Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Month: May 2019

sex, lies and videotape

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.2/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 5/5 (Fuckable cast, sex positive themes, source of fantasy material, passes the Bechdel test, rewatchable. Yes!!)

This contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (free, with Spanish subtitles), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £5.99) Sky Store (to rent), Ratuken TV (from £2.49)

The movie poster of sex, lies and videotape, showing images of the cast intercut with thick black lines

Of course this was going to be the first movie in this new series – it was the one that inspired it all! A film about sex, relationships, voyeurism, exhibitionism and with Secretary’s James Spader as the lead? It’s safe to say that this movie had a big effect on me…

Made in 1989 and Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape tells the story of four people: married couple, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher), her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) and an old college friend of John’s called Graham (James Spader). Ann and John’s marriage is struggling – she is in therapy discussing how she no longer likes it when John touches her and all the while, he is fucking her sister. John’s friend, Graham, has only recently moved to the area but creates ripples in the uneasy balance of these relationships. He reveals to Ann that he is impotent and unable to have penetrative sex. Instead, he gets off on videos he’s made of conversations with women talking about sex. His arrival, and the videos he makes of them, prompt both sisters to reconsider and eventually end their relationships with John. It’s such a good film!

And it’s not just me that thinks this film is great – it won the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where James Spader also won the Beat Actor Award, and Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1990 Academy Awards.

I first saw this around 2005 during my many years at university and when I was deep into an obsession with the OC’s Sandy Cohen, also played by Peter Gallagher, as many women in my friendship circle were. ‘What would Sandy Cohen do?’ had become a mantra of sorts for us! I was in my early 20s and a long way from working out who I was sexually and what I liked, and I watched this with a group of girlfriends mainly to see what Sandy Cohen had done before becoming Sandy Cohen. They were intermittently shocked and bored – he is not a good person here. I could not tear my eyes away and I’m not sure I have ever been the same!

This film initiated such a paradigm shift in me because it caught me at a time when I had no real sexual experience or confidence, but I knew there was so much wonder waiting just out of reach. At that time, I recognised so much of myself in Ann; her hesitation and embarrassment about sex, her frigid existence as a housewife locking her into a life that she knew was making her unhappy but that she couldn’t work out how to change, and I was so afraid that this was my future.

A two year relationship during sixth form with an eighteen year old boy who was too afraid of being caught buying condoms to actually have PIV sex had been followed by several years of celibacy, and I was left somewhat paralysed when it came to sex. The very few times I did have sex had not gone well and I was stuck, bound by my fear and lack of experience. Maybe I would never work out how to have good sex? Maybe I too would end up in a sexless marriage, living as the perfect housewife but never be sexually fulfilled?

Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher in bed. He is asleep, she looks frustrated

So, like Ann, I was fascinated by Graham and his videotapes. Maybe it’s because of my love of movies but there is something nostalgic and a little romantic about Graham’s box of videotapes, each labelled with the name of the person he was filming. As a viewer of the movie, you don’t see much of what is on these tapes and it is left to your imagination, but just the idea of all of these women opening up and talking about sex, answering Graham’s questions and discussing these intimate subjects with such ease, was intoxicating.

And, oh my gosh, I wanted Graham to make a tape of me. I imagined feeling terrified and vulnerable but safe enough to talk, which is a hot combination of emotions! I imagined Graham’s questions probing me and making me realise things about myself that I wished I could vocalise. It was such a delicious fantasy, and one of the earliest that I can remember that was definitively sexual rather than more romantic. I only watched the movie once until many years later but I cannot tell you how often I reimagined that scene and that idea…

Interestingly, in 1989 Roger Ebert described his use of video as a form of sexism assault as ‘he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.’ While I’m not sure that this view of assault stands up in the post-#MeToo world where more definite assault has been revealed to be so dishearteningly widespread and Graham clearly has the consent of the women he’s recording, it did strike me that his simple voyeurism could be seen so negatively.

Because looking back now, this is almost the perfect acting out of my exhibitionist/voyeur tendencies. To be watched so intently by someone who will get off on watching me over and over is among the hottest things I can imagine. Equally, I love the idea of videoing a partner like this, and it proved to be as hot as I’d hoped when I filmed my husband finally breaking his 10 day orgasm denial streak a couple of years ago. The results were definitely NSFW but I got off on the filming and the watching later in almost equal measures, and I remembered Graham’s videos with new eyes.

Andie MacDowell looking towards the camera, wistfully holding a camcorder

This is also a form of voyeurism that adds distance and time to the immediacy of the experience, a deliberate choice by Soderbergh. Talking to Film Comment in 1989, he explained that ‘video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events…[Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism.’

This won’t be the last time I talk about James Spader but it is a good place to introduce him. He is among the most fuckable of all actors and, unlike most celebrity crushes, this is more because of how he is rather than how he looks. In the same review mentioned above, Roger Ebert feels that Spader has the ‘kind of sexual ambiguity of the young Brando or Dean; he seems to suggest that if he bypasses the usual sexual approaches it is because he has something more interesting up, or down, his sleeve.’ That is true of his character here and it is definitely true of his character in Secretary. Both are superficially ordinary, almost boring, and yet have such fascinating and kinky depths, and the juxtaposition is intriguing and a little dangerous.

