Bette Gordon: Motion vs. Stasis
Published on April 15th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran0
From April 14-17, Anthology Film Archives presents a retrospective of the work of director Bette Gordon, from her ‘70s-era experimental shorts to more recent feature-length narrative films.
Her earlier works often have a staunch geographical grounding: the slow-motion street corner of “Michigan Avenue” (1973), the distorted cow pasture of “Still Life” (1972) or the railroad-flanked open field of “An Erotic Film” (1975). In particular, the highway landscape forms a major role in “i-94” (1974) and, especially, “The United States of America” (1975): both made in collaboration with Gordon’s then-boyfriend James Benning, the former uses rapid intercutting to depict a nude heterosexual couple who walk toward each other and end up passing through one another, ghostlike, without ever directly meeting and interacting; the latter is far more simple in design, the camera planted in the back seat of the couple’s car as they take a road trip from New York through Wisconsin, down to St. Louis, west to the Rockies, winding through Las Vegas, and ending up in California. The car radio provides a constant soundtrack of mid-‘70s folk, country, rock, funk, and pop (“Lovin’ You” pops up three separate times), punctuated by local revival preachers and news reports on such topical subjects as Patty Hearst and Vietnam. One gets the sense that the audience is silently hitching a ride with the filmmakers.
The romance of the open road is also a major factor in “Luminous Motion” (1998), in which a precocious science-obsessed boy and his mother, a bed-hopping, vodka-swilling petty thief, drive aimlessly around the country. The boy, Phillip (Eric Lloyd), would be perfectly content cruising the highway with his best-buddy mom (Deborah Kara Unger) forever, not realizing that his mother is exhausted with her life and ultimately just wants to plant roots for them to grow together.
The narration, by an ostensibly older, wiser Phillip, uses the child actor’s voice; combined with a generic upbeat score and bright Hollywood coloring, this gives “Luminous Motion” the deceptive commercial sheen of a children’s movie, though this film is decidedly not for kids. Phillip, one comes to learn, is a profoundly creepy Oedipal case of a child, though the film retains a certain buoyant innocence even when addressing first-degree murder.
The setting of “Variety” (1984)—which, like “An Algorithm” (1977), opens with a woman diving into a pool—is largely more fixed: young, unemployed Christine (Sandy McLeod) takes on a job as a ticket-dispensing cashier for a porn theatre in pre-Giuliani Manhattan. Initially, she just works there to make ends meet, not understanding why others become weirded out or titillated at the idea. (Certainly, she gets more than enough prurient attention already: men constantly gawk at her throughout the film, from those who make lewd, aggressive passes to those who silently crane their necks at her backside as she passes by.)
Her idle curiosity about the sex industry and those involved in it leads her into a deep-seated fascination with the neon-drenched porno aesthetic, an interest which sometimes seems less overtly sexual in itself than a pantomime of popular sexual depictions: at certain moments, when verbally describing scenes in porn movies or her own fantasies, she lapses into the mannered language of erotic prose, trancelike and thoroughly artificial. After one such recitation, Christine’s boyfriend remarks on the droning detachment of her words: she protests that she’s only “telling him about her life.” Like the untouchable lovers of “i-94” and the inability of “Luminous Motion’s” mother to impart to her son the necessity of settling down, “Variety” displays gaps in communication between friends, family, and lovers.
A major plot thread of “Variety” involves a mysterious older customer in a business suit who takes Christine on an impromptu date to a baseball game—which she initially treats as a noncommittal lark—then abruptly leaves early, upon which Christine attempts to follow him and gradually becomes obsessed to the point of stalking. A similar figure appears in “Luminous Motion”: Phillip is periodically visited by his absent father, a businessman, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination.
That father is played by Jamey Sheridan, who stars in Gordon’s latest feature, “Handsome Harry” (1999). Quite somber in tone, both in its plot and visual aesthetic, “Harry” deals with regret, redemption, and rituals of masculinity. Harry (Sheridan), a fairly ordinary fiftysomething small-town electrician, is shown going about his business until receiving a call from an ailing old Navy buddy (Steve Buscemi) who wants to be forgiven for his role in the group gay-bashing of one of their former comrades three decades ago. When he dies before this can occur, Harry embarks on a road trip, visiting the other participants and learning how they have—or haven’t—dealt with their crime over the years. Again we see qualities of motion and travel—literally, as in Harry’s journey, and through time, in a series of flashbacks—and again we witness disparities in communication, to particularly tragic effect.
Throughout “Harry,” “Motion,” “Variety” and their precursors, Gordon distorts ostensibly-ordinary scenes of life and gradually strips down façades to reveal the secrets of people struggling, often with little success, to connect with one another.