The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Pavilion

Tim Sutton’s debut feature Pavilion (2012) begins like a conventional narrative, but then confounds viewer expectations. Those waiting for a story to coalesce will no doubt be puzzled when the film veers off in surprising directions. The focus on characters, for example, shifts abruptly after twelve minutes. Pavilion, it turns out, is far less interested in plot or even character development than in combining images, sounds, and music into a more purely cinematic experience that explores the insular world of teenagers. Sutton has said in interviews that he was interested in capturing the mystery of adolescence. Part of that mystery, however, is its opacity – its refusal to disclose fully. Yet the strength of Pavilion resides in how the film manages to render the lives of teenagers so vividly.

Pavilion begins with a group of teens shooting off fireworks. We watch them play with Nerf guns, ride their bikes through the neighborhood, get high, skateboard around fountains, and drive home at night. The film, which has the equivalent of a prologue and coda, actually has a sliver of a plot that holds it together. It centers on a fifteen-year-old named Max (Max Schaffner), who lives with his mom and hangs out with friends in upstate New York over the summer. He climbs trees, hikes in the forest with a female friend named Addie (Addie Bartlett), and the two take a dip in the lake. Through a phone conversation, we learn that Max is going to live with his dad in Arizona. Pavilion is less about causal connections between scenes than it is about striking visual images and strong contrasts once the film shifts locations.

Max’s more idyllic life with his mother in rural New York contrasts starkly with the arid landscape of Arizona, where Max suddenly finds himself stranded in a motel room with his unemployed dad. Lush nature gives way to barren, flat stretches of desert and cement; stability gives way to transience; the freedom of the outdoors transforms into claustrophobia, an expansive lake shrinks to a small swimming pool, and a carefree mood turns more melancholy. After observing the local kids riding bikes below his motel window, Max eventually hangs out with them. He strikes up a friendship with a kid named Cody (Cody Hamric), who, along with his pals, has a penchant for performing mountain bike stunts. While the film focuses mainly on Max, he eventually recedes into the background, to be replaced by Cody.

The teenagers in Pavilion inhabit a world which, for the most part, remains inaccessible to most adults. Early on, a kid’s mother, who calls her son “dude,” tries to get a kiss from him as he heads out the door, but he ignores her request. She laments, “I gotta try!” Max’s mother laughs giddily as Max and Addie dive into the lake for a swim. She later offers a positive assessment of Addie, but barely receives a response from her son. Conversations between teens and parents or between the kids themselves consist of words that don’t so much communicate as fill up awkward pauses. As a result, there’s very little “dialogue” in the film, and what’s said is not terribly significant.

The kids are largely unable to articulate their feelings. Max’s conversations with his father, for instance, are short and perfunctory. When Max and Addie trek in the forest, they obliquely discuss the fact that he’ll be moving to Arizona, but this appears to have little emotional impact. It is almost as if the events controlling the kids’ lives are occurring in an alternate universe. Will Max and Addie miss each other? We haven’t a clue. Do they have real affection for each other? It’s not clear. At one point, as they get far into the woods, the two of them stop. We might expect them to kiss, but Addie merely takes Max’s hat off his head and puts it on her own.

Pavilion is very much a product of the process by which it was made. Like many of today’s filmmakers, Sutton didn’t rely on a traditional script to make the film. He’s working in the tradition of a visual stylist like Wong Kar-wai, who has explained the limitations of that approach: “You can’t write all your images on paper, and there are so many things – the sound, the music, the ambience, and also the actors – when you’re writing all these details in the script, the script has no tempo, it’s not readable. It’s very boring. So I just thought, it’s not a good idea (to write out a complete script beforehand) and I just wrote down the scenes, some essential details, and the dialogue.”

Wong is not the only established filmmaker to dispense with a traditional script. Gus Van Sant has made a number of films using only outlines. Jim Jarmusch improvised in shooting The Limits of Control (2009), and Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs didn’t rely on a full-blown script in making Haywire (2012). Soderbergh, who announced his retirement from cinema, has expressed reservations about conventional narrative. He told an interviewer: “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

For Pavilion, Sutton chose a number of teenagers and two major locations: an area in upstate New York, where he grew up, and Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. Sutton wrote a short story instead of a script, but he did so mostly to communicate with his cinematographer. He then created an outline of scenes that would change and develop in the course of shooting them, so that the film grew organically out of the process of making it. As a result, Pavilion is composed of stunning imagery, physical actions, bodily and facial gestures, snippets of conversation, intricate sound design, and a haunting musical score by Sam Prekop.

