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THE CURBSIDE CRITERION: sex, lies, and videotape

(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our new addition to the site, “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. This week Brad Cook pushes record on the new Blu-Ray release of  sex, lies, and videotape, the audacious feature debut of THE Steven Soderbergh.)

The indie film wave of the late 80s and 90s was notable for the fact that the barrier to entry for moviemaking was high enough that only the most talented and resourceful people could break through. As a result, many of us middle-aged types who have been around the box office a few times can remember exactly when and where we saw break-out films like sex, lies, and videotape.

While modern technology has lowered the barrier considerably, it just won’t be the same when someone wistfully reminisces about discovering a movie on YouTube or Vimeo. Back in my day, kids, we had to go out of our way to see an indie film that had some buzz. We might have even had to drive to a theater an hour away! Also – get off my lawn!

Ahem. So, about the movie: While sex, lies, and videotape is clearly of another time and place, with Graham (James Spader) innocently filming women talking about sex with his bulky camcorder and no one worrying about it being uploaded to the Internet. However, its themes of love and betrayal are timeless, and this is a film worth viewing by any member of any generation – I’m sure even those who hit their teen and early adult years in the previous decade can appreciate its storyline.

If you haven’t seen it before, don’t worry, sex, lies, and videotape isn’t anything close to a porn movie. It’s a rather simple tale, actually, about a frustrated young wife, Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell), whose yuppy lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher) is having an affair with her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s friend Graham arrives in town, he brings with him a secret: he’s impotent but likes to film women talking about their sexual experiences.

Ann is an austere woman, in stark contrast to her brash sister, so her discovery that Graham has filmed Cynthia is a shock. However, she also long suspected that her husband is cheating on her, and her frustration with his infidelity leads her to become interested in Graham’s project. Complications ensue.

Film critic Amy Taubin notes in the accompanying booklet: “Without doubt, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape struck a nerve when it was released in 1989. Astonishingly, it still does today.” The booklet also features Soderbergh’s diary from December 1987 through July 1988, including an introduction that he wrote in 1989, after the movie proved to be a hit. It’s excerpted from a book that was published in 1990.

This new Criterion Blu-ray of the movie features a new 4K digital transfer and a new 5.1 surround audio mix, both approved by the director. Soderbergh also provided a new six-minute introduction to the movie that gives a quick overview of the making of it.

Another new bonus feature is Something in the Air (29 minutes), which features Gallagher, MacDowell, and San Giacomo looking back on the making of the film. It was a break-out for all of them, as well as co-star James Spader, who didn’t participate in the interviews but is featured in an archival five-minute Today Show segment from 1989.

The other new materials include a new 20-minute conversation with sound editor and re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez, who talk about working with Soderbergh and their roles on the movie. There’s also a new 12-minute discussion with Blake in which he talks about the work that was done to clean up the original audio track, which had background noise and other distractions.

The rest of the bonus stuff includes:


  • A four-minute deleted scene with Ann and her therapist, which Soderbergh explains in the optional commentary track was cut because it diminished Ann too much. Given her role as the movie’s emotional center, that made sense.


  • Two interviews with Soderbergh, one from 1990 and the other from 1992, in which he talks more about making the movie. They run about 24 minutes total and offer a glimpse into the early days of his career.


  • An audio commentary that was recorded in 1998 and included in an early DVD release of the movie, as well as in Sony’s 2009 Blu-ray. In it, Soderbergh and playwright Neil LaBute discuss the making of the movie from start to finish, as well as its rocket ship-like success when it was released. LaBute plays the role of interviewer here, so he keeps the proceedings moving at a nice clip and doesn’t let the discussion lapse into silence.

Two trailers round out the disc. Normally, trailers are barely worth consideration, except as historical novelties, but these are worth noting because Soderbergh originally cut one that Miramax felt was too avant-garde for their tastes, so they redid it. Both versions are included here.

– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)

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