Plot: What’s it about?
There’s a guy I used to work with right out of college. He was (and still is) a weird guy. He’s a movie buff, personal friend of Lloyd Kaufman (and if you don’t know who that is, look him up) and he introduced me to the works of Steven Soderbergh. We’d got talking about movies one day and I’d mentioned I had never seen Sex, Lies, and Videotape. His mouth dropped. Bearing in mind that this was in 1998, the film wasn’t that old. And, coincidentally, Soderbergh had a new film coming out by the name of Out of Sight – starring a then fairly unknown George Clooney. Suffice it to say that I checked out the 1989 film and was pretty blown away. It might seem tame by today’s standards and it’s not as raunchy as the title suggests, but it set the tone and standard for which Soderbergh makes films. Like it or not, this is one of the films that started the independent film movement of the 80’s and 90’s.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape tells the story of four people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ann (Andie McDowell) is unhappily married to a successful husband, John (Peter Gallagher). She gushes to her therapist (Ron Vawter) about her unfulfilled sex life. We learn that John is having an affair with Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who just happens to be Ann’s sister and the two aren’t exactly the best of friends. Things change when Graham (James Spader), a friend of John’s from college, comes back into town. Graham reveals to the group that he’s impotent and can only get aroused if he’s being videotaped. Ann is intrigued while Cynthia and John don’t know what to think. The obvious metaphor being the elephant in the room.
It’s not often you have a movie about sex without seeing someone naked. But that’s not the point of the movie. The interpersonal relationships and voyeurism are what’s intriguing here and it’s amazing that nearly thirty years later we’ve all got pocket video cameras that make taping things ever so easy. Ironically, Soderbergh made a film, Unsane, using only an iPhone. Is this what it means to come full circle? The lead quartet of actors does a fine job here, Spader is one of the few who could pull off the role of Graham and he’s sporting his feathered mullet in true late 80’s fashion. Andie McDowell turns in a fine performance as does Peter Gallagher who would play essentially the same role in 1999’s American Beauty. Everything that could be said about this film has already been said, but it’s also one of the most important films of the 1980’s.
Video: How’s it look?
For those that really want to know the effort that went into this new 4K restoration, here you go:
This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.
What that really means is that this, like virtually any other Criterion title, look simply amazing. It’s been about a decade since I sat down and watched the movie and I was simply blown away by how good this looks. Granted, it wasn’t your typical studio film, so the independent roots still shine through, but good lord! It’s amazing! Contrast has been improved, color saturation is perfectly natural and detail has been improved. There’s really nothing to dislike about this visually. For a film that’s nearly three decades old I can’t imagine this looking any better than it does here.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Likewise the sound was given a new overhaul as well. And again, for those that like this kind of stuff:
The sound was initially remastered in 2009 by sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake. The original stems and premixes were transferred to 96 kHz files, and a new set of stems was created, featuring music upmixed to 5.1 surround. In spring 2018, the original dialog-edit were located, and the film’s dialogue was completely remixed by Larry Blake and Steven Soderbergh, with special attention paid to noise reduction.
I’ve found some of Soderberg’s films to be a bit on the dull side when it comes to audio. Not that he can’t make a movie with some amazing sound, but to hear this movie now really brings it into the modern light. The DTS HD Master Audio sound mix really brings out the dialogue (something which this movie has in spades) without a hiss, pop or any distortion. It’s a testament to what can be done with the right mix of elements.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Audio Commentary – This is the same commentary track that Steven Soderbergh and filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute recorded in 1998 for the 2009 Sony Blu-ray. It’s a nice inclusion to have and anyone who’s listened to a Soderbergh commentary will attest that he always provides a great track.
- Steven Soderbergh – Three interviews are provided, with two being archival and a new one recorded for this Blu-ray.
- Interview One (2018) – Soderbergh discusses his influences and inspiration for the film (down to the exact minute) as well as some reflection on the long-standing influence of the film.
- Interview Two (1992) – This was an interview for the Dick Cavett show as Soderbergh recalls the doors that were opened to him after this film’s release. We also get a minor study in filmmaking as well as his influences (Jaws) in the world of film.
- Interview Three (1990) – This was released just after the film itself and Soderbergh once again reveals his motivations, what he wanted to accomplish with the film and some of his early influences.
- Something in the Air: Making Sex, Lies, and Videotape – This thirty minute documentary was created for this Blu-ray release and features actors Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo. Missing is James Spader, but he shows up in some archival footage in another segment. The actors recall the shoot, what they wanted from their characters and the film as a whole.
- James Spader – A short clip from a 1989 episode of the Today show. Spader tells us of when he learned about the film’s success and recounts a bit about his character.
- Larry Blake and Cliff Martinez – Sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez discuss working with Soderbergh, the importance of sound on his films and the overall importance of sound in Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
- Deleted Scene – The lone deleted scene features Ann (Andie MacDowell) and her therapist (Ron Vawter). Optional commentary from Soderbergh is included.
- Generators, Noise Reduction, and Multitrack Audiotape – If you’ve ever thought being a Sound editor is a “do nothing” job, think again. Larry Blake discusses the additional work that was done on this track to make it sound as amazing as it does. It sounds (pardon the pun) like no small feat!
- Trailers – Two total, a Soderbergh cut and a Miramax cut.
- A Note on the Picture and Sound Restorations – Piggybacking on the “Generators…” segment is a very robust “note” from the technical staff as to how and why the sound and picture were re-mastered. Again, impressive.
- Booklet – An essay by critic Amy Taubin is provided in this 46 page booklet.
The Bottom Line
I’m sure fans of Soderbergh movies have seen this one time and again. This isn’t the fist time this movie has appeared in the Criterion Collection, either. It was a 1990 release back in the days of LaserDisc! This new Blu-ray knocks it out of the park with new supplements and improved picture and sound that leave your jaw on the floor. Any fan of Soderbergh films or film in general needs to have this in their collection.