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When a friend reluctantly tells unemployed writer Christine (Sandy McLeod) that she knows of a job opening, Christine is just happy to have a lead on work, but it turns out that taking tickets at Variety, a Times Square porn theater, is a transformational experience for her. The work itself is simple, but being there is like a peek into a world that Christine is fascinated by: the seemingly lonely men, who come to the theater and sit apart from one another, transfixed by the women on screen. She begins telling sexual stories to her boyfriend, Mark (Will Patton), who does not seem pleased. Eventually, she fixates on a specific patron, an older man named Louie (Richard M. Davidson), who wears a three-piece suit to the films and exudes a certain type of confidence. When he invites her on a date but is forced to leave abruptly, she starts following him, trying to figure out more about him -- a voyeur watching another voyeur.
Variety, which was conceived by director Bette Gordon and realized with the help of Kathy Acker (herself a former sex worker), is a fascinating study of desire and sexuality, and the power that comes with expressing it. Famous pull quotes (reprinted on the Blu-ray artwork) drew comparisons to Vertigo and Taxi Driver, and it's true that the film's basic plot feels like a melding of the two, with Christine pursuing Louie like a detective through the grungy nighttime streets of New York City in the early 1980s (as well as one particular cue by composer John Lurie that clearly nods to Bernard Herrmann). Yet, the film's most interesting qualities exist in the film's exploration of sex, and the ways sex might change if female sexual drive and desire were given the same cultural, public consideration as that of men.
The very sight of Variety's marquee, as well as the other porno shops and peep shows that line the Times Square of the film, create a contradiction that Christine seems fascinated by: giant billboards advertising sex, juxtaposed with men who are startled and ashamed by her very presence inside the theater or the shops in question. No matter how normal it is to have an interest in sex, no matter how important women are to the sexual fantasies of the men who buy tickets, put a quarter in the movie booths, or flip through a magazine, her presence somehow disrupts the fantasy. It might be momentarily surprising for Christine to recite a piece of erotica aloud, but Mark actually seems offended, uncomfortable by his girlfriend's unflinching attitude as she tells the story from beginning to end.
As Christine's fascination deepens, her behavior becomes more transgressive, veering further and further outside the traditional notion of what's "normal." An interesting example comes early on, when she finds an obscene message on her answering machine and listens to it with a certain kind of fascination. There is the sense that she simultaneously views it as intrusive and arousing, that it is offensive but liberated (an idea that might apply equally to unsolicited dick pics on social media). Shortly thereafter, Louie makes his first moves, asking Christine out on a date to a baseball game. His confidence is intriguing, but more important, his insistence creates a power dynamic, in which Christine has to lower her guard. With no traditional means of getting Louie to lower his, her pursuit of him, spying on him as he travels to far-off motels to make mysterious deals with various strangers, could be seen as a way to balance that dynamic, creating something closer to an equilibrium in terms of his interest in her versus her interest in him.
Much of the intrigue and value of watching Variety is in the pursuit itself, and to that end, the film is fairly ambiguous. There is a climactic scene, loaded with meaning, but Gordon isn't interested in a conventional ending. What's interesting about it is the exploration itself, the desire of a character like Chriistine to investigate her own impulses, opened up as they are by her time at the theater. In one scene, closer to the end of the movie, she visits the bar where the friend who recommended the job works, and she watches as a bunch of other women talk about how they behave on dates and in relationships, which are often at odds with their own desires. To some degree, Christine seems to find self-actualization in trying to bridge the gap between the public and the private, what she wants and how society thinks she should go about it.
Kino brought their restoration of Variety to theaters, creating a new theatrical poster for the release, and that poster, of Christine in the ticket booth with the lit-up marquee providing the title treatment, is the default for their new Blu-ray. On the reverse, the image of Christine in pigtails and a sexy corset that was used for the original theatrical poster and Kino's older DVD release is also available as an alternate option. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Amy Taubin.
Note: the packaging for this release identifies it as region free.
The Video and Audio
Kino has blessed Variety with a new 2K transfer off of the original camera negative, presented here in 1.85:1 1080p AVC, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Gordon mentions on the commentary that the film was shot on 16mm (IMDb incorrectly says 35mm), and that's evident from the look of the new transfer. There is not much in the way of fine detail (for example, when we first meet Mark in the diner, even in close-up, the lines in the fabric of Christine's red sweater barely resolve), but the appearance feels organic and accurate to the source, with a richly filmic look at all times despite the persistent softness. Color is beautifully saturated, especially the striking neon lights of the Variety marquee. In dark scenes, crush is an issue (especially when Christine is following Louie around the city), although again, this doesn't seem to be the disc but simply the way the film looks. Minor print damage is also visible from time to time. Similar qualities can often be ascribed to the sound: the occasionally muffled or unintelligible bit of dialogue is probably the way it sounded when it was recorded. To be clear, most of the dialogue is easy to understand, but there are some background dialogue (street vendors, for example) or dialogue filtered through another medium (a message on an answering machine) that are hard to discern. For a microbudget independent film closer to its 40th anniversary than its 30th, this is a very pleasing presentation, but it's probably a good idea to keep the limitations of the source in check. English subtitles are also provided.
The centerpiece extra is a new audio commentary by director Bette Gordon and film critic/moderator Hillary Weston. This is a lovely track in which Weston's services are appreciated but almost unnecessary -- a simple question from Weston will inspire Gordon to talk for five, ten minutes straight, with a great memory of both the production and the entire period of her life that inspired the film. Recurring themes of the track include Gordon's desire to explore the notion of women existing within and even claiming traditionally male spaces; the community of the New York City art scene at that time, and how that helped score so many of the recognizable names behind and in front of the camera); and a general love for the city and that period of time in general, with much of the film's development coming about through Gordon's own exploration of the city, looking for places she'd seen in classic movies. A warm and enthusiastic conversation.
There is also one major video extra, Gordon's short film Anybody's Woman (23:36). This is most interesting as a piece of Variety's evolution (on the commentary, Gordon calls it "the sketchbook version"), featuring a couple of the same scenes (the protagonist, played here by Nancy Reilly, receiving an obscene phone call, working at Variety, reading the story about the woman and the hitchhiker to her boyfriend, played here by Mark Boone Jr.), as well as a couple of new and fascinating ones (a voice-over story by Karyn Kay about two rich men watching two poor women in an apartment, and an on-camera appearance by Spalding Gray, who only appears in the feature as a voice). Sound is pretty bad at the beginning, but it clears up for the rest of the piece, which has no traditional plot.
The disc is rounded out with three photo galleries: production photos by Nan Goldin (5:02) a carry-over from Kino's older DVD edition (upgraded to HD), location scouting stills taken by Gordon (1:42), and storyboard illustrations by Tim Burns and Bette Gordon (6:52). Photo galleries are almost always skippable on Blu-ray and DVD releases, but both Goldin and Gordon's photos are a worthwhile curiosity.
An original theatrical trailer for Variety is also included, as well as a bonus trailer for Gordon's Luminous Motion, which has also been released on Blu-ray by Kino.
Variety is a great movie, a fascinating exploration of the female gaze and desire. It might not have been quite as lost as something like My 20th Century or Old Boyfriends, since Kino previously issued it on DVD, but it continues their impressive streak of new restorations and home media releases of films, directed by women, that have been unfairly overlooked. Armed with a gorgeous A/V presentation and a very good commentary, this one is highly recommended.
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