Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movies: Sex, Lies, & Videotape

As a child, when we went to the video store to rent a movie, I would wander the aisles of VHS boxes and wonder about certain films, like Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I imagined it was very bad, and of course I could not ask to watch it. And indeed, as an eight, nine, ten year old, I had no business watching it. Even at sixteen, I didn't need to watch something it. But it's not smut. It's one of Soderbergh's best movies, straight and honest and made with a very delicate touch, for its heavy themes of marital infidelity and sexual repression. It's also surprisingly timeless. Watching it now, you don't get the feeling that the film is over twenty years old. It feels like it's pushing the envelope in its frank, spare delivery, even now.

When I picture James Spader, I inevitably see Graham, his character from this film: a shy, strange, and it turns out impotent college friend of boisterous asshole John (Peter Gallagher), who is sleeping with the sexpot sister of his frigid wife Ann (Andie McDowell, who also gives her definitive performance in this film). Spader's character moves around, living in bare apartments and out of his beat-up old car, videotaping interviews with women on their sexual habits. Watching these tapes, after-the-fact, in solitude, is the only way he is able to obtain sexual climax.

Soderberg is meanwhile making his own meta-videotape, Ann positioned uncomfortably upright on her analyst's couch, talking about her marriage, sex, and irrational fears (pointedly, she is concerned about all of the world's garbage). She is first wary of the stranger's visit, but soon intrigued by Graham's sensitivity. John, conversely, finds him creepy, and doesn't want to spend any time with him. Ann helps Graham find an apartment, and visits him there a few times, nursing a budding friendship until she discovers his tapes, fleeing in disgust.

Ann's sister Cynthia, open in every way that Ann is closed, can't get Ann to tell her what Graham's secret is, so she goes to his apartment, uninvited, and introduces herself. She makes a tape. Ann is disgusted. Meanwhile, her relationship with John is deteriorating further. She is certain he is having an affair. When she finds her sister's earring in her own bedroom; she is certain. Potent with rage, she goes to Graham's apartment, and demands to make a tape. He tries to talk her out of it, but she refuses. They begin.

Cagey Soderbergh doesn't give us this scene. Instead, we watch the tape as voyeurs, sitting with John, who breaks into Graham's apartment and watches first the one of Cynthia, then the one of his wife. Minutes into that tape, Graham and Ann's bodies magnetically draw closer, and the video halts into snow. Rage. Needless to say, the marriage does not survive.

What I love about this film is its spare simplicity: four characters, six relationships, one issue, unfolding over the course of a few weeks, simmering very quietly, as if in a pressure cooker. Soderbergh is deliberate and restrained, and only films the steam seeping out of the safety valve, but it is beautiful steam, hot and pure.


Anonymous said...

Lovely review of my favorite movie. I just love this quiet character study and the actors wonderful performances. I really think James Spader is amazing in this film; to this day I find it hard to understand why he didn't get a nod from the Academy for his perfomance.

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