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Nan Goldin and Friends at the Barbican: ‘Variety’

9 July 2015

Author : ellen-turner


The Barbican’s series Nan Goldin and Friends, a programme of films inspired by the photographer’s life, work and person, continues tonight with a screening of Bette Gordon’s 1984 film ‘Variety’.

Nan Goldin and Friends is a series of screenings of films created in the downtown film scene of the late 70s and 80s and one later work, ‘High Art’ (1998), which features a character based on Goldin’s person. This late 70s underground film scene is better known as No Wave and championed guerrilla style film making primarily concerned with the moods and the textures of a film above all else. Pioneer No Wave film makers such as John Lurie and Tom de Cillo contributed to the production of Gordon’s ‘Variety’.

‘Variety’ (1984) shows tonight; Christine, an aspiring journalist takes a job selling tickets for a porn theatre on Times Square but soon becomes obsessed with those she serves- the passing instances and the seasoned regulars, with one in particular installing a sense of perverse intrigue and desire for her character. It’s a post feminist noir set against a decaying and dangerous pre-gentrified Manhattan; the gaudy lighted ‘VARIETY’ cinema sign acts as a beacon of bygone entertainment and sexual energy against the foul and depressive New York that we can no longer comprehend or understand.

The film is a profound discussion on contemporary sexuality, especially through its female characters – women newly navigating the terrain of the sex industry, finding themselves there from curiosity and an economic drive. The film presents a generation of women understanding that the sexual liberation of the 60s hadn’t actually provided them with much; the ‘Tiny Tits and Cute Asses’ porn mag that Michelle is reading in the ticket booth is Gordon’s, bought before being asked to leave a sex shop, as a woman in that environment was considered nothing but a prostitute sourcing customers, other than a female body exploring a material sexuality. Moreover, the film questions the (now multi faceted and ever more complex) dichotomy of women and pornography, produced at a time of the pro-sex and anti-sex feminist movements, with the latter seeking illegality of the industry.

Goldin features in the film, as herself, and also shot stills of the film that feature in her 1986 book ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, a prolific and profound piece of documentary photography that chronicled the drug fuelled demi-monde life that was lived by her and her friends; Goldin being an artist with a conflated life and art. ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ is not only a direct reflection of Goldin’s circumstance (therefore, a poignant self portrait that belies the face and the body), but too an intimate visceral work that involves what came to be the themes of Goldin’s life work, drug use, physical abuse, sexuality, AIDs, lovers and the undying intrigue of our own and others’ characters- the individual.

Goldin’s photographs of ‘Variety’ that feature in the book are as seedy, sensual and sexually alluring as the obsessive psychosis that the film’s foremost female character experiences when getting so involved in her job. The glamorous blonde bouffant is offset by an eternal face of fear placed within the open wounds of New York’s dying streets and corners. Red tinted and offguard, they evoke the voyeur, apt in the sense of the theatre’s porn punters and ourselves as we witness the thrill and the danger that comes with a woman’s erotic fantasy.

The other works in the series include Irish feminist filmmaker and definer of the No Wave movement, Vivienne Dick’s ‘Shorts’ on the 13th July. Dick’s guerrilla aesthetic films, shot on Super 8 and featuring an unruly cast of artists and musicians, promotes the sort of lo-fi glamour that intrigues us so utterly about Goldin’s photography: what shouldn’t be beautiful, is.

‘Shorts’ includes three films: ‘She Had Her Gun Already’, featuring Lydia Lunch stalking Pat Place to a Coney Island showdown; ‘Beauty Becomes the Beast’, with Lunch’s troubled childhood upbringing set against the ruins of New York, and ‘Liberty’s Booty’, where middle class call girls give their life stories.

On the 18th July, the later 1998 work of Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘High Art’ is showing, featuring a character based directly on Goldin’s person. The film follows an aspirational photography magazine editor and her personal and professional affair with her neighbour- a reclusive and destructive photographer. Including sincere conversations on the likes of the working woman and bisexuality, it’s an important chapter in feminist film making. Moreover, it’s a devoted testament to Goldin’s work and her person: intimate, illicit and illegal, she eternally intrigues.

Nan Goldin and Friends at the Barbican, London. More information can be found here. ‘Variety’ 8th July
‘Vivienne Dick: Shorts’ 13th July
‘High Art’ 18th July



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