Friday, September 27, 2013

Steven Soderbergh

I'm pretty sure Steven Soderbergh would cringe to hear someone say this, but I think that, after more than two decades in the biz, his first film is still his best. Yes, he won his Best Direct Oscar for Traffic. And, true, he nabbed an Emmy (deservedly so) for Behind the Candelabra. But I have zero desire to re-watch either one. Do you? Be honest now: when's the last time you cued up the blue-tinted crack den scene in Traffic with Topher Grace?

Yet, there's something indelible about Sex, Lies that keeps me returning to it every few years. It's not just some vague nostalgia for the indie film boom of the early-to-mid '90s, something uncanny Soderbergh never quite duplicated with the same degree of success. The specificity of the performances he gets from all four of his lead performers is remarkable for a first film, a place where newbie directors generally tend to try and strut their visual stuff a little too much. The salacious title doesn't pull any punches: There is sex, lies and videotape all over this movie. More than that, there are details, details and details. Soderbergh's uncharacteristically reserved, mostly immobile lens captures them all without the need for a triplicate color tint scheme or any of his other late-career cinematographic parlor tricks.

It's there in the finely observed way Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacomo's two Southern sisters parry with one another through men, their acidic and borderline incestuous relationship the most interesting one in the film. It's in the way McDowell holds her iced tea, the glass slowly threatening to tipple over as Spader tells her more and more about his curious collection of Hi-8 tapes. It's in the way Spader tells McDowell has to pee as soon as he arrives to town but then says it was a false alarm and doesn't have to pee then immediately asks her what she likes about being married and why. It's in the way Peter Gallagher and San Giacomo incorporate a common houseplant into their adulterous lovemaking and the way Soderbergh frames it humorously but subtly at the edge of his shot. It's in these details that Sex, Lies manages to pull its stylistic hat trick: to be playful and serious and even ominous about sex all at the same time.

No director wants to hear that the bulk of their filmography has been diminishing returns. I'm certainly not suggesting that. Soderbergh, more than almost any other working director today, has stretched his talents with each new project, tackling wildly varying genres with wildly varying budgets and most of the time turned out films far more interesting anything else in the multiplex. He's pretty fearless when it comes to experimentation and risking complete failure on screens large or small. You'd have to ask him what his riskiest film has been, but if you ask me the biggest reward will always be the one with the three provocative nouns in its name. Film may be dead and Soderbergh sort-of-retired but Sex, Lies and Videotape will always survive. At least on this voyeur's DVD shelf.

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