Steven Soderbergh’s film debut, sex, lies, and videotape (1989) probably pissed a lot of people off when they saw it. The title, linking duplicity and carnal relations with the then new media form of the videotape, seems to promise either amateur pornography or an art film akin to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). Yet, the film has more in common with the work of another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) with regard to misdirection and theme. The title of Antonioni’s film, translated into English as “The Adventure,” begins with a mystery (a man’s wife disappears on a trip and, rather than find her and solve the mystery, he delves into an affair) but sidesteps mystery and suspense in order to deal with how sexuality and relationships in general have become alienating, thanks to the concept of modernity.
Soderbergh’s work is similar: the title promises something that the film does not ultimately deliver (one of the studio executives asked the director “Are you sure I’ve gotten all the footage? Because I’m not seeing any flesh.”). While sex does occur, the camera does not provide witness. The video camera functions almost like a Priest at confession, silent but ultimately without judgment. Yet, the camera does inspire a certain pleasure for Graham (James Spader) however. He has become entranced by the new technology to the point where it is linked to his impotence. Technology and its inspired voyeurism have essentially alienated Graham from the ability to have both a physical and emotional relationship.
The begins as the Graham arrives in Baton Rouge to visit his old college roommate John (Peter Gallagher) and his wife, Ann (Andie McDowell). Graham, priding himself on being a social island (there are only two keys on his key ring—-one for his apartment, the other for his car), isn’t really a people person. What makes it odd, however, is Soderbergh’s editing during the opening scenes links Graham not with John but with Ann: she expresses her dissatisfaction with marriage and her sexual repression to her therapist while Soderbergh cross-cuts to Graham making a makeshift bath for himself in the restroom of a local bait shop. The point is that they both are alone but Soderbergh, through the mechanisms of cinema, has implied a bond visually. When he finally cuts to John, a yuppie in the worst possible sense of the word, he’s shown spinning his wedding ring on his desk, frivolously, while confessing to a friend that the best thing about being married is the increased attention from single women.
One of those women who have given her attention and, occasionally, her body to the married John is Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). While bound by some of the same genetic material, the two women couldn’t be further apart with regard to their personalities. Ann is repressed and unhappy; Cynthia is uninhibited and a bit of a free spirit. Even though Ann is unaware of the affair, there is a shared anger between the sisters regardless and adding Graham to the equation only throws a match onto a pile of seasoned firewood.
The beginning of the end to the marriage between Ann and John comes when the housewife visits Graham at his new apartment. She takes note of all the video equipment and cassettes lying around and, out of harmless curiosity, pressed Graham as to their use. Graham replies that he tapes interviews with women to which Ann responds “Can we watch one?” The voyeur then tries to skirt around the subject, saying “Well, I promised each of the subjects that no one would see the videotapes except for me….The interviews are about sex.” Ann leaves in disgust and informs Cynthia of Graham’s odd hobby, which prompts the free-spirited sister to visit Graham and to make her own videotaped confession.
In the meanwhile, Ann is cleaning the house and discovers one of Cynthia’s earrings on the floor to their bedroom (inspiring an amazing jumpcut sequence that would no doubt play a role in his shaping of Out of Sight ten years later). Putting two and two together, she drives over to Graham’s house and insists on making her own videotape. The mechanism of videotape, which had previously been linked to Graham’s impotence, becomes depicted in another light: it provides Ann with a psychological breakthrough that she could not reach in psychotherapy, allowing her to articulate her negative feelings towards John while simultaneously unclenching sexually. It also, through the breakthrough and Graham’s role in it, gives him the ability to feel for a person.
Finally, Ann confronts John about the affair with Cynthia and tells him of her own affair with Graham. She asks for a divorces and John, in a fit of anger, leaves the house and confronts his college roommate. The final sequence, of Graham destroying the videotapes, says it all: He is distancing himself from the technology he has used to alienate himself and, subsequently, is embracing a relationship with Ann. Soderbergh ends the climax of the film with the video of Graham and Ann kissing as Graham turns off the camera. Soderbergh puts an ironic spin on his adultery tale by cutting back to John watching the videotape and the television, which is now engulfed in white snow. This final image leaves John, unsure of his wife’s possible infidelities, paired with videotape, visualizing his alienation from his relationships because of his own sexual escapades. Ironically, Soderbergh has utilized videotape to bring two people together while utilizing sex to push two others apart.
Sex, lies, and videotape not only kick-started Soderbergh’s career but provided a gust of wind in the sails of the then budding American independent film movement. Indie film had been a driving force in the 1960s and 70s with companies like BBS (Five Easy Pieces) and Roger Corman’s company, which had given a start to so many now famous filmmakers (including Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron). Yet, through the efforts of some of those same filmmakers brought up with the indie spirit, most notably George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the blockbuster became a rival form to the auteurist art cinema. When auteur art films like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982) tanked at the box office, studios became no longer willing to put their faith the director (to be fair, those indie films had huge budgets). The blockbuster had become a much more cost effective proposition, thanks to its ability to both capture a wide demographic and spawn sequels. Soderbergh changed all that, for better and for worse, when his $1 million dollar movie grossed more than 20 times that, garnered critical praise, and even an Oscar nomination for Soderbergh (Best Screenplay).
The film still holds up relatively well today, more than twenty years after its release. All of the actors, Spader and McDowell in particular, give career defining performances here that, ironically (given their relative inexperience), would be nearly impossible to top. They owe a lot to Soderbergh’s writing, which deals with infidelity not on the garish brushstrokes of melodrama but cerebral, dry comedy. It’s one of the most memorable film debuts to grace the American cinema (hence all the comparisons made between Orson Welles and Soderbergh, who were both 26 when they both altered the landscape of American film). For Valentine’s Day, I can make no better suggestion.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.