“Did he touch you?”
“Did you touch him?”
“Did anybody touch anybody?”
An adult film from the king of independent filmmakers, sex, lies, and videotape gives an intimate look at how the three components of its title come to play in the lives of four very dysfunctional people.
It’s rather odd, this reviewing gig. I mean, most film reviewers get one crack at a movie, when it is initially released to the theatres. Me, I get to review films on DVD, where they can show up decades after their theatrical release in a timeless format. Certainly preferable, from my point of view. However, it introduces a few wrinkles of its own. How do you write up a movie that people have had eleven years to watch and analyze? Do you write to those who have seen it, and are considering buying the DVD, or do you write for those who have not seen the movie? It’s the latter group to whom I am writing this review, because, like you will eventually (if I have anything to say about it), I only recently discovered sex, lies, and videotape.
1989 was a big, big year for movies. It had several phenomenal blockbusters, like Batman and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Disney had their breakout return to form with their animated films with The Little Mermaid. James Cameron gave us what will probably always be his best film: The Abyss. Iconic, modern-day classics abounded, like Field Of Dreams, When Harry Met Sally…, Heathers, Say Anything…, and Dead Poet’s Society. The great directors made some of their best films: Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July, Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Perhaps the only year to rival it was 1999. Does that mean we have to wait until 2009 for another outstanding film year?
Into the thick of that fantastic year came the directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh: sex, lies, and videotape (yes, the title is supposed to be in all lowercase). It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned three awards, including the Palme d’Or. Its $24.7 million box office take in the United States paled in comparison to Batman‘s $251 million, but was remarkable considering it was a $1.2 million budgeted arthouse film. Independent films did not have the cachet that they have now, but sex, lies, and videotape was a milestone in that path, along with 1984’s Blood Simple, that would lead to the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and our era of the small movie hitting the big time. Sadly, though, it would be nine years before Soderbergh would capitalize upon the success of sex, lies, and videotape. In the interim he released several films — King Of The Hill, Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis — but they did not approach the critical or financial success of his debut. It was 1998’s Out Of Sight that would propel him into the rarefied air of directorial success. Despite its $48 million budget, it has the intimate feel of his lower-budget films and retains his effective, creative use of the camera (more about that when I get around to discussing sex, lies, and videotape). It was a hit with the critics, but failed to capture a significant financial return. However, it has allowed him to make more studio films with his independent sensibilities, such as The Limey (one of my picks for the best of 1999), Erin Brockovich, and the upcoming Traffic.
sex, lies, and videotape is the sort of film that makes lovers of the medium go ga-ga. It divides the casual movie viewer from the authentic film devotee. Your couch potato viewer is going to be disappointed that it never really delivers on the “sex” portion of the title. They’re going to groan that the story moves at a snail’s pace. And most odious of all: all the damn characters do is talk, talk, talk. These are the same people who went to Eyes Wide Shut expecting lots of steamy, naked sex featuring Tom Cruise, and were disappointed that there really wasn’t any.
sex, lies, and videotape is a character-driven drama revolving around four main characters: Ann (Andie MacDowell — Groundhog Day), John (Peter Gallagher — American Beauty), Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo — Pretty Woman), and Graham (James Spader — Stargate). Ann and John are rather unhappily married. Ann regularly sees a therapist to deal with her feelings of inadequacy and her sexual hang-ups. Meanwhile, John is shagging Cynthia, who happens to be Ann’s unrestrained, extroverted sister. The already tenuous relationships between these people are further complicated by the arrival of Graham. Graham was a good friend of John’s when the two were in college. However, in the nine years hence they have drifted apart. Graham and Ann strike up a friendship almost immediately…that is, until she learns about his “personal project.” Graham videotapes women talking about their sexual experiences. These videotaped confessions — including those of Ann and Cynthia — become the catalyst for the four people to face their inner demons and reevaluate their relationships.
