The Seasoned Ticket #35

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

This weekend Steven Soderbergh—surely the worst retired director since Ingmar Bergman—releases another new film, High Flying Bird. I have not seen the film yet, but the title has been so frequently mentioned lately that I keep thinking of the Elton John song by that name, and of the mystifying Bernie Taupin lyrics therein. (“A weatherman of words”? I dunno.)

Anyway, I reprint below my review of Soderbergh’s landmark debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, which people are probably back to capitalizing these days, but lower-case was the filmmaker’s specific choice. (People are losing the capital F in the middle of GoodFellas, too, so perhaps this is the inevitable toll taken by time.)

Soderbergh came to Seattle for SIFF one year—I think it was with Schizopolis—and I did the onstage interview at the Broadway Performance Hall with him. He was, and still is, an excellent interview subject, with very ambitious ideas about movies and the movie business. For some reason we had time to kill in the green room before the talk, and got on the subject of Catch-22 (maybe because Buck Henry was also in town); Soderbergh likes the film a lot and had been watching it in preparation for doing a DVD commentary track. I think this got me to confess that the first time I “saw” Catch-22 was via the Mad magazine parody, and Soderbergh turned out to be a big fan of that, too.

In any case: a review of the director’s first movie, from 1989:

 

sex, lies and videotape

The most highly touted arthouse movie of the year is sex, lies, and videotape, the low-budget debut effort of a 26-year-old writer-director named Steven Soderbergh. Advance word on the film has been high since its first festival in January, which was followed by two important prizes at the Cannes Film Festival this spring: best actor (for James Spader) and the best picture award. Such praise sets the table for a letdown, but sex, lies, and videotape turns out to be a mightily intriguing film, true to its own odd nature and utterly mesmerizing.

Soderbergh’s story, set in Baton Rouge, begins when a black-clad wanderer named Graham (Spader) rolls into town to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher). These two have gone different ways since college. John is now in the suspenders-and-racquetball league, a yuppie climber married to Ann, a beautiful but unhappy woman (Andie MacDowell). Ann is a cool, repressed Southern belle, with a tendency to disavow problems; when her analyst asks how her relationship with her husband is going, she airily replies, “Fine, except I’m kinda going through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me.”

Meantime, John is carrying on with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is decidedly unrepressed. When Graham arrives, he develops an instant rapport with Ann, but that disappears when she discovers his vocation: He videotapes women who describe their sex lives for his camera. But if this is the only way Graham can enjoy sex, he is no more unhealthy than the other principals, none of whom is connecting with anyone else. Soderbergh’s own camera is much like Graham’s; he tends to shoot characters in isolation, each is his own separate space. People don’t so much communicate as they watch each other talk.

This creates a hypnotic effect, an eerie, arid dance of anxiety. Soderbergh stumbles only with the character of John, who is something of an easy caricature. The other characters are niftily drawn, and superbly acted. Andie MacDowell, heretofore best known as a ubiquitous model (she was also Jane in Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan), consistently discovers a fresh way to read a line or wrinkle her nose.

Laura San Giacomo finds a full-throated, lusty swagger for her sexy character. And James Spader demonstrates why he won the Cannes prize, with a mysterious, quietly smoldering performance; he’s always holding back something, as though his character knows enough about cameras to hide from them. Spader’s been stuck with mostly geeky supporting roles in recent years, but he always brought intensity to them. In sex, lies, and videotape, he finally gets to shine.

 

First published in the Herald, August 1989

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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