By Víctor Paz Morandeira
American filmmaker Bette Gordon was in the spotlight in 2020 due to the recent restoration of her cult film Variety (1983), which found an obstacle in its way to theaters in the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately Play-Doc International Film Festival (Tui, Spain) gave us the opportunity this year to discover this gem on the big screen. The story depicts the life of a young woman who works in a porn theater in Manhattan selling tickets. Not only does the film subvert the traditional idea of female representation, but it also shows hidden unconventional human landscapes of New York by having the protagonist follow a mysterious client around the city. Gordon inverts the Madeleine-like stereotype of the beauty that exists only for the pleasure of the male gaze in a very playful way, delivering a feminist film – profoundly influenced by Laura Mulvey’s essays put into practice – that does not feel militant at all.
Gordon would continue writing and filming fictions in the decades to follow – she is still making and teaching cinema –, but Play-Doc decided to focus on her previous work for its retrospective, which finds her joining forces with James Benning in structuralist pieces. Some of these have become classics of their time, like United States of America (1975), an astounding portrait of the US through its roads.
This conversation took place in a beautiful sunny afternoon around a table in which an optical printer would fit, along with many memories that Gordon rescued from those good old times.
Desistfilm: Let’s start from the beginning. You decided to study in the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Apparently you wanted to make more narrative films, but ended up working with James Benning in structuralist pieces. So how did that happen?
Bette Gordon: Let’s go back a little bit. Let’s take me in high-school. A young girl growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, a very beautiful but conventional town. One of the things I have, which I am really good at, is languages. My father spoke many languages and music was always in our home and I loved to speak them. French was my favorite and I wanted to get out of the only world I knew, all I wanted to do was to travel. So my French teacher sent the class one day as homework to see a movie, and that movie was À bout de souffle – Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). I was a kid, what did I know!
Desistfilm: That was still in Boston.
Bette Gordon: Yes, and in Boston there is Harvard College and there is Cambridge, the cool place to be, where the students are and the craziness of the sixties… So I go to this art cinema, which still exists, I see Breathless and I can’t believe I have never seen anything like this before. In me head – unconsciously, I didn’t know it then – I wanted to make that. In my conscious mind, I said: “I want to live in Paris”. And I did, years later, when I went to university, before I met James Benning. My love was France, so I went to study for over a year in La Sorbonne, taking art classes, languages and literature.
Desistfilm: And you devoured classic films in the cinematheque, I guess.
Bette Gordon: I did go to the cinematheque, I spent many hours there. A friend of mine said: “hey, let’s take a film class”. Also, in Paris, as you know, every corner has a cinema. You can see Agnès Varda any time of the day. There is always going to be films, so how can you not fall in love with that?
So, as I was saying, this friend suggested that I take this class and I said: “What?”. It was not common those days, but she assured me it would be fun. The class was taught by Paul Martin, who was writing for Cahiers du Cinéma. I don’t think he was that famous, but he was very handsome, we were all in love with him. And so began my study in history of cinema. We talked about silent films, German expressionists, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tati, Douglas Sirk… Everything that Cahiers was writing about. So that was my education. I was young and I loved every minute of it.
Another part of the class consisted of taking a camera we all had, go out there and make something. Using a camera was not new to me. My dad was a photographer and he had a darkroom while I was growing up, so I got the camera in my hand and I remembered everything he had taught me. So I made a movie and I don’t remember much of what it was about, but that changed the course of my life.
First, there was Breathless. When I got to Paris, the first thing I went to see was the street where Jean-Paul Belmondo dies in the movie. It was told to me that it was rue Campagne Première, which is right at Montparnasse. I went there and, of course, it looks just like another street, but in your mind you think it is going to be like the movie was.
Anyway, then I came back to Wisconsin and I finished my French Studies. In my last year of school, I took a class taught by somebody who loved underground cinema in America, that touched on cinema as an art form, its properties: Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas… The eye of cinema. If I think about Brakhage, whose work I was not crazy about but that people loved… It was truly all about him, his way of thinking about images. The good thing about this teacher was that he made us see so many different films: Bruce Conner, the artists from California… Pretty much all located in the US.
