After Bette Gordon’s welcome, ubiquitous presence at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—at which her first movie was revived, her latest world-premiered, and the director herself was featured as a sage talking head in the No Wave doc Blank City—the IFC Center mounts an official tribute (already under way) to the undersung filmmaker as a run-up to Friday’s theatrical release of Handsome Harry.
Gordon, who co-directed three short works with James Benning between 1973 and 1975, moved to New York in 1980, soon becoming a fixture of the city’s No Wave scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, an era of prolific DIY filmmaking, when everybody seemed to be collaborating with everyone else. The conspirators on Gordon’s 1983 feature debut, Variety—namely scripter Kathy Acker and scene stealers Nan Goldin and Cookie Mueller—make this tale of a porn-house ticket seller who starts to take her work home with her a vital interrogation of the feminist sex wars that raged at the time. After contributing to the omnibus film Seven Women, Seven Sins (1986), Gordon returned with her second feature, 1998’s Luminous Motion, dreamily depicting a 10-year-old’s erotically charged fascination with his mother.
As in the films that precede it, the mysteries—and terrors—of desire also propel Handsome Harry, which reunites Gordon with Luminous Motion‘s Jamey Sheridan, here in the title role. A road movie ensemble piece interrupted by flashbacks, HH finds its hero reconciling with the unpalatable notion that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, each man maims the thing he loves. Harry, a well-liked, long-divorced middle-ager, capable of only the most awkward interactions with the waitress who clearly wants him and the son who’s driven hundreds of miles to visit him in upstate New York, takes off suddenly for Philadelphia to visit Tom (Steve Buscemi), a dying Navy buddy. “We became men together,” Tom reminisces in his hospital bed—rites of passage that torment Harry, who continues to seek out friends from the service to assuage his guilt over a heinous act of betrayal and cruelty. Each visit serves as a set piece for the pathologies of white midlife manhood: entitlement, repression, rage, self-pity. Gordon films every encounter—some of which droop under too much hectoring (the script is by first-timer Nicholas T. Proferes)—with a hesitant empathy, maintaining just the right tone before Harry’s lushly romantic final reunion. In Gordon’s films, Eros’s capacity to disturb and disrupt is celebrated as its greatest quality.