Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Sex, lies and, Soderbergh

[Originally published on IndieWire on January 15, 2014]

sex, lies, and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

“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 but took home the Audience Award and, more importantly, 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.

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. 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.

This is still Soderbergh in raw form—he would become more visually interesting and conceptually adventurous, learn to edit with a swing to his rhythm, and eventually pick up the camera to shoot his own features, perfecting a particular visual aesthetic that underlies his films—but his honesty, and his ability to tap the cultural zeitgeist, created the first ever hit to come out of Sundance competition (thanks in large part to the savvy positioning and marketing of the Weinstein Bros.). It established a certain indie aesthetic: simple, uncluttered locations, small scenes with minimal casts, tonal music, provocative (and thoroughly contemporary) subject matter, uncomfortable intimacy, and mature discussions of adult issues and concerns within a personal framework.

And just as important, it took on issues percolating in contemporary culture, in some ways turning the camera back onto the audiences. Hollywood had turned its back on the kinds of stories grounded in the world that the audience lived in. sex, lies, and videotape was cool and elegant rather than gritty and scruffy, but it was a perspective on modern life that the movies weren’t offering.

Steven Soderbergh was the new golden boy of the independent scene but it took him almost a decade to find his footing in the filmmaking ecosystem. He did it by straddling the indie sensibility and studio model with Out of Sight, an affectionate, energetic, stylish piece of pulp fiction with adult emotions, sexy star chemistry, and an offbeat style that was contemporary, retro, and timeless all at once. After struggling through the early nineties he became embarrassingly prolific – averaging two features a year, not counting a couple of TV series and a sideline as a producer, a terrific pace in a filmmaking culture where many directors spend years getting projects off the ground – without losing his sense of adventure. He took on everything from big budget capers (Ocean’s Eleven and sequels) to experimental exercises (Schizopolis and Bubble) and grabbed an Oscar for Traffic along the way. But his most enviable triumph was maintaining an independence through it all. Soderbergh understood the commercial imperative, he just found a method to do it his own way.

The success of sex also helped transform Sundance into an industry event, as much a film market as a festival of independent cinema. Pet projects of established stars screen alongside regional films without a recognizable name in the credits and there is a tilt toward both easy-going, audience-pleasing pictures (hello, Little Miss Sunshine) and provocative, attention-getting subjects that, like sex, can cross over to a mainstream audience. American Indie has become a brand name as much as a description.

You can’t blame Soderbergh for that, of course, and as his career shows, independence is a matter of vision and control, not money. For every Little Miss Sunshine and (500) Days of Summer, Sundance also launched a Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, and Fruitvale Station.

This success story doesn’t come to the happy ending you might expect. 25 years after breaking through with a small, personal, provocative picture, Steven Soderbergh has retired from filmmaking. “I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and ability to do so,” he told the New York times a couple of years back. “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money I’ll be back making another Ocean’s movie.”

But he also left us with a warning about the future of filmmaking. Not about creativity or technology but about numbers and industry practices. “You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie. That’s hard. That’s really hard…,” he told an audience at his keynote address at the San Francisco International Film Festival last year. “This is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies.”

The challenge of Sundance in the next 25 years is to keep finding and promoting those independent voices, whether they come with stars attached or not.