So when I finished school, I thought I wanted more and I stayed around for a while. I felt I had not explored my love for film yet. I noticed there was actually a film class that you could take in a Masters Course where they made films. James Benning was teaching there as an assistant but he really came from Mathematics. Somehow my love for language was also about structure, how words and sentences come together and work. His love of structure was numbers or equations. Somehow we clicked.
Then we started to look at other things. Of course there was Kenneth Anger and the early films of John Cassavetes, like Shadows (1959), but also the structuralists, as in Michael Snow’s Wavelenght (1967), which I think had a great impact on so many people… There seemed to be two schools in America and in England, for sure. The structuralists, who were rigorous in using cinema as an anti-illusionist medium, and then the more auto-biographical filmmakers, who were interested in some kind of imagism. Both, in terms of re-exploring the medium… It was a bit like the painters I loved, they were not interested in painting as a representational art. I mean the abstract expressionists, the formalists, geometric paintings, the conceptual… Film can be an art like that and it was not so much thought about in those terms in America. Although, I must say I also fell in love with Luis Buñuel and his Un chien andalou (1929), L’âge d’or (1930)… I wrote a Master’s Thesis only on his work. Maya Deren was another influence. So with all these references floating around, I reckon it was a good time to think qu’est-ce que le cinéma, what is cinema about? What is the frame? What are the essential elements that make a film? Time and space, which gets James Benning and I look at what is the frame. Godard said it first, truth at 24 frames per second. But what is 24 frames per second? What if we stretch time? What if we contract time? Every narrative does this as well, but differently. So what if we take the very unit, not just the shot, but the frame itself? In a way Michael Snow did that with Wavelenght, which is just one movement in a corridor.
So these were some of the intriguing ideas of the time. The marketplace, you know, Hollywood, or the mainstream cinema in Europe, it was interesting, specially in the seventies. You have films like Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), which were breaking the mold of the conventional studios. It is sad because we have gone back. But that was a time for freedom and experimentation. We were thinking: What is cinema as an art form? Consequently, we made the films that we made.
In our school, there was an optical printer and it was really cool. It can fit on a medium-sized table. On one side there is a little camera – by the way, each of us bought his or her own Bolex – and on the other side there is a film that you already shot. So let’s say a scene of two women walking down the street. So you take that little strip of film and put in on the projector side, with a light behind it. Now, the camera on the other side, with a close-up lens, can see one frame at a time. Oh, my god, your world becomes so small and so big at the same time! So we started to play around with copying frames and stretching time and then we came up with the idea of overlapping. For me that was like… The only word I can think of is sexuality, the physical sensation you get from slowing things down and every motion becomes much more than, for instance, somebody’s hand going through the hair. So it was a kind of study of time and space. We would end up making three films together in this little dark room, but I remember others I did on myself which involved clicking, clicking, clicking one frame at a time and then taking it, examining it, changing it… It is like being a painter really, but you are painting the image with light. I think this is like we saw ourselves, more as artists.
Over the course of time, I guess that for each one of us United States of America has also become this classic. People all over keep asking as: “Can we have the film? We want to show it”. Maybe things that capture a moment in time, as that film did, really take on a greater significance when you get farther away of that history. Variety only keeps growing stronger, but you never know when you make it what is going to happen, you are just making it because it is fun. With the previous interviewer I was talking about the lack of that freedom that we experience in our time. Some new filmmakers just want to get a Hollywood deal.
Desistfilm: That is even old-fashioned. A Netflix deal.
Bette Gordon: Exactly. And I feel that these kids are growing up, because of YouTube or the internet, not even living in their imagination long enough.
Desistfilm: If you allow me, could we come back to this issue by the end of the interview and explore now a couple of concepts you mentioned? I am interested in the overlapping. You challenge the traditional representation of the female body from the beginning. I am specifically thinking of the way you overlap the body of the man against that of the woman in I-94 (1974), both walking over a train track in opposite directions. Also, the voice of the female fades slowly and that of the man keeps getting stronger. This is not just a technical feature of your work, there is also something conceptual behind it.
