So once again we have survived.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

tn_sexliesrookies-indieSEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is a very divisive movie among copy editors who argue bitterly about its use of the Oxford comma in the title. The rest of us agree it’s a solid debut for writer-director Steve Soderbergh.

It’s a story with basically four characters. We’ve got Ann (GROUNDHOG DAY‘s Andie MacDowell), a somewhat troubled stay-at-home wife who opens the movie talking to her therapist (okay, I didn’t count him in the four) about her worries, about her husband not touching her, and about her belief that sex is overrated, not that big a deal.

Then we’ve got her husband John (STEP UP REVOLUTION‘s Peter Gallagher), a pure ’80s character because he’s a lawyer who wears suspenders and “just made junior partner” and he’s real proud of himself and a total douche.

And we’ve got Ann’s younger sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is much wilder than Ann and sort of rebels against her and also is fucking John.

Lastly we have Graham (CRASH‘s James Spader), an old friend of John’s who he hasn’t seen in nine years but he’s back in town and John is letting him stay at the house briefly while he tries to find an apartment. Graham is the individualistic non-conformist cowboy drifter loner artistic beatnik rebel who sweeps through their square lives and changes everything forever. And he does it merely by being a pervert who can’t get a hard-on and owns a Hi-8 camera.

Surprisingly he doesn’t ride into town on a motorcycle. He owns a car filled with a few meager belongings, and that’s it. At dinner with John and Ann he seems like a nice enough guy, but you can understand their trepidation when he philosophizes about how great his life is with only one key and if he gets an apartment he has to have two keys and he doesn’t want to make that compromise. Uh, buddy, maybe at least pretend to not be moving in permanently.

But actually he finds an apartment the very next day and is in fact a nice guy, which I guess was against type for Spader, who was only a few years out of being the asshole in teen movies. He’s sporting a Swayze-esque mullet, almost as much hair as head. It’s obvious that they’ve grown apart, they can’t really relate to each other like they used to, but when John talks about him being different he fixates on him wearing a black shirt, comparing him to an undertaker and stuff. The way he talks about him you’d think he came in wearing a full Marilyn Manson getup, but it’s just a nice button up, long sleeve shirt that he wears with blue jeans, he could never even pass for mildly goth-y. I don’t remember a time when a shirt like that was shocking or intimidating. It might be a little bit of the times this was made in, or a regional thing (it was filmed in Louisiana), but I think it’s mostly a reflection of what an uptight dipshit John is.

Well, I don't know about "comedy," but...
Well, I don’t know about “comedy,” but…

There’s a very simple story here, but to me it always stays interesting because the characters are so well defined. You want Ann to find a way to be happier and you want her husband to trip over his shoelaces and fall into a tiger pit. The whole cast gives topnotch performances, but I was most impressed by MacDowell. I generally find her likable, but I’ve never seen her as good as in this (only her third movie after GREYSTOKE and ST. ELMO’S FIRE). She’s a character who says so much about herself without actually saying it. When she’s talking to her therapist and she claims things are going pretty good it seems like she really does believe that, but we can tell that there’s more to it. Or when she comes back and talks about Graham having visited, her words are saying it’s nothing big but her voice is saying that she is smitten with this dude who is so different from her husband. Also, as much as she talks about not being interested in sex, the way she handles objects while talking to Graham about it seems to indicate otherwise.

Sometimes I suspect that the characters know things and just aren’t saying them. When Ann is visiting her sister she happens to pick up a small potted plant that we know John took out of his office to give to Cynthia as a gift. She kind of stares off into space and fondles it. You wonder if maybe she remembers this plant being in his office, and is getting ideas. But then she continues picking up other objects on the mantle, it seems to be an obsessive compulsive thing. Still, we can see the pieces of information coming together in her mind before she figures it out.

Cynthia should probly be hatable, she’s being such a despicable sister, but she’s funny. When she hears about Graham she wants to meet him, but he’s already moved out, so then she just shows up at his new apartment and introduces herself. It’s like she can sense that going after him would be punishment both for John and for Ann, so she can’t help but do it.

So here’s the thing about Graham. He admits that he hasn’t had sex in years because he can’t get an erection in the presence of another person. But he has somehow convinced various women to let him interview them about their sex lives and record it. And he sits around naked watching these videos, that’s how he gets off. So it’s pretty clear where this is going: sexually repressed Annie is gonna learn to let loose and also it’s gonna turn into How James Spader Got His Boner Back.