Beautifully shot by Chris Dapkins and seamlessly edited by Seth Bomse, Pavilion has even less narrative than most other indie films it resembles – from films by Gus Van Sant to Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010) and Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss (2011). Pavilion played at SXSW and BAMcinemaFest. It was picked up for distribution last summer by Factory 25, which has been busily scooping up some of the most challenging recent indie films.

Pavilion is scheduled to open at the IFC Center in NYC on March 1.

Posted 31 January, 2013

Best Independent Films of 2009

Most people do their “best films” lists at the end of December. That makes sense, but, in my case, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have too many other projects in the works, so that even maintaining the blog is a pretty challenging endeavor. But beyond that, because I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin rather than in either New York City or Los Angeles, it now takes considerable effort on my part to view the important independent feature films that surface within a given year.

Most of them aren’t playing at my local cinemas. They play at film festivals, or on VOD, or I have to wait to see them when they are finally released on DVD, or sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch them when I’m in NYC to visit museums and art galleries, where an alternate universe of film and video is also on display (such as Cyprien Gaillard’s mesmerizing Desniansky Raion, which I saw on separate occasions at the New Museum and White Columns this past year).

Three of the indie films on the list below – Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, and The New Year Parade – played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last spring. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me is scheduled to screen at this year’s upcoming festival in April. Only two of the films – Goodbye Solo and The Girlfriend Experience – had commercial runs locally. But that’s also true of many of the best international art films as well.

I’m certainly a huge fan of global cinema, and indeed found great pleasure in viewing such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, Three Monkeys, Hunger, The Headless WomanGomorrah, Tony Manero, Tokyo Sonata, Somers Town, and Police, Adjective, among others. And from the studios, I was impressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Yet, due to the main focus of this blog, my list remains confined to American indie films.

If there’s one trend among the best indie films of the year, it is once again naturalism and some flexibility toward the script. The second appears to be a move toward globalism and a renewed interest in regionalism. While So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo were shot in Korea and Rwanda respectively, the other films were set in Austin (two of them), Winston-Salem, Vermont, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida. That alone seems pretty remarkable, especially when Hollywood has tried to make it appear as if Los Angeles somehow reflects everyone’s reality.

This is a rough time to be an independent filmmaker. Three films on the list – Severed Ways: the Norse Discovery of America, Munyurangabo, and Loren Cass – took a couple of years after being finished to have a theatrical release. Now that digital technology has made it so much easier and cheaper to make feature films, the biggest challenge continues to be how to connect them with an audience. Most commentators lament the lack of commercial support. The fact that the studios and their subsidiaries virtually have abandoned indie cinema may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but only provided that some new and better digital exhibition and distribution model can emerge from the ashes.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2009:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
3. Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
4. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
5. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
6. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
7. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
8. The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
9. Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
10. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

If the new list seems more obscure than last year’s, I think this partially has to do with the fact that indie films are opening in more alternative venues such as Film Forum (Treeless Mountain and Beeswax), Anthology Film Archives (Munyurangabo,) or even The Museum of Modern Art (Harmony and Me). As a result, these films haven’t received nearly the level of publicity they deserve.

Posted 8 February, 2010

The Girlfriend Experience

Noted screenwriter/director Paul Schrader wrote a very interesting piece in the Guardian the other day in which he suggests that viewers are suffering from narrative exhaustion. He speculates that the average thirty-year-old has already watched 35,000 hours of audio-visual narratives. Given the limited number of possible storylines, today’s media-makers have resorted to other strategies to make their work seem fresh and less predictable. This has given rise to the popularity of such forms as reality television, documentaries, videogames, short-format pieces created specifically for cellphones, and what Schrader calls “anecdotal narrative.” In discussing this last term, he explains: “The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behaviour unencumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not ‘fake,’ not ‘contrived’ (although of course it is).”

Like a number of Gus Van Sant’s recent films or Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience represents a similar attempt by a major American filmmaker to create an alternative to conventional narrative by eschewing a fully-realized screenplay in favor of a brief (six- to seven-page) outline, the use of mostly non-professional actors and structured improvisation. Shot quickly with a small crew and a high-definition Red camera over several weeks, Soderbergh’s film is a portrait of a high-priced escort. Chelsea, played by porn star Sasha Grey, is a different breed of prostitute. While trafficking in sex, what she really offers is the simulation of a personal love experience.

Set during the heat of the presidential election and the financial meltdown last fall, The Girlfriend Experience documents the excess of wealth that fuels the GFE phenomenon – extravagant lifestyles involving art, high fashion, chic restaurants, and weekend junkets to Las Vegas on private jets. The film suggests that, as the discrepancy between rich and poor widens, sexuality for the super rich has become another commodity. Indeed, Chelsea narrates her various appointments in terms of designer outfits and other status markers, while also noting client’s financial anxieties involving friends, business, and an economy suddenly in free fall. Sessions often begin with questions about spouses and children, who are addressed on a first-name basis, providing the veneer of intimacy.

