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Still from Variety (1983) dir. Bette Gordon, courtesy of

Revisiting the cult 1980s film noir penned by Kathy Acker

Scripted by Kathy Acker, Bette Gordon's 1983 cult classic Variety created a new mode of looking at women

As I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker opens at the ICA in London, we expand on our spring/summer issue project with a day dedicated to exploring the writer’s sometimes complicated legacy: from the artists who were influenced by her, to a retelling of her life through her own words.

Some time before Variety was released in 1983, director Bette Gordon saw Kathy Acker read in The Kitchen, an artist collective cum performance space in Chelsea, New York. “I had seen her read before; she had guts and style and irreverence, she was sexy and tough,” said Gordon in Talkhouse. She asked Acker to be the screenwriter for her new film, a story about a young woman who takes a job selling tickets at a porn cinema on Times Square and develops an infatuation with a returning customer. Acker agreed immediately and wrote what Gordon calls “an Acker version of a script”, cut-up scenes rather than a narrative, then told her that if she “changed one word, she would kill (her)”.

Chronologically, the plot of Variety goes like this: protagonist Christine gets a job in a porn movie theatre; one day on her break a patron buys her a coke to replace one she’d spilled. He introduces himself as Louie and invites her to a baseball game. She accepts, he has to leave halfway through. She follows him that night and the following nights, as he conducts obscure deals around town, tracing him to a motel where she stays next door to him and he, for the first time seems to realise he is being watched. Eventually she gets a hold of his number and arranges to meet him. He thinks she is either police or wants money, she can’t really tell him what she wants, but, she declares as the closing line of the film, “I’ll know when I see you.” Running alongside the narrative however, is Christine’s growing obsession that gradually consumes her days, and a newfound interest in her sexual fantasies spurred on by the unsuspecting object of her infatuation.

Variety's skeleton is a new York film noir, a genre that appealed to the director for its preoccupation with obsession and unrestrained female sexuality. For the lead, Acker wanted Lisa Lyon, the bodybuilder photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, while Gordon wanted “(her) version of Kim Novak”. They reached a compromise in casting Sarah McLeod, a sort of lower-Manhattan Hitchcock blonde who also pulls weights at the gym. Gordon was heavily influenced by Laura Mulvey’s 1973 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, that sets up film as a voyeuristic medium, where the viewer is inherently male while the looked upon object is female. With Variety, said Gordon, “I decided to make a film about looking.” It is Gordon’s genius that while the camera fixates on the bodies of men, (shaking hands, fingers fiddling with a pinball machine, a closely cropped shot of Christine's boyfriend's ass) women are rarely the object of looking. While porn is a central plot device, you’re reminded of its presence though its sounds, drifting out of the screening rooms into the theatre lobby. The most explicit sex scenes we never see, instead they are recounted by Christine while her boyfriend watches on, deadpan. Christine’s fantasies rely on smell and touch (goosebumps on a thigh, the smell of sex in the air, a black slip against bar skin) as much as they do on visuals, and if you can picture the scene clearly, it is to the merit of Acker’s script because Gordon prefers to tell not show.

If you google ‘female infatuation’ the current magnum opus seems almost unanimously to be I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, (who is also a biographer of Kathy Acker), though there are many others – Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for example, or Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. But for Kraus, obsession is funny. For Austen it’s tragic and in Tampa, where a high school teacher sets out to seduce a 14 year-old, it’s disturbing. In Variety, however it’s just there, with no real wish to explain it. In one, particularly Acker-like scene, five women sit at the bar where Christine’s friend Nan (played by Nan Goldin, a friend of Gordon’s in real life) works, describing love affairs of various intensity. “I got really obsessed with him,” Nan recounts a fling with a compulsive gambler, “one time I even followed him at a Burger King in Queens Plaza.” “If a man shows the slightest interest in me I jump at it,” says another woman. “Would you follow him?” asks the group. “I follow him in my head,” comes the answer. 

“I noticed you looking at me,” Christine tells Louie before she agrees to go out with him. In Variety, like in Acker’s writing, if women are the object it’s because they make it so. 

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, supported by NOWNESS, is on at London’s ICA May 1 – August 4 2019

Variety plays at the ICA Cinema on 12 June