Tuesday, March 19, 2013

sex, lies, and videotape Movie Review

Though this was the second time I’ve seen sex, lies, and videotape, it really felt like the first. The first time I saw it (probably in college or maybe even high school) I thought it was a little dull and unmemorable. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Sundance Audience Award winner? Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner? But then priorities and taste change and suddenly a character-driven drama filmed on a low budget about a man (Peter Gallagher) cheating on his wife (Andie MacDowell) with her sister (Laura San Giacomo) and the old friend (James Spader) who comes to visit and, with his eccentric personality, serves as a catalyst for change is a lot more interesting. Maybe when I was a teenager I was hoping for a lot more out of the sex part of the title. There’s plenty of sex talk, but not a lot of flesh. Like I said, priorities change.

There’s not a lot that remains truly remarkable about Steven Soderbergh’s debut indie except that it has remained truly timeless and almost ageless (the fashions are recognizably of the period) and has a really damn fine script, in spite of the weaknesses Soderbergh points out in his commentary track. If anything, the subject matter at hand has become only more significant with the passage of time. In 1989 many people had video cameras and some even used them on a regular basis to record all kinds of minutiae of daily life. But once the bulky and unwieldy VHS recorders gave way to digital camcorders and now finally to high resolution smart phones, there is hardly a person in the developed world without the ability to record video at a given moment.

Graham’s (Spader) intrusions into the deep recesses of women’s minds, his probing of their sexual histories and proclivities in video-recorded interviews probably felt like a powerful statement to be made in a film in 1989. It might be far less ground breaking today, but still just as astutely observant of our society now as it was then. We video everything these days and some people shoot video of very private moments and post them on social media for public consumption without considering the consequences. Think about how different this movie could also be taken if made today. In 1989, the only concern about the videos Graham makes is that some old guy in some other country could be getting off to it. Today it could be broadcast worldwide in a second.

Soderbergh’s film can also be read in one sense as a commentary on filmmaking itself. A film asks actors to expose themselves (emotionally and sometimes physically – especially women) before the camera for mass consumption of entertainment. Graham’s lens puts a distance between himself and his subjects, disarming them to the point of total release of inhibitions. His dulcet, monotonous, and non-threatening questions and presence give the impression of security – a lot like a movie director. But Graham is not the bad guy. It’s easy to paint him as sick, deranged, bizarre, or creepy, but he’s perhaps the only completely honest character in a story that features three others who all routinely lie to or deceive one another in some form. And Graham is supposed to be the compulsive liar!

What makes the movie work is its pure simplicity. A man cheats on his wife with her sister. Ana, the wife, is sexually reticent, or prude, depending on your point of view. Graham comes in and spurs her to think in a new way and helps open her eyes to the lies that have gone on under her nose. I’m not sure I entirely buy the ending. She makes a decision to alter the course of her life after discovering her husband’s affair and the identity of the mistress that is a shade outside her character. I understand what Soderbergh is trying to suggest about her journey of self-discovery, but I’m not sure he earns it.

sex, lies, and videotape is well known as the indie film that ushered in the early 90s era of indie filmmaking. You can see all the hallmarks of that set and the influence on directors – Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Hal Hartley – who emerged in the film’s wake. Without Soderbergh, maybe we don’t get any of those directors – or at least their movies would have looked and sounded a lot different. He made it possible to make a cheap movie that looks twice as expensive as it is and demonstrated that you don’t need a big budget to tell a good story. Independent filmmakers are still reaping the rewards Soderbergh sowed for them 24 years ago.

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