Bette Gordon: Definitely. I think that is what I brought to us. As a young woman – he was older than I was – I was struggling to find my identity and you see what I did in I-94, I was like: “Why don’t people take me seriously?”, which is a question I keep asking myself. Up until this moment in history, we are still redefining the power of women. Back then there was not much power and the struggle was to find it. Even if we felt like we had it, the world didn’t acknowledge.
With Benning, we were also working on our relationship. We had fallen in love and were making these films and it is so interconnected… It was a way of trying to step back each time to see, I guess, in which point in our lives we were. He was coming from a completely different place that I was. We were trying to define how to relate, even sexually, in a world that already presents women in one way and in I-94, this idea of reversal, that I also used in Variety, was simple: “How about we use you, the male body, from the front?”.
Desistfilm: So that is Benning and you portray the woman.
Bette Gordon: Yes, we both shot each other. So I said: “I’ll shoot you and you walk to me and you shoot me and I’ll walk away”. But we didn’t know what would happen when the two bodies crossed because it is every other frame. We shot one strip that is just him, another strip that is just me and on the optical printer we re-filmed it using one frame, then one frame of black. So let’s say it is James, one frame of him and then I put my hand over the lens and shoot nothing. The next frame of him and, the frame after that, nothing. Then we do the opposite on my image, so they come together very quickly: one-one, one-one, one-one, one-one… We could not edit that because you could not cut it together, so you can only represent it. In a way, what I am learning and what goes on in my work, is representation. How do we represent the body?
Desistfilm: And it happens again in An Algorithm (1977).
Bette Gordon: Oh, my God. That took me forever.
Desistfilm: You sort of present the same idea. To me, the most interesting part of these two films is how the sound works. In I-94 you get your voice fading and Benning’s voice rising…
Bette Gordon: As in culture of that time. These films are about my frustration but also about the idea of embracing that as a concept.
Desistfilm: Let’s move to United States of America. I reckon it is your purest documentary, it certainly captures its moment, but I also see it as a timeless portrayal of America through its roads. Do you agree?
Bette Gordon: I do. That is what America is. It is not a UNITED States of America. What a fallacy! We will not even get into the politics of it, but in a way, there is so much highway that our theory was, even when you go to the Grand Canyon, everybody who travels has a car, and now it is even worse. At least we had small cars then. Now the cars that you see in America, even in New York, they are so big! It is all about the car, isn’t it? Climate change is all about the car. United States is all about the car.
The idea, of course, again, is that the lens of the camera is no longer the lens. The lens is the front windshield, so we put ourselves inside the camera.
Desistfilm: Did you play with time in this film? I have read somewhere that you would take shots of about 15 seconds, but I am counting around 25 in almost every shot, so I was wondering if you also stretched time here.
Bette Gordon: Oh, no, we took much longer shots. We mounted the camera in my car, the first car I owned, a Volkswagen, and it did not have high seat backs like they do today, so we put a piece of wood and the Bolex camera behind and we ran a wire in between us, in the front seat. So we just had to pull to film. Sometimes one of us would do it and sometimes the other. Or, imagine we passed something like cows over there, and we said: “Oh, God, can we get that? Let’s turn around”. And then we would structure it and go this way or the other in a very precise manner. Some other times it was completely free. But the shots were longer.
It is a 25-minute film and all the footage we had was about three to one, so if we had used everything, it would have been an hour and a half.
Then we pulled off one side of the road wherever we were and would just sit in the car for hours and record the radio with a microphone.
Desistfilm: Which is what links the film to its actual present.
Bette Gordon: Yes, it was actually happening as we were driving. I guess we made a very conscious decision not to record us talking. Do you know why? It was not sync-sound and the Bolex makes a very loud sound. I miss that sound. I still have my Bolex.
Anyway, that was the idea, that we would not speak. And it became a good idea, because the radio can speak. That is the voice of the film and it does really capture its time. We filmed it in 1975, just as Vietnam was falling. The voice in the radio says that there will never be another South Vietnam. It was really interesting but also a bit homogenous in the sense that you feel the landscape changing, but if you are always in a car, it is always the same view, which is how Americans see America, through the windscreen of their cars. Of course they go to state parks and such, but I think the films says something about this homogenization, which is probably more true even now because of internet than it was then. In the seventies there was still something regional, like the advertising. You could see billboards on farm feeding, for instance. Now everything is even more homogeneous.
