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Legacies: Steven Soderbergh’s Revolutionary ‘Sex Lies And Videotape’ 25 Years Later

Legacies: Steven Soderbergh's Revolutionary 'Sex Lies And Videotape' 25 Years Later

“I’m a little concerned by what ‘sex, lies’ might have wrought here,’ said Steven Soderbergh at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, proving even at 27 to be, aside from a promising filmmaker, an unusually thoughtful and prescient commentator on the wider industry. 

This was scarcely a year after his debut feature had unassumingly premiered at the festival and irrevocably changed the face of the movie world, and already then the sleepy, retrospectively genteel-feeling festival of yore had unmistakably begun its rapid evolution into the titan it is today; a quick glance at our coverage of this year’s Sundance alone can tell you just how far it’s come, in terms of media profile, business activity, not to mention sheer volume of films. Ordinarily at around this point in the paragraph, we’d be issuing a chortling disclaimer along the lines of ”of course, one can’t possibly credit a single film with the entire etc etc” but the refreshing thing about “sex lies and videotape” is that it’s the rare film that practically can carry the entire weight of a movement on its mulleted shoulders. For those of us who spend any portion of our time contemplating the contemporary independent film scene in the U.S., even 25 years later, Soderbergh’s film is still the load-bearing foundation of that particular edifice; it’s a “sex, lies and videotape” world, and we just live in it. Or at least travel there for work. How long that will continue, or whether, indeed, it’s already coming to an end, is a question we’ll ask presently.

But first, a brief frolic through history for those of you rightly skeptical of the grand claims we’ve just made for the influence of this small film. To our minds, ‘sex lies’ was instrumental in launching four symbiotically interrelated, yet distinct phenomena: the modern matrix of success for an independent film; the rapid growth of Sundance; the Weinsteins; and the career of Steven Soderbergh. As to the fourth, you can check out our retrospective on Soderbergh here, and for the first three, a more detailed and exhaustive, if occasionally dubiously opinionated recounting of events is laid out in Peter Biskind’s entertaining “Down and Dirty Pictures,” but for our purposes a potted version will do.

The Story

“Everybody has a past” — Graham (James Spader)

Sometime prior to 1989, Soderbergh, the story goes, writes the script for “sex,lies and videotape” in eight days. He secures funding of $1.2m–a relatively large amount for an independent film–from RCA, largely as an investment in a potential home video hit, and casts up. His first thought for Ann is Elizabeth McGovern, but, as proves a recurring theme, her agents find the script “pornographic” and reportedly don’t even show it to her (Soderbergh would work with her on 1993’s “King of the Hill”), while Laura San Giacomo allegedly threatens to leave her agency if they don’t let her take the part of Cynthia. As Soderbergh claims on the DVD commentary, a meeting with Andie MacDowell for the role of Ann was “forced on” him, and when she blew him away in audition and he told his producer, he could see the skepticism on her face: “Oh God, Steven’s fallen for this model.” They shoot in 30 days, the only time ever, Soderbergh claimed a decade later, that he’d felt like he had enough time and enough money on a film shoot.

Then, in January 1989 “sex lies and videotape” debuts at Sundance. It’s unfinished, with temporary sound and titles made on a Xerox machine (according to a 1989 Rolling Stone interview) As in previous years the Grand Prize goes to a film that subsequently disappears (Sundance back then was not only lesser in regard, it was actively avoided by many producers as being a kind of “kiss of death” — stigmatizing its winners as “art movies” that were therefore unsellable), in this case “True Love” by Nancy Savoca who’d go on to make the greatly underrated “Dogfight.” Soderbergh’s film, however, by a long distance the most buzzed about of this or any other Sundance, takes the Audience Award for drama, and Soderbergh, still reportedly recovering from major dental surgery, parties. Still, he leaves without a distributor–things worked at a more sedate pace back then–until the phone starts ringing.

