Bette Gordon with Handsome Harry’s Jamey Sheridan.
The director of the underground classics Variety and Luminous Motionspeaks with Evangeline Morphos. Those and other films by Gordon are screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.
Bette Gordon and I have been colleagues for many years in the Film Division at Columbia, and I have been acutely aware of the influence Bette has had on young filmmakers. I don’t know of anyone who can explain how a camera can be used to tell the emotional arc of a story better than Bette.
Her own films have reached cult status, and she is being honored by a retrospective at the IFC starting in April 12th. As an early experimenter, and pioneer of the independent film movement, Bette’s work explores themes of sexuality, power, and fragility. Because of the boldness of her subject matter—pornography, obsession, violence—her work is often shocking, but always truthful. Bette finds the necessary visual style of each story, and she presents us with images that are breathtaking and often disturbing. We can never look away.
Over the past few years I talked with Bette many times as she began work on her most recent film, Handsome Harry. Bette was drawn to Nick Proferes’s powerful screenplay that reveals the vulnerability within our notions of identity. This had been one of the themes she had been exploring throughout her career. The film is about a middle-aged man who embarks on a journey to seek redemption for an act of physical and emotional violence that he committed as a young soldier.
Ultimately, this redemption eludes him because of his own inability to take an emotional risk. At the heart of this ending is a raw emotional truth.
When I had a chance to talk with both Bette and Nick Proferes about it, I asked if there had been any pressure to change the ending:
Bette Gordon There was. Producers would say, “I love the script, but I’ve just invested two hours of my time and I want there to be more at the end.” Whenever I’d go back to Nick, he’d think about it, but he always knew that the ending he initially wrote was the ending.
Evangeline Morphos Why are endings so hard?
Nick Proferes Frank Daniel, my mentor, said the ending of a film has to be inevitable. Not predictable, but inevitable. And Kazan told me once that the ending has to be about true emotion.
Bette and I are always talking—about politics, the downtown art scene, teaching, and yes, frankly, gossip. But this interview gave me the opportunity to step out of a casual mode and talk with an artist who is powerfully uncompromising about the truth of a story, and about her work. It was a revelation to go back and re-visit Bette’s earlier films—Variety, Luminous Motion—and to see them in a progress that leads to Handsome Harry.
EM Your newest film Handsome Harry is an extraordinary journey into the character of Harry, a middle aged-man who for the first time is dealing with a brutal incident from his past as a young soldier. So much of your work in the past has looked at how woman protagonists see things. What was it like to deal with what’s essentially a man’s world?
BG I wasn’t planning on doing a film like this, but I felt drawn to Nick Proferes’s script. I immediately responded to the incredible emotional depth that Harry has to reach in order to confront identity. Identity is probably always an issue in my work.
EM It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female identity?
BG Right. I think the visceral instinctive responses that I had to the script were in line with everything else I’ve ever done. This is my third feature, but I’ve made a lot of shorts and have thought and written about women’s sexuality, particularly what female desire and fantasy means. I think it was natural for me to explore sexual identity from the other side. I related to this character who was struggling to define himself, after having lived a lie for 25 to 30 years.
EM I’m going to spoil the plot here: Harry is a former war veteran living in a small town. He is summoned to the death bed of a former platoon-mate who wants to confront the fact that a group of them had violently beaten a fellow soldier who they discovered was gay. Harry sets out to find the other soldiers who had taken part and to try to come to terms with his own role in the incident. We later discover that the victim had been Harry’s secret lover, so Harry is not only confronting his former violence, but his repressed homosexuality for the first time.
BG And the tragedy of his life—that he can’t face up to the truth—was the universal thing that attracted me to the script. Later, I started thinking of the idea of sexuality. I was attracted to the rough edges of the male characters in the story and started to see them as male icons that I grew up with in movies of my generation: Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, and Ben Gazzara, men who didn’t say much but exuded a physicality and deep internal life; men who had this roughness and physicality that screamed out at you, but underneath was an internal life that you got to know by their behavior.
EM All of the characters in the film are trapped by that image. In a male world of war, you’ve got to live up to some image of masculinity. It’s not just Harry who’s dealing with it.