Desistfilm: To me United States of America is like a metaphor of that displacement you were experiencing at that time between New York and the Midwest, which is a feeling you tackle in Empty Suitcases (1981). Would you say this is your most personal film?
Bette Gordon: Good question. Uff… Probably. You are right. In each film I could locate the personal, but Empty Suitcases truly was a transition film made during a painful period. The only way I knew how to deal with it was to film it. It was also 1980 and things were changing at that time. There was the election of Ronald Reagan coming in the eighties and this beginning of the women’s movement by the end of the seventies. In a way, I was speaking in the voice of Simone de Beauvoir, I was channeling that, having just read part of her work. There was also John Berger, who has a book of Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1972)1 that presented an argument for art and how the object of the painter has always been the woman and the lack of agency, etc. So some of those things were just beginning… I was never part of a marching of women or anything like that, I was mostly interested in representation. How do we see women through art and film?
Desistfilm: Regarding this, I guess you have read Laura Mulvey’s essays…
Bette Gordon: Oh, yes, who was also a friend of mine and still is.
Desistfilm: Is she? Well, one of my questions was, would you say Anybody’s Woman (1981) and Variety are feminist films?
Bette Gordon: Variety was made as a love letter to Laura Mulvey. If you look closely, one of the big movie posters in the film says Laura’s Desire. It is the name of some hypothetical porno film. It was a love letter, but not only to her, but to a generation of us really struggling with the question of our sexuality. Before that, the women’s movement was very militant. For me, I was not interested in the censorship idea. The women’s movement was both igniting, a new spirit amongst women, which was good, but also it could be very hard-line.
I think that in the arts we found another way to speak about it. I was more interested in using what I knew in film to maybe ask more questions than find more answers. The only thing that interested me in life is the questions we have and the answers are never suitable because they do not often satisfy us. Variety is about unsatisfied desire.
Desistfilm: And you never give an answer. One of the bits I like the most is that inversion of the man following a woman in films like Vertigo. By the end of that film, you know what is going on, but in Variety you never have a clue. What is happening? What is this man doing?
Bette Gordon: And I also thought, because of Laura’s essays, that the way all narrative functions is that it sets up this desire for conclusion and that is why we love narrative. So does pornography. It sustains desire and substitutes the look for the touch, for something it promises, gratification, but never can deliver. If you keep promising something, but you don’t give it, you keep people wanting it. This is really how all narrative functions.
My embracing of pornography was to see what it had to say about desire and what kind of fantasies it mobilized. I was interested in the gap I felt about my sexual identity, as a strong woman I would say, and my sexual fantasies. That needed to be explored and nobody was talking about it.
Desistfilm: You explore this through the use of the oral narrative, of voice, in the film. Christine, the protagonist, gets excited by the telling of very graphic sex scenes, but men feel that excitement by watching those same scenes. This is also an inversion of how pornography traditionally works.
Bette Gordon: Yes, I said to myself that what you can’t see is sometimes more proactive than what you can see.
I found the theater myself. After I did Empty Suitcases – I was at the Berlin Film Festival with it –, ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), which was and still is a very important financing for filmmakers, got in touch with me. Back then they were interested in American independents and now it is much more global. One of the producers came to me and said: “I love what you are doing, what are you doing next?”. And I never know what I am doing next, but she asked me to sent them an idea. I came back to New York and my then-husband Tim Burns was curating a show at Artists Space, which was called ‘Emergency’. We artists were living in an emergency situation, we had no funding, the real state market was falling apart in New York. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, like today. Everybody got like 75 dollars, which is nothing, but we did not care about money. All I knew is that I had a camera and 75 dollars and I was like: “What am I going to do?”. Because New York was still new to me, because I love landscape as character – both Benning and I did – I became an urban explorer and used to go to neighborhoods that people said I should not go to. Sometimes I got lost, one night I was drunk at 4 am and stumbled on the Fulton Fish Market. I was amazed by that place. It looks like Las Vegas!
