Tribeca Takes: Bette Gordon on Handsome Harry

06/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

by Amy Taubin

Jamey Sheridan in Handsome Harry

Bette Gordon's Handsome Harry, which premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on April 16. At first glance, it seems at the opposite end of the spectrum from her debut feature, Variety (1983), the feminist neo-Noir that branded Gordon as the bad girl pioneer of American independent filmmaking. But Handsome Harry, a road movie about a 50-year-old man (Jamey Sheridan, wonderfully reserved and vulnerable) attempting to find out the truth about an ugly incident in his past that left one of his former Navy buddies disabled for life, shows that Gordon is as fascinated as ever with genre filmmaking and just as empathic to the sexual confusions of her male characters as she was to those of her female characters in Variety. Each of the five actors playing supporting roles (Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, and Titus Welliver) has roughly ten minutes of screen time to create a distinct version of what it is to be a man, and they are all memorable, as is Karen Young as a tough-talking waitress who's wild about Harry and can't understand his indifference to her.

A resident of Tribeca for roughly 30 years, Gordon is a tenured professor who teaches directing in the film department of Columbia University.

Bette Gordon circa Handsome Harry

Amy Taubin: Why did you want to make a movie about middle-aged men?

Bette Gordon: I wanted to examine male friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness, mainly because they seem so different from women's relationships. I was drawn to the male characters in the story because of their rawness, possessing a male energy reminiscent of actors I grew up watching and loving—Lee Marvin, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen: men who didn't say much, but exuded a physicality and deep internal life. The film is about masculinity or the image of masculinity and how it changed from the end of the Vietnam War, when Harry and his buddies met each other, to the present day of the story. All the characters are trapped by that image, but also by the failure, or the perception of failure, at the end of the Vietnam War. American culture's traditional notion of masculinity changed then too: the history of conquest and dominance became displaced. Because of the shift in values, Harry is finally able to acknowledge [a self-truth], but he is unable to act on it, based on his inability to forgive himself.

I have always been interested in the secret language of men, especially the handshake (when women shake hands, there's not the same kind of acknowledgement or sharing of a language), the pat on the back, the bear hug, the unspoken bond of trust between men—in short, the world of men, money, and power. My interest in this story, in Harry's story, comes out of my fascination with the codes of male behavior.

AT: What role has living in New York played in shaping your filmmaking career?

BG: As filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, and performance artists in the early ‘80s, many of us lived in downtown neighborhoods like Tribeca and the East Village. The spirit of collaboration was very strong; in those days, nobody was thinking about the money—you just went out and got friends together to make art.

In the early ‘80s, since we all hung out together in clubs, galleries, and lofts, it was easy to tap into the energy of the time. Kathy Bigelow was around, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson. Music venues like the Mudd Club or CBGB's were the catalysts around which everyone gathered—a band, a film, and several good performances on any given night. It was easy to meet people and become part of the scene.

As a visual artist/filmmaker moving to New York City in the ‘80s, I was attracted to the underside of New York, the city I’d seen in movies like Sam Fuller’s Pickup On South Street or Naked Kiss...

I have always considered place an important aspect of my filmmaking. In Luminous Motion, I treated the highways of the New Jersey Turnpike as a kind of post-industrial landscape integral to the story of fugitives, while Handsome Harry explores the small towns of Hudson Valley, like Peekskill and Cornwall, as a safe place to hide.

Handsome Harry opens April 16 in New York and Los Angeles. See the IFC Center site for more info.

IFC Center is paying special tribute to Bette Gordon as an indie pioneer, with a screening of Luminous Motion on Monday, April 12, and of Variety on Thursday, April 15, both at 7:00 pm. Bette and special guests will be in attendance at both screenings, so get your tickets now!

Amy Taubin is a critic for Film Comment and Art Forum.