Whitehot Magazine

August 2010, Interview with Bette Gordon

Bette Gordon, photograph taken during work on Variety, 1984

Courtesy, Bette Gordon

Interview with Bette Gordon

As Bette Gordon describes: "Variety is about a woman who sells tickets at a pornographic movie theater and begins to follow a male client. Fascination becomes fixation as she shadows the man through Times Square’s sleazy bookshops to the world of men and money in Lower Manhattan. There are moments in the story in which she describes to her boyfriend what she sees and hears in the theater. These are the stories she tells: sexy, pornographic fantasies."

Kofi Forson: I was always a fan of Kathy Acker.

Bette Gordon: Kathy was a bad girl. I was a bad girl.

Forson: How did you two meet?

Gordon: We met at a performance/reading she was giving at The Kitchen.

Forson: Oh yeah The Kitchen. I saw her read there in the early 90’s.

Gordon: I think she was reading something from Eden Eden.

Forson: Sounds like Kathy. Her work was somehow always sexually explicit.

Gordon: My boyfriend and later husband, Tim, had slept with her before he knew me. I was still jealous.

Forson: What was your first impression of her?

Gordon: She was transgressive, tough, smart, dazzling: the coolest woman in the room. I loved her tattoos.

Forson: But Kathy seemed to me almost gentle.

Gordon: She also had a soft side… a vulnerable side.

Forson: Were you friends at first?

Gordon: We got to know each other pretty well. We would sit in her Eldridge Street apartment and she would cry over men who broke her heart. But then she could also become a tiger.

Forson: Take me through the process of what led to the making of Variety.

Gordon: In 1981 Tim was curating a show at Artist’s space called Emergency to focus on the cutting of funds for artists by Congress. He asked thirteen filmmakers to participate, to make a film addressing this emergency. We were each given $75 dollars to shoot on a Super 8. Jim Jarmusch made one. James Mares, Mindy Stevenson and many others were involved. My film was the precursor to Variety.

Forson: I remember the Variety Theater.

Gordon: Yeah I came upon it one late night. Basically I was exploring New York City and the underground. It had that neon marquee like something out of the past. I couldn’t stop looking. I wanted to investigate the theater. It had once been a vaudeville theater and before that a stable for the Stuyvesant family. Now it was a porn theater. I talked the projectionist into sneaking me into the theater to watch. Then I met the owner and he said I could shoot on Sunday morning.

Still from Variety, 1984
Courtesy, Bette Gordon

Forson: So now you had the physical space. Creatively what was the next step?

Gordon: I asked my friend Nancy Reilly to talk about her porn fantasies in front of the theater. And I asked my friend Spalding Gray to do the same. This film was called Anybody’s Woman. I used Marianne Faithful’s Broken English and Why’d You Do It on the soundtrack. I wanted to hear women talk dirty and to see what kind of power that might yield. I wanted women to look back instead of being looked at. I turned this Super 8 film into the treatment for my film Variety. I needed a collaborator.

Forson: Is this where Kathy comes in?

Gordon: Kathy was subversive. She was interested in exposing the taboos of our culture, challenging male power structures of language, investigating women’s sexuality. She was brave and I wanted to work with her. I thought of my own work as challenging and subverting dominant codes and images. Language was important to my investigation of female desire and pleasure.

Forson: Where then did the treatment for Variety lead you?

Gordon: ZDF, the German television company who supported directors like Wenders, Fassbinder and Jarmusch was going to finance my film based on my treatment. I asked Kathy to write the screenplay with me.

Forson: What is the film Variety about?

Gordon: It’s about a woman who sells tickets at a pornographic movie theater and begins to follow a male client. Fascination becomes fixation as she shadows the man through Times Square’s sleazy bookshops to the world of men and money in Lower Manhattan. There are moments in the story where she describes to her boyfriend what she sees and hears in the theater. These are the stories she tells, sexy, pornographic fantasies. I knew Kathy would be the one to write these stories.

Forson: Certainly Kathy Acker would be perfect for this.

Gordon: I remember the day she came to the set. We had already shot the scenes at Yankee Stadium and under the Triboro Bridge. Now we were at the Variety Theater. She looked so happy. She met the actors. That day it was Sandy McLeod playing Christine and Luis Guzman as Jose. She said it was all perfect! Exactly how she had imagined it would be.

Forson: In the 80’s the downtown New York area was known for its art scene. What was it like to be among such a group of artists and to live and work in an atmosphere of non-stop creativity?

Gordon: As filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers and performance artists, many of us lived in downtown neighborhoods like Tribeca and the East Village. The spirit of collaboration was very strong; finding friends to work with was easy. In those days, nobody was thinking about money, you just went out and got friends together to make art.

Forson: Tell me about your early experiences moving to New York and becoming a part of all this culture.

Gordon: When I first moved to New York City I worked with a group of filmmakers who started the first cinema in Tribeca called The Collective for Living Cinema. I met tons of people while working there but what was so incredible was the program. We would show films Friday/Saturday and Sunday evening, anything from Hollywood B movies like Pickup on South Street to horror movies like Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, to underground experimental work of Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers and performances by people like Jack Smith.

Forson: For those who may not have had a chance to be there describe for me the kind of festive atmosphere present at The Collective.

Gordon: Every night at The Collective was an event. The audiences were interactive and devoted. We did filmmaking workshops and conferences. I remember we were the first cinema to show John Cassavetes’ Shadows when it had not shown in New York City for years. When we showed Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat, there were lines around the block. Jonathan came to talk like most filmmakers did for a Q and A after the film. Later he became one of our board members and brought lots of others to the organization.

Still from Variety, 1984
Courtesy, Bette Gordon

Forson: What other known establishments made up this neighborhood? I would imagine there were places where you went for drinks or to socialize.

