Ah, the early 90s, when indie movies were all about the conversation. Very little in action, very little in camera movement or flashy set pieces. Just a series of scenes built around two people talking. The more seemingly mundane nature of the conversation, the better. Because you know, that meant it was artistic. Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith built their careers on early films using this formula. Even Tarantino, with all his bullets and bloodshed, always builds his movies on conversations first, action second. But before Slacker, Clerks or Reservoir Dogs, there was Steven Soderbergh’s talkie debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Ann (Andie McDowell) is a young wife, sexually repressed and in an increasingly loveless marriage with John (Peter Gallagher). And even though his wife isn’t putting out, John’s fine, because he is chock a block up her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Add to that Graham (James Spader), John’s old college friend who comes to town, loaded up with weirdness.
In one of his first conversations with Ann, the wife of an old friend he’s only just met, Graham drops the fact that he’s impotent. That’s one of the more socially accepted normal things the character does. It turns out that the closest Graham can get to sexual satisfaction is through interviewing women about their sex lives, and filming it, then watching these tapes back of women talking about experiences, preferences and hang ups.
McDowell, Gallagher and San Giacomo are all fantastic, but Sex, Lies and Videotape is 100% James Spader’s movie. While decades later his weirdness would reach parody levels in Boston Legal and US version of The Office, here it’s a little more toned down, and all the creepier for it. Alan Shore and Robert California of the afore mentioned TV shows were so over the top, they were almost cartoons. Graham Dalton of Sex, Lies and Videotape is that strange combination of off puttingly weird, yet you totally understand when the women of this movie are drawn to him in a way.
Scenes rarely contain more than two characters at a time. This movie is all about Graham and Ann, Ann and John, John and Cynthia, Cynthia and Graham. All of these individual pairings and dynamics are used to show the different sides of these characters, the different people they are, depending on who they’re with.
Does it get a little pretentious at times, like only a first time film maker in their 20s can be when they think they’ve got it all figured out and have something they really need to say? Sure, but we need those first time film makers in their 20s who think they’ve got it all figured out and have something they really need to say. Because once they grow out of that, they eventually do have something of interest to say. And they make things like Che, or Behind the Candelabra, or The Informant or Out of Sight.