• Variety (Kino Lorber) Blu-ray Review

    Variety (Kino Lorber) Blu-ray Review
    Released by: Kino Lorber
    Released on: September 29th, 2020.
    Director: Bette Gordon
    Cast: Sandy McLeod, Will Patton, Richard M. Davidson, Luis Guzmán, Nan Goldin
    Year: 1983
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    Variety – Movie Review:

    In Bette Gordon's Variety, actress Sandy McLeod (who was the script supervisor on the video for Rock The Casbah by The Clash and who also shows up in Demme’s Last Embrace) plays a young woman named Christine who isn't having much luck finding a job in New York City. At her wits end, she opts for a position at the Variety, an adult theater nears Times Square (keep in mind this was the seedy Times Square of 1983, not the modern day tourist trap) where she finds employment as a cashier at the ticket booth.

    Her friend Nan (Nan Goldin), a bartender, is quite supportive but her boyfriend, Mark (Will Patton), an investigative reporter hoping to bust open the mafia/union racket at the docks, isn't so keen on her chosen profession. As Sandy gets used to her new job and her co-worker, Jose (Luis Guzman), she also develops a unique affinity for the XXX films that the theater shows. As her relationship with Mark slowly disintegrates, Sandy develops a strange fascination with one of the theater's regular customers, a mysterious man named Louie (Richard Davison), who may or may not play a part in the case that Mark is trying to crack. The more Sandy learns about Louie the more she wants to know about him and the longer she works at the Variety, the more her world becomes like the pornographic movies that are projected there, day in and day out.

    Written by Kathy Acker and directed by Bette Gordon, Variety works on two levels, the first of which is as a uniquely female slant on the effects of pornography and how it can work its way in to someone's sexual fantasies be they male or female. While the film isn't completely successful on this level, it does explore how Sandy reacts to the smut that pays her bills (we see her take home a one sheet for a Seka film for starts, but soon she's visiting establishments that provide private viewing booths). Conversations that occur as a sideline to the main story enlighten us as to a woman's take on stripping and the perils thereof, but the main focus is on Sandy's growing obsession with pornography and how it changes her life in different ways - not all of which are negative. This provides some interesting food for thought throughout the film. As Sandy's character changes, is it because she's taking charge of her life and knows what she wants and that what she wants happens to be a more interesting sex life? Or is the smut she's subjected to tainting her mind and, in turn, her outlook on life in general?

    The other way in which Variety works is as a time capsule of the Times Square that no longer exists. With the porn theaters long gone in place of Disney themed Broadway shows and corporate advertisements galore, some of the footage in the film now, by accident likely, has historical importance. As the city mutates and evolves and becomes a very different animal from the beast that it was over a quarter century ago, films like Variety provide an interesting look at a part of the city's own unique culture that has been conveniently swept under the rug in much the same way that the marquees have been covered in big-business-tourist enticing-soul-sucking nonsense. Sure the streets are safer, but where's the fun in that? This film takes us back to that time and while it doesn't get quite as into the nitty-gritty as, say, Taxi Driver or Times Square (or to a completely ludicrous extent, Riot On 42nd Street), it is a look at a part of New York's eroded and colorful past. It’s also interesting to see the different one-sheets that show up in the backgrounds of the film – keep an eye out for posters advertising Hussy, Desires Within Young Girls, Laura's Desires, The Pleasure Shoppe, Emmanuelle Around The World, A Place Beyond Shame (that’d be the aforementioned Seka poster) and a few more.

    The film is certainly a little rough around the edges. The camera work isn't going to blow you away and you'll find that a few shots definitely linger just a bit too long (though this may very well be on purpose), but in a strange way these technical flaws add to the picture's unpolished charm. Sandy McLeod gives a strong lead performance and does a great job showing the growing distance her character feels from what was once her everyday world. This isn't a perfect film, by any stretch - there are parts of the script that will likely have you scratching your head - but it's a movie that gets a lot more right than it does wrong. It’s loaded with atmosphere and the acting is really solid from each and every one of the cast member. On top of that we get that amazing location footage and, when it’s all said and done, Variety turns out to be a very interesting one that proves to be well worth a look.

    Variety – Blu-ray Review:

    Variety arrive on region free Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 1.8535.1 widescreen with the hundred-minute feature taking up just over 31GBs of space on the 50GB disc. There’s a bit of print damage here and there but it’s minor stuff and very easy to look past when evaluating the otherwise excellent picture quality here, in fact, it just adds to the film’s atmosphere. Kino gives the picture a strong bit rate, keeping compression artifacts at bay, which is important given that much of the picture takes place in dark and/or dimly lit interiors. This is an authentically film-like presentation from start to finish, there’s no noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement here at all. The thick, but natural, amount of film grain (this was shot on 16mm so it’s going to be grainier than a 35mm feature) on display suits the film wonderfully, while colors are reproduced beautifully (some of those shots with the neon signs pushing through the darkness of the nighttime settings look absolutely gorgeous). Skin tones look spots on, black levels are great, no problems with any contrast at all. This looks fantastic on Blu-ray.

    The only audio option for the feature is an English language 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track, with removable subtitles offered up in English. Audio quality is fine. It’s fair to describe it as a low-fi track, it isn’t a fancy mix at all, but the dialogue is clean, clear and nicely balanced and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to complain about. John Lurie’s score benefits from the lossless boost and there’s some decent depth to all of this that definitely surpasses the old DVD release.