Gordon: Right down the street was the Mudd Club and a few blocks away, The Performing Garage a.k.a. The Wooster Group and The Kitchen. Magoos a restaurant down the block showed local work by artists and every one would go eat there late at night.

Forson: I would suppose art was pivotal. Perhaps it felt more like a community?

Gordon: The world of art/music and film felt smaller then more special and the only galleries worth going to were the few in Soho like Castelli or Sonnabend. In the early 80’s since we all hung out together in clubs, galleries and lofts, it was easy to tap into the energy of the time. I also think that music had a lot to do with it. Music venues like the Mudd Club or CBGB’s were the catalysts around which everyone gathered, a band, a film and a few performances on any given night.

Forson: Music was essential to the film Variety. John Lurie scored the film.

Gordon: As filmmakers and artists, we were devoted to The Lounge Lizards. We would go to all their concerts and shows. The Lizards’ sound was conventional jazz with a move towards something new. My film Variety, which was modeled by the principles of film noir with lots of location shots and a feel for the streets, needed a jazzy score. I loved Chico Hamilton’s music for Sweet Smell of Success and Elmer Bernstein’s score, a kind of crime jazz score. The music actually was more a character in the story, a part of the fabric of the story. I wanted to have that quality in my score and I asked John if he would compose for the film. John had a visual sensibility (he is an artist and filmmaker as well). I wanted a nocturnal - on location - on the streets - in New York feel - a grittiness and glamour. John composed seductive music to match the seductive feel of the image.

Forson: John Lurie has always been known for his charm and sense of humor. Did this come across?

Gordon: It was a lot of fun to work with him. Often he would call me at all hours of the night to play me bits on the phone to see how I liked his ideas. But most impressive was the recording session, which I attended. He had everything worked out perfectly, down to the last frame. I think he even brought in another sax player, a street musician, to create that lonely haunting sound.

Forson: I owned a copy of that soundtrack recording for Variety. Quite the thing to own, it was so amazing.

Gordon: I adore John Lurie. When he was an actor on the television series “OZ” the HBO prison series, I came on as director. Our friendship gained me respect immediately from the other guys and there were lots of actors to deal with on the show. John has not been playing music anymore due to an illness but he has been painting and able to imbue his work with the same soulfulness that could be found in his music.

Forson: Nan Goldin was another prominent person in the making of Variety that people may know about.

Gordon: Nan Goldin and I met on the phone a year before I moved to New York City. I was at the University of Wisconsin. My filmmaker friend Anthony McCall came to visit to participate in a film conference. He was going to stay at my house. Before he got there, I received a phone call from a woman saying she was locked in Anthony’s loft and couldn’t get out. The door was locked from the outside. The woman was Nan but I didn’t know that yet. When Anthony arrived, he had to call a friend in New York to break into his loft and get Nan out.

Forson: How then did you get to meet her?

Gordon: A year later I was at a club on St. Mark’s Place, looking for two actresses to be in a film. I was in the process of shooting Empty Suitcases. The scene was of two women photographing each other and exchanging clothes. The trick for me was to make it look like one long take over 3 minutes, but in reality we had to stop and start for each change of clothes. I met Nan that night and asked her to be in the scene. She said it as perfect for her, clothes and photography were her two favorite things.

Forson: Who was the other actress?

Gordon: I had already asked Vivienne Dick, a fellow filmmaker living in New York City, but from Ireland. She and Nan were friends, and we all clicked. The scene in Empty Suitcases is fantastic. Nan’s photograph of The Girl in the Green Dress was made during the shooting of this scene. Vivienne is wearing the green dress. The music that accompanies the scene in the movie is Art-i-ficial by X-Ray Spex.

Forson: I was quite surprised to see Nan Goldin, the actress.

Gordon: Later when I was making Variety, Nan was an important part of the film. She was a bartender at Tin Pan Ally, a location where I would shoot two scenes. The best friend of the main character was Nan, I even used her name. She was fantastic, great to work with, and showed enormous natural talent.

Forson: I love the scenes with the girls in the bar.

Gordon: They were all bartenders, friends, strippers, workers from the neighborhood. At the time, Kiki Smith was cooking in the kitchen, John Ahearn’s sculptures of people from the Bronx were on the wall. The locals all took part in the filming. It was fantastic. Many of them used to hang out at this bar on 49th and Broadway. They were a mixed group of artists, local sex workers, pimps, street people from Times Square and film industry people. The woman who owned the bar helped facilitate the shoot, and the location was perfect.

Forson: I remember seeing a book of stills from the movie by Nan Goldin.

Gordon: I asked Nan to do the stills while we were shooting. Some of them became part of her work, in books and slide shows. Eventually, this year, Rizzoli released a book called Variety: Stills by Nan Goldin From a Film by Bette Gordon. It’s a beautiful hardcover book with incredible never before seen stills from my film.
Nan has also done stills for my film Luminous Motion, with Debra Kara Unger, and for Greed, a short film I did for German Television, starring Kate Valk from the Wooster Group.

Nan and I are still in touch, although she spends most of her time in Paris. Twenty years ago my daughter was born in New York City. We snuck Nan into the hospital delivery room. She took the first photo of my daughter Lili when she was one second old. It’s in one of her books.

Forson: Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency to this day continues to be one of the more important influences on my art career. Certainly Kathy Acker is a female hero of mine and I always wanted to be John Lurie. It is quite the amazing treat that they all played a part in the making of your film. Hope this article awakens the minds and hearts of people into rediscovering your masterpiece, Variety.

Gordon: It’s been wonderful Kofi, thank you.

Still from Variety, 1984

Courtesy, Bette Gordon

Kofi Forson

Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture. 

Email: lidonslap@gmail.com

Follow Whitehot on Instagram 

view all articles from this author