BG Yeah, all of these guys are dealing with changed notions of masculinity since the end of the Vietnam War. The history of conquest and dominance was displaced after the war. Harry’s struggle to accept his sexuality is complicated by these changing cultural norms. This is true to a certain extent for the other characters as well, who are dealing with the remorse they feel for not having confronted what they did to their friend.
EM One of the real achievements of the film is that the audience knows it’s a contemporary war. But it could be any war; the story is equally applicable to Korea, to Vietnam, to the Gulf Wars.
BG I’m interested in the legacy that is passed from father to son; what that defining moment is for the men who fought and the men who returned. That’s why The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge influence for me. I watched it so many times so that I could understand this devastation of masculinity.
EM Can you talk about the idea of homecoming as it relates to the Vietnam War?
BG The perception of failure in Vietnam challenged American culture’s notion of masculinity. Harry’s struggle to accept his sexuality is complicated by changing cultural norms. In this context, Harry is able to acknowledge his love for David Kagan, but is unable to act on it based on his inability to forgive himself. The tragedy for Harry is that it’s too late. The past is powerful and continues to haunt us even when we do our best to escape it.
EM Vietnam was also a kind of national castration—our first failed war.
BG Think about what those guys must have felt like coming back. I vaguely remember the kind of disgust we all had toward the soldiers and also toward the political decisions that led to the soldiers being there.
Also, what’s interesting for Harry is that the culture changed. Homosexuality became more acceptable, and when Harry is able to finally express his love for another man, he can’t do it. For me, the tragedy of that is overwhelming. To not be able to forgive himself and act on that love is horrible. I am devastated at the end.
EM In the final scenes of the film, Harry finally reconnects with his former lover, Kagan. Harry confronts the fact that he had initiated the violence that crushed Kagan’s hand forever. In the final moments of the film we see Kagan with his mangled hand sitting down to play the piano. I think that scene is so daring—you don’t take the camera off of him. He starts to play the piano with one hand, and you understand the beauty of the music that was so important to him, and then at one point he uses the crippled hand to come in and …
BG … Play single notes.
EM You’re willing to linger on that moment. To let us feel its real time.
BG It was such a difficult scene. In the beginning, we had to figure out what motivates Kagan to come back to Harry? As Nick wrote the scene, Kagan had a certain amount of hostility toward Harry that I was uncomfortable with. I re-thought the scene in terms of love and hope. What if Kagan comes back because he has real hope that they might reconcile?
EM But Harry doesn’t allow for redemption.
BG He can’t. It’s like that moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when the soldier returns from war. He has lost both of his arms and the woman he returns to is still in love with him, but he can’t accept her love because she’s never quite seen who he is. Finally he takes her upstairs to the bedroom, takes off his hook arms and says, “This is who I am.” She accepts that. They actually cast an actor who had been a soldier and lost his arms in World War II.
Bette Gordon with Handsome Harry’s Steve Buscemi.
EM The performances are extraordinary in Handsome Harry. Each army mate is a separate character study.
BG Each actor brought a life to the part they were playing. So each scene is almost a whole movie unto itself. Each actor responded to and loved the material. For example, Steve Buscemi’s character Kelley, the soldier who first summons Harry, was written a bit more aggressively. Before shooting, Steve said to me, “I want to play this guy, but I want him to confess to Harry, as opposed to Harry confessing to him.” I thought that was a brilliant suggestion. I had relationships with most of the people who I cast. I had worked with Jamey Sheridan on Luminous Motion, and over the two or three years it took us to raise the money to make this movie, we were always acting it out, every dinner, every drink. There was this meeting of the minds as we crafted the character of Harry together.
EM Much like Handsome Harry, your film Luminous Motion is also a journey. One of your gifts as a filmmaker is that these journeys never become episodic. There’s always a direction to them; they accumulate meaning and resonance and ambiguity so that everything is really a kind of highway.
BG In Luminous Motion, the movement is internal. The idea was that no matter how far you travel, you still have to get back to yourself. I think this is probably the theme of most road movies that we loved: Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Bonnie and Clyde, which was a huge reference for Luminous Motion.
