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On DVD: “Variety,” “Come Drink with Me”

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06032008_variety.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

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 naïve, 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.

06032008_comedrinkwithme.jpgWe 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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