Hitchcock-style thriller takes a controversial look at pornography

``Variety'' grew from filmmaker Bette Gordon's concern with the way all media, from movies to billboards, display women as objects. Deciding that pornography is the ultimate form of this exploitation, she set about probing the attitudes and obsessions that lie behind it. Her perspective was rooted in feminism, but she determined to avoid all ``party lines,'' allowing her explorations to lead wherever their logic dictated.

The result is a complex and controversial film. On one level it's a thoughtful thriller that recalls the dark film noir style of the 1940s and '50s. Discussing the picture with me in her Hofstra University office on Long Island, where she teaches film, Gordon acknowledged its debt to Hitchcock and noir classics like ``Pickup on South Street.''

But deeper down it's a searching, oddly ambivalent study of the human tendency to objectify and depersonalize others. On this level it moves far from Hollywood convention, using such provocative tactics as graphic sexual monologues and an ambiguous ending, which have roused argument from feminists and film critics alike.

The main character is a young woman who takes a job selling tickets at a porno theater, meets a patron who seems to be a criminal, and tries to unravel his secrets. As she spies on him -- watching him just as he watches women in movies -- there are echoes of ``Vertigo'' and ``Rear Window,'' given a shadowy new atmosphere by the background of '80s urban squalor.

What's most interesting about ``Variety'' is its treatment of emotionally charged material with a cinematic style that's almost contemplative. It's true that the screenplay (by Kathy Acker) lapses into a sensationalism that bespeaks childish self-indulgence more than feminist self-awareness. But in the movie's key sequences, director Gordon turns sordid material into a revealing inspection of male-female relations. A seasoned visual artist, she knows how to use film as a way of seeing rather than a way of showing.

Although it's a flawed work, ``Variety'' opens an important topic for further discussion on-screen and off. Ren'ee Shafransky was the producer, and rock musician John Lurie (the star of ``Stranger Than Paradise'') contributed the moody score.

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