Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Eight

8 sex

#8 — sex, lies, and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
The characters in Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut are so well-drawn and deeply considered that the filmmaker was able to defer the task of titling the work to one of them. When Soderbergh was having a tough time come up with a name for the film, he asked himself what the main character, a somewhat directionless man with a fairly odd secret habit, would call it. Graham, as played by James Spader, was a character given to blunt understatement, which led Soderbergh to settle on a straightforward declaration of the key components driving the film’s drama: sex, lies, and videotape.

Long tagged as the film that marked the demarcation point in the shift of the Sundance Film Festival from a nice way for Hollywood figures to write off a ski vacation as a business trip to a vital predictor of the next wave of cinematic talent, Soderbergh’s film is perhaps more remarkable for the ways in which it doesn’t fit into the mold it formed. While most of the films that have emerged from Sundance buoyed by buzz over the years have been notable for a level of storytelling busyness that verges on emotional chaos, sex, lies, and videotape is quiet, introspective, measured and assured. It belongs more to the independent film culture that preceded it than the one it fostered. Even if the title signals the deceptions that help stir the narrative, the film is more notable for its commitment to painful, penetrating truths. And unlike the movie norm, the hardest moments don’t come with brash histrionics, but with people who stare each other down as they quietly gauge how much of their spirit has been planed away by each new betrayal.

Graham is an old friend of John, played by Peter Gallagher with the confident ease of a man who’s grown overly accustomed to getting away with whatever he wants. Graham comes to visit and settle down in town, sharing his unique philosophy of social detachment, best exemplified by his aversion to committing to things like car ownership or having a job because of the corresponding exponential increase in the number of keys in his possession. His cryptic qualities make him especially intriguing to John’s wife Ann, played with astonishing reservoirs of feeling by Andie MacDowell, and, eventually, her sister Cynthia, practically billowing sexual authority thanks to the purred ingenuity of Laura San Giacomo. Like a good dramatist, Soderbergh keeps drawing his characters together in different combinations, certain that the resulting friction will wear them down to the inner selves. Soderbergh knows when to get out of the way as a director, letting the actors shape the material and scenes play out with generous stretches of awkwardness and silence. But he also knows when to press in, when only a camera moving sharply in, even to the point of discomfort, will break a scene in stark, gratifying fashion.

Soderbergh’s work is so carefully calibrated that it requires performances that reflect that delicacy. That’s true across the board, but no one is as riveting as Spader. By now, the actor has spun so long on the merry-go-round of weirdness that self-parody is one of the only options he has left, but at the time sex, lies, and videotape was released, he was still best known (arguably solely known) as the sort of pretty boy villain blatantly inserted into films to give pliable audiences someone to soundly root against. With Graham, he found a vivid soulfulness, tenderly conveying all of the subtle ways the character was lost with a few hopeful glimmers of the remaining survival instincts that gave him a chance to find a route back to himself. By the end, as he finally begins to take unafraid notice of the world around him, unwittingly securing naming rights for the film he’s in has become the least of the character’s accomplishments.