Steven Soderbergh Blogathon-Sex, Lies and Videotape
In an earlier post on Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, by William Johnson, he explores how the movie actually made the careers of George Clooney, Soderbergh and Jeniffer Lopez. Well Lopez, in spite of giving one of her career best performances, never really went on to do anything much greater later on, but the movie was a turning point for George Clooney. He was already a TV star thanks to ER, but his movie career was not really going great guns. After a series of dud movies, Clooney’s first major breakthrough came in Robert Rodriguez’s cult vampire hit From Dusk to Dawn in 1996, followed by the rom com One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer. His action thriller The Peacemaker with Nicole Kidman, however tanked, and Batman & Robin, was slammed by critics, while doing just about average business at the box office. It was Out of Sight in 1998, that put Clooney firmly on the road to stardom, while Jennifer Lopez, achieved mainstream recognition, it is another thing that she did not really build on that. And more than anything else it was a comeback of sorts for Soderbergh himself, who after bursting on the scene with Sex, Lies and Videotape, in 1989, did not really achieve commercial success, in spite of some really good movies like Kafka, King of the Hill and The Underneath. Out of Sight bought Soderbergh back into mainstream reckoning again, and he cemented that later on with the Ocean’s series, as well as wowing the critics with Erin Brockovich, Traffic.
Soderbergh was from the South, coming from a family of Swedish immigrants, who had settled here. Born in Atlanta, his growing up years were in Baton Rouge, an industrial city, located on the Mississippi, where his father worked as the Dean of Education at the Louisiana State University. So when he was drafting the story for his first movie, it was not surprising that he would choose to set it in that city. Incidentally, Andie McDowell, was not Soderbergh’s first choice either for Sex, Lies and Videotape, it was Elizabeth McGovern, who had already made her name in Ragtime and Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. However with McGovern’s agent rejecting the offer, Soderbergh had to look for Andie McDowell, albeit reluctantly. He had his own apprehensions, Ms. McDowell, was seen more as a “pretty face, super model” who could not really act, more famous for her Vogue covers. In fact in her debut movie Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan, Ms.McDowell’s lines had to be dubbed by Glenn Close, as her Southern accent was deemed a misfit for the role of a typical prim and propah Englishwoman. However she did well in the audition, and the movie dispelled the notion of her being just a pretty face, who could not act. And above all, the movie was a turning point for the Mecca of Indie movie makers, Miramax, which had a winner in this, along with My Left Foot, in 1989. So in efect, apart from Soderbergh making his debut as a director, Sex, Lies and Videotape, also launched the careers of Andie MacDowell as well making Miramax, the go to address for all aspiring Indie movie makers in the 90’s.
Well, this weekend John was taking out the garbage, and he kept spilling things out of the container, and I started imagining a container that grew garbage, like it just kept filling up and overflowing all by itself, and how could you stop that if it started happening?
Sex, Lies and Videotape, has no grand title credits, movie starts off in a low key fashion, with the camera panning over a road, and then zooming up to the car, where we see Graham Dalton( James Spader), driving along. With his blonde locks, jacket, laid back demeanor, Spader is every inch the drifter, who walks into town. The voice over from Ann Bishop Mullany( Andie McDowell), keeps cutting back and forth, with shots of her, speaking to her therapist, and Graham, dumping the garbage, walking along. Ann is clearly not happy with her life, but she seems to have compromised with it, stating that being happy is not that great anyway, and her figure goes out of shape when she is happy. Her husband John Mullany( Peter Gallagher), a succesful lawyer, agrees with her. He feels being a married guy makes him that much more attractive to the opposite sex, “as soon as you start getting a ring, on your finger, you get serious attention”. From the voice overs of Ann and John, and the frequent cutting back and forth, it is clear that both of them are in a marriage that seems to be going nowhere. Ann is somehow not too enthused about sex, she does not hate it either, but is not really wanting it, but she finds it odd that John does not try to get her interest or even touch her. With good reason, for John, is having a steamy affair with Ann’s own sister Cynthia( Laura San Giacomo) , a more free spirited bartender. In a very ironic twist, we have Ann’s voice over, explaining the reason for why her sex life, was not doing too great and on the screen, both John and Cynthia are making it out passionately. Cynthia is the opposite of her sister, living on her own, working as a bartender, loves getting hit on by guys and is much more passionate. She feels her beautiful, popular sister, is pretty much a lousy lay in the bed. In fact while Ann is worried about John, bringing in his friend Graham into home, to stay with them for a while, Cynthia is actually relishing that prospect. She feels he could be the guy she was looking for and then would not have to waste time, sleeping around with worried husbands.
Graham:Do I pay taxes? Of course I pay taxes, only a liar doesn’t pay taxes, I’m not a liar. A liar is the second lowest form of human being.
Ann: What’s the first?