The four leads are not actors that instantly strike me as the master thespians of our age, and yet here they bring unique strengths and gifts to their characters. Andie MacDowell has the stigma of being a former model to rise above. Too often she is cast as the second fiddle love interest (Green Card, Groundhog Day), and does not get the opportunity to show off the strength she brings to the screen. Ann is the emotional core of sex, lies, and videotape, a fragile woman who lives in the shadows of her sister and husband. From her looks and mannerisms, we can believe she would be the sort of woman who would be insecure enough to marry a man with a dubious relationship history. We are witness to her flowering as a woman coming into her own personality. sex, lies, and videotape was Laura San Giacomo’s screen debut. It was followed shortly by her strong supporting role in Pretty Woman and as the mentally unhinged love interest to Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under (a movie notable only for the screen-stealing performance of Alan Rickman in yet another of his creepy villain roles). Her career quickly nosedived into the realm of the low-budget and pathetic, with the exception of the sitcom “Just Shoot Me” (which I’ve watched infrequently because I keep hoping it will rise to the talent of its cast…but it never does). Watching the film, I can imagine that seeing it back in 1989 her performance would have been much more striking. She is the movie’s sexpot, a siren that irresistibly attracts men. The only problem is, if you look at her…well, unlike Andie MacDowell, you’ll never mistake her for an ex-model. This plays to the movie’s advantage, because it grounds it in reality. Face it — how many small-town lawyers in their early 30s have extramarital affairs with models? Not bloody many. I’ve always pegged Peter Gallagher as the nice guy, thanks to his role as the comatose love interest of Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping, but this movie made me realize just how many slimeballs he’s played, like the slimy movie producer in The Player or the slimy real estate salesman in American Beauty. Here, he plays a slimy lawyer as if there could be no other sort of lawyer. In fact, the movie refers to lawyers as the lowest form of life on the Earth. Gallagher plays the part to the hilt, making us believe that he really is the sort of man who could bang his wife’s sister, get offended when his wife asks if he’s having an affair, lie to her face, then nearly slap her when she says she was at another man’s house. He gives lawyers an even worse name, if that is possible. James Spader is the movie’s real find. He is the movie’s sanest and most balanced character, even if everyone else thinks he is a few fries short of a Happy Meal because of his videotape fetish. Spader approaches the character in a very nonverbal manner. Many of the thoughts that he expresses are not in what he says, but in the way he says them. It’s enough to make me forget that he was ever in a movie directed by Roland Emmerich, or that he bears a striking resemblance to Judge Reinhold.
Even in his debut feature, Steven Soderbergh shows the trademarks that would be demonstrated in his later films. Like many of my favorite filmmakers (Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher), he has a flair for visual storytelling. This is a small, intimate, talking-head picture, so there is not much in the way of set decoration or costuming to tell the story (according to his commentary, the budget for set decoration was $5000, and the wardrobe was bought off the rack at a local mall). He uses the camera and scene composition to tell the story. One of the most striking scenes is a dinner table conversation early in the film between Graham, Ann, and John. In commentaries on other discs, directors have often remarked that scenes like this are difficult to keep visually interesting. Soderbergh keeps the camera tight and close-up, often showing no more than one or two people at once. The camera moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, but is almost always in motion. The scene unfolds in long cuts, using two distinct cameras for most of the scene. One starts the shot, panning an arc around the table. The other is locked off, focused just over Graham’s shoulder pointed at Ann. We see much of the conversation from the point of view of the listener, seeing their reactions to what is said. The exception is John, who for much of the scene is kept off-screen. The emotional effect is that, without being explicitly told, we see the tenuously growing bond between Graham and Ann, and we see the dominant spirit of John. I’ll leave further analysis to you. A recurring scene during the movie is Ann visiting her therapist. The first time we see her talking with him, the camera is tightly bound to her face. We get a sense of her insecurity, her introverted nature, and her repressed sexuality. In subsequent scenes, the camera is looser, giving Ann more room. We get a sense that, as the scene opens up, she is opening up as well.
sex, lies, and videotape is an early DVD release from Columbia, hitting the shelves back in 1998. This does not make it a weak disc by any means, though considering Soderbergh’s recent success it would be a strong candidate for a reissue. The picture is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic. For a low-budget film, it looks excellent. The picture is sharp and has excellent color fidelity, though some indoor scenes are a little darker than they should be (a fault of the source, no doubt, considering most of it was filmed in practical locations, rather than sets, and was shot on a low budget). Minor digital noise is the only thing that marks it as an older transfer. Audio is presented both in two-channel Pro Logic and in four-channel Dolby Digital. Dolby Digital 4.0 is somewhat rare; Widescreen Review’s disc database lists around thirty discs that sport this sound configuration. It contains the same mix as Pro Logic, except the four channels are discrete rather than matrixed. Audio is focused on the center and front channels — entirely expected, considering this is a dialogue-centric drama.
Extras are somewhat sparse — a commentary track and theatrical trailer are all you get. However, what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. The commentary track features director Steven Soderbergh and Neil LaBute. LaBute is an independent filmmaker, one of those fortunate enough to follow in the footsteps of Soderbergh. He has directed In The Company Of Men, Your Friends And Neighbors, and Nurse Betty. Soderbergh and LaBute’s comments are balanced between serious film criticism and anecdotal conversation about their filmmaking experiences. It is a very entertaining track, one that I would quite easily place in a Top Ten list of great commentary tracks. The interaction between the talented filmmakers makes for a great pairing. I would love to see other DVDs do something similar — Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese discussing The Godfather, or Brian DePalma talking with one of the hundreds of directors he’s ripped off.
It may sound hypocritical to say, considering how I opened this review, but I was expecting a bit more skin. sex, lies, and videotape is a glowing example that eroticism can be generated without the gratuitous display of flesh. Sometimes it’s the movies that surprise you, that defy your expectations, that are the most satisfactory.
Film lovers, please, add sex, lies, and videotape to your collection. If your only exposure to Steven Soderbergh has been Erin Brockovich, by all means run out and rent this film. It’s a treat for the serious film lover.