As Cynthia gets dressed for work, Ann picks up objects in Cynthia’s house and puts them down. The two women plainly don’t like each other. You wonder what Ann is doing there. “What’s he look like?” Cynthia asks. “Why?” says Ann, her voice completely dead. If the roles were reversed, Cynthia would answer Ann’s what’s-he-look-like with “I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”
“I just want to know what he looks like,” says Cynthia. “Why?” says Ann again. “So you can go after him?” The scene picks up, Cynthia almost snarling: “Jesus, Ann, get a life. I just asked what he looked like.” She’s tired of this, of her whole 20-some years with this born-scared, pinched woman; you can tell that playing together as kids meant Ann reminding Cynthia of their mother’s rules and Cynthia breaking them. “Besides,” Cynthia says, “even if I decide to fuck his brains out, what business is that—of yours?” You can feel a power shift. Ann’s met this new person, knows him, knows where and how he lives. Cynthia knows nothing, but she says “if I decide,” not the vague, conditional “if I decided”—what happens is up to her, and Ann knows it.
Ann slumps. “Why do you have to say that?” “Say what?” Cynthia asks, knowing exactly what: “fuck his brains out.” “You know what,” Ann says, like a 10year-old. “You say it just to irritate me.” “I say it,” Cynthia says evenly, not holding back anger, but taking pleasure in letting the words out slowly, “because it’s descriptive.” She gives every syllable of the last word its own pause.
Cynthia presses the advantage she’s had since she learned to walk, demanding the new man’s address. Ann can’t refuse but she tries: “I don’t feel right, giving you the address so you can go over there and, uh—” “And what?” Cynthia says; she’s set the trap and Ann’s halfway into it. “Do whatever it is you do,” Ann says helplessly. “‘Do whatever it is you do’,” Cynthia says, ending the game. “Listen to the way you talk.”
This scene stands out in sex, lies, and videotape—26-year-old writer-director Steven Soderbergh’s first film, a $1.2 million relationship-study set in Baton Rouge that took the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, beating Spike “I Was Robbed” Lee’s Do the Right Thing—because the scene has some life to it. Given the setup that’s before, or for that matter the play-out that follows, the scene, coming about a quarter-way into the film, is the center of the movie, because it’s neither predictable nor contained. It has the immediacy of a real movie: a sense of challenge, vulnerability, high stakes. The naturalism Soderbergh wants is validated not by highlighting low-budget effects but through detail and breath control. The scene dramatizes; it’s fun to watch.
The bite of Cynthia’s “it’s descriptive” is itself descriptive. It’s very nearly violent, “it’s descriptive” applied to “fuck his brains out,” words Ann couldn’t say under torture. It’s as close as the movie comes to action. There’s a wonderful trill, a terrific edge in the two words, the way Cynthia uses the “es” to stop the moment, freeze it, drive the knife in. This is mise en scene—the creation of a scene that demands the viewer bring everything she or he has to bear upon it in order to feel it fully, because the director and the actors have brought the full measure of their talents, their emotions, and their intelligence into the scene—and, on this level, it’s all sex, lies, and videotape gives you.
The film is about Ann (Andie MacDowell), married a year to John (Peter Gallagher), who’s just been made partner in his law firm; Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo); and Graham (James Spader), John’s old friend, unseen for nine years. John and Ann no longer—already don’t—“have sex”; unbeknownst to Ann, John and Cynthia are knocking off nooners. Graham, as he soon tells Ann, is impotent—he “can’t get an erection in the presence of another person.” As Ann discovers to her horror, and Cynthia to her delight, he gets off videotaping women talking about their sex lives. Graham has a big, neatly filed collection of tapes (“Susan”, “Alicia,” and “Francine”); he masturbates to them. Even on the terms of the film, the characters are too easily defined, falling into slots like counters: housewife in therapy (John made her quit her job), yuppie-scum husband, bohemian sister (never mind where the money for her house came from), and dark stranger.
As the dark stranger, Graham is blond, but he wears a black shirt. This is crucial, all but kicking off the narrative: the shirt disgusts John (“You going to a funeral?”) and thrills Ann. The thing is so full of meaning it upends the story (if John is so appalled by Graham’s black shirt over jeans, you can’t believe the two men were ever friends). But Graham is the real bohemian, self-described seeker of “a minimalist vibe,” arcane ’60s language meant to separate him from ’80s materialism. Everything Graham owns is in the trunk of his car; he’s unsure about renting an apartment in Baton Rouge because, he says, he only wants to carry “one key.” (“You could get rid of the car,” John says, in the one human moment the film allows him, the one moment of humor; “No,” Graham says, “gotta have a car.” But he gets an apartment and pays extra for no lease.)
