The success of films such as Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, Working Girls, and River’s Edge solidified the position of American independent film within the marketplace in the1980s, but Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape raised the stakes considerably by grossing nearly $25 million domestically – ten times what Jarmusch’s film had done only half a decade before. At the1989 Sundance Film Festival where sex, lies, and videotape debuted, the film became an overnight sensation, winning the coveted Audience Award and selling domestic theatrical rights to Miramax for nearly the sum of its $1.2 million budget. Sex, lies, and videotape went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, bolstering its reputation on an international level. The film did exceptionally well in virtually every market, eventually grossing nearly $100 million worldwide, thereby convincing, in Filmmaker’s words, “a legion of cell-phone toting Hollywood types that there was gold to be had in the hills of Utah.”
Even the twenty-six-year-old Soderbergh seemed to have been caught off-guard by the velocity of media attention his film managed to generate. He had actually pre-sold the domestic and foreign video rights in order to finance the film – a fairly common method of financing for low-budget pictures. The decision probably cost Soderbergh a huge chunk of the profits, but this only underscores the fact that independently produced films are often no more than entry tickets into the big lottery of commercial distribution. On one level, sex, lies, and videotape might seem to be an unlikely winning stub. The film has a distinctly Southern regional flavor. The credits indicate that it was shot on location in Soderbergh’s hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the film hardly utilizes the urban landscape of the city in any significant way. Most of the film takes place within the confines of four indoor locations. When characters at one point walk down a street, all we see is a graffiti-strewn back wall that seems to suggest a “set” rather actual location. On top of this, sex, lies, and videotape has such a functional visual style that it might easily be mistaken for a filmed play.
Sex, lies, and videotape does have a lot of things going for it, however, especially a top-flight ensemble cast, which features James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo. Even the title itself has a certain catchy-ness that manages to conjure up steamy intrigue. Everyone, it turns out, has a tabloid desire to know about bedroom secrets, especially when there is visual evidence to back them up. John Pierson, whose marketing savvy enabled him to turn many modest, low-budget independent films into commercial successes, explains the hook of the film’s strongest element, namely, its extremely mature and well-written script:
“Sex, lies, and videotape caught the popular imagination with its unerring delineation of the moment’s zeitgeist. The veneer of the eighties was cracking; the devastation of AIDS discouraged promiscuous coupling. The film presented a rare portrayal of a sensitive, vulnerable male, along with a beautiful, neurotic wife, a sexpot sister, and a crass, cheating husband. It was serious, thoughtful, funny and it pushed the edge of what was allowable on screen. Early on, Soderbergh admitted a strong autobiographical element, but he soon played this down since the film spoke very directly to its viewers’ own relationships – a kind of yuppie Rorschach test.”
Sex, lies, and videotape tells the simple story of a damaged young man, Graham, who comes to town and impacts a triangle of characters by exposing their hidden secrets. It reads like a Tennessee Williams play transposed to a contemporary setting, with a video camera serving as its main probing device. Sex, lies, and videotape dredges up various kinds of sexual issues: fear of intimacy, marital infidelity, male impotence, sexual frigidity, sexual addiction, voyeurism, oral sex, and masturbation. And lurking behind them all is another favorite Williams’ theme: the damaging effect that mendacity can have on personal realtionships.
Sex, lies, and videotape has a rather straightforward thee-act structure. The first turning point occurs when Ann discovers the sexual nature of Graham’s videotape, which causes her to change her feelings about Graham. The second turning point happens when Ann finds Cynthia’s diamond earring – the incriminating proof that her husband and sister are indeed having an affair – an event that sends her back to Graham. In terms of screen time, the first turning point occurs at 37 minutes, while the second takes place at 67 minutes. Since the film has a running time of 98 minutes, sex, lies, and videotape has a first act of 37 minutes, a very short second act of 30 minutes, and a third act of 31 minutes.
