Friday, April 27, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "sex, lies and videotape"


Director/Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh

Before I begin, most of you are aware the I have pre-written most of these Canon of Film entries, in many cases years ahead of time. I write new ones, and when I do, I post them, but the majority of these so far, were  written longago. "sex, lies and videotape," is different though. I actually wrote on it twice. Once, I believe, six years ago, and again last year. I'm going to post both of these entries below. I hope you'll notice how my writing has improved vastly in the second version., but when they were written, they both accurately reflected my thoughts on the film, and how I read the movie differently years later. I hope you enjoy this.


It’s kind of weird watching “sex, lies, and videotape,” (The title doesn’t get capitalized in most printings I see of it, I’m not exactly sure why,) now seventeen years after the film made a huge splash at the Cannes Film Festival and became one of the films that triggered the new age of American independent film. This film also introduced the world to a great new writing and directing talent in a then, 30-years old Steven Soderbergh, who wrote the screenplay in eight days and shot it on a less than $2million budget. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, along with a Best Actor Award for Spader, swept the Independent Spirit Awards, and earned Soderbergh his first Oscar nomination for his screenplay. To shorthand the movie’s plot, would be to say that this film is an early influence on what would become the “American Beauty,” genre of films that take a wry, sardonic look at the perils of living in suburbia, USA. (Other films of that nature would include, “In the Bedroom,” “The Weather Man,” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” even though “The Weather Man,” takes place in Chicago.) But also, look at the main actors in the film. The movie is basically a four-character play, and in this case, three of the “stars,” are now more well-known for television work, and the 4th Andie MacDowell, really should be on T.V. if you ask me. This was a comeback for Andie MacDowell after her screen debut it “Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan,” was diminished when her voice was dubbed in by Glenn Close after filming. (A practice by the way, that isn’t super unusual in Hollywood, although her case was of a much larger scale than typical.)

The movie begins with a wife, Ann, (MacDowell) seeing a psychiatrist, discussing how she has never been turned on by sex, even from her husband (Peter Gallagher). Her husband is a typical slimy lawyer type who blatantly tells a client over-the-phone about how he gets away with a good marriage while having an affair on the side, and not to mention with his wife’s sexually provocative sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Cynthia, is also much more interesting personality wise than Ann. John’s college roommate Graham, (James Spader)  is coming into town looking for a hotel room, and during a lunch with Ann, he reveals that he is sexually impotent after/before and/or because of a break-up with a girlfriend in college. Now, keep in mind back in ’89, there was no Viagra, so to fulfill his desires, he has began a practice of videotaping women as they discuss rather therapeutically, or sometimes voyeuristically about their sexual past and, I guess he… uh-hem… masturbates, at least mentally to these women. What he actually does with the tapes is hard to say, but they seem to be his glass unicorn.

Although, Spader is definitely the most interesting character, the movie is about Ann’s attempt to, I guess figure out how to find herself both sexually and realized how impotent her life is outside of sex. A barfly quotes a line from “Apocalypse Now,” at one point in the film if you don’t get that it’s more of a spiritual journey than a movie with a plot. Yes, there’s sex, and lies as well, but none of it’s as interesting as one would think it would be, which is correct because sex is only interesting for a short while anyway, as John has become more obsessed than normal, and is therefore much shallower. The specific events that make these four lives collide I will not reveal. But, pay attention to color and movement in the film. It’s the kind of movie where you have to read between the lines of what people say to realize what they’re really saying, and how they say them. Also, watch the set design during a particular scene with MacDowell and San Giacomo, and pay attention to color and where people are when they talk. It’s the kind of scene that makes you show how every aspect of the film determines the film.


I keep coming back to “sex, lies, and videotape,” every few years. I always think I know this movie really well, and yet, I find it more mysterious on each viewing. Certain scenes I remembered well don’t play the same way twice, and other times, there are small details I might not have caught before. Graham’s apartment for instance, has a lamp that plugged into a wall, near the door to the kitchen. He has no table for the lamp to stand on, so it remains on the floor. One of his chairs is a director’s chair. He does tape women as they discuss their sexual experiences, apparently because it’s the only way he is able to become aroused, if that’s the right word for it. He claims he’s impotent; an aftereffect of a relationship with a mysterious girl named Elizabeth, but is it a voluntary impotency or is he actually impotent? In fact, what of Graham Dalton (James Spader)? Few characters in cinema are as fascinating as him, preciously because we don’t know his intentions, his desires, or why preciously he does what he does. He says he was once a pathological liar, but that might be a lie. Structurally to the story, his character is similar to a Picaro character, that comes in and affects the lives of all those around him, but unlike Picaro, he doesn’t seem out solely for himself. In fact, he’s barely out for anything. Whatever has tortured him is so deeply ingrained in him, that I doubt even he understands the depths of it himself. He is one of the most enigmatic characters is film history. Maybe it’s because Soderbergh, who wrote the screenplay in a week, according to legend, decided not to flush him out as well as he could have. It’s surprising watching the film to realize how little he is in the movie. An argument could be made that based on screen time, the movie has four lead characters and no supporting parts. The movie’s focus is on Ann (Andie MacDowell) whose married to a lawyer, John (Peter Gallagher) who’s so slimy, about the only time he doesn’t lie is in a phone conversation about how good a liar he is to his wife. He’s a fraternity friend of Graham, who he’s strangely invited to stay for a bit while Graham’s traveling through, even though they haven’t seen each other in nine years, and have taken very different paths. (although it appears as though Graham was as one point very similar to John) John’s biggest lie is that he’s sleeping with his wife’s sexually extroverted sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Why does Cynthia sleep with John and vice-versa? Probably because they can; maybe because they’re bored? No actress is shot from stranger angles that Laura San Giacomo is in this film. Cameras turned upside down, and on wide-framed as she curls up on a couch, and that great shot of her lying on the bed, her face and hair in frame but from upside down. Maybe an effect of Soderbergh’s limited budget, but fascinating and ingenious nonetheless. Eventually, Cynthia finds her way into Graham’s apartment, and finds out about these sex tapes and decides to have him make one. She changes ever so slightly after that, but in a way that makes her not have sex with John at one point. He can’t understand it. In an earlier review, I mentioned about how a barfly at the bar Cynthia works at quotes from “Apocalypse Now,” underlying the point about the film being more of a spiritual journey than a movie with a plot, but that’s not right. The spiritual journeys are the character's own. Graham is on one, which he has self-imposed on himself. Cynthia goes on her own, through Graham, and finally, Ann will let down her guard and take a long-needed spiritual journey. All of them are inner journeys, that lead to their changes. John has no inner journey, because he hasn’t changed. Too ingrained in his own ways, that the world he’s created for himself has to completely crumble before he can even begin to try. He’s the macho male character, and the rest, including Spader, and feminine characters who change and are constantly struggling to improve and find themselves, hidden cleverly within the two love triangles of “sex, lies, and videotape.”

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