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"variety" Seeks To Locate Female Desire

"variety" Seeks To Locate Female Desire image
Parent Issue
Month
July
Year
1990
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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The camera, it is said, is always male. Like the pen, its movement is phallic, intrusive; it's no accident that when white people first trained it on various "indigenous"peoples, its prying gaze was resented. And the spectator, as filmmaker Bette Gordon has noted, occupies the camera's male perspective; the viewed is symbolically female. Pornography reinforces this symbolic. That's, perhaps, what women really resent about it - the whole exploitative sy stem of social relations it represen ts. In the essay "Variety : The Pleasure in Looking," Gordon asks how one can begin to "lócate female desire within a patriarchal culture?" How does one develop a way of looking at the world that might bring power and pleasure to women, to those on whom the camera has always been trained? Whole issues of feminist and film joumals have been devoted to the problem, and anyone trying to write or make films "against the grain" comes up against it again and again. "Variety" suggests the dif ficulties faced in elaborating such an alternative. The determination of its main character (Christina, played by Sandra Mcleod, as a writer whose work "does not get read") to describe her own experience, becomes a metaphor for the project of the film itself, and suggests by extensión that development of artistic visión and societal revisión are very much the same project. The artificiality of the film's opening scène, in which die protagonist and an acquaintance converse in a locker room, suggests just such a correlation between visión and artífice. The women are in many ways typical - intelligent, independent by necessity, stiuggling, it is quickly revealed, to maintain an economie toehold on the planet. They speak in self-deprecating, stilted tones, as if aware that their plight is so common as to sound banal. But its commonness makes it no less serious; millions of single American women live in poverty and near-po verty , by virtue, more than anything, of the fact of their womanhood. And scènes like this one, in which women share their experiences, interspersed through the fílm, lend it a documentary quality which continually reconnects it to its wider concerns. Christine needs work. The friend inf orms her that there is a job available selling tickets at the Variety, a 42nd Street pom theater, and she hurries to get iL The Variety is apathetic world, one with few attractions for Christine. But when a cheesy phi - landerer (Louie Tancredi, played by Richard Davidson) begins to prey on her, staring into the booth where she sits, suggesting a liaison, she suddenly finds herself looking back. She begins to follow him around the city, into porn parlors, to his furtive streetcorner meetings with various men, looking in a realm where men are the lookers. It's not clear immediately what has happened, but this turnabout is pivotal, potentially revohiüonary. It's as if Christine has internalized the camera; it peers out at a world run by men, for men. Within its new compass, a baseball game, a handshake, a pat on the shoulder - all that was pre v iously du 11 and familiar seems full of strange and violent ritual. Christine follows the mysterious Tancredi around the Fulton Rsh Market, where the catch is picked up by the eyes - as if seeing or attempting to understand this world were itself a crime, a crime whose punishment, like Oedipus', Christine risks incurring. Retrospectively, the underworld of pomography looks more sinister than sad; to a good extent, one realizes, most of us still live in a system of sexual apartheid. Christine's boyfriend is also pursuing a story. He is a professional writer, operating in a realm made legitímate by facts and figures, unravelling a story about shakedowns by organized crime at the fish market. But though Tancredi may be a Mafia "bagman" himself, engaged in the very activities her boyfriend is inves tigating, Christine isn't privy to the kind of disco urse that would enable her to teil this story, to connect it in any way meaningful to her with the narrati ve the boyfriend is cons tructing . In f act (in this fiction), she isn't writing at all. She is at work on something more elemental, something that prefigures writing altogether - storytelling, fable-making. She is, to employ the feminist phrase, "diving into the wreckage" in search of some way to describe the world as she's coming to see it. Thefilm's finest moment comes when Christine attempts to present this nascent visión to her boyfriend. The camera absorbs itself with his body as he finesses a pinball machine, never looking at her, while she tells the story of a woman's erotic encounters with atiger andeventually aman, encounters that involve excitement, danger and delay. Again, the operative mode is seeing; Christine squints her eyes as she visualices these scènes. But it is a visión based, in terestingly enough, on speech, the kind of powerfully dramatic moment which film, in its obsession with the visual, often lends to overlook. But Christine's visión threatens her boyfriend; he is silenced by it. In a world confined to the limiting binary of male and female, the film seems to suggest, there is only room for one Vision, a visión over which but one sex can retain dominance. This male (re) viewer found himself watching the boy friend' s behind from an uncomfortable perspective. The camera's "I" is unused to such scènes, it is selfconscious examining them. Isn't this exploitation, I wondered? It's interesting and risky territory, worthy of much discussion between lovers and friends. But there's an important point to be made about pomography and censorship here, because it is looking, seeing, the complete view that is perennially denied to the less privileged. It is through this very basic mechanism that (sex=knowledge=) power is withheld. But unresponsive ears such as the boyfriend's are no different from deaf ones, and Chris tine is slowly reduced to the same prácticos which alienated her in the first place - dressing, for example, the image of the fetishized sexual object of fílm and magazines. But there is no pleasure for her here, either. In fact, there is a signal lack of sexual gratification for her anywhere in the film. She follows Tancredi to Asbury Park. (There were gasps from women in the audience as she broke into his hotel room. "She's brave!" someone whispered. "She's crazy ! " someone else said). But although she discovers a little black book full of unreadable script, Christine only manages to steal one of Tancredi's pom magazines. Christine fan tasizes herself the sexual object (instead of the subject she has struggledtobecome)ofapomographic film. In it, she poses on a bed very like that in the hotel room, stolen magazine and all, and offers herself to Tancredi. But first, she tells him, he must give her something. He reaches into his poe kets and pulls out the black book- -the parent key to Tancredi's illicit aciivities, but also (in their apparent indecipherability ) an explicit acknowledgement of the connection between the manipulation of language and male power. One of my companions said she thought "Variety" hated men, that in it we seemed almost another species. And it's true - once the camera is tumed on male acti v i ty in such a manner, that activity is (at least briefly) startlingly objectifïed; men might be baboons. But "Variety" is an extremely heterosexual film - its characters, however they may regret it, desire men, seem to ask only equal footing with them. Although the film suggests that the dominant heterosexual paradigm is more the by -product of our sy stem of economie relations than natural, the transgressive possibilities in other than heterosexual practice are not examined. The film chooses to limit itself to an exploration of the limits of the heterosexual. But those limits, it shows, however problematic, are alterable. At first "Variety's" ending seems a lousy trick; I changed my mind. Perhaps it's as indica - tive of our bleak prospects as of our possibilities. Or itmay only be a kind of bluff-calling, an acknowledgement by its makers that the film can only take us so far, to a certain stage in struggle whose difficulties we are only beginning to really understand. It's an important film and deserving of wide viewing and discussion. Urge your video shop to procure a copy. ADDIT1ONAL READING "Pteasure and Danger: Exploiing Fomala Sexuallty, " edited by Carolyne Vanee, Routledge and Paul, 1984. "Kvyword," by Raymond Williams, Oxford University Press. 1976.

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