Sundance Forever: The Mysterious, Prescient Phenomenon Of ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rolls on, all this week we’ll be looking at the films that defined Sundance, why they still matter, and where their influence can still be felt.

The Sundance Film Festival existed in different forms before sex, lies, and videotape came along in 1989. In fact, it would be an insult to say that Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature put the festival on the map, given the significant talents that passed through Park City, Utah first: The Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch broke through together, five years earlier, with Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise, respectively, launching careers that are still thriving three decades later, with Hail, Caesar! and Paterson coming out just last year. It was a reliable showcase for queer cinema, feminist cinema, and films from marginalized groups, and got enough attention from the press that splashier work like Hannah and Her Sisters, The Big Easy, and Hoosiers premiered alongside the scrappier items. For that period of the festival’s life, though, it wasn’t absurd to summon the indie world to a tiny resort town in the middle of winter.

sex, lies, and videotape changed that forever. Indie films certainly had a market before 1989, but it couldn’t be called an “industry” before Soderbergh and the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, converted the momentum of its Sundance premiere (where it took the Audience Award) and its surprise Palme D’Or at Cannes in May (where it won over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, among others) into significant business. It made nearly $25 million off a $1.2 million budget, and traveled to smaller cities and multiplexes that had rarely seen anything of its kind. (Personal story: I was working at an eight-screen theater in Cobb County, Georgia — Newt Gingrich’s district — at the time, and the film seemed like a unicorn when it snuck into one of our smaller houses late in its run.) In the past, the margins for financial success in the indie film were too paltry for bigger players to take an interest, but sex, lies, and videotape was more profitable percentage-wise than the biggest hit that year, Batman, and the potential for millions in revenue on a single film changed Sundance fast.

But why?

What was it about sex, lies, and videotape that so captured the zeitgeist? What’s so special about it that an entire industry, with boutique “indies” eventually popping up at every major studio (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features, Warner Independent Pictures, etc.), could exist to accommodate it? Though Soderbergh published a terrific little annotated book about the making of the film, he didn’t have a personal story as compelling as Kevin Smith’s with Clerks in 1994 or a production story as inspiring as the $7,000, DIY wizardry of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi in 1992. The film had no gimmick like The Blair Witch Project — or really anything approaching a hook in its premise, which can’t be squeezed into a simple logline. And though its success would carry over into a remarkable career — albeit with some significant early bumps along the way — it didn’t feel at the time like the arrival of a major American director. Its virtues were subtle and modest.

The best answer might be the title. Ask for the specifics of what the film is about, and slide into the murk of a crumbling marriage, an affair between husband and sister, and a strange old college buddy swinging into town. But in the abstract, though, it is about sex, lies, and videotape, and those words were a tantalizing combination, suggesting something voyeuristic and perverse and uniquely modern and intimate, like a window into sinful domestic lives. Would we be talking about sex, lies, and videotape in the same way if it had been released under a different title? Even presuming that it still wins awards at Sundance and Cannes, maybe not: On its face, a low-key rendering of affairs between a few characters is indie-world boilerplate. It does not suggest the beginning of a movement that would change the business and the Sundance Film Festival, which is now a marketplace crammed with about 50,000 out-of-towners every year.

Seen today, however, sex, lies, and videotape was more forward-thinking than it appeared — or it at least articulated changes in human relationships that would continue to persist well into the future. The Camcorder had been introduced into American homes in the mid-’80s, and like all transformative technologies, we had to come to terms with how it might alter the course of everyday life. Though sex, lies, and videotape isn’t wholly obsessed with home recording, the allure of taping and being taped is a major part of the film’s seductive appeal, and how the camera and images affect the way we interact with each other and the world is a primary fascination. In the year 2017, those types of interactions are so common — on Skype, on Snapchat, in videos we take with our phones, etc. — that we only occasionally stop to reflect on them. sex, lies, and videotape treats it as the eerie, alien fascination that it once was, suggesting the contradictory mix of extreme intimacy and profound emotional and physical distance that video would encourage. Soderbergh could see where we were going.

It should be said, too, that Soderbergh’s instincts as a sly, supple entertainer were well-honed from the start. There’s a sober, more pretentious movie to be made out of the same materials, but sex, lies, and videotape is offbeat and hilarious, and it doesn’t let the heaviness of its insight to bear down on the film too often. When Anne (Andie MacDowell), the vaguely melancholic wife of a high-powered attorney (Peter Gallagher), reflects on how she’s feeling to her therapist, she says, “Being happy is not all that great. The last time I was happy… I got so fat.” When Graham (James Spader), her husband’s old college friend, shows up to stay in their house while he looks for an apartment, it sparks a dramatic change in her life, but Soderbergh undercuts the gravity of first meeting with a bit about Graham needing to use the restroom. The crises deepen for all of them as the film goes on — Anne’s husband is having an affair with her sister (Laura San Giacomo), and Graham’s private sexual peccadilloes get an airing that affects everyone — but Soderbergh’s deft touch persists. Keep in mind: sex, lies, and videotape opened the door for low-budget, independent films to enjoy big commercial success. It had to play outside the insular arthouse scene.

But Soderbergh is our wonkiest student of behavior, too, and sex, lies, and videotape makes an anthropologist’s study of human desire and weakness as it’s filtered through a new lens. Graham and Anne appear to share an openness and candor that sets them apart from the others, but they’re more a compatible tangle of troubled psyches — Anne repressed and uncertain of herself, Graham a pathological liar whose conversational bluntness masks his addiction. Graham, who declares himself impotent, gets off on private testimonials from women talking about sex, and Soderbergh marks that habit as being as unhealthy and unsavory as it sounds. But sex, lies, and videotape isn’t entirely an alarmist film about life in the video age. The camera does have the magic to evoke truths that wouldn’t have been achievable otherwise, like a modern, secular version of a confessor. It brings Anne out of her shell and forces Graham out of his, too, when she turns the tables and pries out revelations about his past.

It’s fascinating to see sex, lies, and videotape over 25 years later, when everyone is at least a little bit like Graham, in that video recordings and communications are perfectly normal, rather than the aberrant behavior of a guy who can only get aroused by himself. Yet the feeling that our lives are mediated by images — that they create an emotional barrier between us — hasn’t necessarily changed that much over time. The lovely coda of the film, where Anne and Graham are sitting out on the front porch, taking in a rainy afternoon, comes after Graham has destroyed his tapes and the two can finally experience each other in the open air, unshackled by technology. In 2017, it wouldn’t be so easy.

Sundance Forever continues tomorrow with a look at how the festival shaped Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.