SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)

by williamldennis

Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. May be a new favorite.

Loved this one. Not sure where to start even. I think the energy. I don’t know exactly what I mean by the energy even. But it has this morose overtone like AMERICAN BEAUTY that sort of underscores these feelings of modern dissatisfaction through the interactions and choices of a few main characters.

There may be some AMERICAN BEAUTY feelings drawn up through the use of voyeuristic video as well.

The acting in this would make or break it – and it’s flawless. The takes seem to err on the side of long and shots static – so we’re left with a lot of room for the actors to breath.

So much of this movie is about what’s in between the words and what’s not said. We’re left with a tension that’s not said but portrayed on the actors faces. I mean jesus christ James Spader’s nervous half smiles are world class. All four of the principles hold their own though.

This is going to be one of those movies that sits and festers and I’ll rewatch and rethink. It strikes me as simple and straightforward filmmaking yet the emotional tightrope that’s walked is masterful. On the page this may have read as extremely boring – and I think in concept it is: a married couple, a sister, and an estranged friend with a fetish are involved in a love triangle. It sounds  dull and almost hacky. But the execution and acting and preservation of tension are just…amazing.

It’s an exploration of sex but at a more fundamental level what we want and what it means to be wanted. The sex is really more of an object and a means of power and connection. Graham is “practically” impotent yet sexually very appealing while John is virile but ultimately repulsive. When considering Cynthia, it’s the most sexually free who are the most despicable, while those who have rejected sex are the ones who are able to take the high moral ground.

It’s almost as if saying the lack of respect for sex itself leads to lack of respect for other relationships – including that with you partner. I don’t think that was the main goal of the film but it was one possible reading I think.

As a filmmaker this is inspiring because it seems so attainable – a few interior locations, 4 actors, no special effects. Of course world class acting is easier said than done but given that you have something really attainable that hits you over the head. It’s a testament to refining your writing to make something so small and contained work so well.

The explorations of intimacy and sex and love are sharp yet universal and even though heavily dated by the titular camera tech, this film feels timeless.

It’s one of those that feels like such a correct portrayal of humanity (not necessarily at its best) that it gives you a pit in your stomach – partially from emotional impact and partially from creative jealously. BOYHOOD is another that comes to mind.

When great directing conversations come to mind this will be on the top of my list because there is simply so much air (and margin for err) between the story and the performances. So much is not said.

I also loved the scene where John is watching the video tape of Ann and it cuts to the real-time interview between her and Graham. Once the video camera is turned off, we’re brought back to John’s perspective. Brilliant.

Perhaps the greater message here is that the intimacy we wish to feel between each other isn’t something that can be gained by voyeurism or eavesdropping – it has to be earned and it has to be earned through trust and vulnerability. Like Graham “needing to interact with the interviewees” in order to get off. John can’t understand what it’s like to be truly intimate with his wife because they’ve never been vulnerable with each other and in this instance the camera is literally ‘turned off.’

Emotional intimacy is at the core of great sex – or maybe great sex is a result of intimacy. Cynthia had her best sex with John after revealing herself to Graham.

Another theme seems to be editing. Editing of video like the above where Graham turns off the camera – leaving the viewers to surmise what happens next. But also editing of ourselves. How we edit our interactions with others either to protect ourselves or to protect them. Graham mentioning “I wouldn’t have told you even if I had seen you – it wasn’t my place.” Or the language the characters use as their worlds start to bleed together and get messy – they all start to use the word “fuck” more – especially Ann who never did before. We see it also in their dress – Ann starts in very conservative white blouse and ends in a black tank top and jeans – mimicking Graham’s dress from the beginning. By the end we see John in a white suit and bow-tie, looking comical – is he compensating for something? He’s a great guy on paper but an asshole and philanderer. Maybe his over-the-top dress will help him. He might think so.

The more I think about the movie the more I love it. The themes, the execution, the acting, the tension, the attainability of it as a creative work. Fuck – which is an appropriate word to use given the film – what a masterpiece.

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