More than anything, sex, lies, and videotape is a character study. Although Ann is the film’s clear protagonist and the story is told through her point of view, the other three characters are more or less given equal weight. Ann, however, is not a typical goal-driven protagonist. She’s having too many problems coping, which is why she is in therapy. Ann has only a vague sense that things are wrong, but it is really Graham who triggers the events in the film. Graham, however, turns out to be just as lost and confused as Ann. In fact, the four characters in the script can be broken down into pairs: Ann and Graham – both fragile souls in search of spiritual fulfillment – and John and Cynthia, who have opted for the joys of carnal pleasure. The strength of the very tight and economical script derives from having these characters collide in various intimate and explicit ways.
Ann Millaney, at first glance, would seem to have everything. She’s extremely attractive and enjoys the security of being married to a handsome and wealthy young lawyer named John, but cracks already have begun to appear in her straight, middle-class armor. In her therapy session, she seems extremely evasive, deflecting intimate questions about herself onto such things as the garbage problem. She tells her therapist: “Did you know that the average person produces three pounds of garbage a day?” When the psychiatrist asks what triggered this concern, Ann connects the issue to John. Ann has other neurotic worries besides. In her next therapy session, her concerns switch to the Greenhouse Effect and radon leakage. And previously, she has fixated on the families of airline fatalities.
Despite Ann’s inability or unwillingness to recognize her own personal problems, there are clearly issues in her marriage. For one thing, Ann admits to her therapist that things have cooled sexually between her and John. Even though Ann plays down her interest in sex, the situation bothers her nevertheless. She tells her therapist: “Like I said, it’s not that I miss it, but I’m curious the way things kind of slacked off all of a sudden.” The fact that Ann no longer wants John to touch her has actually been precipitated by John’s lack of interest in her sexually, as well as the fact that she senses his infidelity. Ann’s good looks also have something to do with her problems. Deep down, she resents being John’s trophy wife. Ann wants to be appreciated for who she is rather than for her natural beauty. She complains to Graham that John treats everybody the same: “And so I feel like, what’s different about me, if I’m treated exactly the same as some acquaintance.”
Graham comments about Ann’s good looks when they have lunch together. He says that she’s “got to be the most attractive self-conscious person I’ve ever seen.” Her self-consciousness, he contends, has to do with her recognition that people like John are attracted to her because of her appearance. Even though Graham has not as yet met Cynthia, he also understands intuitively the underlying dynamic between the two sisters. Since Cynthia doesn’t have Ann’s good looks, she uses sex as a weapon to level the playing field between them. Soderbergh’s description of Cynthia in the script hints at this. He writes: “Cynthia bears a slight resemblance to Ann, but is not as overtly attractive. She does, however, have a definite carnal appeal and air of confidence that Ann lacks.” Cynthia gets tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from stealing Ann’s husband away from her. Her erotic desire becomes even more heightened when she screws John in her sister’s own bed. Later on in the film, when Cynthia makes her videotape, she asks Graham whether he thinks she’s pretty? When Graham answers affirmatively, Cynthia asks, “Prettier than Ann?” Graham simply responds, “Different.”
Graham turns out to be the perfect person to bring Ann’s repressed problems to the surface. The two are alike in the sense that Graham certainly doesn’t fit in either. When Graham first shows up at the door, he dispenses with polite formalities and rushes off to use the bathroom. Graham has an unorthodox lifestyle, but it represents a deliberate choice. In the face of life’s complexities, Graham has chosen to drop out and live out of his car. Graham is like an older Holden Caulfield, bristling at the pretentiousness he finds around him. He ridicules his parents, especially his Anglophile mother, whom he calls “a prisoner of public television now.” But Graham has the greatest contempt for liars, whom he claims are the second lowest people in the world – after lawyers. Unlike Ann, Graham has turned his back on straight convention and prefers the simplicity of trying to limit his life to a single key. John smugly tells Graham to get rid of his car when he rents an apartment, and he’ll still have one key.
