When Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, it took audiences by surprise with its frank discussion of human sexuality. This bold film took on a topic that Hollywood all to feebly played at and hit it out of the park. For its accomplishments, it was awarded the coveted Palme d’Or, which in turn launched its then unknown director into the stratosphere. It is for these reasons and many more, that we can regard it as being a quintessentially indie product that at the same time was a breath of fresh air even to the festival scene of the late 80s.
Like indie titles before it, Sex, Lies, and Videotape spread by word of mouth. This was due to its core narrative content, which centered around characters that were embroiled in a hyper-sexual world of storytelling. To me it was a modern Shakespearean play, but laid out on a 20th century stage about a taboo subject that even that legendary playwright could only hint at. Its indieness also stemmed from its ability to vault its director into the public conscience and make him into one of the bright new American filmmakers of the future. It also had this effect on its star James Spader, as he saw interest in his acting craft increase exponentially after his win for best actor at Cannes. All of this is to say that Sex, Lies, and Videotape performed exactly like an indie film should according to how Newman perceives it. It acted as a launching pad for the people who put an immense amount of time and effort into such a small project compared to the typical Hollywood competition. Funny enough, Spader himself is now a centerpiece of one of the worlds highest grossing film franchises, as he has been picked to play Ultron in the upcoming Avengers sequel.
But the promotion of the cast and crew of the film weren’t its only indie elements, as it also tackled a subject that many films are afraid to even whisper of. The aforementioned complexities of the narrative and its level headed approach to such a private topic are another aspect of Soderbergh’s work that make it stand out as independent. Even the title is upfront with what the film is about to delve into. Its so simple, yet so wittily brilliant at the same time. As a matter of fact, I’m sure the title had something to do with the films eventual success in wider domestic release as well as on the home video market. If there is any one truth in entertainment, its that sex sells. It spread like a wildfire from the festivals to theaters across the country and then finally into living rooms across America. This in turn allowed it to redefine the boundaries of what indie could become. Newman notes this in his piece, as he clearly defines a pre and post Sex, Lies indie scene. He even mentions that the director, while happy for the success of his film, found it unfortunate that it raised the bar so high for the rest of the field that it became an almost insurmountable barrier to entry in the first place. The advent of the mini-majors soon followed, as big Hollywood now wanted to replicate the success of Soderbergh’s work. All of these aspects make Sex, Lies, and Videotape a polarizing film for indie cinema, because while it revolutionized how we perceive what indie is, it also created a new barrier for aspiring indie filmmakers to transcend. A step back? A step forward? Who knows, its indie.