Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape feels at once prescient and antiquated, and seemingly by design. Like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Sex, Lies, and Videotape suggests that filmed experience offers an illusory companionship that alienates us from unmediated society—or let’s say a less mediated one. Graham (James Spader) is a variation of an indie-noir character that was particularly prevalent in the late 1980s and ‘90s: a drifter with a secret, who in this case videotapes women talking about sex as a way of both participating in and divorcing himself from the messiness of direct experience. Like the protagonist of Videodrome, Graham suggests a recovering addict of some sort who’s found a surrogate drug that he suspects won’t ruin his life, though that assumption is quite debatable.
The notion of technology as an untrustworthy therapist—as a third party that coaxes out a version of ourselves that’s no more truthful than the facades we assume in our direct contact with people—is more relevant than ever before. Like videotape, social media offers its participants a warped sense of agency, though the latter is capable of being distributed and altered at a terrifyingly accelerated pace that blurs reality so much as to render the concept irrelevant. Watching Sex, Lies, and Videotape now, Graham’s use of home movies suggests social media in its infancy, allowing Graham to empower himself in a fashion that confirms his self-illusions (as a righteous truth-teller), dragging him further into a narcissistic cocoon. Graham’s tapes intensify the very alienation that they were meant to relieve.
This narrative also offers an inherent interrogation of cinema, as Graham resembles a film director when he’s interviewing women, coaching them to give him their intimate secrets. The brilliance of Graham’s direction resides in the illusion of transparency that he offers his subjects, which anticipates the fake transparency of social media. Graham admits to embarrassing facts about his life, such as his impotency, with a straightforwardness that’s so confident it’s erotic. He’s a sensitive beta who’s built a world in which he can act as a weird variation of an alpha. Soderbergh understands that Graham is nearly as much of a con artist in his way as the man’s ex-friend, John (Peter Gallagher), who’s a more conventional brand of self-involved womanizer.
However, Sex, Lies, and Videotape also feels fascinatingly dated, and optimistic, in its deliberateness and hermetically sealed atmospherics. The film now plays as a period piece, capturing a time when media was more decisively separated from everyday discourse. (Today, media suggests a hive mind in which politics, sex, self-promotion, and entertainment blur into an inescapable white noise of consumption.) Graham and John—as well as John’s wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), and Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who’s having an affair with John—are all almost entirely closed off from the outside world, stewing only in one another’s juices, while occasionally exorcising their bitterness via the media that’s been neatly relegated to Graham’s existentially spare apartment.
Though there’s little actual sex in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, there’s a sensual, supple completeness to Soderbergh’s vision. The film is sophisticated in its understanding of media as yet another instrument of evasion, and mathematically pat in its cause-and-effect resolution of this dilemma. The characters are haunted by a singular, almost reassuringly tangible demon: disproportionate sex, which perpetuates a suffocating resentment among the group that’s realistic of friends with varying levels of sexual experience. John and Cynthia are oversexed, while Graham and Ann have grown so self-conscious and resentful (of John, who has screwed them both over) as to be incapable of touch. When Ann confronts Graham’s hypocrisy, she explodes the repressed dynamic of the group in fashions that are implicitly beneficial to everyone but John, the film’s least sympathetic character.
Aesthetically, Sex, Lies, and Videotape could hardly be more different from Soderbergh’s recent output, though the tonal and thematic seeds for his subsequent work are certainly here. This is a film of foreboding, sometimes almost comically pregnant silences, with a highly controlled austerity—of performance, shot selection, and narrative structure—that both critiques and indulges Graham’s tormented asceticism. Like Graham, Soderbergh is a control freak, and still is, though his direction is now more complex and varied, with freer performances and a shifting style that can mutate to accommodate any form of media. Yet Sex, Lies, and Videotape already pivots on what would become a central Soderberghian irony: a simultaneous distrust and trust in technology. (A trust that’s illustrated by the commendable, unusual techno-centric wonkiness of the supplements on this Blu-ray.)
The relative classicism of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, and King of the Hill evolved into the quicker cutting and roving camera of Schizopolis and Out of Sight, which then evolved into the multimedia experiments of Mosaic and Unsane, in which plots play second fiddle to the productions’ modes of distribution and presentation—to an exploration of how information and, subsequently, emotion, are presented, received, and triggered. There’s a yearning in Sex, Lies, and Videotape for freedom, both by its characters and by Soderbergh, who found that freedom by endorsing the notion of the medium being the message. The life/media bifurcation of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is an intense, impressively polished first step in a career that would come to furiously express the increasing fluidity of modern existence.
Going by the liner notes and the featurettes hosted by sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake in several of this disc's supplements, arduous work went into this 4K restoration of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and the fastidiousness shows. The image boasts a revelatory lushness and sense of detail, including new shadows and background textures. As a result, the film's various settings have a newfound presence that amplify its sense of place and atmosphere. (Facial coloring is also more nuanced.) Meanwhile, the 5.1 soundtrack particularly improves dialogue delivery, informing it with a luster and vibrancy that I've never noticed before, and Cliff Martinez's score resounds with palpable weight and menace. Overall, this gorgeous restoration gives the film an epic quality, with an immersive-ness that allows the audience to become complicit with the tunnel vision of the characters.
The new supplements on this disc, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2018, offer a wonderfully wonky portrait of this edition's creation. Most impressive is the demonstration of the film's sound restorations throughout the years for various home-video editions, written and narrated by sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake. In the featurette, Blake outlines the issues with each restoration, and how certain problems were revisited and combated in varying fashions. A challenge in sound mixing, as Blake informs the audience, is to eliminate flaws without sanding away vital aural information such as the tone and tenor of actors' voices. A particular obstacle, in the case of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, were the sounds of a generator that was used on set. Blake includes footage of each version of the film, offering a concrete illustration of the soundtrack's evolution, which is complemented by a slide show of notes, also written by Blake, that outline the procedure regarding the restoration of the film's image. In yet another featurette, Blake appears with composer Cliff Martinez to discuss the beginning of their longtime collaboration with Soderbergh over the years.
Other supplements offer more traditional stories of the film's making. A new documentary, featuring Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo, provides a moving and informative portrait of the actors' experience on set as well as their recollections of how the film's enthusiastic reception changed their careers. Gallagher memorably says that he was overlooked by critics because they assumed his character's rottenness was inherent to himself—an impression that Soderbergh affirms in his interview with Dick Cavett in 1992, which is also included on this disc.
Two other short interviews with Soderbergh are also accounted for here, one from 1990 and another that was produced for this disc in 2018. In the new interview, Soderbergh speaks of narrative as a kind of architecture or algorithm in which an artist can input their own personal variables. However, the filmmaker's thoughts are more exhaustively mined in the audio commentary he recorded with filmmaker Neil LaBute in 1998, which is still a wonderful listen that abounds in specific examinations of the production process. Trailers, a deleted scene, and a booklet, featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin and excerpts from Soderbergh's 1990 book about the film, round out one of Criterion's most exhilarating recent packages.
One of Criterion's best recent discs, this restoration of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a dream for cinephiles, with a gorgeous transfer and extras that explore the intricate nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process.