One of the calls is from Simpson and Bruckheimer, amazingly. It doesn’t get returned, and later Soderbergh would have to apologize for referring to them as “…slime, just barely passing for humans” in an interview with Rolling Stone when in fact he never met either (he’d also apologize years later, calling the move a total unprofessional mistake of youth). But another call comes from Miramax, then an outfit putting out three or four films a year, that had come some way in the decade since its founding, from softcore skin flicks and concert movies, to a roster that had included in the few years prior “Pelle the Conqueror,” “Working Girls” and Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line.” With the Weinsteins already proving themselves masters at a no-holds barred approach to marketing (that same year they’d have Daniel Day-Lewis addressing congress on the issue of rights for the disabled, prior to a Capitol Hill screening of “My Left Foot”), and with Harvey’s aggressive acquisition tactics in full force, Soderbergh opts for the Miramax deal. With a subtly sexed-up poster (the shots are not from the film directly and while they’re only of faces, the visual impression is of a lot more flesh than the film actually deals in–in fact Soderbergh reports the early disappointment of an RCA exec expecting a lot more nudity), they enter the film for Cannes. It’s initially sidelined into the Director’s Fortnight, but a last minute cancellation sees it bumped up to the Competition slate where, against the likes of Jane Campion’s “Sweetie,” and Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies,” and stellar U.S. competition from stalwart indie auteur Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” and new firebrand Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” it wins the Palme d’Or.

“What will you do when the money runs out?” — Ann (Andie MacDowell)

“It won’t.” — Graham

With deafening (for an indie, for the time) buzz, and marketing materials now laden with laurels and genuflecting pullquotes, the film is released in U.S. cinemas and makes $24m. By today’s standards that’s piddling, but for 1989 it was huge (and actually represents a return on investment proportionately higher than the same year’s megahit “Batman”). That it married critical, arthouse adoration with financial success not only instantly catapulted Miramax and its brilliant, brash selling strategies to the top of the indie film food chain, but it convinced everyone else that there was gold in them thar Utah hills. Within a decade, every major would have either acquired or created a specialty division, to mine these opportunities. And Sundance, which just the year before had been in danger of becoming “this utopian thing in the mountains without making any impact” according to one of its own execs, was firmly on the map. In 1990, its film slate expanded by 25% on 1989’s, and in a decade it had doubled.

The Legacy

“Nothing is what I thought it was” –Ann

And this, of course is the real rub. If “sex lies and videotape,” with only a small dash of hyperbole, can be said to have given birth to the modern independent film scene, then it also birthed the unspoken “lie” of the modern independent film. And we’re not just talking about the fact that the idea of independence in filmmaking is a funny concept, a misnomer, really, for a business that requires some degree of interdependent team work the second a filmmaker attempts anything more ambitious than a home video of “Little Charlie Tearing Up A Newspaper” (a masterpiece, incidentally). “sex lies and videotape” defined the potential of an independent film the moment it made a significant amount of money for its investors, and it is the nature of success, that as a business, as a film festival or as a filmmaker you grow and expand. Your budgets become bigger, expectations heavier and if your horizons broaden, you are simply not as free to roam them as you once were. So at what point have you expanded so much that you lose touch with what characterized your independence in the first place? A tipping point has to be reached.

Take Sundance for example–now a huge media event that attracts as many A-list Hollywood stars as struggling first-timers, its harsher critics accuse it of failing to keep faith with its original independent principles (becoming ironically the very thing that had made its patron, Robert Redford, reluctant to get involved with any festival all the way back in the ’80s). It’s a huge, frenetic marketplace now, with major studios, either directly or more often in the sheep’s clothing of their wholly-owned “independent” subsidiaries, vying for the next big thing. Or rather for the next small thing that they can snap up at a relatively low price, Miramax the hell out of and make into a big thing. 