Once he records these he keeps them nicely organized in a box with the women’s names hand-written on the spines. And these tapes come to represent true honesty in the form of an object you can hold in your hand. When John finds out Ann has one he is outraged and he storms in and watches it by force. So the liar sits there and listens to the truth. One part of the truth is that his wife doesn’t know if she’s had an orgasm before. Wow, way to put in work, junior partner. Jesus.

I think it seemed kinda edgy at the time that “sex” was in the title, and it kinda surprised people that it isn’t particularly graphic. It’s more intimate. It does have some sex scenes, but as the character of Graham will attest it’s the closeups of women talking that are more sexually charged.

I like that her actual therapist (Ron Vawter) is so creepy looking that it makes it believable she’d be more open with Spader, even though she doesn’t know him very well. But also she turns the tables on him and makes it into an interview of him. I didn’t completely follow his backstory but it’s funny that the old him was a pathological liar and ruined everything. That was the guy that John was friends with and he doesn’t like him anymore now that he’s changed and wears a black shirt.

In the end John does not get run over by a bus or stung to death by a swarm of killer bees, but there is a very satisfying finale for him. 25 YEAR OLD INDIE DRAMA SPOILER. While he’s in his office talking to a friend about work being more important to him than marriage anyway the important client who he’s been rescheduling for the entire movie gives up and leaves. John talks a big game about work being important but the motherfucker never does any work.

The only thing that’s not slick about this is that when they’re talking on the phone the voice on the other side is not distorted, and it’s kinda weird. Otherwise there’s nothing that feels low-budget-first-timer-shooting-in-Baton-Rouge about it. Although it’s the more genre oriented Soderbergh movies like OUT OF SIGHT, HAYWIRE, THE LIMEY and OCEAN’S ELEVEN that are my favorites, this is definitely a precursor to his smaller movies that are often kind of improvisational and explorational, setting up some characters and relationships and seeing where they go. It also shows how great he is with actors, getting a career best performance out of MacDowell just like he would with Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT, among others. And just like how he taught George Clooney to stop nodding his head when he talks.

Soderbergh also was the editor of the film, and it shows. In the opening scene he gives us the audio of Ann talking to her therapist while contrasting her words with other revealing scenes such as her husband cheating on her. At the climax, when Ann goes to be recorded by Graham, Soderbergh skips ahead, only to show what she said when John starts watching the video, at which point it slides back to her filming it. Clever.

This is definitely a good one. But it’s easy to imagine a writer/director becoming a critical darling with a debut like this, then making a couple more that they don’t love as much and after a while quitting or just directing TV for hire. Clearly Soderbergh did much better than that. He was just getting started.

NOTES:

* Steven Brill, who has a really funny part as a dude who hangs out at the Bayou bar where Cynthia works, went on to write THE MIGHTY DUCKS and direct HEAVY WEIGHTS, LITTLE NICKY, WALK OF SHAME, etc.

* At the Cannes Film Festival this won the Palm d’Or, an award also won by BLACK ORPHEUS, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, BLOWUP, TAXI DRIVER, APOCALYPSE NOW, WILD AT HEART, BARTON FINK, PULP FICTION, RUSH HOUR 2 and THE TREE OF LIFE. Actually I might be mistaken about RUSH HOUR 2, I will have to research that. But the rest of them did win it, and that’s good company to be in.

* the same composer, cinematographer and casting director later worked on PUMP UP THE VOLUME, but it did not win the Palm d’Or

* this is the first score for Cliff Martinez, other than an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He would go on to score many films for Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others. Did you know he’s also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a former drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and played with Captain Beefheart, Lydia Lunch and The Dickies? No lie.

The box office success of SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is credited with raising the profile of independent cinema, kicking off the ’90s indie boom and the rise of Miramax. Obviously it introduced the world to Soderbergh, one of the best directors of the ’90s and 2000s. But in my opinion its true legacy is in creating a titling convention. This includes many TV movies, mini-series and documentaries (SPIES, LIES & NAKED THIGHS / PAWS, CLAWS & VIDEOTAPE / WIKILEAKS: WAR, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE / SEX, FOOTBALLERS AND VIDEOTAPE / CATHOUSE: SEX, GUYS AND VIDEOTAPE / VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP & VIDEOTAPE) but even more than that it has inspired decades worth of TV episode titles.