EM In Luminous Motion and Handsome Harry you’re willing to look at ambiguous morality. Everything is painted in shades of gray—morality, ethics, accountability, even reality. The films also ask whether we can really remember accurately.
BG The ambiguity of morality is definitely a theme of my work. I called Luminous Motion an “amoral tale.”
EM I’m assuming that when Harry begins his quest he doesn’t remember that he is the one who smashed Kagan’s hand.
BG Jamey Sheridan and I struggled with the idea of how much is buried under the layers of Harry’s conscious mind. We even likened it to Oedipus; when he hears the truth about how his father died, he can’t stop, even when it starts to get uncomfortably close to home.
EM I think the shepherd says, “I am on the brink of fearful telling,” and Oedipus answers, “And I have fearful hearing.” And you go (gasps), He knows! I think Harry knows before it’s actually said, but saying it …
BG It’s about the power of language. Language plays a very important role in the film. Even when Kagan says, “It was you, Harry,” right before that moment, Harry was still trying to escape by saying, “Well, Kelly told me that he did it.” It’s a punch in the stomach, but I didn’t want to overplay it. It was so interesting to figure out how to guide these moments.
EM But Kagan doesn’t say this to Harry with rancor or revenge. He is simply telling the truth. That’s sometimes the most violent thing you can do.
BG I often quote Harold Pinter’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, which was about the search for the truth. I was very moved by the paragraph, which says, “But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror, for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.” Of course, he was talking about political truths, but we are too. In order to talk about personal truths, we have to talk about political truths, and as citizens we all have this obligation, whether personal or national or political. I try to convey that in my work.
Sandy McLeod in Variety. Courtesy of Kino International.
EM The idea of voyeurism appears in a lot of your work. Your characters are intrigued by it but don’t want to get close to it. You’re constantly asking how to keep people at a distance and how to keep the dangerous parts of yourself at a distance. One of the most haunting images in the film is when Harry takes a woman who is clearly in love with him to a dance.They start to dance, and at first it’s so sexy, then Harry realizes he’s actually dancing with someone else in his head. He’s caught in a private moment. That was what was scary to many about method acting. Stanislavski says you have to learn to be private in public. Lee Strasberg would say a private moment is one where if someone else saw you, you would stop. Those moments reveal who we are. That’s why Variety is so haunting and dangerous.
BG Right, Variety is a film about voyeurism and the pleasure in looking. I used pornography as a backdrop to explore those themes in a noir-like story about a woman who looks back. In Variety, when the female character tries to relax while listening to an Indian meditation tape, she imagines the men she’s been following shaking hands. Women shaking hands doesn’t carry the same weight, the same meaning.
EM Like they say, “A handshake says a lot about a man.”
BG Variety was about a world of men, money, and lower Manhattan (laughter). Handsome Harry takes that idea further. The handshake became the hug and the pat on the back, this unspeakable and unbreakable bond of trust that guys have. I often feel like a visitor, a voyeur, when I watch that. I wanted to get closer, to see those faces, to smell, touch.
EM With films like Handsome Harry and The Hurt Locker, women are writing about men’s worlds. I remember there was a Kabuki master who was an artist in residence at Harvard who specialized in the great women’s roles. He believed that only a man could deliver the “essence” of a woman. A female actress will give the particulars—the way she might comb her hair or walk through a door—but a man thinks essentially, not specifically.
But back to Variety and its context, could you talk about the early days of independent cinema? You were there in New York when the worlds of visual arts and literature and film were intersecting. Variety and Luminous Motion are adaptations of really exciting experimental and dangerous novels.
BG Variety was controversial when it came out in 1983, not necessarily because of what it had to say about women and desire or because it used pornography to explore it, but more because I used pornography in a positive way. I also left the ending somewhat open, and that was controversial. I remember at the end of the Cannes Film festival, one French critic came up to me and said in French “There’s nothing to see.” I ended it on a dark street, with rain and a street lamp; the two characters who are supposed to meet never show up.
EM You related pornography to power.
