Friday, June 12, 2009

Film Friday: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Ladies, did sexual liberation work for you? Steven Sonderbergh doesn’t think so, and he has some advice for you. That advice can be found in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a $1.8 million movie that was added to the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2006 after being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That’s got to mean something, right?

** spoiler alert **

Sex, Lies, and Videotape ostensibly tells the story of four unhappy people. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is the repressed housewife of John (Peter Gallagher), a lecherous attorney who is having an affair with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). As the story begins, John has invited old college friend Graham (James Spader) to stay with them. Graham, who is impotent, videotapes people talking about sex. After Graham tapes Cynthia, each of their lives begins to change. Before everything is said and done, Cynthia dumps John, Ann demands a divorce from John, and Cynthia and Ann reconcile.

What This Movie Is Not About
So what is Sonderbergh’s point? Well, before we can delve into Sonderbergh’s meaning, there is something you must realize: this movie is entirely about the evolution of Ann and Cynthia, they are the only characters who matter. Everybody wants to focus on Graham because he’s the most unique character in the film, but this movie is not about Graham. Indeed, many critics spent their entire reviews speculating about Graham, only to ultimately express their confused disappointment that the film never answered their questions. What they miss is that he’s a red herring. Graham tells us as much when he volunteers right away that he's impotent. That is an admission that he may only watch, he can take no action. And true to form, he never once drives the plot, he merely acts as a sounding board against which Ann and Cynthia reassess their lives. In fact, you could replace him with a priest, a therapist or even another female friend, and nothing would change about this movie.

John too is not relevant to this film. John doesn't grow, he doesn't learn. At no point are we given access to his thoughts. And at the very end of the movie, rather than giving us some revelation of insight, John just walks away -- because he never mattered. His purpose in this film is to show us how Ann and Cynthia both fall for his manipulations even though one is “liberated” and the other is "repressed."
What This Movie Is About
So what is this film about? Sex, Lies, and Videotape criticizes the attitudes many women developed as a result of the sexual revolution. According to Sonderbergh, happiness cannot be found either in remaining repressed or in adopting casual sex lifestyle.

The key to this movie is the changes that occur in the two sister. Ann is repressed. She represents women who are ill at ease with sexual liberation (the archetype “prude”). She is so repressed that she finds even the mention of sex upsetting, and she will obsess about problems she cannot fix (like the amount of garbage in the world) to avoid any hint of sex creeping into her life. She no longer even lets her husband touch her. Cynthia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite (the archetype “slut”). She has adopted a casual sex lifestyle. She has no moral concerns at all about sex, as evidenced by the fact she's sleeping with her sister’s husband.

The introduction of Graham, provides the process by which Sonderbergh exposes these two women. Both will eventually make videos for Graham, and in both instances, the experience changes them for the better. Ann comes to realize that sex is not wrong and finds release from her fears and pressures by shaking off her repressed attitude. Cynthia, on the other hand, learns that there is a level of intimacy in sex that she is missing with her casual attitude. Sonderbergh’s message: fearing sex will only make you unhappy, but so will treating sex like just another pastime.

Moreover, Sonderbergh repeatedly stresses that it is within our own selves that the blame for our unhappiness lies, and that women must stop casting blame upon each other for their own problems. Before their awakening, while both women are still deeply unhappy, each blames the other’s “wrong” views on sex for their own unhappiness. Indeed, at one point, Ann admits:
“I hate it when I have feelings [Cynthia] has. It bothers me when I think about men because I know that’s how she thinks.”
Cynthia, on the other hand, essentially blames Ann for making it possible for her to sleep with John, and she admits to enjoying the idea of having sex with John on Ann’s own bed as a sort of revenge. It is only when the two women stop casting blame on each other and realize the power to control their own lives within themselves that they become happy.
Graham’s True Role
Though I said earlier that Graham is irrelevant to the movie, that is not entirely true. Sonderbergh has one more point, and he makes it through Graham.

We see Graham as some sort of strange voyeur, and he makes us uneasy. Indeed, Roger Ebert described his videotaping as “a form of sexual assault; [through which] he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.” But Graham represents us, the viewers: we are doing exactly what Graham is doing -- watching video of two women discuss their sexuality. And we are doing this for the same reason that Ann and Cynthia blamed each other for their own problems -- because we believe that seeing other people with more messed up lives means that ours are somehow less bad. You can hear this charge when Ann confronts Graham at the end of the film and he, speaking for us, tries to justify his voyeurism: “I see John and Cynthia and you and I feel comparatively healthy.” But Ann, i.e. Sonderbergh, responds simply, “You’ve got a problem.”

