If the name Bette Gordon doesn’t immediately ring a bell, don’t fret. It just means you’re not the cinephile you claimed you are or weren’t a part of downtown Manhattan when downtown Manhattan was still very, very cool. But at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is opening this week, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to become (re)acquainted with her. Two films which she directed are included in the festival’s lineup and a third one explores her involvement in New York’s underground arts scene.
The Gordon-directed and brand-spanking new “Handsome Harry” stars Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi and Aidan Quinn. In it, an ex-Navy man (Sheridan) confronts his past as he attempts to resolve a thirty year-old crime. Gordon’s poignant character study of masculinity digs deep and makes an interesting revelation. What happens when a moment from your past suddenly asserts itself and you cannot escape from it?
The Tribeca Film Festival will also be screening 1983’s “Variety,” Gordon’s debut feature (it starred Will Patton, Luis Guzman and Nan Goldin). Hailed as a feminist classic, “Variety” is about a young and desperate writer (Sandy McLeod) who finds work as a ticket-taker in an X-rated moviehouse and becomes changed by the experience (this will give theater-goers another chance to see what pre-Giuliani New York looked like–ah, it gives me chills just to think about it). The film was shown as part of Directors Fortnight at Cannes that year. And, lastly Gordon appears in a third Tribeca Film Festival offering, a documentary called “Blank City” about the gritty and hazardous Manhattan avant-guarde scene which thrived in 1970s while New York and its economy withered away. Interesting things can happen to art during bad economic times. Who knows about that? Maybe this current bust cycle will help usher in its own era of “Young American Artists” and filmmaker vanguard.
Bette Gordon has been a regular contributor to BOMB Magazine. She is also on the faculty at Columbia University Film (a decidedly undowntown institution). Here’s the responses she sent me after a recent email exchange:
Is feminism dead?
No, feminism is not dead. Women still have to work hard to compete with the fact that more men hold positions in industry, entertainment, politics—in a recent study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University in 2008, it said that women comprised only 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 top-grossing domestic films. Even in the independent film world, we continually see more male directors than women. You can look at any festival to see that to be true.
However, women have made more progress in the last thirty years, but we’re not there yet. It is also important to continue to explore the way in which women are represented in media. It is important to provide female characters that are complex, and that drive the story, not just as objects of desire and support for the male characters (like many of the recent comedies about male sexual anxiety).
This year at TFF’09 it’s all talk of Bette Gordon to the power of 3. Does this feel like vindication, given your years of living in Tribeca and supporting the downtown arts scene?
I love making films, and don’t need vindication for anything. I have continued to work and have a career since the 80s, and I balance that career with my teaching work at Columbia, which is also rewarding and important. I love being able to help young filmmakers establish their voices and craft, and I am thankful to work with such a great community of filmmakers and professors in the graduate film program at Columbia.
I am thrilled to be at The Tribeca Film Festival since I have lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s. In fact, when artists like me moved to Tribeca, nobody knew it even existed. At night the streets were empty, it was like living on a Hollywood backlot of what old New York was supposed to look like. The spaces were large and cheap back then, you could do innovative work, have great parties, discover corners of downtown manhatan that would make great locations, and feel the breeze from the Hudson River blow into the window.
So who do you look forward to meeting the most at Tribeca?
Everyone, especially film directors from other countries. I’m always interested in the global community of filmmakers in other places in addition to the USA. I think Atom Egoyan will be at the festival, he is a friend, and I had invited him a number of years ago to teach a master class at Columbia. I find his work extremely interesting.
Name three very modern filmmakers who have in some way influence or inspired you.
Atom Egoyan, Catherine Breillat [see our interview with her] and Wong Kar Wai.
What’s next on the festival beat?
That has yet to be determined.
[‘Handsome Harry’ is competing as part of TFF’09’s World Narrative Feature Competition program; its official release is April 25th,