Friday, April 2, 2010

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

The first moments of Steven Soderbergh's body of work establish a subtle air of unreality that anticipates a career of confounded expectations and nimbly wrought formal dramas. With a series of mysterious, half-finished character introductions that share an indefinable unease in common with the films of David Lynch, particularly Lost Highway (1997), Soderbergh lays the groundwork for his chatty, perplexing debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The camera points towards the pavement whizzing by, creating a gray abstraction that resembles the television static seen later in the film, when the psychologically repressed Graham Dalton's (James Spader) erotically charged videotapes run their course. Then a woman's soft Southern voice begins, speaking with the same stilted quality of Laura Dern in INLAND EMPIRE: "Garbage. All I've been thinking about all week is garbage. I mean, I just can't stop thinking about it." The voice is that of Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell), and she is running off her trivial weekly concerns to her unenthusiastic psychiatrist. Yet Soderbergh lets the monologue provide the primary aural thrust of the entire opening montage - even after cutting to the scene of her speech, where she is sitting cross-legged on a couch in a relaxing sun dress - suggesting, no matter how much it implies insignificance, that it is indeed something to listen to.

What we retain from this scene though is not the content of her words, but rather the way MacDowell speaks them. There is something overly delicate and self-conscious about it, perhaps a facade that masks a level of instability beneath, and it underscores the brief interjections of both Graham and Ann's lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher), two old college buddies who adamantly express that their paths have parted. There is no way of knowing this at first though, so the deft cuts to the suave, blond-haired Graham arriving in town register suspicion and anxiety, a black-clad enigma making quick detours on his way like an inconspicuous assassin. All of this is presented with a sedate formal tightness that firmly implants the film's storytelling modus operandi: provide deeply analytical editing rhythms, but never show more than the objective surfaces of the scenes, never probe the interior mindsets of the characters, and instead let them materialize in unexpected ways. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is one of the rare films that plays less like a succession of individual chunks and more like one fluid, interconnected montage, with countless instances of "invisible" cutting from one conversation to another in a completely separate space, as if the words are not mutually exclusive but rather endless incarnations and continuations of the same situation. In this sense, it is only inevitable that the little white lies told by the treacherous and sexually promiscuous quartet of central characters cause mayhem and dysfunction by the end of the film.

As a tale of adultery and betrayal culminating in a transcendent comeuppance, Soderbergh's debut has the tidings of a classic Greek tragedy, yet it is told in such an unconventional, elliptical manner that it eludes labels of melodrama and academia. It is a story that, despite its seemingly linear chronology, feels dispersed like a mosaic, and thus it does not involve much dramatic crescendo, at least not in a traditional sense. Ann and John have been married for some time, but do not have sex anymore, for Ann finds it extraneous and unsatisfying. This is not to say that they are sexually inactive though, as John is involved in a meaningless on-call affair with Ann's extroverted, bartender sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), and what Ann finds most intimate is actually sharing honest conversations with others. When Graham arrives and stays a few nights at their suburban home in Baton Rouge, she strikes up an interest in his smooth, personable demeanor and the two go out to lunch after searching for a house for Graham with a Realtor, where she learns of Graham's impotence forged by his devastating break-up with a past girlfriend. It is clear that the grounds for disaster have been thoroughly entrenched, and eventually any potential heterogeneous pairing of the foursome is actualized.

Complicating the situation, and proving to be the ultimate form of threatening exposure, is Graham's habit of videotaping anonymous women as he kindly asks them about their sexual experiences. Ann discovers this when she is at his house and sees the organized conglomeration of labeled videotapes beside his TV, harmlessly probing him about his "personal project" at first and then showing discomfort and disgust when she starts to gather the context of the tapes. For Ann, a surefire prude, this is an unacceptable act of perversion, an intrusion on the privacy of the female for a selfish reason, and this alone is enough to suggest the apparatus of the cinema, a medium that is performing precisely Graham's act of penetrating voyeurism and complicity. It seems an attempt on Soderbergh's part to equate film - a material long used as a means for entertainment and art - and the new practice of video, greeted with much skepticism as what could be a harmfully personal endeavor. Cynthia, representing the passive, oblivious firebrand, barges into Graham's house and answers his questions on tape after her interest is aroused by Ann's expressed apprehension. This also coincides with Ann's increased suspicion about John and Cynthia's affair, and the videotapes inevitably provide the evidence necessary for Ann to tell John she wants out of their marriage.

In her frazzled state and still harboring strong levels of attraction towards Graham, she too confronts him and asks to be taped. Before arriving, Soderbergh shoots her drive over in one bizarre cut from her sitting in her driveway covering her eyes while the engine kick-starts, then taking her hands away when it stops to find herself right in front of Graham's house. It's a bracingly avant-garde move, announcing the disorienting sprawl of the final thirty minutes, which rivetingly intercut Graham and Ann's intimate discussion and John watching the resultant tape later in fury in Graham's living room. The performances here are incredible, explaining how the potentially soapy material becomes something altogether entrancing and devastating, but it is MacDowell who communicates the most significant transformation. She strips away the uptight reluctance that stems from her suburban ennui and reaches a more fundamental understanding of the people around her and what drives them. It's an intensely moving, masterfully orchestrated sequence, in many ways a summation of the film's themes of alienation, betrayal, and objectivity vs. subjectivity. And more significantly, it is one of the finest debuts in film history, announcing Steven Soderbergh as a fresh talent with a knack for shattering convention and creating dense, thoughtful meditations on modern life.

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