A selected titleography:

“Sex, Lies and Politics,” Ally McBeal, 1999
“Sex, Lies and Second Thoughts,” Ally McBeal, 2000
“Sharks, Lies and Videotape,” Baywatch, 1998
“Sex, Lies and Volleyball,” Beverly Hills, 90210, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Teenagers,” Blossom, 1991
“Sex, Lies and Mrs. Peterson,” Blossom, 1994
“Suspects, Lies & Videotape,” Bobby’s World, 1991
“Sex, Lies and Bad Hair Days,” Designing Women, 1993
“Dex, Lies, and Videotape,” Dexter, 2007
“Success, Lies and Videotape,” A Different World, 1990
“T-rex, Lies and Videotape,” Eek! the Cat, 1992
“Food, Lies and Videotape,” Family Matters, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Tortillas,” The Golden Palace, 1993
“Wrecks, Lies & Videotape,” Goof Troop, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Expedia.com,” Judging Amy, 1999
“Pets, Guys and Videotape,” Life Goes On, 1989
“Sex, Lies and Commercials,” Ned and Stacey, 1995
“Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes,” Northern Exposure, 1990
“Tess, Lies and Video Tape,” Roswell, 2000, also One Life to Live, 2008
“Hex, Lies, and No Video Tape,” Sabrina the Teenage Witch, 2001
“Zack, Lies & Videotape,” Saved by the Bell: The College Years, 1993
“Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes,” The Simpsons, 2008
“Sex, Lies and Video Date,” Spin City, 2002
“Spook, Lies and Videotape,” The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, 1996
“Shakes, Fries & Videotape,” Sweet Valley High, 1996
“Prom, Lies and Videotape,” Valerie, 1990
“Sex, Lies and Exercise Tape,” Who’s the Boss?, 1989
“Weapon X, Lies & Videotape,” X-Men, 1992

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2015 at 11:06 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

32 Responses to “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”

  1. Is it me or does PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE get suddenly mentioned a lot on here?

  2. The title is also all in lowercase on screen: sex, lies, and videotape

  3. The thing that really blew me away about s,l, & v was that a chronic masturbating creep was the hero of the story, and yet somehow it was a multiplex crowd-pleaser.

    I saw it in middle of the afternoon at a mall multiplex. As the norm with those showings, it was me and about 15 senior citizens, all of which seemed to really enjoy it.

    Take that in contrast to another Spader sex-creep movie — Crash. Again, I caught a matinée, again I was joined by the AARP discount set. But, the big difference was when the credits began to roll, I turned around to see a completely empty theater instead of smiling faces (yes, EVERYONE walked out of Crash except me).

    Ultimately, that’s what had me walking out of the theater really impressed. Soderbergh managed to take the “yuppies vs. creep” movie that was pretty hot around that time (Pacific Heights, Hand That Rocks the Cradle, etc.), completely subvert it, and do so in a manner that squares would root for the creep.

  4. CJ— The reach extended by PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE into modern pop culture is often either misunderstood or underestimated. It happens.

    The first time I saw SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, I immediately knew where the character of Graham was coming from. He can’t easily be dismissed as just a perv, and for all practical purposes he really isn’t one. He’s basically a normal guy who comes across as a full-on weirdo, which I think is evidenced by the fact that he’s quite relaxed about his peculiarity and makes no attempts to mask it.

    I did quite like how after Ann visits him at his new apartment and leaves all flustered, and then phones her sister Cynthia when she gets home, and the sis asks her “Is he dangerous?”, to which she replies “No, not *physically*”. That’s Graham to a T: whatever he was before, he’s now scanning the horizon for the truth to an extent that’s unsettling to others.

    One thing that’s left hanging has always puzzled me: Elizabeth, Graham’s old flame from college, the character we hear about but never meet. I got the impression that in college Graham was much the same type of smarmy, womanizing asshole John was [and still is], but that this Elizabeth did such a number on him that his whole personality took a 90 degree turn. Maybe the Elizabeth character ended up on the cutting room floor, but more likely Soderbergh just skimmed over it, intending it as a plot device and nothing more.

    Great movie, intelligent without being pretentious, and one that has aged quite well. Supposedly Soderbergh wrote the screenplay in just ten days during a trip to Los Angeles, and for him to blast through it that quickly makes me think its origins were autobiographical. The question then becomes: who was his surrogate character, John or Graham?

