Christine puts on some provocative clothing and phones Louie, inviting him to a meet-up on a street corner. In a favorite Gordon ploy, the film’s final shot shows an empty street corner, leaving the audience to complete the narrative.

Variety” caused quite an uproar when it was released. Writing in 2011, noted film critic Amy Taubin explained: “Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative — of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved or left as an opening into the unknown.”

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Gordon involved a cadre of creative people in “Variety” who would become part of the American cultural landscape: Acker and Goldin, and also playwright Spalding Gray, actors Luis Guzmán and Will Patton, and musician John Lurie who wrote the soundtrack. Renee Shafransky, Gray’s girlfriend, was the film’s producer largely because of her experience running the seminal avant-garde microcinema, the Collective for Living Cinema.

“We kind of learned as we went along,” Gordon reflected in a 2009 interview. “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.”

Gordon received a Golden Camera nomination for “Variety” at Cannes in 1984, a decade after she had first started making movies back in her native Midwest along with James Benning, at the time also an emerging experimental filmmaker.

Together in 1974 the couple made a six-minute short, “Michigan Avenue,” which begins as a slow-motion exploration of the longest street in Chicago and its traffic and ends with a nude woman rolling off a bed in slow-motion. What might have been erotic for the male gaze becomes farcical and yet intriguing in slow motion as perhaps an homage to pre-cinema pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.

Following an even shorter short, “I-94,” the couple took a road trip across the country and made “The United States of America” (1975). The 27-minute dialogue-less film consists entirely of silhouetted shots of Gordon and Benning in the front seat of a car with a view of whatever landscape shows up on the “screen” of the front windshield.

With the fixed-camera/fixed-focal length view from the backseat, America unfolds as a varied landscape interrupted by snow, rain and bright sunlight. The radio offers snippets of pop, rock, country and conjunto music interspersed with evangelical shouts, weather reports, and news about Vietnam during the “Fall of Saigon” (30 April 1975). Unusual for structuralist films of the time, “The United States of America” is well grounded in a specific historical time and cultural context.

Still from James Benning and Bette Gordon’s “The United States of America,” (1975)

After this final collaborative work, Benning left Goode and their young daughter to pursue his own individual film work. Undeterred, Gordon continued her filmmaking.

“An Erotic Film” — incorrectly credited to Benning on IMDB — is initially an ironic film with its field of flowers blasted from our view by the side view of a rapidly passing freight train. Yet it’s tempting read the lush field of gentle yellow flowers as “woman” and the blaring metal train as “man.” In a highly structuralist work, “Exchanges,” a woman discusses the precise measurements of garage doors until interrupted by the step-printed image of a woman walking toward the camera but never getting very close. Finally, “Still Life” features positive and negative images of cows in a field.

And then in 1979 Gordon was through with the flowers, trains, cows and men of the Midwest. She moved to New York City, settling with her young daughter in Tribeca, then a half-deserted neighborhood of vintage warehouses.

There, the 29-year-old single mother found exactly the right crowd nearby at the Collective for Living Cinema, a film organization started by SUNY Binghamton graduates mentored by experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs. With her hands-on experience in filming, printing, editing and sound-mixing, Gordon was an asset to the group and soon had a job.

Surrounded by an inspiring community, Gordon was soon ready to make her next film, “Empty Suitcases” (1980). In a 1982 Bomb magazine interview with Karyn Kay, Gordon described her 49-minute short:

While there is a kind of story in my film — a woman travels back and forth between New York and Chicago and can’t make up her mind about where she wants to live — the film goes away from the particular story and deals with the issues of storytelling (first and third person), with issues of sexual difference and violence, indecision and variability of women’s position in culture and language. I think the film deals with the dislocation of sense of self inside and behavior outside and of narrative, but in a fragmented way. I do not attempt to reproduce emotions in the viewer, but to raise questions about the position of women in relation to institutions, to language, to sexuality.

Compared to her purely structuralist works made in the Midwest, Gordon was obviously becoming interested in making women the subject of her new film work. As a preliminary sketch for “Variety,” the director made “Anybody’s Woman” in 1981. Certain elements would find their way into “Variety,” such as a woman making her male companion very uncomfortable by reciting an erotic tale in public.

Finally, in 1983 Gordon was ready to work with a crew to make her first feature film, one whose critical success should have led to a lot of film offers. But “Variety” proved only that arthouse audiences now had some powerful women directors to praise and enjoy while Hollywood’s patriarchy was apparently scared of them. Offers were not forthcoming.

It was not until 1998 — fifteen years after “Variety”’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival — that Gordon was contacted to make her second feature film. Fiona Films, based in London, felt that she could direct a film based on Scott Bradfield’s disturbing Oedipal novel “The History of Luminous Motion.” Gordon secured chilling performances from Eric Lloyd as Phillip, an amoral 10-year-old psychopath, and Deborah Kara Unger as the boy’s laissez-faire mother, an alcoholic and larcenous prostitute. Together mother and son roam back and forth across America, motel to motel, coast to coast, with a dramatically different narrative than that of Benning/Gordon’s “The United States of America.”  Aside from a director’s nomination at the Locarno International Film Festival, “Luminous Motion” was apparently ignored.

luminous_motion.jpg
Bette Gordon’s “The History of Luminous Motio.”

Gordon began teaching at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 1991, becoming vice chair of the film division in 2000. “I think teaching has been good for me,” she said in a 2017 interview. “Engagement with other people’s projects is really inspiring, and I like being able to use my creative and visual problem-solving skills to help other people with their work. It sharpens you.”

Just as she had been doing before “Luminous Motion,” she directed occasional TV episodes, but no feature film offer came up until “Handsome Harry” (2009). Cinematographer Nick Proferes’ screenplay was acquired by start-up production company The Film Community, who then hired Gordon. Just as she had done with “Variety,” Gordon led the title character toward the discovery of his sexual desires, in this instance a complicated lust for the very man whom he had beaten mercilessly years before when they were in the Navy.

Finally, Gordon’s most recent feature, the excellent suspense film “The Drowning” (2016), echoes the imagery and sounds of some of her experimental shorts.

Despite her talent and intelligence, Gordon is criminally under-appreciated. Though she has said that she is content with making a feature film only occasionally, she has wondered if audiences are turned off by her morally ambiguous characters.

“I’m not interested in making a ‘feel good everybody ends up happily ever after’ kind of movie,” Gordon said in 2017 interview. “I always will probably gravitate to stuff that’s more difficult. I’m not interested in characters that are easy or conventionally likable. In fact, that’s something that drives me crazy about so much art now — the tyranny of likability. This idea that you must like every character or that you have to relate to them somehow. Who cares about that? I don’t think you have to like the characters, but you should at least find them interesting.”

Editor’s note: Chale Nafus curates of Austin Film Society’s annual Middle Eastern film series.

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Chale Nafus
Born in Dallas during World War II, Chale Nafus attended public schools, spent summers on his sister’s ranch in the 1950s, learned Spanish from school friends, and dreamed of getting out of Dallas. After studying at SMU, the University of Texas at Arlington (B.A., English), La Universidad Autónoma de México, and UT Austin (M.A. English/RTF), Chale began a long college teaching career at Texas Southmost College (Brownsville), La Universidad de Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn), and finally Austin Community College (1973-1998). At the latter he founded the department of Radio-TV-Film. For 13 years (2002 –2015) Chale was the director of programming at the Austin Film Society.

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