Wednesday, July 20, 2011

sex, lies, & videotape

Originally Written and Posted at on 5/20/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions

Though the world of independent films had been around for many years, it wasn't until the 80s is when there was really a new crop of young filmmakers who were making films that had something a small group of people can relate to that either can feature any kind of political or social commentary. While there were a notable few independent films in the 80s that did score commercial success, it was only for a brief period. Directors like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, John Sayles, Joel & Ethan Coen, Sam Raimi, and Gus Van Sant were making little films that relied on any kind of realism, even if it was offbeat and entertaining. Throughout that decade, there was the U.S. Film Festival that showed many of these new films and up-and-coming filmmakers and then, in 1989, everything changed all because of one little low-budget film that wouldn't just surprise the independent film world but would mark the new independent film revolution of the 1990s. That film was 1989's sex, lies, and videotape by Steven Soderbergh.

Born in Atlanta, GA in 1963, Soderbergh was just an up-and-coming filmmaker who made short films and did work on a concert film for the British prog-rock band Yes. Soderbergh was also crafting scripts for himself while trying to find money to fund his debut film, sex, lies, & videotape. The film was an exploration on sex as an impotent man visits an old college buddy, who is secretly having an affair with his wife's sister while his wife doesn't seem interested in sex at all. Set in the rural South, Soderbergh chooses a low-key world that is a complete contrast to what many films were looking like at the time. Starring James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo, sex, lies, & videotape is a true landmark film that would break American independent cinema to the mainstream.

Ann (Andie MacDowell) is a housewife from Baton Rouge who doesn't feel comfortable around her husband John (Peter Gallagher) when it comes to sex. While her therapist (Ron Vawter) tries to help her over her disinterest towards sex, Ann is more bothered by the arrival of John's old college friend Graham (James Spader) who is visiting. Instead, Graham is everything Ann didn't expect as they befriend each other though John is bothered by Graham's introverted persona. While Ann helps Graham find a house to live in, John fulfills his sexual frustrations by having an affair with Ann's younger sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is an artist.

Intrigued by Graham's confession that he's impotent and his disinterest towards physical sex, Ann helps him with finding a house while learning about a project he's doing where women talk about sex. Though Ann is freaked out by Graham's videotape project, she tells Cynthia about Graham as she makes a visit to his house and take part in the project. The result gives Cynthia more fulfillment much to John's frustration as she turns to Ann more about the experience leaving Ann to think that something is up with John's behavior. Ann turns to Graham where she takes part in his project leaving John baffled as his affair with Cynthia sours. John finds out about Graham's project leaving everyone wondering about the idea of sex.

While the movie is a sex film, it's an unconventional sex film since the film features no nudity but suggests the idea of nudity. The genius of the film is Steven Soderbergh who chooses to explore sex through characters who are often alienated by it or those who live it. In many ways, this film at that time shows an awareness of how in the era of AIDS, talking about sex has become more interesting than actually doing it. It's a very provocative piece as Soderbergh plays voyeur in exposing the lives of its central characters where their development shows how sex changes them. With a script that he wrote in two weeks, Soderbergh reveals the damage and openness of what sex does by giving the late 20-something and 30-year olds something that they can identify with. Another genius idea in Soderbergh's script is the dialogue which can come off as frank and humorous but the stuff that comes is very real and shows how awkward people can be when it comes to sex.

Soderbergh shows not just his strength in the writing but also in his unconventional style of directing. While there are the traditional zoom shots and camera angles, his approach is more to capture the emotions and trouble of the characters, especially a great zooming close-up of Laura San Giacomo having an orgasm after her meeting with Graham. Using the limits of $1.8 million budget that he had, Soderbergh doesn't give the film not just a nice, low budget feel but his approach of using real places, real office and locations gives the film a sense of freedom by shooting it in Louisiana instead of somewhere like Los Angeles.

Soderbergh's direction is complemented by the wonderfully grainy cinematography of Walt Lloyd who chooses to give the film a natural, grainy look of Baton Rouge suburbia without any sense of gloss or flashy lighting schemes. Even the look of the interior scenes from art director Joanne Schmidt and James Spader's then-wife/set designer Victoria Spader gives many of the film's interior look some nice, arty paintings for San Giacomo's characters and an array of plants. That look with James Ryder's costumes gives the film a very realistic feel. With Soderbergh doing the editing himself, he makes sure the film is nicely paced without being too slow in its 100-minute presentation. Giving the film a moody feel is former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez who presents a haunting score to convey the isolation that surrounds both Ann and Graham.

With some nice small performances from Ron Vawter as Ann’s therapist and Steven Brill as the comical barfly in the bar that Cynthia works, the film really focuses on its four main characters. Then-newcomer Laura San Giacomo gives an amazing, outgoing performance as Cynthia with her in-your-face attitude and frank talk about sex as Giacomo makes more than just a sexy young woman. Giacomo gives her intelligence and depth where she can stand up to the more introverted MacDowell while her character later develops into a woman who understands more about the pleasure of not just sex itself but talking about it. Peter Gallagher is the more traditional character as the self-centered, egomaniacal, yuppie lawyer. Gallagher shows his sexual frustration that can be understandable but doesn't make his character sympathetic by making John a guy who is really a jerk. When he sees the tape of Ann/Graham, we see Gallagher’s character fall apart as what he was in the beginning begins to crumble in a masterfully, executed performance.

While Andie MacDowell is not everyone's favorite actress, it's her performance in this film that shows why she's still working. MacDowell gives a naturally innocent performance early on in the film as this shy, timid woman with no interest for sex but as the character develops, we see more. MacDowell gives probably her best performance yet by making this woman confront her own ideas and thoughts on sex and marriage while seeing all the lies that she's surrounded by as she just goes out there.

The film's best performance easily goes to James Spader in what is probably at the time, his most complex and troubling performance to date. Prior to this film, Spader has been known as either a jerk in films like Endless Love, Pretty in Pink, and Less Than Zero. Here, Spader gives out his real breakthrough as Graham with his quiet, sensitive portrayal of a troubled man trying to discover himself through women talking about sex. Spader brings in great restraint and compassion as he carries great chemistry with MacDowell. In comparison to his other landmark indie-sex film characters like the sex-destruction obsessed James Ballard in David Cronenberg's Crash and the cold, compulsive E. Edward Grey in Steven Shainberg's Secretary, Graham is more interesting since he's trying to find an outlet for his sexual impotence from a human and emotional standpoint away from the lies that he lived in the past.

sex, lies, & videotape is a compelling yet entrancing adult drama from Steven Soderbergh. Audiences wanting a film that is very engaging about the idea of sex will see this as an engrossing and provocative piece that allows people to be engaged by its joys and flaws. For people interested in the work of Steven Soderbergh, this is definitely one of his best films and a great place to start with. In the end, sex, lies, & videotape is a superb film from Steven Soderbergh and company.

© thevoid99 2011

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