  5. Unfortunately I think “Spies, Lies and Naked Thighs” definitely predates this – I actually remember being a young teenager and wondering if the Soderbergh film’s title was a reference to the Ed Begley Jr. movie…

  6. Vern, Don’t forget that Laura San Giacomo was a regular in Disney’s best-animated-superhero-cartoon-ever, GARGOYLES (1990s). For some reason, she remained uncredited.

  7. “it’s easy to imagine a writer/director becoming a critical darling with a debut like this, then making a couple more that they don’t love as much and after a while quitting or just directing TV for hire. Clearly Soderbergh did much better than that. He was just getting started.”

    Yes and no. Soderbergh actually did follow sl&v with “a couple more that they don’t love as much”. His next few films – KAFKA, KING OF THE HILL (no relation to the propane-fueled TV series) and THE UNDERNEATH – apparently sank without trace, and he did direct a couple episodes of a Showtime series called FALLEN ANGELS during that time.

    So for a while he was the archetypal Orson Welles type who couldn’t live up to his strong debut. It was OUT OF SIGHT that finally put him on his feet. He went from strength to strength after that, it took him a while to get there.

    I know all this only from reading a book of interviews with Soderbergh. I’ve actually seen only two of his movies, and they’re both from his in-between fringe period – GRAY’S ANATOMY, a Spalding Gray monologue movie that theoretically could have been directed by anyone; and SCHIZOPOLIS, the no-budget goof that he made to get his mojo back. I really must watch his other films – apparently they’re quite good…

  8. And he did famously announce his intention to quit and/or move to TV.

  9. Curt, both KAFKA and KING OF THE HILL are fantastic and underrated films. Thanks for bringing them up.

  10. jojo – I had the same experience when I went to see ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO, there were a bunch of old people, what’s up with that? Are all old people secretly dirty?

  11. Are all old people secretly dirty?

    Ha! Not exactly.
    Retirees have nothing but free time. Add to that, a matinée ticket + the senior discount means they get into a movie for like $2. Because of this, they watch anything and everything at the multiplex. Whatever happens to be starting when they show up to the theater, they don’t care.

  12. Old people now were in their heydays in the late 60s, early 70s. I think it’s pretty condescending to assume that our generation’s tame-ass attempts at raunch are all that shocking to them.

  13. I think he was saying that when you go see a move called Zach and Miri Make a Porno, one really doesn’t expect to be watching it in a theater full of senior citizens. Not condescending, merely odd.

  14. Yeah, but why is it considered odd? Every living cast and crew member of DEEP THROAT is a senior citizen now. I’m just pointing out that we tend to make a lot of assumptions about old folks that disregard the fact that they lived through some pretty decent decades. We still think of them as pearls-clutching 50s housewives, but some of these people did blow at Studio 54 and fucked in the mud at Woodstock. A lot of them probably lament how tame and sex-averse cinema has become in the last 30 years and might jump at the chance to see anything the least bit risqué on the big screen. And if they can do it at a discount, even better.

    I also rush to shoot down all those lame “The Expendables are older now than they used to be which means that they are an abomination and should hide their wrinkled forms from sight” jokes that pop up every time Sly or Arnold do anything. I guess I plan to get old someday and I hope to be treated as an individual with his own tastes and capabilities, not as the Platonic ideal of what a young person thinks an old person should be.

  15. But if you’re saying it’s odd that that many senior citizens went to see a Kevin Smith movie, yeah, that makes total sense.

  16. Please replace “decent” with “decadent” in my previous post. Kind of a load-bearing word in my opinion.

  17. The term “dirty old man’ exists for a reason.’Stag’ movies from the ’30s look suspiciously like the ‘porno’ flicks of today (they feature people fucking). This big ball keeps spinning…

    Still, when you go and see a Kevin Smith movie called “Zach and Miri Make a Porno” you don’t expect a theater full of senior citizens. You also don’t propose watching “White Bun Busters” with your grandmother.

  18. A couple of times that I’ve been to my local indie theater, there have been older people there. I think in that case there are people who just go no matter what’s playing (because of their membership perks). I do wonder if some of them went to see NYMPHOMANIAC when it was playing.

  19. Weirdest matinee full of senior citizens experience for me? Eyes Wide Shut.

    Also, what’s incredible to me about the ‘blank, blank, and blank’ title construct is that Ally McBeal and Blossom did it twice. That is somehow weirder to me than, for instance, kids’ cartoons using the device.