    The main extra on the disc is a great (and new) audio commentary with director Bette Gordon moderated by writer Hillary Weston. It's a mellow, calm track but it covers quite a bit of ground, with Gordon talking about coming to New York in the 1980's and being attracted to all that the city had to offer, as well as the influence of filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Alfred Hitchcock, and how some of their films influenced Variety. They cover the gender politics of the film, how the female locker room scene from the opening contrasts with the male dominated locations used in much of the rest of the film, how she went about casting the picture, securing the locations that are so important to the picture including the Variety Theater itself, her connection to Jonathon Demme and Gordon's own love of neon and theater marquees. She talks about the use of sound and language in the movie, wanting to make the audience use their imagination, her own work on the screenplay as well as the efforts of producer Renée Shafransky and former boyfriend Tim Burns, whether or not the presence of Sandy in the booth breaks the fantasy of the porn theater by having a woman in the booth, the use of mirrors in the picture, the specifics of framing he picture, shooting the film in 16mm, why certain scenes are cut the way they are, the contrast that exists between the ticket booth and the porno booth in the bookstore scenes, getting some of the Times Square shots on her own using a Bolex and a tripod, the influence of German New Wave cinema, the details of lighting certain scenes and shooting some of the 'films' that we see in the adult bookstore booths on her own. They also cover the use of pornography as a language to 'speak one's sexuality out loud,' how Christine's experiences start to relate to her own sexual fantasties, shooting on location in the train station and how what we see there is completely authentic as well as the use of trains in Gordon's work, how the story is really about Christine's isolation more than anything else, how Sandy McLeod 'lived in the character' and plenty more. There’s no dead air here at all, it’s a very informative and interesting track with Gordon really peeling back the layers of what it was like to make this picture and what went into getting it finished.

    Also found on the disc is Anybody's Woman, a twenty-three-minute short film made by Gordon in 1981. Its’ also presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition with 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono audio, in English. There are no subtitles supplied for this short film. It’s a great short to accompany the feature as it’s literally shot around the Variety theater and Times Square to start with. From there, we cruise the area and see The Anco, Peep Land, The Harris, The Cine 42 and quite a few others whose names you can't quite make out due to the framing. From there, we see a man get out of a car and approach a woman (Nancy Reilly) only to back away, and then witness that same woman, now in what we can assume is her apartment, deal with an obscene phone call. From here, a second call tells her to 'be at the theater tomorrow at 10.' From there, her narration (courtesy of Karyn Kay) tells us an odd story about millionaires and prostitutes and a film she's seen while sorting through explicit photographs. From there, we get more footage of adult theaters (including the infamous Avon 7!) and the Pussycat (showing Desiree Cousteau in Randy The Electric Lady). She heads out and meets a guy at a diner and talks to him about a hitchhiker that quickly turns to sex, and when she finishes, he leaves. Cut to a porno theater where she paces about in the lobby. From there, she winds up inside where Spalding Gray talks about his experiences in adult cinemas before her narration takes over again, speaking about sex as we see more adult cinemas from the time (The Circus appears as do quite a few others) and the movie then focuses on Gray before then showing the lead actress talking about some strange sex shows she has seen and her own experiences while sitting alongside a silent person dressed in black before zooming in on the lead as she stands outside a venue and describes her indifference to all of this. It’s an odd little film but again, like the feature itself, it’s loaded with some amazing footage of the Times Square that no longer exists.

    Rounding out the extras on the disc is a gallery of production stills by Nan Goldin, a separate gallery of location scouting stills, a third gallery containing some storyboard illustrations by Gordon, a trailer for the feature and a bonus trailer for Luminous Motion (a film that Gordon made in 1988). Menus and chapter selection options are also provided.

    As to the packaging, Kino supplies a nice reversible cover sleeve insert as well as a full color booklet containing an essay on the film by critic Amy Taubin entitled Once Upon A Time In NYC (definitely worth reading, it’s quite interesting) alongside credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray and DVD release.

    Variety – The Final Word:

    Variety is an interesting and fairly sleazy look at one woman's obsession with adult films and magazines and their effect on her. As a narrative, it isn't mind blowing but it is an excellent character study with lots of seedy charm and period inner city footage. Kino has done a fantastic job bringing this criminally underrated picture to Blu-ray with a great presentation and a host of extras that fans should appreciate in a big way. Highly recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized Variety Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Darcy Parker's Avatar
      Darcy Parker -
      Sleazy Times Square is closer to half a century ago now.

      A quarter century ago was when the theme park transformation was finished.
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      I guess that depends on your definition of sleazy or what percentage of businesses you need to deal in adult for it to meet your criteria. Show World was there until 2018, I know because I saw it being torn down.

      The clean up started in the 80s, sure, but it wasn't until Giuliani won in 1993 that he made it a priority. Live performances were allowed until the laws changed in 2001.
    1. agent999's Avatar
      agent999 -
      I bet Giuliani used to go to live shows to tuck his shirt in all the time.
    1. Darcy Parker's Avatar
      Darcy Parker -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ian Jane View Post
      I guess that depends on your definition of sleazy or what percentage of businesses you need to deal in adult for it to meet your criteria. Show World was there until 2018, I know because I saw it being torn down.

      The clean up started in the 80s, sure, but it wasn't until Giuliani won in 1993 that he made it a priority. Live performances were allowed until the laws changed in 2001.
      The Disney Store opened in 1994, but I think that may just be a different flavour of sleaze.