“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013
Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies and videotape or did sex, lies and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love (even as it eventually won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) but took home the Audience Award. More importantly, it landed a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and sex was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.
Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat, and the terror of true intimacy. The only nakedness on display is emotional, and Soderbergh, with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker, confronts uncomfortable issues with frank talk and uncomfortable directness.
Remember when Steven Soderbergh announced imminent retirement a few years ago? Well, he’s apparently holding himself to his promise. Warner Bros. is promoting “Side Effects” as Soderbergh’s final film (apparently the upcoming “Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t count because it’s made for HBO).
Hard to believe, given the way he’s been turning out an average of two features a year, a terrific pace in a filmmaking culture where many directors spend years getting projects off the ground. You’d think that would take a toll on quality, but it’s been just the opposite: His track record has been solid as he hopscotches across genres and subjects. But, then, that’s been the very definition of his career all along.
Not just prolific (25 features in as many years as well as a couple of cable series), Soderbergh has been adventurous and ambitious. Since his debut feature, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” helped turn the American Indie imprint into a cultural force, he’s tackled everything from big-budget capers (“Ocean’s Eleven” and sequels) to experimental exercises (“Schizopolis” and “Bubble”) and plenty in between.
He’s shot most of his own films since “Traffic” (under the name Peter Andrews) and edited almost as many (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), perfecting a particular visual aesthetic and rhythm that underlies his films. And he has earned the loyalty of a group of collaborators who return again and again for his projects, including George Clooney (with whom he formed the production company Section Eight), Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Channing Tatum and many others.
I fully expect Soderbergh to return to filmmaking at some not-so-distant point in the future — how could someone who has shown such a passion for making movies give it all up? — but until then, here’s a survey of Soderbergh’s best to tide you over.
“Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989)
Did the Sundance Film Festival make “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” or did “Sex, Lies and Videotape” save the floundering Sundance? Chicken-and-egg question aside, the confluence of the two was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” according to industry historian Peter Biskind. Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat and the terror of true intimacy, all tackled with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker. This was still Soderbergh in raw form, but his honesty, and his ability to tap the cultural zeitgeist, created the first hit to come out of Sundance competition, and it redefined the indie aesthetic. Steven Soderbergh was the new golden boy of the independent scene …
[originally published in 7 Days, on August 9, 1989]
Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotapeis an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.
Small wonder that its 26-year-old director took home the Palme d’Ôr for best film at the latest Cannes festival. The movie is a chamber piece for four players, though almost never are more than two of them together at a given time. John (Peter Gallagher) is a Baton Rouge yuppie, eternal frat man, and junior partner in a law firm at age 30. His wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), having given up thoughts of a career, spends her drifty days agonizing over global dilemmas (e.g., where to put the world’s mounting supply of garbage) and parrying her analyst’s efforts to determine why she and John don’t touch anymore. She has a younger sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), a barmaid and compulsive free spirit whose lifelong rivalry with Ann has led her into an affair with John—a liaison of which Ann remains unaware.