  20. My grandmother went religiously to the cinema on her own every Saturday and watched whatever was on, even if she saw the same movie twice. She told me about the rare time she took my granddad to the movies, and they ended up seeing CALIGULA, thinking it would be an historical sword and sandals movie (which it was, it just happened to be the softcore porn version from the makers of Penthouse magazine). She said my pop became visibly upset once it became clear what they were watching, and she had to take him home. She then went back the following week and watched it on her own. Horses for courses.

  21. In my experience, the upside of going to a matinee showing is that due to the preponderance of senior citizens in the audience, you’re gonna have a relatively quiet theatre. Unlike people of high school age or younger, they don’t talk over the movie.

    About ten years ago, I saw the first Sin City movie at a matinee. Fuckin’ loved it, particularly the sequences with Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis. As the credits rolled and the lights went up, I noticed a gentleman of about 60 standing up in the row in front of me. He had an unruly mustache, was wearing a mesh cap and a checkered flannel shirt, and looked righteously pissed. One glance told me he was most likely a “hick” or “redneck” or “good ol’ boy”, to use the parlance of our times.

    To no one in particular, he angrily exclaimed “What the HELL was that?!!”. Evidently Bubba or Scooter or whatever his name was expected a normally structured movie, and not the mindscrambler that just assailed him. I said nothing in return, but did think to myself: “Guess what, hoss?… you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. It’s 2005, not 1995. You have more reference points than just print media reviews, Siskel & Ebert, and word of mouth. You have the resources of the entire Internet at your disposal, and yet you don’t bother doing a little recon about the movie you’re about to go see? Dunce.”

    I never saw Bubba/Scooter again, but I hope he learned from his pitiful, flagrant error.

  22. I once saw an old guy in an afternoon screening of CUBE and I thought it was pretty cool that someone his age decided to check out that kind of random movie. (It got a very limited release without any commercials over here, two or three years after it ran in the rest of the world, so whatever made him watch it, it was cool to see someone like him there.)

  23. When I went to see WOLF CREEK there were a bunch of older folks in the row in front of me. There was a trailer for a horror movie beforehand, after which one of them gasped “Oh, I couldn’t see that. I really don’t like scary movies.” and they all nodded in agreement. That movie doesn’t turn into full-on horror for at least a half an hour, so I was sitting there wondering when the penny would drop for them. To their credit, they stayed for the entire movie.

    I used to go to a small independent cinema and it didn’t matter what was playing, Miyazaki or Miike, there was almost always a huge range of ages. That was pretty cool.

  24. flyingguillotine

    March 26th, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    The best thing about this era is, for a brief period of time, the idea that watching indie cinema was a cool thing to do bled into the mainstream. Thus, I was able to get some dudes who ordinarily couldn’t be bothered with movies unless Seagal or Van Damme were in them (no offense, Mr. V) to sit down in front of movies like this.

    Though it didn’t hurt that I could dangle the possibility that hot chicks might get naked, because these were still the days before the Internet was a real thing.

  25. Mr. Majestyk – considering I also live in a primarily conservative Christian town in Georgia, that made it doubly odd to see a group of old people at a movie where real life pornstar Katie Morgan spends a not insignificant amount of time wearing nothing at all, not to mention Jason Mewes walking around with dick and balls dangling.

  26. What I want to see is all these actors, and the director, come together to make a follow up movie, 25-30 years later.

    Like “Before Sunrise” … “Before Sunset”

  27. Sex, Lies and iphones?

  28. ;-)

    Enlarged prostate, Hearing aids, and Bittorrent

  29. That list just keeps growing. Last night’s episode of Black-ish was called Sex, Lies and Vasectomies.

  30. Here’s another bit of trivia: The first film Soderbergh directed was a concert film for YES, 9012 LIVE and I believe he used some of the money he made from it to help fund some of his later work. I’ve seen it on Netflix and it’s not bad for what it is but the audio was very mono which is strange for a professional release at that time.

  31. The Original Paul

    April 3rd, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Poeface – thanks for that story. After a hard day at work (on Easter Friday no less), coming home and reading that kinda made my day.

  32. Cheers Paul. My Gran was a funny woman. Super composed and conservative on the outside, but with a broad mind when it came to movies. When I was ten, she took me and my younger sisters to see AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The same year she took me and my cousin to see FIRST BLOOD, then afterwards explained to us what Stallone said in his powerful monologue at the end of the film, partly because we couldn’t understand his mumbling, mostly because we didn’t know much about Vietnam. It was fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.

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