Not only does this mean that most of whatever money may eventually be made flows inevitably into the same four or five coffers, it also means, in the flattening, hammered-out, corporate way of things, that the same worn criteria are broadly applied to determine where that hit might lie. This is one of the reasons that the term “Sundance Movie” has taken on such a distinctly pejorative connotation. Without suggesting for a second that there aren’t tremendously exciting films showcased there, the blanket perception is that there’s now a cynical edge to the festival, a formula based on the prior marketable form of a film’s constituent elements, that runs counter to what we’d like to believe are the genuine independent characteristics of auteurism, passion, experimentalism, self-expression. Sundance, its detractors claim, has sold out.

“I’m not a liar. A liar is the second lowest form of human being.” — Graham

Similarly the chinks in Miramax’s crusading armor started to show in the late ’90s, when, despite having been acquired by Disney in 1993, their marketing strategies often still relied on the now-sexy descriptor of “independent” for the films they produced. As media studies author Alisa Perren puts it in her excellent paper on the subject “a term [“independent”] that was introduced by the press during the late ’80s as a descriptive label to explain structural and aesthetic changes afoot in the New Hollywood, morphed in the next decade into a publicity tool for Miramax and its many imitators…by the mid ’90s the label no longer had any definitional value.” She further suggests that the beginning of the end of this phenomenon, at least in terms of press acceptance of the term at face value, was with the attempt by Miramax to market “Shakespeare in Love” as an indie film, which apparently was a bridge too far. This tension contributed to an increasingly fractious relationship with parent Disney, until the Weinsteins left Miramax in 2005 to form mini-major The Weinstein Company and that particular era came to an end. What it left behind was the idea of independent film as a viable, marketable “product”–a financial blessing and an aesthetic curse.

And what of the filmmakers? If Soderbergh’s film set the template for indie film success, then surely Soderbergh himself is some sort of template for the ideal indie filmmaker? Well, you know we’re fans, and the eclectic polyglot approach that Soderbergh took to the majority of his career (never really buying into the Hollywood machine on anything more than a one-for-them-one-for-me basis) does indeed feel like one of relative integrity, with a more prolific catalogue, that contains a higher proportion of seemingly uncompromised personal passion projects, than almost any director we can name. But how ironic is it that, while hardly his fault, all the way back in 1989 his own debut’s success paved the way for the very bifurcation of the industry that would, 25 years later, see him hanging up his hat in disgust with Hollywood? To recap the quandary that he and various other directors have articulated recently: today in Hollywood there’s a perception that are only two viable models that offer the kind of return on investment worth dealing with: the tiny indie made for $5m or less that doesn’t represent a huge risk, or the $150m+ tentpole that offers a staggering potential reward. In between those amounts, which is where the successful indie filmmaker is likely to want to live, the opportunities for financing are dwindling.

“Afraid of getting caught?” — Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo)

Of course, when we’re throwing shade over this issue, we, like Soderbergh, are going to lob the majority of it toward the risk-averse major studios and the big, brainless blockbusters that suck up the lion’s share of the resources. But it’s fascinating to note that all the way back in 1989 Cinecom president Amir Malin said, in contrast to, or rather refinement of, the prevailing fear that the blockbuster success of “Batman” was going to end Hollywood investment in anything but high-concept tentpoles: “Just because someone sees ‘Indiana Jones’ doesn’t mean they won’t see a sophisticated film like ”sex lies and videotape”…the fallout will occur with the standard [read: mid-budget] studio fare that cannot compete with the ‘Raiders,’ the ‘Ghostbusters’ and the ‘Batman’s.” This suggests that the more modest, but unmistakable success of Soderbergh’s own film, the polar opposite of a blockbuster, was a factor in sowing the seeds of the bifurcation of the industry into micro-budget indies, which he had outgrown (though to be fair he did dabble later on with “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Bubble”) or mega tentpoles in which he had little interest.

So Miramax is gone, Sundance is a sell-out to the moneymen and Soderbergh has retired. 25 years on, can the little indie that could possibly still have anything to offer?

