The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.
Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.
As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.
While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.