When Graham then replies, on our behalf, that his problems are his own, and thus, none of her business, Ann shoots that down as well: “You think they’re yours, but they’re not. Everybody who comes through that door becomes part of your problem.” And thus, we are told to examine our own lives to see if we are not repeating these destructive behaviors.
The Critics, Wrong Again
Finally, a quick word on the critics. Drawing deeply from the well of subtlety, many critics patted themselves on the back for recognizing that as Ann’s life was changing, Graham offered her water instead of ice tea when she came to visit. This was apparently deeply symbolic of the change in her life. But these same masters of the subtle arts missed the overall message. Indeed, most critics viewed this movie as simply a meaningless tale about sex with no particular message. They also loved to express their shock at Graham’s voyeurism (no irony there folks).

Ebert, who described the movie as being about four people with “confused sex lives,” declared the film “more clever than enlightening.” And strangely, after condemning Graham’s voyeurism as “a form of sexual assault” Ebert later concludes that the movie “reminds us of how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.” Ah yes. . . the days of sexual assault. . . the good old days.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!


Khassie said...

I lost any respect I had for Ebert long before he reviewed this movie.

I've always found this movie to be depressing but I can't say exactly why. I think part of it is because every character is looking for their own happiness and doesn't care what the cost is to anyone else, just so long as they are happy, at least at that moment. Even Ann and Graham, the two 'martyrs' of the movie, are only interested in their own happiness despite the cost.

Are there any female characters in Hollywood that have a normal, healthy view of sex? Movies seem to portray them as either immoral sluts or frigidly asexual. Why is that?

LoneWolfArcher said...

Great take on this movie Andrew. I'd also like to point out that Graham teaches us that cheating is more about the physical act of intercourse. In videotaping both women, the man in their lives felt betrayed.

This is relevant in the internet age where cheating can take on many forms electronically. Just because two people never touch physically doesn't mean they aren't cheating on their sigificant others.

AndrewPrice said...


I like beating up Ebert because he loves to speak so pretentiously about grasping the hidden meanings within films, but he misses the point so many times -- go read the Ninth Gate article in the Film Friday series. You'll get a kick out of that one.

On women in Hollywood, you put your finger on a huge problem. Hollywood seems to view women purely as sex objects -- either in terms of being eye candy or in terms of making statements about being sexually liberated. It is the rare female character that is anything like the women I've met in my life.

I suspect this comes from feminism having become sex-obsessed. Everything seems to come down to sex for them now. It's not about freedom to shape your life so much as it is freedom to shape your sex life. Thus, feminists (i.e. most women in Hollywood) want to discuss sex in every movie.

At the same time, the men in Hollywood are famous for their lechery, so all they want out of women in films is sex.

That doesn't give you much room for a variety of characters.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Lonewolf. Great point! Graham really is a lesson that we are all cheating when we go down this path of peeping in on others for our own enjoyment, and (as you point out) that hurts those around us even if we don't stray physically. In many ways, you could view this as an anti-pornography statement, though Sonderbergh is not that explicit.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I guess I'm really old-fashioned. The only thing I find more boring in a movie than gratuitous sex is gratuitous talking about sex. This movie goes it one step better: people gratuitously watching people gratuitously talking about sex. As I get older, I find that I've become an expert at talking about sex, but when I was the age of the actors in this movie, I was much busier, well, not talking about it. I guess I just never had the artsy-fartsy gene. Add to that the fact that I found all the actors in this movie creepy, I guess I couldn't be called a fan. I found your review far more interesting than the movie.

Captain Soapbox said...

I never actually saw the movie the whole way through. Not because of the subject matter or anything like that, but it frankly bored the crap out of me. Not very useful a comment I'm sure, but there it is.

I'll second what Lawhawk said, your review was about 20 times more interesting than the movie was. Well as much of the movie that I saw which was about half of it, non-consecutive, on about 3 tries.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk and Captain, did you notice the price tag on this movie? $1.8 million is less than they spend on donuts these days.

Interestingly, this is the independent movie that really raised the profile of independent films. It was after this film that the big studios decided to get fully into the independent film business. Whereupon, they promptly sucked the independence out of them.

Unknown said...

Andrew: So that explains why, when I turn on the Indie Channel or IFC, the movies look just like slightly cheaper versions of the movies I see on HBO, Showtime, and Starz. I knew there had to be a reason.

LoneWolfArcher said...

While the movie was short on action, I wouldn't say it was boring. Then again I read a lot of classic literature which other people find boring. Maybe I like boring??

Captain Soapbox said...

I read "War and Peace" at least once a year in Russian, get all excited when the new Jane's Defense updates come, and until I got tired of having to move them every time I moved had a killer collection of Napoleonic era lead soldiers I painted by hand. So I have a pretty high threshold for boring things. Or at least things that most sane people would say was pretty boring.

