Steven Soderbergh:
    Generation Indie on Videotape
    By Jen Johans

*Note: contains plot spoilers*

The children of the baby-boomers, later named Generation X, grew up on film.  In
Jonathan Oake's essay, “
Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” he argues that we
are a generation that “is thoroughly dependent on the media… for its very identity” thus
film becomes the perfect arena for analysis.  Gen Xers came of age in the 1980's, around
the same time as video, which is no accident, considering that the generation is mostly
associated with pop culture and especially film.  We grew up with the medium, on the
medium learning life lessons from
The Breakfast Club, which Courtney Love heralded “as
the defining moment of the ‘alternative generation’” (Bernstein 55). Suddenly, affordable
videocameras came of age and everyone owned one as the Me Generation required yuppie
boomers to amass "things.”  Hollywood features about teens outsmarting their boomer
parents and authority figures still ruled the box office but in 1989, a twenty-six year old
from Georgia suddenly appeared out of nowhere and took the film community by storm
with his earnest work about the intimate lives of four twenty-somethings in his film
lies, and videotape
.  The film’s four characters find themselves bearing their secrets and
their medium to do so is naturally indicative of the emerging generation-- they tell their
tales to videotape and filmgoers everywhere took note as a generation came into its own in
a work Edward Norton referred to “as his generation’s
The Graduate,” (Biskind 41), and
author Peter Biskind labeled, “the first Gen-X picture,” (Biskind 40).   In this paper, I will
prove that
sex, lies, and videotape is not only the first but arguably the most important
Generation X film and marked the change from the 1980's Me Generation to the Why Me
Generation of the 1990's.

More than any generation, even the famous counterculture of the hippies in the 1960’s,
Generation X can be dissected most efficiently by focusing on the pop culture
intertextuality of film and the ways in which it encompassed everything.  Unlike the flower
children, whom my Generation X is often cited as idolizing for inspiration, we had no
large-scale wars to protest against in the 80’s, no dynamic leaders like Martin Luther King
Jr. or Malcolm X reminding us of what changes needed to be made, and no Woodstock.  We
had a presidential assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, but unlike the most
likely politically motivated hit on John F. Kennedy, the attempt on Reagan was made by a
crazed fan of Jodie Foster’s who’d seen the film
Taxi Driver one too many times.  We were
a spoiled generation raised by baby-boomers determined to give us everything they didn’t
have.  Capitalism ruled and the blockbuster Hollywood production thrived until like all
children, we decided to rebel against what we knew and grab the camera ourselves to
illustrate that our attitudes were much different than those of the baby-boomers.   Some of
our parents were yuppies, some were not but we had one thing in common—film.

According to Donald Lyons, in his childhood, writer/director Steven Soderbergh moved
around quite a bit throughout the south until finally settling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
and began making his own films at the age of thirteen (137).  Freshly graduated from high
school, he headed for Hollywood and after a few disappointments regarding the cold,
nature of the film business, which in the decade of the 1980’s blockbuster solely revolved
around money, he returned home, working odd jobs until finally being offered the chance
to shoot commercials and work for Showtime.  Always writing his own scripts, he received
his break in 1986, at twenty-three, shooting a Grammy nominated concert film for the
band Yes which aired on MTV and led to his getting an agent and film deal with Outlaw
Productions (Lyons 138).  On the DVD commentary track of
sex, lies, and videotape,
Soderbergh states that although he wrote the screenplay for the film in just eight days,
he’d been thinking about it for a full year and had filled several notebooks with ideas.

Although he claims that none of the events that occur in the film actually happened to
him directly, nonetheless
sex, lies, and videotape is largely considered an
autobiographical work.  Peter Biskind notes the director’s epiphany at the age of twenty-
four in
Down and Dirty Pictures, as Soderbergh recalled a relationship with a particular
woman, in which he was “deceptive and mentally manipulative,” sleeping with other
women simultaneously to seek short-lived approval and acceptance and his near year long
behavior wore him out, making him realize that he was becoming somebody that he felt if
he actually knew, he would hate and recalls that “had he been able, he would, he said,
have joined a twelve-step program for recovering liars” (40).  Out of this darkness, he tried
therapy, which didn’t provide any solace, and decided to write a script about the
experience of taking advantage of what he calls during director’s commentary, the “Me Me
Me Generation” and, although most who view the film first feel that the main character
would be most autobiographically indicative of Soderbergh, he assures viewers on the DVD
that he identifies and has been all four of the leads at different points in his life.

sex, lies, and videotape featured James Spader, an intense young actor typecast as the
yuppie “emodiment of smooth cruelty” (Bernstein 73), in John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink. In
Soderbergh’s film, he portrays a former emotionally manipulative, lying ladies man who,
now impotent, videotapes women discussing their attitudes, desires, experiences and
fears about sex.  As Donald Lyons states in Independent Visions, “videotaping… is an act
of alienation” in the film (34) and Soderbergh notes on the commentary that the
videocamera was the best device of the materialistic 80’s era to see how someone can try to
keep others at arm’s length.  The first two words of the title seem to trick viewers.  Despite
its provocative name, the film is really about the issues of honesty and trust in
interpersonal relationships and the importance and power of conversation, however it’s
the word “
lies which lends the real piquancy; with just sex and videotape, we’d expect
either tabloid TV or a high-minded mediation on the interrelationship of technology and
erotic fulfillment” (Lyons 137).

