sex, lies & videotape (1989)


Director: Steven Soderbergh

Producers: John Hardy (Outlaw, Virgin)

Writer: Steven Soderbergh (screenplay)

Photography: Walt Lloyd

Music: Cliff Martinez

Cast: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo,
Ron Vawter, Steven Brill, Alexandra Root, Earl T. Taylor, David Foll

No doubt tired of hearing how he was “the other Steven S-berg”, director Steven Soderbergh decided in the fall of 1987 to pack up and head for California, leaving Baton Rouge with only an LSU film degree, a few short films, TV commercials and a concert-doc to his name. Two weeks before the cross-country trip he devised the concept for sex, lies, and videotape, of which he wrote the final draft during the eight-day drive to L.A. Shooting on location in Baton Rouge for just five-weeks on a $1.2 million budget, the film scored exponentially, grossing $25 million domestically on its way to becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Cracking the $100 million barrier worldwide, the film not only gave Miramax its first big financial success, but it more importantly revived the four-year-old annual Sundance Film Festival, which at the time was struggling to keep afloat. Soderbergh’s film came in and tore the roof off, winning the award for Most Popular Film and launching a period of prosperity for the festival to the point of entering the TV market in 1996 with The Sundance Channel, an outlet for sex, lies, and videotape to play in a loop for all channel surfers to see.

The sexlies-Sundance relationship had come full circle, and by now, certainly everyone has heard the title referenced, spoofed or homaged somewhere in their lives, even if they ignorantly thought it was some kind of porno. On the contrary, sex, lies, and videotape is one that handles the subject of sex delicately, being erotic without being graphic, replacing nudity with serious ponderings on the relationship between honesty and intimacy, throwing out such deep ideas as “men learn to love the person that they’re attracted to and that women become more and more attracted to the person they love.”

The film opens with wholesome, southern housewife, Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell), expressing to her therapist (Ron Vawter) abut her growing despair over her marriage to John (Peter Gallagher), a slimeball who next to his lawyer day job, happens to also be “the second lowest form of human beings on the planet,” a liar. At the moment, John deeply involved in an affair with Ann’s loud, extroverted, bartending sister, Cynthia Bishop (Laura San Giacomo), who’s constantly at odds with Ann over their clashing personalities. Soon, all these dirty secrets and lies are to be exposed, thanks to the arrival of Graham Dalton (James Spader), John’s mysterious college friend who, after a nine-year hiatus, comes to stay with them (without Ann’s permission) while he’s looking for his own place. It turns out Graham has a quirky fetish to videotape women talking about their sex lives, but never engaging in sexual acts with his subjects. What exactly is at the root of Graham’s condition, and how will it affect the lives of Ann, John and Cynthia, who each have their own potential stories to tell?

Mining these most personal emotions, sex, lies, and videotape provides a wonderful stage for its four central actors to portray the complexities of their individual characters. MacDowell, a former model with small roles in such films as St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), would give an absolutely adorable performance in this, her first leading role, one that would open the door to future success in films like Groundhog Day (1993), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Michael (1996) (ironically, she’s now back into modeling for Neutrogena).

Giacomo and Gallagher, both unknowns at the time, also gained careers, the former landing roles in Pretty Woman (1990) and TV’s Just Shoot Me! (1997), the latter in American Beauty (1999) and TV’s The O.C. (2003). These actors no doubt benefited from their indie cred, MacDowell and Gallagher both appearing in Robert Altman’s similarly-styled Short Cuts (1993). But the film’s biggest revelation, however, was Spader, who shook loose from his teen movie phase (Pretty in Pink [1986]) to become one of the decade’s most solid dramatic stars, namely as Alan Shore in TV’s The Practice (1997) and Boston Legal (2004). Spader’s performance is definitely the most complex in sex, lies, and videotape, one of deep scars and good will that landed him the prestigious Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Even more impressive was the film’s victory in Cannes’ biggest category, the Palme d’or for Best Film, which went to Soderbergh, who also tied for that year’s FIPRESCI Prize. What a debut for Soderbergh, who had both brainstormed and cranked out this fabulous film in lightning pace, on a miniscule budget, yet took the time to get all the details right. His Oscar-nominated screenplay is captivating from start to finish, and expresses the freedom that comes from not being bound by chronology or real-time constraints.