So this is how I found the Variety theater and it had the booth, which we were loosing. By that time we were getting these shopping malls. But here was the Variety, the sign was so beautiful! I wanted to eat it. It was bright red and bright blue, I could not stop looking at it. I thought I had to go in there and I did not know until I got closer what it was. There comes walking by a guy who stops and says: “Oh, are you going in?”. I was like: “I don’t know”. He told me he was going to take over the projections, that was his job. His name was Lee. So he asks me: “Do you want to come up to the projection booth?”. I got in with him and through the booth, I watched those little people from above, which you see later on in Variety.
I did not know what to make, but I knew it had to be there. I invited two of my friends, Nancy Reilly, who was in the Wooster Group, which is a really well-known theater company that used to be called The Performing Garage, and Spalding Gray, who was a monologuist and the boyfriend of a person that I worked with at the Collective for Living Cinema, which was a bit like the Anthology Film Archives, but with contemporary films. Anyway, so I am thinking of what to do and of course, I come back to the person’s work that inspired me so early on, Jean-Luc Godard. I thought about Vivre sa vie (1962) and started to ask questions.
Some of my friends already worked sometimes for money as strippers or in bars to get guys to buy them drinks. Sometimes if they wanted to touch them… Well, it was a way for artists to make money and it was not a full-time job. So we started to talk about this with Nancy and Spalding came in and he describes these porn movies… And I said, OK, I can do something with this. I was like the girl in the booth, Christine, trying to find my way. Again, it is a personal film, but it is more an exploration, I guess. As I explore the world more and more, as the character does, it has an allure, it drags you in, as Times Square did. In the eighties, it was pretty much a mess. It was like going to an amusement park, like the Asbury Park, where I went in the film. There was this sort of seduction. I thought: “How could anybody resist?”. So I just wanted to go with it.
I got to think a lot about how women could participate. Why pornography has to be seen as the tyranny of the imagination? Why can’t we also take something back from that? The idea that Christine looks back was the most radical idea. I thought about returning the look. Laura [Mulvey] talks so much about being looked at and the position of women as the central means from which we get pleasure in cinema, how conventional cinema works… So I thought about turning that around. What would happen? And this was how I came up with the idea for the film.
Desistfilm: I love how you depict some of these places you mentioned. What intrigues me is that we are so used to a certain image of New York… We see it in Woody Allen’s or Martin Scorsese’s films, or we read about it in James Baldwin’s books. But you see Variety and it seems like a completely new hidden town you don’t get to see very often.
Bette Gordon: Yes, I show the gritty places and it was a great joy to film them. All my work, including what I did with Benning, is located in places, in geography. In Variety just the lights at night time in Times Square, the overly-lit look of the fish market… At 4 o’clock in the morning that place comes alive! I mean, all my spaces, the porn store, the Yankees’ game – of course, another male space – … The green grass looks like the backdrop of a Hitchcock movie. If you would go to see some of the movies at the race track, for example, in Notorious (1946), they use a green screen projection. But I was not green screening, it was real. Those places become also characters. Not all filmmakers, but some of us are really interested in the character of the place. I think that has driven me in all the work that I have done, starting with Paris and the Midwest and then slowly coming back to where I came from.
Desistfilm: I would like to drop a few names here that are connected to Variety, which leads us again to feminism, even if you were not militant…
Bette Gordon: I was not a feminist, I just wanted to make trouble. Do you know what word I would use to define my work? Subvert.
Desistfilm: Fair enough. This has to do with my next question. The punk scene was strong in New York by that time with the No Wave. I do not know how you fit into that scene and if this is where you meet Nan Goldin or Kathy Acker, who is going to be the co-writer of the script. Was also Tom DiCillo, one of the DoPs, around? How did that scene influence your work?
Bette Gordon: It was such an interesting moment! I have talked a little bit about this in my travels. What makes the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties so special? The main thing is that there was not marketplace. We were not driven by money and we did not care if anybody came to see our films. We did not want to sell them, the fun of it was just living in the moment and I think this is an idea you can find back in the sixties or maybe the twenties. It doesn’t exist now. There was this freedom because there was not market saying what you are supposed to do. Some kids now sing on YouTube and expect to strike a Hollywood deal with that. Who would think like that? We really wanted to explore and to interchange and exchange ideas. The nice thing was that Lower Manhattan was pretty central and there we had this neighborhood sensation. It was all about the place. I lived in Tribeca, which was empty when I moved in, it felt like an abandoned factory lot. We had these giant spaces because manufacturing had gone out of business in the cities. So they left behind these empty buildings and artists were sometimes squatting. When Benning and I moved to New York, we rented one of these giant spaces. 25,000 square feet of huge space. At night no one would be there except the artists. There were bars and it was the punk music scene that brought filmmakers, artists, painters, or performance artists together. Nobody cared about being professional.