Chelsea is also involved in a relationship with a live-in boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos). He’s a personal trainer at an upscale gym – another service industry for people with too much cash to burn. We watch Chris at work as he uses his charm to con his clients into signing up for additional sessions by developing his own ersatz relationship with them. Chris is also on the make – he also attempts to peddle a new line of clothes and angles for a cut of his gym’s business.

If the film examines the contradictions of paid escorts as intimate personal relationships, it also delves into similar conundrums involved in living with a prostitute. For both parties, it necessitates compartmentalizing their lives. When one of his clients suggests that Chris join a group of business guys for a weekend in Vegas, he initially declines out of deference to Chelsea. She’s into “personology” books – an irrational system Chelsea relies on to make decisions about clients and to cope with the dangers implicit in her line of work. It leads Chelsea to decide to spend a weekend with a new client on a whim, but this violates the “rules”of her relationship with Chris. When she breaks the news to him, Chris lashes out at her in very frank terms that belie the mutual deception at the heart of their arrangement.

Throughout her interactions, Chelsea projects an image of a woman in control of her emotions, or someone who shows very little affect. Her blankness is part of her allure to these men, allowing them to project their own fantasies onto her. Yet fissures eventually develop in her armor. Despite her belief that she’s the best at what she does, Chelsea nevertheless gets jealous when she sees a client with a new competitor. She also gets victimized by a sleazy operator (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) of an online Web site, entitled The Erotic Connoisseur. Under the guise of raising her profile to even greater heights within the profession, he hustles her into giving him a freebie in exchange for promotion. His review of her performance is a brutal and devastating putdown. After Chelsea breaks up with Chris because of feelings for a new client, a screenwriter named David, her intuition turns out to be misguided. As Chris has predicted, the client dumps her in order to return home to his wife and two young daughters, which leaves Chelsea stranded and in tears.

Although The Girlfriend Experience was apparently shot chronologically, Soderbergh scrambles time in order to create greater narrative complexity. We move back and forth between Chelsea and Chris. We observe Chelsea’s various interactions – with numerous clients, the operator of the erotic Web site, a business manager, and a magazine journalist who asks her probing personal questions about her line of work. Soderbergh confounds the story by having an adult sex star play a Manhattan call girl and by casting nonprofessional actors to play characters who bear some resemblance to themselves in real life. In a sense, the performers become the characters. The collapse between actor and role and the use of controlled improvisation lends a degree of authenticity to the film.

Soderbergh shoots mostly with available light, resulting in scenes that have either warm orange-red or cool blue tones. At times he plays with focus to give the image a greater sense of abstraction. Andy Warhol rather than Cassavetes proves to be the stronger influence here. Soderbergh told Filmmaker that he has become more interested in “this fusion of real people and real stories with a fictional story.” He elaborates: “I guess it’s something that grows out of my frustration with the norms of cinema narrative storytelling and the fact that I’m convinced that the gains that can be achieved through presenting something that seems like it is really happening in front of you are more significant than the gains you get from something that doesn’t seem real but is better constructed.”

In sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh managed to capture the Zeitgeist of the time – people’s fear of sex in an age of AIDS – by exploring issues about intimacy and pornography. It’s hardly surprising that he would use a porn star to explore issues of intimacy in his new film. Even though the outline for The Girlfriend Experience was written by David Levian and Brian Koppelman in 2006, Soderbergh has managed to create an snapshot of a period in which America appears to be on the verge of change and late capitalism feels as if it is finally unraveling. This timeliness turns out to be one of the major advantages of Soderbergh’s more open and flexible method of making a film.

Postscript:

It is ironic that Columbia Pictures has placed Soderbergh’s $50 million film Moneyball in limited turnaround, a mere four days before it was scheduled to begin production, even though the film has actor Brad Pitt attached. What’s interesting is that Columbia head Amy Pascal was unhappy with Soderbergh’s re-working of the script. According to Variety: “The move came after Pascal read a rewrite that Soderbergh did to Steven Zaillian’s script and found it very different from the earlier scripts she championed. Pascal was uncomfortable enough with how the vision had changed that she applied the brakes.” The article goes on to say: “Even though it was approved by Major League Baseball, the script doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of most sports yarns.”

In the same Filmmmaker interview from which I quoted earlier, Soderbergh indicates that Moneyball was going to be his “most extreme attempt” at combining reality and fiction. Based on this recent development at Columbia, it would appear that Soderbergh’s current artistic interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Hollywood, especially regarding the primacy of the script. Is anyone surprised?

Posted 23 June, 2009

sex, lies, and videotape

 

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.

Posted 16 February, 2008