Graham and John, the old fraternity buddies, have clearly changed in the intervening years. Soderbergh describes John as “dressed very well, sporting real suspenders with his striped pinpoint oxford shirt and cotton suit.” This contrasts with Graham whom he describes as “punk/arty, but neither would do him justice.” John comments brashly on the change, asking: “What do you think the Greeks would make of that outfit you’re wearing.” John is on the fast track to success. He’s a junior partner in a big law firm, with a spacious office overlooking the river. He has been given his first major corporate client, but his arrogance and penchant for risky behavior sets up his later downfall.
John complains that since he’s gotten married, women are all over him. But his revelation to Graham that he had sex with his old girlfriend, Elizabeth, shows that John has always used sex as a weapon of power, especially over other males. John’s behavior with Cynthia also suggests that he is probably a sex addict as well, because he continues to risk losing an important new business client in order to satisfy his incessant sexual desire. Graham comments indirectly about this to Ann, when he tells her: “I mean, honestly, I haven’t known many guys that could think straight with an erection, so I feel I’m way ahead of the game as far as clear-headed goes.” Cynthia’s compulsive sexual behavior parallels John’s. It represents an attempt on her part to overcompensate for her own insecurities. As a result, Cynthia is completely guy-crazy. In her videotape for Graham, she tells a very revealing story about her first encounter with a penis, in which she describes it as a completely separate entity from the person to whom it belongs.
Although John and Cynthia are much less sympathetic characters than Ann and Graham, both Ann and Graham end up revealing hidden sides of themselves. Contrary to her professed lack of interest in sex, Ann eventually admits to being turned on by other men. She has repressed this aspect of herself because it reminds her of Cynthia. Graham also has his own secrets, which only surface when he’s pressed by Ann during her videotape. It turns out that Graham’s professed hatred of liars stems from his own unfaithfulness to his old girlfriend, Elizabeth. He has become frightened by intimacy because of the vulnerability it entails. Rendered impotent by his last relationship, Graham has retreated into the safety of relating to people only from the distance provided by the video camera and TV monitor. Voyeurism has become a convenient defense for Graham until Ann finally forces him to respond to her physically.
Sex, lies, and video exploits the voyeuristic and pornographic associations between sex and the medium of video. Yet, for a film whose hook is obviously sex, sex, lies, and videotape actually contains very little explicit visual material. The film talks about sex in very graphic detail instead. In terms of the eroticism of the film, the viewer shares a position very much akin to Graham’s. We are titillated by the intimate revelations of the characters who talk about things ignored by most films – very personal feelings of sexual inadequacy and vulnerability. In the process, the video camera becomes exposed as a sexual weapon, as Ann turns the tables on Graham and forces him to reveal his own sexual secrets, allowing her to change roles from passive informant into empowered interrogator. In doing so, the film provides a reflexive comment on the psychoanalytic aspects of the film-viewing situation itself. Soderbergh underscores this point brilliantly during Ann’s videotape session, where he crosscuts and overlaps the taping of her sexual confession and John’s replay of it on the TV monitor, which ambiguously confuses the two and references it to the film we are actually watching, thereby cleverly creating a film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure.
In terms of his subsequent career, Soderbergh has refused to be pigeon-holed, deliberately opting to work with different genres and budgets, and even to direct other people’s material. Sex, lies, and videotape, nevertheless, has had an enormous influence on subsequent independent films. As Geoff Andrew has written:
“Sex, lies and videotape proved once and for all that it was quite possible to make a critically and commercially successful film on a low-budget, using a small cast of comparatively unknown actors, a handful of locations and a low-key, sensitive, literate script; as such, it was influential in encouraging other young American film-makers to follow suit in making character-driven chamber-pieces.”
The elements that Andrew cites – its low-budget, minimum number of locations, ensemble cast, and character-driven story – can be found in numerous American independent productions that turn up each year at festivals such as Sundance and Slamdance. The differentiating aspect of Soderbergh’s film rests largely with its unusually smart script, which managed to address something in American culture that had been largely repressed at the time, namely, people’s very real fears of sex in an age in which sex had become so intimately associated with death.