In Bette Gordon's Variety, actress Sandy McLeod plays a young woman named Christine who isn't having much luck finding a job in New York City. At her wits end, she opts for a position at the Variety, an adult theater nears Times Square (keep in mind this was the seedy Times Square of 1983, not the modern day tourist trap) where she finds employment as a cashier at the ticket booth.
Her friend Nan (Nan Goldin), a bartender, is quite supportive but her boyfriend, Mark (Will Patton), an investigative reporter hoping to bust open the mafia/union racket at the docks, isn't so keen on her chosen profession. As Sandy gets used to her new job and her co-worker, Jose (Luis Guzman), she also develops a unique affinity for the XXX films that the theater shows. As her relationship with Mark slowly disintegrates, Sandy develops a strange fascination with one of the theater's regular customers, a mysterious man named Louie (Richard Davison), who may or may not play a part in the case that Mark is trying to crack. The more Sandy learns about Louie the more she wants to know about him and the longer she works at the Variety, the more her world becomes like the pornographic movies that are projected there, day in and day out.
Written by Kathy Acker and directed by Bette Gordon, Variety works on two levels, the first of which is as a uniquely female slant on the effects of pornography and how it can work its way in to someone's sexual fantasies be they male or female. While the film isn't completely successful on this level, it does explore how Sandy reacts to the smut that pays her bills (we see her take home a one sheet for a Seka film for starts but soon she's visiting establishments that provide private viewing booths). Conversations that occur as a sideline to the main story enlighten us as to a woman's take on stripping and the perils thereof, but the main focus is on Sandy's growing obsession with pornography and how it changes her life in different ways - not all of which are negative. This provides some interesting food for thought throughout the film. As Sandy's character changes is it because she's taking charge of her life and knows what she wants and that what she wants happens to be a more interesting sex life? Or is the smut she's subjected to tainting her mind and in turn her outlook on life in genereal?
The other way in which Variety works is as a time capsule of the Times Square that no longer exists. With the porn theaters long gone in place of Disney themed Broadway shows and corporate advertisements galore, some of the footage in the film now, by accident likely, has historical importance. As the city mutates and evolves and becomes a very different animal from the beast that it was two decades ago, films like Variety provide an interesting look at a part of the city's own unique culture that has been conveniently swept under the rug in much the same way that the marquees have been covered in big-business-tourist enticing-soul-sucking nonsense. Sure the streets are safer, but where's the fun in that? This film takes us back to that time and while it doesn't get quite as into the nitty-gritty as, say, Taxi Driver or Times Square (or to a completely ludicrous extent, Riot On 42nd Street) it is a look at a part of New York's slowly eroding soul.
The film is certainly a little rough around the edges. The camera work isn't going to blow you away and you'll find that a few shots definitely linger just a bit too long (though this may very well be on purpose) but in a strange way these technical flaws add to the picture's unpolished charm. Sandy McLeod gives a strong lead performance and does a great job showing the growing distance her character feels from what was once her every day world. This isn't a perfect film, by any stretch - there are parts of the script that will likely have you scratching your head - but it's certainly a very interesting one and as such, well worth a look.
Variety arrives on DVD in an appropriately grainy anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen transfer that looks to preserve the film's original aspect ratio. Some mild print damage shows up from time to time in the form of specks and dirt but for the most part the image is fairly clean. Color reproduction looks very natural and black levels stay pretty consistent throughout. The film was made to look seedy so the grain works in its favor, it is very much part of the look that the director was obviously going for. There aren't any problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts.
The Dolby Digital English Mono track is pretty low-fi but it gets the job done. Dialogue is easy enough to follow and the levels are all properly mixed. The score sounds nice and it's easy enough to look past the scenes that are a little on the soft side when you consider the film's low budget origins. No alternate language dubs or subtitles are supplied.
Aside from a small still gallery, the only other supplement on this release is an interesting essay from director Bette Gordon that covers her intentions for the film and her thoughts on the subject matter. It makes for an interesting read but it would have been nice to see a formal interview with her or a commentary track. Aside from that, there are some menus and a chapter selection option.
Variety is an interesting and fairly sleazy look at one woman's obsession with adult films and magazines and their effect on her. As a narrative, it isn't mind blowing but it is an excellent character study with lots of seedy charm and period inner city footage. Kino's presentation would have really benefited from a commentary track but is otherwise quite good and this odd little film comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.