But there was something about that movie that just bored me to tears, and I have no idea why. It wasn't the actors either because I actually really like Spader, unlike a lot of people. So I have no clue what it was. It just was.

AndrewPrice said...

I'm with LoneWolfArcher. While the movie isn't packed with action, I personally don't find it boring. The plot moves smoothly and the characters develop constantly. There are no scenes that feel like filler, and I don't lose interest in any part of the story line.

Captain Soapbox said...

I may have to give it a try again, it's been almost 20 years since I last attempted to watch it so maybe that was it too.

Just didn't hook me though. Then again I'm one of those strange people (well at least according to every woman I know) that is going to hell for not liking St. Elmo's Fire either. So I'll just chalk it up as to having weird taste in movies. That works. Hehe.

SQT said...

I watched this movie when it first came out and thought it was interesting but not enough to ever re-watch it. I think my husband tried but couldn't get through it-- and he's a fan of James Spader (I just find him creepy).

It's interesting how this movie throws women into two categories and makes caricatures of both of them. I wonder.. I haven't watched the movie in a loong time. But does it ever address the fact that Ann might be sexually repressed because her husband is a creep? Or do they lay it all on her? And what do they give as the motivations for Cynthia's hyper-sexuality?

Choosing sex as a topic for the sake of titillation serves no purpose. If a movie were to look at the whys and hows of female sexuality, I'd be way more interested.

LoneWolfArcher said...

SQT, me too! ;)

AndrewPrice said...


It is possible to see John as causing Ann's problems because he is clearly a bad guy. But I think that’s a mistake because I don’t think that’s the intent of the film.

I say this because (1) the only time John is pointed to as the possible cause of Ann’s problems is when the therapist mentions that Ann gave up her job when she got married, but she deflects this and the plot moves on never to return; (2) we know nothing about the relationship between John and Ann and Cynthia prior to the present time, and (3) we know nothing about Ann or Cynthia’s past -- we have no tales of their youths, no explanations of their childhoods or prior romances, no discussion of how they’ve changed or suggestions of better times.

Thus, we literally have no basis to judge what caused either Ann or Cynthia to become the way they are. Essentially, we are told, accept these people as is or reject the movie.

Moreover, I think blaming John would be inconsistent with Sonderbergh setting Ann and Cynthia up as archetypes because to be an archetype, they need to be as generic as possible. If Ann’s problems could be blamed on John, then Ann can’t represent “repressed women” because not all repressed women are repressed because of their husbands.

That Sonderbergh is creating generic archetypes, I think is clear from the fact that we know nothing about either Ann or Cynthia other than the fact that one is repressed and the other is the polar opposite. We don’t know their faiths, their friends, their relatives, their hobbies, their likes or dislikes, or anything else.

I take all of this as a signal that we aren't supposed to be interested in these people per se, so much as we are interested in them as generic models representing larger groups of women, i.e. archetypes.

Finally, I don’t think Sonderbergh is saying that all women fall into these two categories, but I think he sees women who do fall into these groups as having “gotten it wrong” and he sees this issue as a societal problem (note that he blames us for making this worse by turning sex into a spectator sport).

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Don't get me wrong, John is a jerk and no doubt anyone married to him would struggle, but I think his role in this film is not to accept blame but merely to go through a series of manipulative behaviors so that both Ann and Cynthia can show how they respond to such behaviors, and how their responses change as they "wake up."

Indeed, if you really look at John closely, he seems a lot like a plot convenience device -- he appears, does what Ann or Cynthia needed him for, and then leaves again.

SQT said...


I think you actually reinforced my point. Because we don't know what causes these women to be sexually disfunctional, they become stereotypes. That may not be the intention, but that's the outcome from my perspective.

Like I said before, it would be far more interesting to me to see the path they followed that allowed them to end up in the situation rather than just sit and observe the train-wreck in progress. As it is, the movie seems more interested in looking at these women as they function sexually-- and little else. That's not interesting to me.

AndrewPrice said...


I see your point, but detailing how the two women got to this point would be a different movie, and I don't think Sonderbergh was interested in that issue.

I think he was trying to say that so long as women let this issue define them, they will be unhappy and they will be susceptible to the manipulations of the men in their lives and they will continue to fight with each other.

And to make that point, he had to cut out all of the other motivations and side-issues that could be used to shift blame or excuse the behavior. Because if you are telling people "this is how to behave", then it really doesn't serve your purpose to start offering people escape clauses.

Is Sonderbergh right? No, I don't think it's that simple for the vast majority of people. But I have met some people who really should take Sonderbergh's advice.

