Tue, 23 Oct 2018

sex, lies, and videotape

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: James Spader (Graham Dalton), Andie MacDowell (Ann Bishop Mullany), Peter Gallagher (John Mullany), Laura San Giacomo (Cynthia Patrice Bishop), Ron Vawter (Therapist), Steven Brill (Barfly), Alexandra Root (Girl on Tape), Earl T. Taylor (Landlord), David Foil (John's Colleague)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1989
Country: U.S.
sex, lies, and videotape Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
sex, lies, and videotape When talking about American independent cinema, there is before Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape and after. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, Soderbergh's debut feature, shot for just over $1.25 million when he was 26 years old and starring a quartet of recognizable, but young and hardly bankable actors, took audiences by storm. Its scandalous-sounding title intrigued viewers and drew them it, but it was ultimately Soderbergh's thoughtful and absorbing portrait of unconventional human relationships that kept them in their seats and talking about it afterwards.

When the film took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival several months later (the jury was headed by Wim Wenders), it marked the beginning of what would become a veritable flood of new American talent making personal films that stood in stark contrast to the prefabricated blockbuster cinema that Hollywood had all but perfected during the previous decade (the year that sex, lies, and videotape debuted, the top three films at the U.S. box office were Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2). It was, in many ways, like the early 1970s all over again, with names like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and the Coen Brothers suddenly dominating discussions of American film and taking home numerous international prizes (three of the next five winners of the Palm d'Or were American films: David Lynch's Wild at Heart in 1990, the Coens' Barton Fink in 1991, and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1994).

It was an auspicious beginning for Soderbergh, to be sure, even though it took him a while to find a balance between his outsider-artist predilections for highly personal filmmaking and the demands of staying relevant in the Hollywood game (his next four feature films, 1991's Kafka, 1993's King of the Hill, 1995's Underneath, and 1996's Schizopolis, didn't immediately connect with audiences and were considered disappointments). Nevertheless, sex, lies, and videotape marked the arrival of a bold new talent, made all the more impressive by the film's lack of self-consciously showy aesthetics, which so many independent debuts tend to wallow in (as Soderbergh has put it, it's hard to resist putting all your tricks into your first film because you don't know if you'll ever get to make another). In this regard, sex, lies is a film of great restraint, with Soderbergh and cinematographer Walt Lloyd (who also shot Kafka) maintaining a simple and direct visual aesthetic to compliment the economically scaled nature of the storyline (one could easily imagine it as a stage play) and the power of the film's four central performances.

Each of the four main characters, all of whom are in their early 30s, has roughly equal narrative weight, so there is no one protagonist on which we can fixate. Rather, Soderbergh spreads our attention around, which emphasizes the interconnections among the characters, each of whom has his or her own unique hang-ups and problems. James Spader's Graham Dalton is the catalyst character, the one who enters the lives of the others and upsets the tenuous balance of their lives (the fact that said tenuous balance is based entirely on lies suggests that it needed to be upset). Graham is an old college friend of John Mullany (Peter Gallagher), a successful lawyer and general cad who is engaged in a torrid affair with Cynthia Bishop (Laura San Giacomo), the younger sister of his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell). Ann and Cynthia couldn't be any more different: Whereas Ann is reserved, quiet, and, one might say, repressed, Cynthia is extroverted, loud, and hypersexualized. John is essentially torn between them, wanting to have his cake and eat it, too: He clearly enjoys the stability and domesticity that Ann supplies (he made her quit his job and stay at home even though they have no children), but he also desires the unrestrained carnality that Cynthia has in spades.

