I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

sex, lies, and videotape (1989) Analysis

Few movie titles have been as literal as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, writer/director Steven Soderbergh’s tour-de-force debut feature. And although the first word of the title makes a promise that a more conventional, Hollywood film would deliver on, Soderbergh’s very personal, wry, and grown-up comedy of sexual manners is all talk and almost no action, at least not onscreen, where all we get is white static. Sex, like everything else in the lives of its four protagonists, is treated in an adult and intellectual manner. Filmed in real settings, on a shoestring budget in the director’s hometown of Baton Rouge, with a cast of mostly unknown young actors and focusing on controversial subject matter, the movie was an overnight sensation when it was screened at Sundance, later going on to win the grand prize at Cannes. Just like James Spader’s Graham, an outsider who rides into town in a ’69 Cutlass, challenging the dysfunctionality of the American Dream through his very being, Soderbergh provides a new, alternative view of what American cinema is and what it could be. The ‘independence’ of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, its uniqueness, lies in both its content and form, if more pronounced in the former. 

Like David Lynch before him, and Todd Haynes more than a decade later, Soderbergh takes our expectations, our knowledge and the established conventions of white picket fenced suburban America and plays with them, pushing them to their ultimate conclusion. The tragedy lies not in the impossibility of achieving traditional success, but in its fulfillment. “Being happy is not that great,” Andie MacDowell’s character admits to her therapist. Ann (MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) seem to have everything they ever wanted. In reality, both of them, if more obviously Ann, epitomize one of the central themes of the movie, the difference between fa├žade and truth, between surface and undercurrent. Beneath Ann’s blushing cheeks, dazzling smile and floral sundresses there are deep rooted feelings of unhappiness and repression. Her marriage is great, she tells her shrink in the first scene of the film, adding almost as an afterthought that she really doesn’t like being touched by her husband and thinks sex is overrated. In contrast, her “extrovert” sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) challenges gender roles by refuting the notion that “that stuff about women wanting it as much as men is crap.”

Graham directly opposes everything Ann and her husband stand for through his reluctance to be tied down by any of the trappings of material wealth, his insistence on only possessing one key. His aimlessness is reminiscent of Benjamin’s Braddock’s refusal to be the all-American clean-cut upward-venturing successful young man on a career path in Mike NicholsThe Graduate.  

To James Spader’s character, John represents both the first and second lowest forms of human being, being both a lawyer and a liar. In contrast to John’s suits and ties—even suspenders—Graham prefers the attire of the outsider, blue jeans and a black shirt. At the same time, however, he is also repressed through his self-imposed impotency, an inability to perform in the presence of anyone else which functions as a defense mechanism. Only when Ann (dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt mirroring Graham’s outfit) turns the tables, or, more accurately, the camera, on him do we find out what it is that he’s protecting himself from. Although he usually filmed his female subjects in low angle shots, Graham had all the power when he was behind the lens, power not over their bodies, but over their minds and their secrets. When Anna becomes the voyeur and he the confessor, he is obviously uncomfortable.

All through the movie we get a sense of prying into these people’s lives, of looking in on their day-to-day existence, a feeling only exacerbated by the insistent gaze of Soderbergh’s slow-moving camera and the constant presence of objects in the foreground of his shots. 

We get no backstory for the characters, the director using certain character types as a sort of shorthand, types that the powerful acting and irreproachably well-written script help transcend. Although the film follows a clear narrative structure, much of what we see is sequences of everyday interactions. These are disparate, unpredictable, and uncertain, giving the film a very natural, almost improvised quality that reflects life realistically. As Graham points out, life doesn’t always have to follow a distinctive plotline that makes sense; we don’t always know where we’re going or how we got to where we are: “Am I supposed to recount all the points in my life leading up to this moment and then just hope that it’s coherent, that it makes some sort of sense…?”

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