Look Both Ways

Left: Bette Gordon and James Benning, The United States of America, 1975, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 27 minutes. Right: Bette Gordon, Variety, 1984, color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Sandy McLeod.

BETTE GORDON’S FILMS have always put women first. Spanning more than three decades, the five-program retrospective of her moving image work at Anthology Film Archives confirms that the sense of adventure in Gordon’s movies springs from her depiction of women’s psyches and bodies, desires and fears. There is a distinctive sense of camaraderie between the filmmaker and her actors that is slightly different from the empathy we expect a director to have.

The series includes two of Gordon’s landmark works, Variety (1984) and The United States of America (1975). The latter was co-directed by James Benning, Gordon’s boyfriend at the time. It plays on Program 1, preceded by two other Gordon-Benning collaborations, Michigan Avenue (1973) and i-94 (1974), and followed by three of Gordon’s solo turns, Still Life (1972), An Erotic Film (1975), and An Algorithm (1977). All six films are being shown in new prints, courtesy of Anthology’s preservations program. All were made during the “structuralist” period of American avant-garde filmmaking, and with the exception of The United States of America, all involve elaborate layering and/or fracturing of movement by means of optical printing. The United States of America is a structuralist film of a different ilk. When it was originally shown, it seemed merely a very smart riff on the reigning avant-garde film of the time, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). But the passage of thirty-six years allows it to be seen in its own right, not only as a conceptually canny piece of structuralism but also as a revealing historical document.

One of the myriad ways that Wavelength can be described is as a trip through a single interior space, traced by the slow and staggered movement of a zoom lens from its widest to its narrowest (close-up) position, with all the “distortions” and transformations of the image such a movement creates. (The camera doesn’t move, and certainly the room doesn’t move; only the lens moves, thus transforming what we can see of the room and how we see it.) The United States of America was also filmed with a fixed camera, but one that had a fixed lens. The camera was mounted in the backseat area of a car. Its position—and thus the framing of the images it records—never changes. We see a bit of the backseat area; the backs of the front seats and backs of the heads of the filmmakers who are seated in front (mostly Benning drives, but occasionally he and Gordon exchange places); the front windshield with the rearview mirror fixed in the middle at the top; and a bit of the side windows, left and right.

The movement in the film is created almost entirely by the movement of the car as it is driven by the filmmakers from the East Coast to the West, with some north-south driving in the middle of the country. The United States of America has a runtime of twenty-seven minutes, but it’s not possible to determine how long the actual trip took or if the film was edited from footage taken during one trip or several. Our attention, like the attention of the filmmakers/“actors,” is on the passing landscape as it can be seen through the windshield. The film is shot from what in Hollywood is described, cheatingly, as an over-the-shoulder POV, but here, since the camera is midway between the left shoulder of one person and the right shoulder of the other, the shot is an amalgam of two supposed POVs, i.e., a double cheat. There is no dialogue. The sound track is largely derived from the car’s radio—a mix of music and local newscasts, one of which allows us to fix the period as that of the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam war. The United States of America is pure road movie, absent of character goals or desire, but attentive to the movement of history and fixity of geography.

While Gordon began her filmmaking career as a structuralist, she soon became involved with issues that joined film and feminism. In the midst of the scorched earth theories that all but prohibited images of women on the screen lest they provide voyeuristic satisfaction for “the male gaze,” she insisted on training her camera on women, often unclothed. An Algorithm, an optically printed film edited from several truncated shots of a woman diving off a board but never breaking the surface of the water, contains the germ of much of her later work. Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative—of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved, or left as an opening into the unknown. She also understood, psychologically and pragmatically, that for a woman to become a filmmaker or to simply enjoy movies, she had to take pleasure in her own voyeurism.

Nevertheless, the pressures of the feminist discourse were such that Gordon would have to make several confused efforts at being a “good girl” filmmaker before she could cut loose in her barely disguised autobiography, Variety, the saga of how a nice young woman from the Midwest comes to New York, goes to work as a ticket taker in a porn theater (it’s the end of the 1970s recession), and discovers that she wants to take charge of and act on her fantasies however she pleases. Variety isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most powerful descriptions of the female psyche committed to film by a director who knows how ravishing films can be. Also playing in the Anthology series are Gordon’s subsequent features, Luminous Motion (1998) and Handsome Harry (2009), the latter a reversal of her modus operandi in that it is solely focused on the crisis of male identity. They are polished in ways that the earlier films are not, but for crazy genre-wrestling pleasure, Variety is the one to see.

“The Films of Bette Gordon” runs Thursday, April 14–Sunday, April 17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.