Sunday, April 16, 2017


(August 1989, U.S.)

The year 1989 marked a rather significant turning point in my (informal) cinematic education. It was the year I finally decided to break out of my commercial Hollywood shell of blockbusters and sequels and start giving the independent art film a chance by going to see Steven Soderbergh's debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, but also my first foreign subtitled film on screen as well, with Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian classic CINEMA PARADISO (originally released in 1988, but didn't hit the local art house near me until 1989). Now while I can't claim that the film forever turned me off from wasting any more of my time on common Hollywood crap (that didn't happen 'till 2006), it finally did open my eyes to the idea of simple stories about characters of quality and depth, and in this particular case, I was already familiar with actors like James Spader (from LESS THAN ZERO) and Andie MacDowell (from GREYSTOKE and ST. ELMO'S FIRE).

The film tells the story of a rather dysfunctional man named Graham (played by Spader) who films women discussing their sexuality in order to try and get past his own public impotence (he can't get it up in front of another person), as well as his presence and impact on the relationships of a troubled married couple (played by MacDowell and Peter Gallagher) and the wife's younger, sexually-charged sister (played by Laura San Giacomo). The trouble in the marriage stems mainly from the fact that Ann, in her own form of neurosis and insecurity (when we first meet her, she's discussing her fear of the world's garbage with her therapist), refuses to allow her husband to touch her anymore (no comment!). As a result, he's fucking her sister behind her back, even in their own bedroom when the opportunity arises. Graham, who is now a drifter and living locally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the time being, doesn't attempt to hide the fact from Ann that he's impotent and freely interviews women about their sexual experiences and fantasies, on videotape, though he never has sex with any of these women. Ann, spooked and confused at first, eventually cannot hide her curiosity at Graham's bizarre ritual. When her sister Cynthia learns of this, she's hardly shy about going to straight to his apartment to find out what it's all about. Graham propositions Cynthia to make a tape, assuring her that no other person is allowed to see the tapes. Believing him, she agrees. We get a firsthand look at how such a tape begins and progresses, as Cynthia tells the story of her first sexual experience and inevitably intercourse.

As is with any case of marital infidelity, the wife inevitably finds out. Though in this particular case, I can't say I take any sympathetic position with Ann. Perhaps it's wrong for her husband John to be fucking her sister, but if Ann is going to refuse to allow her own husband to touch her for no particular reason, then frankly, she deserves whatever she gets (if you're not going to get it from the one you love, then I believe you're free to seek it elsewhere!)! Though I have to give Ann credit for the direct way she confronts John by slowly announcing to him, "I-want-out-of-this-marriage!" However, that comes later, after in what I can only consider a direct act of revenge, goes to see Graham to make one of his infamous videotapes. Through our eyes and what we witness, though, it would appear that Ann has chosen to have sex with Graham in the end. When all is said and done, despite being an independent art film, there's still that touch of the Hollywood happy ending as it appears that Ann will forgive her sister for going behind her back and that Ann and Graham are now a happy couple (awwww!).

The insight to human sexuality may be as old as cinema itself, though censors had a much better way of hiding way back when. Soderbergh's script is a mature, intelligent and even nuanced look at flawed human beings and their approach to sex and relationships through their own neurosis. While we're watching these interesting characters come to life, we likely also can't help but wonder exactly how they managed to come together in the first place. Just what is it that originally brought a frigid woman like Ann together with a somewhat more spirited man like John. What exactly brings that same woman together with a troubled soul like Graham? Is it simply an act of revenge against her cheating husband, or is there something deeper inside her and Graham that manages to bring the old saying of "opposites attract" to life? Cynthia, whose open-minded sexuality hardly needs to be justified in fucking her sister's husband, is a curious one in that we wonder what it is between she and her sister that would allow her to commit such a betrayal. Soderbergh (rightfully, perhaps) doesn't try to justify these specific issues. He's showing us human beings who do strange things for reasons we're not meant to fully understand, as is often the case in real life. Who can explain why we do what we do or why we fuck who we fuck?

Favorite line of dialogue:

Graham: "You're right. I've got a lot of problems. But they belong to me."
Ann: "You think they're yours, but they're not. Everybody that walks in that door becomes part of your problem. Anybody that comes in contact with you. I didn't want to be part of your problem, but I am. I'm leaving my husband, and maybe I would have anyway, but the fact is, is, I'm doing it now, and part of it's because of you. You've had an effect on my life."

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