Another excellent scene in the movie, the dinner table conversation between John, Graham and Ann, it is pretty much a talky affair, but the conversation throws up insights on all the 3 characters. Graham, more of the drifter, looking for a job, has a girl friend here, in Baton Rouge. John, the more settled, normal person, somehow does not think too highly of Graham, especially his free spirited Bohemian nature. And then you have Ann, who is by now clearly fascinated with Graham, after she was reluctant in admitting him into the home. Graham’s laid back persona, his cool appearance and his open nature, holds a strange kind of attraction to Ann. Graham ironically feels that lawyers are the worst form of human beings, even though his friend is one.
I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love what they’re attracted to, whereas women become more and more attracted to the person they love.
Matter of fact three of the main characters in the movie, John, Ann and Graham are lying in one way or another. John is carrying out a sneaky affair, with Ann’s sister, lying to his bosses, sneaking out for sexual trysts. Ann on the other hand is lying to herself most of the time. She tries to rationalize her own behavior, feeling that sex is overrated, not really a big deal, a way of trying to deal with her own reluctance towards it. In fact the scene where Ann and Graham have that conversation at lunch, brings out their own neuroses perfectly. Graham in a way is attracted toward Ann, though he does not put it directly to her. He feels she is attractive, and extremely self conscious of herself, believing that people are looking at her. He feels she is truly attractive in an old world way, an indescribable charm about her and add to it that she is a nice girl. Ann is that beautiful, looking, nice girl, whom you want to possess, but are hesitant to approach. And part of that appeal, lies in her own self conscious approach, her constant need to be validated by others, to rationalize her own actions.
Which Cynthia definitely is not, in fact of all the characters, she seems to be the only one really sure about what she wants. She sleeps around with John, but knows that he is not what she is looking for. She has no qualms being hit on by strangers, nor expressing her sexuality. Graham on the other hand for all his drop dead gorgeous looks, blond locks, and hunky appearance is no tiger in the bed. He actually does not get an erection in presence of some one, a confession he makes to Ann. But again like Ann, he rationalizes his own frigidity, stating that it makes him much more clear headed. The sex in the movie is not overtly physical, there are some love making scenes, but nothing really steamy, unlike some of the other movies in this genre. Underplaying and understatement has been Soderbergh’s signature style, and the sexual tension is depicted more through the expressions. As in the scene, where Ann is lying in bed, thinking of the conversation she had with Graham, she gets up and walks to where Graham is sleeping. She stares at him, with a sense of longing, but does not really do anything. There is no Graham getting up suddenly, pulling Ann, and making out, like in a conventional Hollywood flick, but you feel that undercurrent of sexual tension.
“It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.- Rob Bell”.
The growing feeling of Ann, for Graham, can be seen, in the scene, with Cynthia, who is eager to meet him up. Ann tries to dissuade her sister in a subtle manner, saying she is not his type. Cynthia on the other hand, feels Ann always underestimates her, she is insecure that Graham will be drawn to her, if she were to put both of them in the same room. As Ann confides to her therapist, later on, she does hate her sister a lot, maybe because of her obsession with sex and guys. Again another well directed scene, with the camera panning in on a grainy home video, showing a woman speak about her sexual fantasies, and Graham watching her, while he is stark naked himself. Graham is a voyeur with a difference, he takes videotapes of women, but not undressing or having sex, he goes much deeper. He takes videos of women, speaking out about their sexual fantasies, in a way, they open up their soul to him, let them into their spirit, they are truly much more naked. Ann is shocked initially when she meets him in the apartment, and learns of what he records on the video tapes, leaving in a rush. Cynthia however manages to find Graham, and in another well shot scene, she literally bares out her soul to him, about her first experience, and later masturbating in front of him.
Sex, Lies and Videotape is about sex, but not the physical part, here Soderbergh, goes beyond into the human mind, and brings out their inner feelings. Soderbergh, makes the camera a voyeur, but not into the physical zones of the body much, it goes straight into the human mind and brain. The sexual tension is more in the intricate interplay, between the characters minds and feelings, than in the actual physical sense. You can sense that feeling in the encounters between Graham and Ann, when the former, gets into her mind, trying to convince of her own repressed desires, and the latter, is attracted to Graham, more for his thoughts. Soderbergh lets the movie unfold slowly, at a leisurely pace, keeping the music low key, as he lets the atmosphere envelop over you. This is not 91/2 Weeks or Basic Instinct, in fact there are no shots of nudity, and even most of the sex scenes, are pretty much short, so if you are expecting that fare, do not watch this. The voyeurism is into the mind here, into the characters motivations, and that is where it comes out with all the searing honesty. And yes the movie works, with some top notch performances. James Spader till then mostly playing the nasty bully sort,is first rate in the role of Graham Dalton, the drop dead gorgeous hunk, who in reality is not a stud, and stimulates himself, watching videos of women speak on their sexual fantasies. Andie McDowell, has that classic, old world charm, the graceful lady, whom you desire,and she is brilliant, as Ann, who represses her own sexual desires, add to it that lovely Southern accent. Peter Gallagher as the philandering, yuppie husband, is fairly competent, and Laura San Giacomo is suitably sultry as the free spirited, bartender, living life on her own,not afraid to express her own sexuality.