Legacies: Steven Soderbergh's Revolutionary 'Sex Lies And Videotape' 25 Years Later

Features
by Jessica Kiang
January 23, 2014 7:07 PM
4 Comments
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“Afraid of getting caught?” -- Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo)

Of course, when we’re throwing shade over this issue, we, like Soderbergh, are going to lob the majority of it toward the risk-averse major studios and the big, brainless blockbusters that suck up the lion’s share of the resources. But it’s fascinating to note that all the way back in 1989 Cinecom president Amir Malin said, in contrast to, or rather refinement of, the prevailing fear that the blockbuster success of “Batman” was going to end Hollywood investment in anything but high-concept tentpoles: “Just because someone sees ‘Indiana Jones’ doesn’t mean they won’t see a sophisticated film like ”sex lies and videotape”...the fallout will occur with the standard [read: mid-budget] studio fare that cannot compete with the ‘Raiders,’ the ‘Ghostbusters’ and the ‘Batman’s.” This suggests that the more modest, but unmistakable success of Soderbergh’s own film, the polar opposite of a blockbuster, was a factor in sowing the seeds of the bifurcation of the industry into micro-budget indies, which he had outgrown (though to be fair he did dabble later on with “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Bubble”) or mega tentpoles in which he had little interest.

So Miramax is gone, Sundance is a sell-out to the moneymen and Soderbergh has retired. 25 years on, can the little indie that could possibly still have anything to offer?

The Movie

“What are all these tapes? Can we watch one?” -- Ann

Actually yes it can. It’s just a terrific film. Watching it again recently, it struck us anew just how, despite all the brouhaha about its generational nature and its place in history, the humanism and intelligence on display, even its over-talkiness, make it kind of timeless. Yes, made today it would be “sex, lies and... snapchat” and it wouldn’t feature quite such horrible jeans, but the issues it’s preoccupied with are still very much around. If anything, they are heightened by our ever creepier, ever more Graham-like relationship with technology--isn’t the false intimacy our social networking creates simply a more pervasive, culturally acceptable version of the ersatz closeness Graham can feel only through the remove of a video recording? 

Even the character of John (Peter Gallagher), so emblematic of the yuppie asshole that in 1989 everyone had had enough of, while he’d no doubt be a douchbag Wall Streeter in the 2014 version, is emblematic of a status-driven lifestyle that, current economics being what they are, many middle class people are finding they simply can’t afford. By contrast Graham’s “one key” philosophy and his unencumbered existence, lacking in material comfort but also free of debt or overburdened financial responsibility seems immediately appealing. And even aside from its ongoing thematic resonance, it’s simply a very witty, surprisingly insightful relationship drama that gives all four of its actors a chance to showcase career-best work as their characters negotiate the tangled webs they’ve woven.

“I don't find this ‘turning the tables’ thing very interesting” -- Graham

“I do.” --Ann

Soderbergh himself was always typically modest and self-critical about the film. Calling it in 1995, after the commercial failure of his two subsequent movies “Kafka” and “King of the Hill” “a modest piece with modest aspirations that happened to be what people wanted to see in a way I obviously haven’t been able to duplicate since” he soon went on to much bigger successes, and logged, prior to his retirement last year, one of the more diverse filmographies in recent memory. Later Soderbergh would diss the film even further saying it “looks like something made by someone who wants to think he’s deep but really isn’t.” But then, that critique also applied to a large portion of his contemporary audience, and that’s part of what made “sex lies and videotape” feel like such a generational discovery at the time. To slide into personal anecdote for a moment--I remember, when I discovered “sex lies and videotape,” feeling impossibly pleased with myself, with my own perceived sophistication, for getting it like I did. That was part of the genius of the film--if we look on it now, with all the wisdom we’ve accrued in the intervening years (!) as a little precocious, a little pretentious, well, it appealed then, as now, to the precocious, pretentious young adult, at whom the independent movement was largely aimed. Speaking in that language, the film became something epochal, zeitgeisty, and it made Soderbergh himself, as Roger Ebert put it, “the poster boy for the Sundance Generation.”

The Future

I never told you this, because I thought it would crush you, but now I could give a shit.” -- John (Peter Gallagher)

Traditionally, a generation is 25 years long. Soderbergh’s perfectly timed retirement last year seems doubly apt then, as the metaphor for the end of that very “Sundance Generation.” It also means that we’re (over)due another revolution. Of course we’ve been living through one for the last decade or so as digital technology has transformed every aspect of the filmmaking and viewing process, but has there been a single movie that has encapsulated or provoked this sea change in quite the way ‘sex lies’ did its revolution? Is it even possible, in these atomized times, for a single film to have that kind of impact again? 

Maybe not. But one thing we do know, that even when everything has for once and for all burst apart into pixels and information clouds and ones and zeros streaming through the air at the speed of light, and the reputation of Soderbergh's debut as a pioneering indie film has been rendered all but moot by the industry’s next makeover, it will still have a legacy as an inspiration. To financiers: don’t be put off by a project’s potential uncommerciality. To critics: yes, sometimes great things can come out of nowhere, with no precedent. And to filmmakers: just do it--write the script, make the movie, no matter how commercially un-viable, because maybe, just maybe, if it’s something that has enough faith and passion invested in it, it will remake the industry to its own needs. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that as long as there are filmmakers motivated by the same impulses that drove the 26 year-old Soderbergh, by the desire for self-expression, by the true spirit of independence whatever the “existing business model,” then, to echo Wim Wenders’ comment as he awarded the Cannes Grand Prix to “sex lies and videotape” in 1989, perhaps we can all have confidence in the the future of cinema.

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4 Comments

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  • hank | January 23, 2014 7:29 PMReply

    great article. i re-watched this film a couple years ago and was blown away all over again.

  • nate | January 23, 2014 6:05 PMReply

    What a great article! This is the type of piece that sets you guys above the others.

  • TheoC | January 23, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    This is a fantastic longer read for a Thursday evening, thank you.

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