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Sex, Lies, and Videotape: Is it really about sex?
First installment toward a forthcoming Soderbergh Series
The Smartless™ interview with Steven Soderbergh prompted me to watch this again.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out in 1989, but obviously I didn’t watch it at the time of release because…well, I was 12, so…. The thing is, even though I didn’t go see it in the theaters, it was a movie I kept hearing about because Soderbergh was a Baton Rouge guy1 and quite the sensation in the LSU acting circles that my mom was a part of. In fact, coincidentally, his parents actually lived in the house across the street from the one where I grew up. I don’t know if they lived there at the time Soderbergh released that film—becoming an international household name, with a Palme d’Or2 to add to his awards mantel—and I know for sure Soderbergh did not grow up in that house.3 All I know is, that house is, to this day, the first thing that pops in my head when I hear his name. It’s always been, in my head, the Steven Soderbergh house, and, as the place where the school bus picked me up, it was part of my daily routine for five, maybe six years. It’s so vivid in my memory—on a corner, with blue shutters, perched on a tiny hill topped by a tree, it sat directly opposite the house where I lived at the time. So yeah, when SLV came out, I heard plenty about it. It was on the lips of every adult in my orbit. Several years later, as a teenager in Burbank, CA, I found the script in one of my favorite places on San Fernando Road—a nondescript bookstore that doesn’t exist anymore, the kind of fantastic place where I would spend hours, just browsing its endless rows of used books and movie scripts. I picked up the script for SLV and read it and just…was transfixed. I especially fell in love with the monologue from Graham, the main character, about keys. Mind you, I was only reading it. It would be sometime before I watched James Spader deliver these words:
“…right now I have one key. You know, everything I own is in the car. I just…I like that, you know. If I get an apartment, that’s two keys. If I get a job, you know, I might have to open or close. That’s more keys. You know, buy some stuff. Then I’m afraid it’s gonna get ripped off or something. Then I get more keys. You know, I just like having the one key. It’s clean.”
Ann and John, who are listening to this speech, respond to this in different ways. Ann (Andie MacDowell) sympathizes: Yeah, it sucks, having so many keys in life! You always have to worry about losing them! John (Peter Gallagher) shrugs it off: Just get rid of the car after you get the apartment, he offers.
I think as a teenager who had been through quite a bit of upheaval, it hit me in a cathartic way. Yes, I got it. Why do we have to have so many keys? More keys means more doors, and more doors means more change, and more choices, and more people and things to have to get used to. Even to this day, I love small, neat spaces more than large, ostentatious, cluttered ones. This stands in contrast to what I commonly perceive in other people—that is, a never-ending thirst for more stuff, new stuff, big stuff. We all interact for better or worse in a material world. Some people just happen to rely on that dimension of life more heavily than others. From what I can see, living in Baton Rouge among many relatives again in the “middle” of my life, this attitude toward stuff strikes me with force.
My paternal grandparents had a big house full of stuff they never thought about. It was just there. My grandmother kept stuff that her mother had kept; generations of stuff piled on top of each other. When I went through some of this accumulated stuff after my grandfather’s death (my grandmother predeceased him by a few years) I found pictures and letters (many written by Cajun forebears in French) from the 19th century. People in my family tree had been hanging on to this stuff for that long! Others, of course, are grabbing at newer and flashier and shinier stuff—video game consoles, stereo speakers, and endless other distractions. I wonder what they do when their new stuff becomes old stuff. Will they donate it to Goodwill? Others try to sell it on ebay or craigslist or in estate sales. Some people just put it in the attic, or stuff it in designated junk drawers, and never think about it again. They leave it for the heirs to sort out. I have an uncle who started a company called “At Your Service.” He really took the bull by the horns after my grandfather (his father) passed away, and he turned the whole ordeal into a dress rehearsal for his business—helping people get rid of generational garbage. I digitized much of the stuff that came out of my paternal grandparents’ house. It is viewable on my ancestral Instagram account @iradavidontheweb.
The opening lines in SLV are about garbage. The first word in the script is GARBAGE. Andie MacDowell wonders aloud in her therapy session, what the hell happens to all the garbage we throw out? In a cutaway, we see Peter Gallagher in his office full of plants, of all things. From garbage to plants! Life! Is Soderbergh trying to tell us something about garbage just being part of the process—endless, ongoing, always being created and destroyed? I wonder, too, if he just uses sex as a metaphor for the connections we form—hence my overarching question in the subtitle to this article: Is it really about sex? Sex is certainly the way that John (Peter Gallagher) connects with people. His masculinity is how he interacts in the world. He doesn’t connect with Ann anymore, so he has an affair…with her sister, to whom he invariably delivers a plant prior to having midday sex with her. From Ann, we learn that the gulf between them began with John pulling away from her, and she just kept withdrawing to the point of being repelled by his touch. He doesn’t talk to her. She just lives in his house, and that’s what even she calls it: not their house, but his house. She just lives there, and cleans it. She cooks the meal for the guest he invited to stay without so much as consulting her, and he has the audacity to complain about her overuse of salt. These two are like oil and water. One of them—and it’s not hard to guess which one—clearly had to do most of the compromising in order for them to make a “life” together and start producing daily garbage together. I can’t help wondering if John’s first words about Graham, spoken to his mistress, apply also to the way he feels about his wife: “I gotta tell you, we were very close many years ago, but I…I think we’re very different now.”
