Quintessentially Indie: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

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. 

Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you Ultron in all of his naked glory.

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.

The eagerly anticipated sequel to Sex, Lies and Videotape, Marvel presents: Fighting, One Liners, and Digital Imagery

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.


One thought on “Quintessentially Indie: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

  1. Diggin the Ultron update, total Marvel nerd. Never knew he had a fleshy inside? I completely agree with the idea “sex sells”. Everybody is is deep down intrigued and mystified with human sexuality bedroom secrets and stories. There is no telling whether it was a step forward or a step back. Coming from someone not familiarized with the indie industry, it does seem that it was a much needed jump into the scene. But, I never thought of it being somewhat detrimental to indie cinema. I liked your thoughts on it creating a new barrier for filmmakers to transcend and how it caught the eye of big Hollywood to replicate Soderbergh’s success and Soderbergh’s comments on how the new bar was set. I can see where that would cause a little hurt to the industry. But it seems that this event was a right place, right time placement. It helped kill the fears of box offices and producers to take that chance on an indie film. Who’s to say what would have happened to indie films if Sex, Lies doesn’t come along in 1989? It’s unclear what could have become, indie cinema could have been done all together. It was inevitable for a film to come along to grab the attention of Hollywood and the nation and revolutionize Indie movies, bringing along the actions and responses to the indie industry whether positive or negative.

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