Sex_Lies_and_VideotapeWhen Steven Soderbergh finally conceded the truth to the rumors (started by no less than Matt Damon) that he was planning to retire from directing feature films, certain observers with longer memories could see it as a clear end of a certain era, one that Soderbergh himself had clearly launched with the 1989 release of his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape. The film debuted at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, only the fifth iteration of the fest under that name, after Robert Redford and his cohorts at the fledgling Sundance Institute in support of young filmmakers had snatched up Salt Lake City’s US Film Festival and moved it to Park City, Utah. At the end of the ‘80s, it was still seen somewhat as Redford’s boondoggle, which meant that it wasn’t yet inundated with hungry dealmakers and uprising stars hoping for an infusion of cred. It was just a film festival, and one with an especially intense devotion to independent film. In 1989, sex, lies, and videotape was entered in the dramatic competition, facing off against the likes of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers and Grand Jury Prize winner True Love, directed by Nancy Savoca. Soderbergh’s film was heavily buzzed about and claimed the Audience Award for dramatic films.

As often as sex, lies, and videotape is routinely cited as the film that made Sundance a major player in the industry, it was actually another festival that solidified the film as a true must see. Four months after Sundance, sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time an American director could claim that prize since Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz shared it with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha a decade earlier. James Spader also claimed the Best Actor prize, and fascination with this odd, small film with the salacious name reached nearly unheard of levels for a independent release in a time when the franchise era was locking into place with Indiana Jones and Back to the Future sequels and the record-breaking launch of Tim Burton’s Batman. sex, lies, and videotape was released to theaters in August of that summer.

Though he toyed with several different titles, Soderbergh says he came up with sex, lies, and videotape by asking himself how his main character, Graham Dalton (Spader), would describe the film. Set in Baton Rouge, the film follows Graham as he reenters the life of his old college friend John (Peter Gallagher). Graham operates with a preternatural calm, explaining the sanctity and solitude of his seemingly adrift life in a way that seems utterly at odds with John’s upwardly mobile sense of entitlement. When Graham explains his disinterest in joining the pursuit of the American way of life by noting his preference for a lack of keys, liking the cleanliness of only having a key for his car (“I mean, I just, if I get an apartment, that two keys, if I… get a job, you know, I might have to open or close, that’s more keys….”), the minimalism of it makes perfect sense but also sets the character notably apart. Soderbergh has set him up to dash expectations. Anything is possible with the character, and Spader plays him beautifully, showing how warmth and reticence can reside in the same person, especially one who is trying ever so hard to internalize his darkness. Up to this point, Spader was best known as the Hollywood go-to for playing young preppy scumbags in films such as Pretty in Pink and Mannequin, but sex, lies, and videotape opened up the enticing possibilities for an actor who found great depth in understatement, a theory that admittedly proved faulty as his specialty evolved into depicting hammy weirdoes.

Sex_Lies_and_Videotape2Graham does wind up settling into the town, developing a friendship with John’s wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell). As they spend time together, Ann notices a collection of videotapes in Graham’s possession, and he confesses their contents. Graham uses a video camera to interview women about their sexual preferences, fantasies and histories. Otherwise impotent after a bad breakup, watching these videos is Graham’s only means of sexual gratification. The emergence of this practice of contrived intimacy leads inevitably to the opening of all sorts of wounds in the lives of the characters, including the level of damage in the marriage of John and Ann, including his affair with his wife’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

The film has a remarkable psychological acuity. Written by Soderbergh in a brief period of time after ruminating on it for a year or so, the screenplay is marked by both meticulousness and spontaneity. There are no shortcuts in the plotting. Everything the characters do makes perfect sense, and keeps with whom they’ve been established to be. Across the board, the principle actors are better here than they are anywhere else, sometimes by a wide margin—watching MacDowell deftly play Ann’s sharpness, need and anxiety could convince anyone that she’s a great actress, at least until they see her in practically anything else she’s ever done—giving the proceedings a quietly comfortable reality. They come across less as creations and more as real people as they move through fraught emotional terrain in fits and starts. The whole film simmers with the sense of discovery.

Across his distinguished and endlessly fascinating career, I’d argue that Soderbergh never quite nailed it as cleanly as he did with sex, lies, and videotape. As he became more preoccupied with simultaneously exploiting and demolishing the expectations of narrative in a wide array of genre films, he may have opened new and satisfying doors creatively, but every instance of sidebar playfulness eroded the authenticity he perfected his very first time out. As a film fan, I wouldn’t truly trade away Soderbergh’s subsequent triumphs to see him follow any other path. But I have to admit that, as he purportedly closes the film can on his cinematic career, that nothing else he’s done inspires the same admiration and affection in me as sex, lies, and videotape.

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