Throughout the film, the script allows for overlapped narratives, where it’s normal for Ann’s therapist session to become the voice-over for images of John and Cynthia’s sexcapades. This approach also allows for economic transitions, like the sound of a doorbell before the bell-ringer even arrives on the front porch, as well as clever jumpcuts, like Cynthia asking a question to John, then cutting to Graham answering the same question from Ann. With such creative looseness, one can entirely imagine Soderbergh taking notes from Woody Allen, let’s say Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), as he includes a man having an affair with his wife’s sister, a camera circling a dinner table conversation and distanced compositions in common living spaces, allowing the actors to enter and exit the frame behind various walls and through various doorways.

Soderbergh seems entirely in tune with Allen’s idea of existential expression, that is to show an outside world that is much larger, and more constant, than the petty lives of its characters, an idea even Ann expresses in her constant comparison of her own life to such larger issues as the world’s expanding trash or starving kids in Ethiopia. But these distanced, often fixed camera set-ups also allow for fine sexual symbolism, the characters entering and exiting the openings of these doorways, or seperated by them as in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Combine this with clever mise-en-scene (placement of objects in the scene), and Soderbergh has himself a masterwork.

Note particularly the first time we see Ann visit her sister’s place. Ann and Cynthia are shot in different rooms, Ann in the living room, seperated by a large doorway into Cynthia’s room, where Cynthia dresses. In several carefully planned reaction shots, Soderbergh uses both rooms to contrast their respective characters — Cynthia’s immorality shown in a darker room of browns, oranges and blacks; Ann’s purity expressed in pure whites. Also, note Ann’s handling of a potted plant on the mantlepiece (a pot given to Cynthia by John before a sexual rendezvous), and the adjacent placement of a hanging plant (which John also gave to Cynthia, this time after kinkily using it to cover his private parts). In a shot from Cynthia’s room, we see the hanging plant alligning vertically with Cynthia’s bedpost (obvious sexual symbolism there), connecting the plant with the extra-marital sex, reinforced by Cynthia’s quote, “Ann, you don’t have a clue” (note that Ann brings Cynthia a similar potted plant at the end of the movie). To top off this entire scene, Cynthia whines about a lost pair of pearl earrings, an important detail that audiences should pick up on and logically see where it’s all going.

It’s this attention to detail, this staging of elements in a frame, that makes Soderbergh’s work special, but even then he shows that he can turn on a dime between this traditional, auteur style to that of cinema-verite, or documentary style, in moments of Graham’s sex interviews. As with Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and others before, Soderbergh provides keen insight on the fascination, and perversion, of human voyeurism. However, differentiating himself from these predecessors, Soderbergh speaks from a unique time period, that of a late ’80s, pre-Internet era obsessed with the new technology of camcorders. Why it is Graham feels he can better connect with these women over videotape than in real life is a real important subject of study, and can be helpful in explaining relationships in today’s multi-media, internet age, like so many instant messenging romeos rendered speechless in the real world.

In articulating these themes, and doing so with a compelling story and complex characters, Soderbergh became a worthy first for the indie gold rush of the ’90s, one that saw the likes of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Kevin Smith (Clerks). As the wave took off, Soderbergh himself continued to do indie-style films — King of the Hill (1993), The Limey (1999) — as well as mainstream blockbusters — Erin Brockovich (2000), starring Julia Roberts, Traffic (2001), for which he finally won his Oscar, and Ocean’s Eleven (2002), his highest grossing to date, thanks to the crew of Clooney, Roberts, Damon and Pitt. But sex, lies and videotape may always be his most personal.

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