Debuts Blogathon: Steven Soderbergh – Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)
It’s the final day of the Debuts Blogathon; and what a great Blogathon it’s been. When we first proposed the idea; Chris and I never guessed we’d get such a brilliant response. The diversity and quality of the entries we’ve received has been what’s made this such a fun feature to put together. I’ve learned a lot and look forward to revisiting some old classics and adding others to my watch list. I hope you have to. Thanks so much to Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop for being my partner on this venture; I couldn’t have put this together without him. Thanks also to all the brilliant contributors whose insightful and passionate entries have made this Blogathon so great. Finally, thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to follow the Blogathon; I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. Here we go, the last entry and it’s my take on Steven Soderbergh’s debut Sex, Lies And Videotape.
Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)
Stepping up to accept the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival for his debut feature Sex, Lies And Videotape – at 26, the youngest director ever to do so – a bewildered Steven Soderbergh was heard to say: “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.”
The weight of such an achievement could easily ruin a career, but not Soderbergh. Since that heady day on the French Riviera, he’s made some clangers, but some inspired, important works of cinema too and, as he (supposedly) folds up his director’s chair for good he can reflect on a filmography many others would give their right arm for.
Written in eight days and filmed for a budget of $1.2m, Sex, Lies And Videotape has been credited with helping to usher in the explosion of the new American independent film movement of the 1990s. The film was distributed by Miramax and made almost $25m at the box office. Suddenly, indies were no longer the preserve of the arthouse crowd; they were for everyone.
The title of the film helped to turn heads, of course. One might almost think it was a working title as it’s so self-explanatory. The plot is equally straightforward – unhappy, sexually uptight housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) is married to conceited lawyer John (Peter Gallagher), who’s having an affair with Ann’s extroverted sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). The cat is thrown among the pigeons with the arrival of John’s old school friend, the shy, eccentric Graham (James Spader), whose only cure for impotence is to watch back videotaped interviews he’s carried out with women talking about their sexual experiences.
In lesser hands such a premise could be a recipe for exploitative disaster, but what lifts Sex, Lies And Videotape into the realms of great cinema are two things – the script and performances.
Soderbergh lives up to the frankness of the title with raw, unflinching dialogue that fizzes and crackles when spoken by the superb cast. MacDowell was never better as the prissy Ann, who talks about First World problems to her shrink and is seemingly destined to allow John to walk over her until she’s woken out of her stupor by Graham. Gallagher and Giancomo (an actress who’s deserved a brighter career) are both great, but it’s Spader who really stands out. His big breakthrough, Spader took Best Actor at Cannes alongside Soderbergh’s triumph and it’s easy to see why; the emotional honesty and depth he brings to the repressed Graham is startling.
As the title implies, at its dark, chastened heart this is a film about deception. In one nicely observed moment, as John is rearranging a business meeting to be with Cynthia, the camera slowly moves pulls a 180° until it comes to rest on a picture sitting on his desk of a smiling Ann. Soderbergh makes the point more cleverly by running one scene into the next while still having the end of a conversation play out over the new scene. These conversations invariably undercut what we’re watching and underline the lies these characters trade in without fear of being exposed.
Deception (and self-deception) is a theme Soderbergh has returned to time and again throughout his oeuvre. His Ocean’s trilogy features characters who deceive for a living; the eponymous Erin Brockovich tries to expose corporate secrets that have led to the residents of a small town suffering chronic medical problems; the lies spoken by those in and around the drug trade are explored in Traffic; George Clooney’s psychologist/astronaut chooses to believe in a lie in Solaris; Matt Damon’s whistleblower employee gets a taste of his own medicine in The Informant! and Liberace (Michael Douglas) keeps his homosexuality under wraps in Behind The Candelabra.
In an interview, Soderbergh spoke of his fascination with deception: “I’m fascinated by lying, If you walk around all day every day, telling the truth about every situation you encountered, to everyone you encountered, someone will eventually kill you. It’s just a matter of where the line is for you in lying.”
If Soderbergh is anything he’s reliably unreliable when it comes to his output. After Sex, Lies And Videotape, he suffered a fallow period commercially, making curios like the noirish The Underneath (1995) and Schizopolis (1996), which made peanuts. It wasn’t until 1998’s Out Of Sight that he got noticed by the wider world again, a film that paved the way for his style-over-substance Ocean’s trilogy. In between he veered between the brilliant (Traffic (2000), which deservedly bagged him a Best Director Oscar; the hugely underrated Solaris (2002); his two-part 2008 biopic of Che) and the not-so-good (2006’s The Good German; The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which starred porn actress Sasha Grey). For every glossy studio picture there’s been a low-budget project, broadly described as a ‘one for them, one for me’ approach.
Much like Tarantino, music is extremely important in Soderbergh’s films. While QT prefers the jukebox approach of adopting pre-recorded music, Soderbergh uses musical score, supplied in many of his films by composer par excellence Cliff Martinez. Martinez’s score for Sex, Lies And Videotape (his debut score) is one of the film’s great strengths; it’s experimental, ‘indie’ aesthetic fits the film like a glove and created a trend that many scores aped over the following decade.
In a lot of ways, Graham is Soderbergh, a man with a movie camera looking for some kind of truth. Graham eventually destroys his camera, which Soderbergh has done (metaphorically speaking at least) by turning his back on filmmaking out of disillusionment with a Hollywood system that could fire him from the Brad Pitt-starring Moneyball a week before the cameras started to roll.
Any time away from the camera for this most gifted and adventurous of filmmakers is our loss. The promise he showed with Sex, Lies And Videotape almost 25 years ago has been realised enough times to make us wish for it once more.
Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Chris delivers his brilliant assessment of Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 debut Fear And Desire. To read the other entries in the Blogathon, click here.