Indeed. John doesn’t care about the accumulation of keys and garbage. It’s interesting to think that Graham used to be like John. What changed him? Was it his failed relationship with “Elizabeth,” a character who is only spoken about? How does whatever happened with “Elizabeth” relate to the sexual impotency that haunts him? Finally, is that inability to use sex as a way to communicate (as John does) the reason for the broken state in which we meet Graham? If he had been able to have a fulfilling sexual relationship with Elizabeth, he might have remained that same sort of guy John could be friends with. Graham does admit to Ann that he and John were, nine years ago, “very much alike.” So what happened in that near-decade that made Graham reduce his baggage to just one key and as much as he could fit in his beat-up car?
I hear a lot of people say they like having stuff because it makes them feel grounded. Conversely, Graham is terrified of accumulating one more key because it might lead to having more than he could possibly…control? Deal with? He’s not only afraid to open Pandora’s Box; he’s afraid to discover that such a box exists!
There are so many analogies we can form that show the contrast and contradiction of humans who simultaneously long for freedom but crave safety. Yet I think this movie speaks above all to communication (and miscommunication) tropes. It’s not that Graham would be “just fine,” or “normal,” if only he could get or sustain an erection. John is able to do what Graham can’t in that regard, yet he’s far from “just fine.” The fact that Graham and Ann are both unwilling to communicate in the “normal” way—that is, to play the sexual game—draws them closer to each other and forces them to find and develop a deeper connection. When they first meet each other, they are both in a funk. Graham is stuck in his hermitage, watching the 8mm-track interviews that he’s collected, of women talking about their sexual experiences. Ann is stuck in her own head, a swirl of obsessive thoughts about all the garbage in the world. They’re both repelled by the hypocrisy, the lies, and all the hubris that fills up the human condition. Ann and Graham are painfully aware of and crippled by all this cognitive dissonance. In a restaurant, they exchange “personal” details about themselves. She confesses her dislike of the world’s overemphasis on sex. In turn, he confesses his impotence. Her paralysis, his impotence—it comes to the same thing. They are both too aware of what’s wrong in the world to be able to engage in it.
Ann’s horror at the discovery of Graham’s case full of sexual interviews sheds light on the general discomfort around sex and exposure. Sensuality is everywhere, pervasive and viral. It make us feel certain ways about sex; in short, it makes us feel a gamut of emotion. On the negative side, we feel ashamed, harassed, nauseated, and repulsed. Positive experiences leave us feeling infatuated, intoxicated…drunk with love! We seem to walk a tightrope between sexual liberation and sexual repression. “[R]isqué but risk-averse” is how Dave Holmes, editor-at-large for Esquire magazine, characterizes the culture today. He writes that we’re living in a so-called “sex recession.” We are “teeming with supply,” he writes, and “yet demand is way down.”4
Back to SLV: Graham is looking for clarity in the belly of the beast. He wants to know it in order to be free of it. “‘Freedom’ is a nonsense word without the concepts of obligation and responsibility attached to it.”5 (That’s a quote from political analyst Steve Schmidt in an unrelated context, but I think it applies here.) Graham wanted freedom—the ability to just get in his car and go. He hated having to get an apartment with rent attached that he would be responsible to pay for. It was another key he’d have to try not to lose track of. And yet his life on the road was one where his connection to the human race was through the lens of a Super 8. In search for honesty, he got women to talk about the thing they’re often least honest about. It was only Ann, though, who thought to turn the tables on him, and that’s when he became honest with himself. She stopped hiding in her loveless marriage; he stopped hiding behind the camera. She found someone whose touch did not repulse her; he found someone, the only one, he wanted to touch. They came together to form a new beginning, and she found more than one. I love that she gave her sister a plant and her sister finally asked for her (new work) phone number. The last discussion in the film is about rain. The rain will water the plants! Hell, there might even be a new beginning for John, if he would ever dare to attempt it.
He was a teenager when his father became Dean of Education at LSU and he finished high school at the LSU Lab School.
It wasn’t his childhood home, nor his adolescent years’ home, or anything like that. What I was always told, it was a house his parents lived in after he was already an adult living in his own house.
https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/a43899552/sex-recession/ — Archived: https://web.archive.org/web/20230728144237/https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/a43899552/sex-recession/