Debuts Blogathon: Steven Soderbergh – Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)

Debuts Blogathon

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.

Steven Soderbergh

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.”

Sex, Lies and Videotape PosterThe 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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeThe 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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeIn 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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeAs 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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeDeception (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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeIn 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.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeMuch 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.

Review – The Sessions

The human spirit is a quite remarkable thing; our innate ability to overcome great obstacles and keep smiling in the face of tragedy sets us apart.

Our greatest inspiration is often found from those with disabilities who overcome significant obstacles to achieve things they and we never thought possible.

The Sessions – “uplifting cinema without the schmaltz”

Acclaimed poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was paralyzed from the neck down as a child after contracting polio and as a result was forced to spend the vast majority of each day confined to an iron lung to help with his breathing. Whilst interviewing other disabled people about how they found having and enjoying sex, Mark came to fervently envy them and became determined to lose his virginity.

This is the set-up for Ben Lewin’s warmly touching true-life drama based on Mark’s physical and spiritual adventure and the impact it and he had on those around him. A committed Catholic, Mark (played by John Hawkes) first consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about the theological quandary this poses. Taking into account Mark’s circumstances, he concludes the Almighty would in all likelihood give him “a free pass on this one”.

The stage is set for Mark to hire professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). At first his fear and awkwardness is palpable, but as their sessions continue a tender bond develops between the two.

It’s a stone-cold fact that disability sells when it comes to awards season and it’s likely The Sessions will be recognised in the same way as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump before it.

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) employs the services of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions

That being said, not a cynical bone exists in the picture’s body. The largely excellent cast see to that, pulling back when histrionics could be reached for or emotional heartstrings pulled.

Given her strongest role in years, Hunt excels. It’s a brave, utterly believable performance of a person who comes to re-evaluate herself the closer she gets to Mark, whose article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate the film is based on.

After scaring the bejesus out of us with quietly menacing portraits of a drug-addicted killer and cult leader in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene respectively, Hawkes pulls a complete about-turn here as a man who gradually realises there’s nothing to be gained from punishing yourself for reasons beyond your control. His bright optimism hides a what-would-Jesus-say guilt and fear that erodes over time as he becomes more comfortable in his own skin.

Father (William H Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

Father Brendan (William H. Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

In addition, Macy is on fine form as the sincere priest who forms a genuine friendship with Mark, while Moon Bloodgood’s poker face portrayal of Mark’s carer Vera nicely contrasts his heart-on-sleeve demeanour.

The warm hues used by Lewin (a polio survivor himself) reflect the cosy nature of the film, while Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack stays the right side of manipulative.

In many ways Mark’s preoccupations with sex, fear and religion are no different to many sections of American society, and while Lewin ultimately sides with the sexually liberated Cheryl’s mantra that we should “stop thinking about it so much” he never once pokes fun at Mark’s hang-ups.

The kind of film where a smile and a tear are never too far away from each other, The Sessions is uplifting cinema without the schmaltz and for that it should be congratulated.