BG Yes, and what it says about desire and fantasy. I was struggling with difference in my identity; my sense of myself as a woman didn’t always match my sexual fantasies. I wanted to put that out there. Christine becomes a detective of her own desire, a sleuth on the streets of lower Manhattan. Harry also becomes a detective of his own life, trying to comprehend and unravel the truth. People compare Variety to Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart obsessively follows Kim Novak and he tries to remake her in the image of a previous incarnation of herself. Christine in Variety remakes herself instead.
Another idea in Variety is that of looking back. In pornography there’s this idea of women being looked at as the object of a look. I wanted to create the subjectivity of the woman instead of conveying a sense of her as object.
EM You also deal with the idea that when you’re stalking someone, you’re hoping to catch them in an unguarded moment. There was a recent AOL poll asking how many people look inside the medicine cabinet when they use someone else’s bathroom? What do they hope to find? There’s this idea that something’s back there.
BG What makes the illicit act of voyeurism intriguing is the idea of being looked at while looking—that’s what makes pornography work so well. This long tunnel of look exchanges is something I was very conscious of in Variety. I used frames within frames and windows and doorways—there was the constant idea of framing.
EM Lynch’s Mulholland Drive has that same kind of box-within-a-box situation.
BG I think it’s not always what’s at the end of a character’s journey, but the process of making the journey.
Bette Gordon during the making of Variety. Photo courtesy of Kino International.
EM Will Patton’s character in Variety and Terry Kinney’s in Luminous Motion are really decent guys come to very bad ends. What happens to nice guys in your films and why?
BG First, Patton’s character. There was a whole generation of men who claimed that they wanted a sexually liberated woman, who claimed that they were interested in the freedom of sexuality, but they really weren’t; they were scared off by a woman’s sexual freedom. I think the women’s movement created a generation of men who couldn’t quite deal with women taking back or exploring their sexuality.
EM Terry Kinney’s character Pedro in Luminous Motion comes back as a ghost in the classic, almost Shakespearean sense—like Hamlet’s father coming back to urge him on to patricide.
BG I always described Pedro as a character who wanted more and settled for less. The Mr. Nice Guy who settled for less in life and gets to act out as a ghost. I love that contradiction. I remember Terry called Sam Sheperd to figure out what Pedro would wear as a ghost. Sam said, “You’re naked.”
EM Oh, fabulous!
BG We didn’t end up doing that, but it was sort of a gut response. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? And Kathy Acker wrote the screenplay for Variety, based on a story I wrote that I made a Super-8 film of starring my friends Spalding Gray and Nancy Reilly from the Wooster Group. Spalding was an avid watcher of pornography (laughter). He just sat there and described images of things I couldn’t even believe. Half of Variety was just Spalding making up porn scenes.
EM How is it making an independent film now, when independent film has become part of the establishment?
BG The world has become so savvy. When I first began, there was a Wild West mentality. You just grabbed people from your circle, and if you were an artist, your circle was pretty interesting. Musicians and writers would participate in a freeform way without contracts. We didn’t even know what agents and managers were. Variety’s budget was about $100,000. Working together was organic to the way in which we lived. Now, making an independent film is about getting actors to sign on.
EM You seem connected to the art world, visually. And you have a sensitivity to what sound is.
BG My background was as a visual artist, which gave me references that I wish more of my students had. Those who don’t have a visual arts background struggle to translate action and dialogue from the page to the screen. I was lucky not only to travel in circles of very talented people, but ones that were not legislated by a school.
EM What’s next, what ideas are brewing?
BG I’ve always wanted to do an adaptation of Paper Moon, a father-daughter story, since I’ve done a mother-son. What I really hate is when reviewers say, “She hasn’t made a film in ten years!” I guess there are people who are able to make a film in a shorter amount of time, but by the time you have an idea and allow it to sit around in your mind and then write it and raise the money, it’s ten years later. But really, it’s the psychological realm that is fascinating to me. The digging deep. I think it comes from the idea of smashing the mirror we talked about earlier. I’m interested in stories where what is is not what is. I’ve thought about making a lighter story.
Watch a trailer for Handsome Harry below:
Handsome Harry opens April 16 in New York City at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 as well as at theaters in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Trinity College, CT. In conjunction, IFC will present Luminous Motion April 12 and Variety on April 15. More info here.