Graham is that familiar movie character: the disrupter, the truthmaker, the outsider who invades the settled, unexamined lives of others—Humphrey Bogart’s Duck Mantee in The Petrified Forest was an early version—and forces them to question who they are, who sends them off on new life paths. Unlike even Cynthia, Graham has no time for small talk, for manners. He’s put himself so far outside of everyone else’s normality, outside of the politeness that keeps life level, that he no longer even recognizes his transgressions. His rudeness is so disarming it seems like a kind of social idiocy—or, perhaps more to the movie’s point, social innocence, innocence regained. When he meets Ann, arriving at her house as John’s mysterious stranger, he immediately asks for the bathroom, comes back and announces a “false alarm,” cross-examines Ann on her marriage, then says he’s now ready to go back to the bathroom: as an impotent, James Spader (named Best Actor at Cannes) is very convincing. Pauline Kael once wrote that the way Warren Beatty moved in Bonnie and Clyde made it impossible to believe his Clyde Barrow was impotent, no matter what the script said; it’s impossible to believe Spader’s Graham isn’t.
Graham is perhaps the most passive male lead in the history of American movies: a stuffed animal you can cuddle or kick, no difference to him either way. He’s soft, physically undefined as he sits naked, half-wrapped in a sheet, jerking off to one of his tapes; his mouth twists in self-questioning when he has to talk. He may deserve his award, but it won’t make you care about him when you have to watch him.
Graham’s talk, finally, can be boiled down to one great line in the next revised edition of How To Pick Up Girls: “Wanna be in pictures?” as only the eunuch in the boudoir could pull it off. Women just can’t resist. When Cynthia shows up at Graham’s place, catching him in front of his TV and VCR, she wants to make a tape, and does it: she takes off her skirt and masturbates for Graham’s videocam, safe as milk. When Ann finally confirms the affair between her sister and her husband, the first thing she wants to do is make a video (we’ve seen her talking to her therapist, embarrassed, half-candid; why didn’t he think of this?)—and she does it too, curing Graham’s impotence in the bargain (for that, he gets up and turns off the camera).
All of this proceeds with an inevitability that would beggar a TV movie: what else are Ann and Graham doing here but to cure each other? What else are Cynthia and John doing here but to be put in their places (Cynthia, sister who discovers sisterly love, and deference; John, creep)? Throughout the narrative, you’re made aware of how carefully the director and the actors have worked out their unactorly asides, dropped gestures, half-faded lines: you’re aware of the effort they’re putting into acting natural in a low-budget movie, the way they’re acting low-budget. The result isn’t naturalism, it’s twitchy. That’s why the scene with Ann and Cynthia stands out of the movie, finally upending it. Ann doesn’t know what she wants to say, but her sister knows, and she forces her sister to say it. Then Cynthia says what she means, explains it, makes it into the epistemology of the relationship the rest of the film slips, and cuts her sister’s personality open, down to the bone. But this is what Graham is supposed to be doing.
Sex, lies, and videotape is nowhere near so far from Hollywood as it pretends to be. Husband John, swiftly established as a one-note narcissistic middle-class thug (what does Cynthia see in him, you ask, much too soon), is singled out for punishment: everyone else is redeemed by love. Spader and Andie Mac-Dowell are familiar from St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, and other overpublicized films. The sets are Hollywood lush, often ridiculously so: if John’s enormous corner-office-with-a-view is what junior partners get, senior partners must get their own buildings. Trumpeting its off-market funkiness with nearly every frame, the movie is very careful. There’s no nudity. And all of the sex—Cynthia and John; Cynthia; Graham; Graham and Ann—takes place off camera.
It’s pointless to look for meaning in this, as it is to look for meaning anywhere else in this film about how-we-live-now. If Soderbergh were saying that in today’s world it seems as if all “real” sex has to be removed from life, has to be talk-on-film, has to be in videos-within-a-film, then the happy ending of Graham’s return to potency and Ann’s first orgasm would have to take place after they’d videotaped themselves trying and failing to achieve just such a release—to prove the falsity of video, doo-wop sh-boom—and that’s not what happens. What happens is a film with holes in it. Having discovered that “John and Cynthia are fucking,” as Ann tells Graham (he already knows, of course, having made Cynthia’s tell-all video), Ann instantly changes from Stepford wife into tough mama (now she can say “fucking”). The shift isn’t true for a second, but an onscreen fuck between her and Graham (no need for anything so complete as Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now, just something on the level of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in The Terminator) might make it so. Movie sex isn’t always gratuitous; sometimes, it tells a story that can’t be told any other way. Here, its absence erases the story.
Ultimately, sex, lies, and videotape is very ’50s—therapist, adultery, justice done, Beat refusal of capital letters in the title—and very ’80s—thirtysomething without production values. It’s earnest, dull, and calculated. So the question is—why did this film win the International Critics Prize at Cannes?
Perhaps by suggesting that if this is the best the USA has to offer, Europe is safe—safe from the likes of Batman, an incalculably better movie, or even from Great Balls of Fire!, a bad movie with a dozen incandescent moments. Director Wim Wenders, head of the Cannes jury, has spoken of the way American popular culture (movies, comic books, rock & roll most of all) “colonized” his postwar West Germany generation; unlike Batman, a German-expressionist comic with rock & roll around the edges, or Great Balls of Fire!, a rock & roll comic with performance scenes exploding off the screen—performance scenes that work as sex scenes—sex, lies, and videotape will threaten no one. It’s the movie equivalent of New Age music: a perfect resolution of a conflict in which, save for a single encounter, nothing was ever in doubt.
L.A. Weekly, August 10, 1989