One of the pioneering wagon-train movies of the inaugural, New York-based independent film movement, predating Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise,” Bette Gordon’s “Variety” (1983) comes off in retrospect as a veritable time capsule of post-punk downtown coolness. Just read the credits: screenwriter Kathy Acker (experimental novelist), star/photog Nan Goldin (famed shutterbug and model for the Ally Sheedy role in “High Art” 15 years later), soundtrack composer John Lurie (of Jarmusch movies and The Lounge Lizards), cinematographer Tom DiCillo (director of “Living in Oblivion,” etc.), producer Renee Shafransky (Spalding Gray’s longtime girlfriend), co-star Luiz Guzman, bit players Spalding Gray and Cookie Mueller (veteran of John Waters’s universe), production assistant Christine Vachon, and so on. Where is Cindy Sherman? The grungy vibe of “Variety” is itself a window on the past only at the nascent launch of a DIY indie wave in the post-’60s period could you, or would you, set an interrogatory neofeminist psychodrama like this in a Times Square grindhouse devoted exclusively to cheap Euro-porn.
Gordon’s heroine is Christine (Sandy McLeod, who later went on to co-direct the 2003 Oscar-nominated short “Asylum”), an unassuming out-of-town girl who takes a job selling tickets at the joint out of desperation. Of course, she begins to brush up, sometimes literally, against the men that used to attend those theaters, becoming vulnerable to deranged masturbatory phone calls and even falling tentatively into the orbit of a wealthy middle-aged mystery man living a shadowy criminal existence at night, after spending his days watching porn. All the while, Christine tries to maintain her relationship with a reporter (Will Patton), but the more she talks about the movie house and its clients, the more he’s repulsed. Acker and Gordon’s simple masterstroke here is to make Christine hard to nail down she’s good-natured but not sweet, attitude-free but not naÃ¯ve, more curious than shockable, and not overtly political in any way. As “Variety” presses on, Christine nonjudgmentally explores the possibility of being a sexual object we’re meant to read into her blankness, Rorschach-style.
“Variety” is smart but strangely, even beguilingly off-putting. It’s also profoundly depressing; the lack of proactive energy on Christine’s part is both the film’s overriding message and the source of its hopelessness. (The dialogue and acting excepting Patton, who was already perfecting his think-one-crazy-thing-say-another persona tends toward the arch and stiff, but this is back when “indie” meant “without professional training or infrastructure of any kind,” not “slumming stars taking a pay cut.”) But historically, it speaks volumes: this is one of the first American films with a true feminist docket and an unalloyed female perspective, in a Reagan-era New York of lingering Forty Deuce smut and all-night luncheon counters and cultural warfare in the streets between the old-guard desires of men and the newfound sexual self-definitions of women.
We were, of course, behind the times female fighting machines, for instance, are de rigueur today, but Hong Kong cinema was putting them front and center decades ago, as in the seminal, long-time-coming-to-video HK classic from legendary director King Hu, “Come Drink with Me” (1966). This is where “Kill Bill” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and the latter movie’s far too many candy-colored imitators, came from. King’s epic is many times more arresting because the razzle dazzle and vaulting combatitude is arrived at not via digital effects but with old fashioned stuntwork, snap-crackle editing and simple filmmaking savvy.
Fans of the utterly psychotic wuxia pian fantasias Tsui Hark pushed to their limit in the ’80s and early ’90s know where we are: the amorphous period of medieval dynasties, where a bandit clan with big grudges has kidnapped an official, and Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei; think of her as the Sandra Dee of spine-shattering kung fu) is sent to the rescue…whatever. The plots of Shaw Brothers movies from the ’60s onward were clotted, preposterous and often simply abridged for the sake of action. This is, in a sense, cinema in something close to its rawest form. In fact, the film’s first major set piece when the harmless-seeming Golden Swallow arrives at a country inn in bandit country, and soon has to take on dozens of bad guys alone, using the tables and rafters and everything else is visual explosiveness and high-flying breathlessness almost completely sans narrative. You can get whiplash trying to keep up with the flurry of perspectives and lightning-fast shifts of physical activity, but you won’t ever accuse the movie of playing to the cheap seats or telling you something twice.
[Photos: Bette Gordon’s “Variety,” Variety Motion Pictures, 1983; King Hu’s “Come Drink with Me,” Shaw Brothers, 1966]
“Variety” (Kino Video) and “Come Drink with Me” (Genius Products-Dragon Dynasty) are now available on DVD.