The Film: 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' (1989), Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: James Spader, Andie McDowell, Peter Gallagher, Peter Gallagher's eyebrows and Laura San Giacomo.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: You see, I had my friend's birthday party and then I had to pick my mom up from the airport and I was really, really tired and I had work the next morning and I really can't afford to rent movies right now because my cat got sick and I had this huuuge vet bill and ... Okay, you got me: because I'm lazy.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: James Spader is a psychiatrist on the edge. Andie McDowell is his troubled patient with a dark past who traps him a web of lies and deceit. Peter Gallagher is her distressed, potentially psychotic ex-husband who is convinced she's sleeping with her shrink and sets up an elaborate plot to ruin them both. Sex occurs. Lying happens. Some one may or may not be videotaping something or another. All of that before the meteor hits New York City...
If you were wondering how long I could pretend to know anything at all about 'Sex, Lies and Videotape,' the answer is about seventy eight words. In fact, this will be the first column since 'Julia' where I sit down to watch the film at hand knowing absolutely nothing about the plot. In my mind, the title alone conjures up images of darkly lit psychiatrist's offices and troubled people exchanging lies through gritted teeth, but I'm certain I'm completely wrong and will stop this fruitless speculation before I truly embarrass myself.
But how could I not know anything about the plot of 'Sex, Lies and Videotape'? It's one of the most important films of the past twenty years, single-handedly launching the independent film boom of the 1990s and putting its director, the one and only jack of all genres Steven Soderbergh, on the map. How could I possibly know so much about a film's reputation but know nothing about the actual content of the film? Is this potentially a sign that, despite its undeniable impact on the industry, the film hasn't aged well? That the film shook things up, opened a lot of doors and simply vanished under a tidal wave of superior films, including Soderbergh's later work?
The more likely answer probably involves me watching 'Back to the Future' or 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' for the nth time rather than catch up on vital, important movies, but surely I should know something, anything, about this film, especially considering that I watch a lot of movies, talk about a lot of movies and write about movies for a living.
But as I say in the opening spiel to this column every week: "You may laugh at me, you may condemn me, but you will never say I didn't try!" So go ahead and laugh and condemn. I'll just have to keep on trying.
Post-Viewing Reaction: James Spader is a drifter with an unusual fetish for recording women discuss their sexual experiences. Andie McDowell is his friend's wife, who can't find herself remotely interested in sex. Peter Gallagher is her husband, who is having an affair with her sister. These characters' lives collide, send their very existences into turmoil. Sex does occur, but not in the way you'd expect. Plenty of lying does happen. Plenty of stuff gets videotaped. A meteor does not hit New York City.
In my defense, the movie does feature a psychiatrist's office, albeit briefly.
It should go without saying that 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' is a fine film. Well paced, well acted and brilliantly written, it's funny, slightly twisted and ultimately, emotionally fulfilling. But here's the tricky part -- how does it measure up to its reputation as one of the most important independent films ever made?
The quick answer is that it doesn't, but let's face it, how could it? How many classic films truly live up to their reputations? It's easy to imagine a modern viewer feeling letdown by their first viewing of, oh, let's say 'Casablanca.' Decades of hyperbole have done that film no favors whatsoever and while it remains one of the most romantic and bittersweet movies ever made, the legends that surround it have threatened to dampen the impact. Sadly, I've seen more than one person react to 'Casablanca' with a shrug and a apathetic "That's it?"
Not to directly compare the qualities 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' to 'Casablanca' (you really couldn't find two more different films with different spheres of influence), but if one were to put the movie on, dutifully expecting it to be A Great Motion Picture Of Astounding Importance simply because it inspired an entire generation of filmmakers, they'd surely find some disappointment. It's a rule in any art form: those that start the trend can't help but get buried by their successors, who take their framework and refine it, transform it and perfect it. 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' is an exceptionally good film and should be treated as such, but it should be viewed on its own, with its reputation and influence viewed as a separate phenomena.
It's easy to see how this film spurred on the Sundance boom of the 1990s. A small cast (only four key characters), minimal sets and locations, no major, expensive set pieces and a talky, character-driven script, yet the whole thing is just as enthralling as a big budget studio product. The low budget rears its ugly head at times (particularly in some of the flat, dull lighting), but the film consistently draws our attention to the characters, each of them fascinating, and their dialogue, either funny, poignant or both. 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' is a story boiled down to its absolute essence: characters in rooms, talking to one another. It's so simple, that it could easily be adapted into a stage play.
It's fascinating to note that the film that spurred on an entire movement did so by essentially "regressing" what film had become, scaling back, simplifying and removing the action and scope that formed the dividing line between screen and stage. What Soderbergh realized was that a great story, outside of the ten bucks you spend on pen and paper, costs absolutely nothing. Imagination and inspiration are free.
Ah, Soderbergh. This is the film that brought us Steven Soderbergh, who would go on to direct 'Out of Sight,' 'Ocean's 11,' 'The Limey,' 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Traffic,' 'Solaris,' 'Che' and 'The Informant,' a resume so filled with variety that boggles the brain. It's difficult to say what film history will have to say about his work. He doesn't have the clout of a Steven Spielberg, the consistent personal themes of a Martin Scorsese or even the rabid modern following of a David Fincher. What he does have, though, is a keen understanding of what makes a story work and the willingness to bend or break that understanding, to play with form and style and to always be trying something new and exciting and different. Sometimes, it's best to approach a Soderbergh movie not as an experience intended for you, but as an experience intended for him. When you watch one of his movies, you are watching him play in his sandbox, trying to see what he can get away with, what he can break and what he can create.
That experimentation runs through the veins of 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' in its rejection of melodrama and Hollywood theatrics. It's a mature story, well told and with no compromises. Now that's revolutionary.
(For a longtime fan's perspective on the same film, check out Todd Gilchrist's recent piece right here!)
Next Week's Column: This time next week, I'll have filled one of my all-time most shameful movie gaps -- I'll have watched the classic 'On the Waterfront.' While I do that, you can vote for what I will watch next, choosing from the selection below and letting me know your choice in the comments section.
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'Return to Oz'
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'