Graham is something of an enigma. Arriving in a beat-up convertible with everything he owns packed in the trunk, he is an independent spirit who doesn't want to be tied down ("I only want to have one key," he says). Yet, as Soderbergh eventually shows, his supposed freedom is really its own trap because he is incapable of forming healthy relationships. This is partially because, as he freely admits to Ann, he is impotent in the presence of others, but Spader's off-beat performance (which won him the actor's prize at Cannes) hints at a fundamental disconnect, which he tries to bridge by videotaping women talking about their sexuality. This provides him with the sexual release he cannot attain in the presence of another, but it also allows him to connect intimately with his "subjects" as he gently interrogates their history, preferences, fantasies, and so on; their confessional, rather than physical, openness is his turn-on. The fact that the connection is inherently limited, with its memory being encased on magnetic tape, underscores Graham's solitude in the world.

Soderbergh handles the intricacies and complications of the characters masterfully. Despite their issues, each character comes across as fundamentally human, and even if we can't imagine being in their shoes, we can understand on some level why they are the way they are. Introduced spinning his wedding ring on the desk in his massive office, John is clearly a Reagan-era "Master of the Universe" stripped down to his narcissistic bones, while Ann reminds us that social niceties and a gentle nature are often just the surface masking of deep insecurity. And, while we might shake our heads in disgust that Cynthia would sleep with her sister's husband, it is hard not to feel compelled by her passions and her undiluted acceptance of her own nature. The same can be said for Graham, who strives at all times to be "honest," partially as a means of making up for his past transgressions. Soderbergh weaves the lives of these characters together in consistently fascinating ways, binding scenes together with overlapping dialogue and visual matches that remind us of the power of emotional interconnections, even those of which we're not entirely aware.

sex, lies, and videotape Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish, French
Supplements
  • Audio commentary from 1998 featuring Soderbergh in conversation with filmmaker Neil LaBute
  • New introduction by Soderbergh
  • Interviews with Soderbergh from 1990 and 1992
  • New documentary about the making of the film, featuring actors Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo
  • Interview from 1989 with actor James Spader
  • New conversation between sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez
  • Deleted scene with commentary by Soderbergh
  • Demonstration of sound restorations through the years
  • Trailers
  • essay by critic Amy Taubin and (Blu-ray only) excerpts from Soderbergh's 1990 book about the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJuly 17, 2018

    COMMENTS
    Criterion's new director-approved high-definition transfer of sex, lies, and videotape was scanned in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored. The resulting image is extremely clean and an excellent representation of the film's relatively subdued look (bearing in mind that this was a low-budget independent film). Colors are fairly muted, but look natural, as do flesh tones, and the image is overall slightly darker than the previously released Sony Blu-ray. Contrast and detail both look very good, and the image maintains a filmlike appearance. The soundtrack has also been given a tune-up, with digital transfers of the original stems and premixes being used to create a new 5.1-channel mix. The majority of the sound has been purposefully relegated to the front soundstage with only minimal activity in the surrounds (it is essentially a three-channel mix). Dialogue sounds natural and even throughout.

    Much of the supplementary material has been drawn from previous releases, although quite a bit of it is new. From the 1998 DVD we have an excellent screen-specific audio commentary in the form of a conversation between Soderbergh and writer/director Neil LaBute, who at the time was finishing his second film, Your Friends & Neighbors (1998). They have a great rapport that makes for intriguing listening with a great deal of insight into the film itself and the general world of independent filmmaking. From Criterion's 1990 laserdisc edition we get a deleted scene between Ann and her therapist with optional commentary by Soderbergh and an 8-minute interview with Soderbergh (looking very young, since it was recorded in 1990) in which he discusses his thoughts on his cast, the film's reception, and its title. In terms of new material, Criterion has included a new video introduction by Soderbergh; a 13-minute interview with him from a 1992 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; a 28-minute retrospective featurette that includes new interviews with actors Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo; an archival interview from 1989 in which film critic Gene Shalit talks with actor James Spader on the Today show; a new 20-minute conversation between sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez; and a 12-minute visual essay by Blake about the film's restoration. Also included is the trailer that Soderbergh cut together and the one that Miramax eventually used (this makes for an interesting contrast between Soderbergh's artistic values and the need for Miramax to market the film's stars and edgy content). The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and extensive excerpts from Soderbergh's 1990 book about the film.

    Copyright ©2018 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

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