SQT said...


Yeah, it would be a different movie. One that would interest me more.

I just remember seeing this when it first came out and it was kind of considered racy at the time. I never saw it as anything that was making any great statement. I just thought it was trading on the sexual content to gain an audience. I could be wrong-- I haven't seen it since then, and it's what? 20 years old? I'm totally dating myself since I saw it in the movie theater...

Skinners 2 Cents said...

Is anyone else having their comments not post? Do you guys decide which comments go up and which don't?

Captain Soapbox said...

Skinners2Cents, nope don't do anything like that.

I had a problem a couple days ago where a comment just wouldn't go through so I copied it, restarted Firefox and then it pasted in fine. I think it's a hiccup now and then.

Skinners 2 Cents said...

Thanks Captain, I didn't think you guys would do something like that with out at least notifying people of doing so. I'll have to start copying all my comments. Thanks again and keep up the great work. It's tough to find a place that preaches a little sanity in our current hurricane of confusion.

AndrewPrice said...


You could be absolutely correct. :-)

I am assuming that Sonderbergh was trying to make a statement and I'm just putting together what I thought he was getting at. . . but based on his hackish-later work, he might have just decided, "hey, this will get people into theaters."


You're welcome, we're glad you're enjoying the site.

As the Captain says, it wasn't us.

We don't have a policy on moderation because we pretty much trust our readers -- you folks have been great. But if we got some trollish stuff or personal attacks on people, we would probably deleted that.

We want everyone to participate and we're all in favor of disagreement and even dissenting views (in fact, the six of us disagree on many things), but we do ask that everyone stay civil.

P.S. Nice avatar!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Interesting review, Andrew. It has made me wanna see the movie again, since your review is more interesting than I remember the movie being, lol.

IRT IFC: They do show some good movies sometimes. Particularly some old Japanese flicks with Toshiro Mifune (saw Red Beard a few days ago, good flick). They are sub-titled but well worth watching...well, most of them.
Other than that and the occasional good movie (such as: I Am David), most of it is crap, though.

Skinners 2 Cents:
Yes! By all means, copy your comments before posting comments on blogger.
I do the same thing before blogging as well. Blogger is prone to hiccups and whooping cough.

AndrewPrice said...


I LOVE Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa! I think Mifune is one of the best actors of the past 50 years, what a presence!

I have a ton of Kurosawa films that I hope to review eventually (my favorite is actually Ikuru). I also have several other foreign pictures that I will eventually get to. Hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have touched upon all kinds of movies.

Captain Soapbox said...

Oh I love me some foreign movies. I'll admit I haven't seen many Japanese ones since my misspent youth when they made the regular rounds of the one local TV station's Saturday Movie Matinee but there are definitely some foreign films that I like a lot.

Just this past month I've seen: "Stalingrad" "The Counterfeiters" "Black Book" "9 Rota" and "Nightwatch." None of which, obviously are Japanese though. I like watching foreign films where I don't have to concentrate on the subtitles all the time so that tends to influence which ones I watch. Don't even get me started on the evil wrongness of dubbing a foreign movie either...

Gordon Winslow said...

I don't have much to add here, but I thought I'd comment anyway because I was afraid that someone reading the comments might get the impression that Andrew was the only person who liked the movie!

I saw it about ten years ago when I was on a jag where I was checking out movies considered classic or important (a jag I probably ought to get back on.) It isn't the sort of film I would ordinarily watch, but I thought it was terrific.

I don't remember it all that well (not a slight on the movie, just my memory) but I loved it. I would very much like to watch it again in light of Andrew's comments.

AndrewPrice said...


Stalingrad is an excellent war film until the ending, when it suddenly gets very surreal. The two most effective scenes to me, were the truce between the two buildings and when the unit got called together in Russia for the decoration awards -- and you got to see how many had been killed.

I recall it being described in Germany as a German "Platoon". It also broke a social barrier in that it portrayed German soldiers in a sympathetic light -- which was just not done since WWII.

If you want to see an interesting foreign war movie, check out Talvisota (The Winter War). It's a Finish film about a platoon that gets called up when the Russians invaded in 1939. I think it's much better than Stalingrad.


Welcome! I'm glad to hear that my review sparked your interest to re-watch the movie. That one of the things I'm hoping for in these reviews, not only to talk about themes within the movie, but to give people a new angle to watch the movie or at least something new to consider.

I too went through a "significant" movie phase and I have to say that it really made me appreciate story telling in films much more than I had before that. Although they were not always as good as had been advertised (in deed this was often the case), I am glad that I watched them.

I did the same thing with books, when I decided to start reading classics. Many were horrible, but in the end I'm glad I read them all.

Post a Comment