James Spader with a mullet, gesturing towards the camera

Although the videotapes appealed to me more than the sex or lies of the title, there is so much of interest in the sex and sexual relationships from the other characters. The interplay between Graham’s impotence and Ann’s frigidity in contrast to John and Cynthia’s hypersexuality is almost a caricature. Is this to suggest a challenge or to justify the behaviour of the other characters? Roger Ebert describes the ‘fundamental fact of the human ego’ that we believe that a new partner could cure impotence or overcome frigidity – they’ve just not found yet right one, they’ve not been fucked by the right guy, and other such sexist opinions – and it is true that both Ann and Graham’s character resolutions do revolve around them finding each other. But it doesn’t play like ego; they are almost reluctant in their approaches to each other.

Unlike Cynthia who does visit Graham with the intention of ‘curing’ his impotence as he won’t be able to resist her. And I can see why she’d think that – Cynthia is just so fucking sexy in that 1980s stereotypical kind of way with big hair, a filthy laugh and denim cut off shorts (Laura San Giacomo also played Vivian’s friend Kit in Pretty Woman, another character who rightly or wrongly taught me how women can be sexy), and I did want to be her. I wanted to be that brashly sexy, that confident and capable of getting what I wanted.

Laura San Giacomo lying on her back with her feet in the air, wearing a black dress and black boots

But despite the use of unusual camera angles, sweaty faces and red based colours making it clear that her and John were having Good Sex, it’s not hot. The further through the film I got, the less attractive I found them. Certainly, neither of them are as attractive as they think they are and the sex may appear incredible – energetic, hard and fast, sweaty – but it is framed by so much deception that I struggled to find it that appealing! John is also too much of a twat to be attractive, and their sex less desirable as a consequence.

I think this was the beginning of the end of my reliance on movie sex as a visual learning aid. Porn has always been too starkly real for me, preferring to create my own imagery when reading erotica instead, so movies were really my only visual references for how sex should look. And it turns out that it’s rarely as hot as anything I’ve experienced in real life.

After this film, I stopped expecting the sex I saw to be as hot or arousing as the sex I could imagine. The words? The ideas? Fuck yes! And that’s where this film delivers those delights in spades…

Next week: The Thomas Crown Affair!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Sex, love and videotape

A photo of a segment of my DVD shelf with a small gold trophy with ‘Best Shag’ written on it

In 2012, I decided to write a list of every movie I’d watched. By the end of January, the list was 43 films long and I decided to set myself a challenge: could I watch 365 films in a year? The answer is yes, I could. I could watch 371 in fact!

I love watching movies. As a child, I’d watch the same film over and over, sometimes every day, until I could recite every word or make up my own lines between the dialogue to write myself in as a character. As a teenager, I’d seek out every film that anyone ever recommended so that I could drink in every moment, every experience. I’d watch action movies, rom coms, historical fiction, science fiction…everything. Once I left home, going to the cinema was my escape, and I have never lost my love of it, going as often as I can and seeking out cinema experiences – outdoor screenings, immersive cinema showings, movie marathons, double bills and singalongs. I also own over 400 DVDs, many now stored in the cellar as technology has already surpassed them but I just can’t bring myself to throw them away. I love love love watching movies!

I also love sex. I love sex! But I only really discovered how much and in how many hot and horny ways in the last five years or so. I hadn’t experienced enough to know what I wanted. Strangely considering how much I love movies, porn doesn’t do anything for me as my fantasies always needed more of a story. I imagined elaborate scenarios where the physical act of sex was only a very small part and I would get off on the build up, the personal interactions; the plot. Really, I needed a whole movie, not porn!

So movies with good sex scenes were everything to me. Plots about sex or sexuality and hot characters in hot situations would inspire fantasies that I couldn’t dream up on my own. They were also an education of sorts. Sex education is notoriously rubbish and when I was at school did not include anything about pleasure. In lieu of actual experience, I used movies to answer questions or demonstrate what sex should be like.

But is that a reasonable thing to do? And which are the good movies to watch? Which are the hot hot mainstream movies and what can they teach us about sex? Are there movies that teach good lessons about love and relationships?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I know which movies I like and which turn me on. I know which movies I think have interesting themes or handle difficult topics well (or badly!). And I kind of fancied watching them all again!

This new blog will, therefore, be a catalogue of my favourite movies that discuss sex; talking about why I like them (or don’t like them) and what I learned (or didn’t learn) from them. They may be on my list because they’re hot or because they’re fascinating. They may be included even if they’re rubbish but start the right conversations. They may be there because they had a profound and lasting effect on me, or just because they’re a favourite!

I’m also giving each movie a score out of five – my ‘sex score!’ I was tempted to just give a personal rating but I have a tendency to score everything very highly and I’m not sure how useful a list of movies scoring 4 or 5 out of 5 would be! I expect the scores will still be relatively high, especially to start with, as I will only really be choosing films that I like and each score is essentially based on my opinion, but at least there’s a process!

The movie could score a point for a positive answer for each of these five areas:

Cast fuckability: simply, do I want to have sex with the cast?
Sex positive themes: does the movie actually like sex or is it just a plot point or weapon? Does it show sex work or sex in a positive way or is it judgemental?
Source of fantasy material: not all movies that include sex, um, inspire me or provide building material for fantasies. But if there’s an idea or even just an image or a flash of magic that I can’t forget, it gets a mark!
Bechdel test: although passing this test does not guarantee that it is a feminist movie, it is a low enough bar that I think it’s worth noting if it fails! So, are there two named female characters? Who talk to each other? About something other than a man?
Rewatchable: I watch movies a lot, and over and over again. So would I watch this one again if I saw it on TV?

I am so excited about watching all of these delicious wonderful hot movies again!!

So which mainstream movies do you love? Which turn you on? I’d love to hear about them…

New posts will be published on Sunday evenings and the first will be Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 masterpiece, sex lies and videotape.