A musician would make a film, a filmmaker that basically could play an instrument would be in a band. Actually Jim Jarmusch had a band, The Del-Byzanteens, and it was so good! We were all friends. As I mentioned earlier, when I came to New York I worked for the Collective for Living Cinema, that was put together by a group of students by an avant-garde filmmaker named Ken Jacobs, he was their godfather. When they came to New York City, he lived on Chambers Street, a few blocks away. They rented a loft’s space and turned it into the best cinema Downtown. There was no cinemas Downtown, but there were us. I came to New York in 1980 and they asked if I would come aboard because I have always taught – I had already been a teaching assistant in Wisconsin – so they asked me to do the workshops and I joined them. Renée [Shafransky], who would become the producer of Variety, was doing the program. They were all students of Ken. We had this great program of Hollywood movies. We might show Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952), or Jean Renoir, or Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and obviously avant-garde movies and performances in the weekends. Everybody would come. I met everybody because I would often work at the front door collecting money for the tickets. It was such a great time! We just showed the films that we all loved, it wasn’t about making money.
I don’t know when it changed. I would say that this moment in New York was very special. Our heroes were the Beat Generation, John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Maya Deren… This sort of inventors of the cinematic language of the time. It was so easy to meet people… When I met Luis Guzmán, who plays the guy at the door at the Variety, he was just hanging out. He had done some theater in this old school building, which was abandoned. And that is the other thing. Real state drove our connections, because everybody was living in the cheap places Downtown. If you were going to read your novel, you just could go to the Kitchen. There were so many good spaces… I would invite people to my loft all the time, or we would go to Nan’s [Goldin] loft. It was like: “Come to my house, I am on the Bowery, I am on Greenwich Street…”. It was sharing the moment through artwork.
We had more in common with the art world than with Hollywood, which is probably why I never gravitated towards Los Angeles, because it felt like a land of people I didn’t know.
Desistfilm: But that gravitation throughout the States is common in your life and work. You have moved a lot. Luminous Motion (1998) or Handsome Harry (2009) are, again, road-movies.
Bette Gordon: Every movie is a road-movie. Look at Michigan Avenue (1974). Even that one, I think. You sort of have that street in Chicago… I-94 is definitely a road movie because you have the railroad track. United States of America… Even Variety.
For Luminous Motion, I used to say that in road movies like Easy Rider or Two-lane Blacktop (Monte Hellmann, 1971), the more you move, the more you find out that the movement is internal, not external. Sometimes you need that external movement in order to start the internal.
Desistfilm: And it happens in both of these two movies of yours. By the end of them, you realize that the characters have moved, but within. It took you a long time to make these films after Variety. Why?
Bette Gordon: I think it is because of funding. New York State has an Arts Council, but the highest money you can get is 20,000 dollars. They did give me money for Variety, so I had the German money, some British money, and these 20,000 from the council. I also think, as a woman, that it is because I was still subversive in my work.
When I made Luminous Motion, which is based on a book, the character of the mother is very non-conventional and many people attacked me for presenting a mother who would have sex while his son is around. But that is the intrigue of it, the question of motherhood and sexuality! Do you give up your sexuality when you become a mother? And I had become one. So that was my preoccupation because I did not want to give it up.
I think that America, and the world in general, loves the rogue boy. Many guys around the same time as I was had it easier. They were loved and adored. There is Jim Jarmusch – well, but he deserves it – or Hal Hartley… How can they, overnight, become so famous? And Hollywood would give them money. Sundance never even supported me. And I think that the end of the independent film movement was really Sundance because they brought the industry. I don’t think that was the intention, I met Robert Redford and I love him and he had this beautiful dream… But I think the monetizing of it is the end of it.