The Movie

“What are all these tapes? Can we watch one?” — Ann

Actually yes it can. It’s just a terrific film. Watching it again recently, it struck us anew just how, despite all the brouhaha about its generational nature and its place in history, the humanism and intelligence on display, even its over-talkiness, make it kind of timeless. Yes, made today it would be “sex, lies and… snapchat” and it wouldn’t feature quite such horrible jeans, but the issues it’s preoccupied with are still very much around. If anything, they are heightened by our ever creepier, ever more Graham-like relationship with technology–isn’t the false intimacy our social networking creates simply a more pervasive, culturally acceptable version of the ersatz closeness Graham can feel only through the remove of a video recording? 

Even the character of John (Peter Gallagher), so emblematic of the yuppie asshole that in 1989 everyone had had enough of, while he’d no doubt be a douchbag Wall Streeter in the 2014 version, is emblematic of a status-driven lifestyle that, current economics being what they are, many middle class people are finding they simply can’t afford. By contrast Graham’s “one key” philosophy and his unencumbered existence, lacking in material comfort but also free of debt or overburdened financial responsibility seems immediately appealing. And even aside from its ongoing thematic resonance, it’s simply a very witty, surprisingly insightful relationship drama that gives all four of its actors a chance to showcase career-best work as their characters negotiate the tangled webs they’ve woven.

“I don’t find this ‘turning the tables’ thing very interesting” — Graham

“I do.” –Ann

Soderbergh himself was always typically modest and self-critical about the film. Calling it in 1995, after the commercial failure of his two subsequent movies “Kafka” and “King of the Hill” “a modest piece with modest aspirations that happened to be what people wanted to see in a way I obviously haven’t been able to duplicate since” he soon went on to much bigger successes, and logged, prior to his retirement last year, one of the more diverse filmographies in recent memory. Later Soderbergh would diss the film even further saying it “looks like something made by someone who wants to think he’s deep but really isn’t.” But then, that critique also applied to a large portion of his contemporary audience, and that’s part of what made “sex lies and videotape” feel like such a generational discovery at the time. To slide into personal anecdote for a moment–I remember, when I discovered “sex lies and videotape,” feeling impossibly pleased with myself, with my own perceived sophistication, for getting it like I did. That was part of the genius of the film–if we look on it now, with all the wisdom we’ve accrued in the intervening years (!) as a little precocious, a little pretentious, well, it appealed then, as now, to the precocious, pretentious young adult, at whom the independent movement was largely aimed. Speaking in that language, the film became something epochal, zeitgeisty, and it made Soderbergh himself, as Roger Ebert put it, “the poster boy for the Sundance Generation.”

The Future

I never told you this, because I thought it would crush you, but now I could give a shit.” — John (Peter Gallagher)

Traditionally, a generation is 25 years long. Soderbergh’s perfectly timed retirement last year seems doubly apt then, as the metaphor for the end of that very “Sundance Generation.” It also means that we’re (over)due another revolution. Of course we’ve been living through one for the last decade or so as digital technology has transformed every aspect of the filmmaking and viewing process, but has there been a single movie that has encapsulated or provoked this sea change in quite the way ‘sex lies’ did its revolution? Is it even possible, in these atomized times, for a single film to have that kind of impact again? 

Maybe not. But one thing we do know, that even when everything has for once and for all burst apart into pixels and information clouds and ones and zeros streaming through the air at the speed of light, and the reputation of Soderbergh’s debut as a pioneering indie film has been rendered all but moot by the industry’s next makeover, it will still have a legacy as an inspiration. To financiers: don’t be put off by a project’s potential uncommerciality. To critics: yes, sometimes great things can come out of nowhere, with no precedent. And to filmmakers: just do it–write the script, make the movie, no matter how commercially un-viable, because maybe, just maybe, if it’s something that has enough faith and passion invested in it, it will remake the industry to its own needs. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that as long as there are filmmakers motivated by the same impulses that drove the 26 year-old Soderbergh, by the desire for self-expression, by the true spirit of independence whatever the “existing business model,” then, to echo Wim Wenders’ comment as he awarded the Cannes Grand Prix to “sex lies and videotape” in 1989, perhaps we can all have confidence in the the future of cinema.

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