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Hindsight Hurts: Revisting the Sex, the Lies and the Videotape

MacDowell as one of Sex ’s VHS-era voyeurs

On August 11, 1989, I wrote my first film review for L.A. Weekly, as follows:

With its whacked-out, wry sensibility, Steven Soderbergh’s first feature and winner of the Best Film and Best Actor awards at Cannes this year seems to promise more than the usual relationship movie. But the film’s hip, self-conscious chitchat can’t take the weight of the enduring but altogether daffy proposition that lies at its heart: If only folks would stop lying, denying and spying (and watching videos) and start Communicating Honestly, their most intractable problems would vanish. Sexual dysfunction, it seems, is the modern psychic complaint, and the couplings among the four characters supply the binary oppositions that shape the movie’s toothless morality. In one corner we have an undiscriminating libido writ large: a successful, brash young lawyer (Peter Gallagher) conducts a loveless affair with his wife’s sex-crazed sister (Laura San Giacomo). In the other corner, impotence prevails: His prissy wife (Andie MacDowell) forms a tentative connection with his visiting college chum (James Spader), who can only get an erection by watching videotaped interviews of women talking about sex. Wife and chum exchange disjointed, sensitive obsessions about their own sex lives, while the camera trails disconsolately after them, and some alarmingly Philip Glass–ish music underscores their low-grade depression. MacDowell and Spader are so good at rendering ineffectuality that it’s a relief to get back to the gross one-liners that fly between the adulterers. What saves the movie is the abrasive, forthright presence of San Giacomo, who, as the sister, somes on with the catlike sultriness of Ellen Barkin and the perky defiance of Jodie Foster, and who learns a thing or two about life without being either therapeutically retooled, severely punished or excessively rewarded by the plot, as are the others.

Man, was I irritated. And — did I mention this? — also quite wrong about the movie, not just because Sex, Lies, and Videotape took Sundance and Cannes by storm, grossed a reported $100 million worldwide, and opened the floodgates for two decades of low-budget, independent filmmaking. I don’t know whether it was inexperience that made me write off the movie as a self-indulgent wank, or a novice critic’s need to be knowing, to see through what she felt were a young pretender’s faux insights, or her underdeveloped appreciation for the interplay of form with meaning. Was it because I’d been cloistered in a university for three years that I didn’t see how skillfully Soderbergh had caught a cultural moment, when the 1980s were going out with a narcissistic whimper and a generation’s sexual expression was being traumatized by AIDS? Soderbergh wasn’t the first to take on the alienating effect of video. Atom Egoyan had done that two years earlier with his bracingly weird Family Viewing. But Egoyan was in Canada, without Soderbergh’s access to Hollywood’s machers and stars. I don’t believe (and neither, I gather, does Soderbergh) that Sex, Lies is his best film (that would be King of the Hill), and I love the way his career has swayed gracefully between plush odes to old Hollywood, like Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and the Oceans, and borderline-impenetrable extreme indies, like Schizopolis and Kafka. But in its funny, depressive way, Sex, Lies summed up the vanities and the loneliness of an impotent generation obsessed with power. How lucky we are that unlike James Spader in the movie, who laid down his camera and lived, Soderbergh went on to do both.