Desistfilm: Sundance has become a trademark.
Bette Gordon: Yes, they could be selling soap. They don’t care if it is cinema. There is this beautiful Martin Scorsese article, which I had my students read like three times, in which he talks about Federico Fellini and how much he hates the word content. So we went through several scenes of his films and analyzed them and I made them see why this is cinema history. But the world is changing into these big platforms run by a few like Netflix or Amazon.
Desistfilm: So how do you see your students now? What has changed?
Bette Gordon: I have to say that the strongest work coming out of my program at Columbia University in New York is the work of international students. For example, Mounia Akl, from Lebanon, made this film which was a major success at Venice, called Costa Brava2. Selman Nacar, from Turkey, has just been to San Sebastian with Between Two Dawns3. These are students from other countries, but what about America? What is happening is dialogue, it is all bla, bla, bla, talk, talk, talk. Where is the cinema? I am trying to think of filmmakers in the US that challenge this notion, but I can’t. I think Céline Sciamma is interesting, but she is French. I still keep going, but I do not fit into this world of transaction, of cinema as content.
Desistfilm: What about women in cinema? You just dropped some names. Is it getting easier with everything that has happened with Me Too?
Bette Gordon: Well, I don’t even know if I can answer that question. It is not easier for me, but it never has been, so I am used to it. Even if it takes me years between each film, I am shooting one on iPhone soon in Iceland, because I inherited a script of a really good friend that died of COVID-19 while I was working with her, and I said to her on her deathbed: “I’m gonna make this film”. It is a beautiful story about an ex-pat American that I would define as Antonioniesque.
But I don’t know, I think that in television things are easier because women get positions. Ava DuVernay has made an impact both in film and television, whether you like her work or not, which I do not like at all. I think women of color are rising and it is a good time for that. But still, the industry is so dominant! I do not know the work of Ana Lily Amirpour, except for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), which I like. I have not seen the new one yet, but it sounds interesting.
Then the cinemas end up showing all the same things, so I don’t know… As I said, we were not driven by money in the eighties. Sometimes we wanted to go to festivals, but because it was fun to travel and meet other filmmakers. Now you go to a festival and everybody is worried about the business. Who is going to buy what? I do not want to be negative, because I think that when you wake up in the morning and you love something so much, that passion is such a driving force! If I can keep making movies and enjoy showing the ones I made to people that love them, which are not as many, but they are there, then It will be fine.
I just met Barry Jenkins when I was in L.A. Last week and I think he is a real talent. I love Moonlight (2016). So as long as we have that, and if it can continue in some form, even in little cinemas… I always say to my students: “Screw them, start your own cinema!”. But again, real state. In the eighties, it was cheap and abandoned. Now, what drives the world? Cars, real state, oil… and YouTube. Coming from where I come from, and I still consider myself subversive, I just want to make people see things a little bit differently.
I do not even know if I want to be called a woman filmmaker, I just wanted to explore the subjects I wanted to explore. Having to put labels, even now than ever before… There are so many labels for us… Even our pronouns. God, that is positive, but it is also a divider, rather than something that brings us together.
In a movie theater, it is the best place to be because the lights go down, the screen gets lit up and I still have the same excitement I had as a kid, seeing the first movies. If we can keep that, people will continue making films that are charged and that ask people to see the world differently than before. But it is a challenge. I love teaching because I like inspiring people that, if they had not met me, maybe they would not think about certain films. Their appetite would be conditioned by the internet. If you see a film on Netflix, they will recommend you three other films which are exactly the same, when in fact you could go in the opposite direction. Who would ever think to watch a film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a director I love, on those conditions?
Desistfilm: Well, his films are about landscape, so it makes sense that you like him.
Bette Gordon: Yes! I don’t know, Pedro Almodóvar is right now in New York and for me, that is a household name, but does the world see him like this, do people know him? Or do most people just watch Marvel movies? But we always had that, blockbusters and the rest, so let’s keep everything else alive and a few filmmakers will continue exploring the essential of this light and dark art form.
1 It was first a TV series broadcasted by the BBC, it became a book later that same year.
2 It was presented in Orizzonti in 2021.
3 It premiered in New Directors earlier this year.