In visiting sleazy lawyer John, an old college friend and “predatory, suspender-wearing,
Reagan-era yuppie” (Biskind 41) played by Peter Gallagher, Spader’s character Graham
marks the start of the drifting, arty, philosophizing, sensitive leading men that would
populate Gen X and serve as the counterpoint for all things yuppie, cold, and
materialistic.  “A premature slacker, aimless, and lacking money, career, or ambition,”
(Biskind 41), Graham develops an attraction to John’s wife, Ann, played by Andie
MacDowell (like Spader, also a veteran of the Brat Pack in
St. Elmo’s Fire) in a great,
understated performance. Laura San Giacomo turns in her first cinematic performance,
rounding out the group as Ann’s lively sister, Cynthia, who is carrying on a seedy affair
with Ann’s husband, John.

The film’s admittedly simplistic style, along with a cast of relative unknowns and the
surprising location of Baton Rouge rather than the predictable New York for its neurotic
characters helped inspire a new breed of filmmakers, paving the way for Gen Xers to
branch out on their own filmmaking journey.  Although, at the time, those working on
lies, and videotape
basked in the freedom of the truly vanguard process and had no idea
that it would later be referred to by Biskind as “the big bang of the modern indie film
movement,” (26).  The film, shot in just thirty days used no sets as the art department’s
budget was only five thousand dollars, so the film is completely comprised of real Baton
Rouge locations including some reshoots in Soderbergh’s own apartment, helping add to
the homemade, intimate feel of the work, the director informs viewers on the DVD.  In
choosing wardrobe, James Spader basically had the clothing already, knowing exactly
what he wanted to wear and Peter Gallagher’s 80’s lawyer was outfitted in a local southern
men’s store.  In addition, true to its independent feel, Soderbergh took his leading ladies
to the shopping mall and purchased their entire wardrobe in just one day.

The production, according to Soderbergh’s DVD commentary track, ran the perfect
balance of an independent, “hey, let’s put on a show,” mentality and not wanting to get in
the way of the brilliant actors he cast, and honing his directorial craft with his one-of-a-
kind choices.  His not wanting to call too much attention to the filmmaking process makes
it seem deceptively easy and was truly unique to most of the other films of the era with
show off camera trickery and cuts which some say are responsible for creating the short
attention span associated with television viewers today.  In contrast, Soderbergh is a firm
believer in starting a film as quickly as possible and not using opening credits or any shots
that call too much attention to itself as a work of film.  In fact, the closing credits used the
fastest and cheapest font he could find in order to savor the idea of just watching lives
being lived.  Even though he is now financially successful with hits such as
Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven
and Traffic, he genuinely misses that naïve “movie nut”
enthusiasm and the passion of being an amateur including releasing a film with minor
continuity errors that humanize a work.  The amateur energy Soderbergh recalls was
shared by everyone on set as they essentially felt it could be a resume piece that, even if
never picked up and distributed, would help everyone involved get additional and
hopefully superior work.  Although in retrospect, there is some earnest writing he tells
viewers on the DVD he feels is a bit “too on the nose,” the film stands as a testament of the
era and really illustrates the way the new generation was emerging as a rebellion to the
baby-boomer mentality, similarly to the hippie movement of the late 1960’s rebelling
against the way the times were going then.

Admittedly inspired by
The Graduate, in the beginning of the film Soderbergh overlaps his
dialogue frequently, leading viewers quickly from one scene to another with voyeuristic,
quick shots (the only time they’re used in the leisurely film) and traveling music as we see
Graham arrive in town in a convertible, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman cruising down the
highway in
The Graduate.  The two male characters, Graham and John mirror each other
and the viewer is immediately aware of the stark contrast.  John is introduced in a huge
law office, playing with his wedding ring and discussing the amorous female attention he
receives from “phillies” now that he’s married, thereby representing everything greedy and
soulless about the Me Generation.  On the other hand, Graham, dressed simply in a black
button down shirt and jeans, changes in a gas station bathroom, signifying himself as a
drifter and adding to our surprise as Ann’s character overlaps, telling her shrink that the
two men were very good friends and similar at one point in time.

Although the main subject matter is indeed sex, Soderbergh loathes filming sex scenes,
finding more interest in the before and after event of lovemaking as often times they are
much more fascinating and erotic, and less exploitative.  The film itself contains no
nudity, although it is implied, and it is in stark contrast to the era, which brought us the
graphic and exploitative
Fatal Attraction.  It is indeed novel that candid sexual dialogue
occurred in the 1980’s and it inspired honest exchanges in many independent films to
come from young writer/directors following in Soderbergh’s footsteps.  

The actual attitudes of sex that the each of the characters hold is revolutionary as well.  
Piggish, philandering John, seems to see no dilemma or moral conundrum of sleeping with
his wife’s sister and marital infidelity, thereby true to its era of excess, putting himself
first and taking sex wherever he can get it.  Graham, who used to be a philandering
lothario, has since realized the error of his ways and despises lies, favoring instead
conversation and wants to make amends for the way he had been years earlier when
manipulative towards a woman named Elizabeth, whom we later learn that John had slept
with unbeknownst to torch-carrying Graham.  The two male characters are polar
opposites and extreme in their views as John is happily amoral and Graham is so
paralyzed by the man he once was that he admits to not having the slightest idea who he
is, now impotent, favoring a relationship with his videotapes of women over an actual
relationship.  The female characters are also quite different as angelic Ann admits to not
really liking sex or enjoying physical contact with her rude, yuppie husband, and in
contrast Cynthia seems to thrive on her affair with John until she happily makes
conversational videotape for Graham and realizes just what she is doing, later breaking off
the relationship.

The most unique dynamic in the film is between former lying yuppie and current
premature slacker Graham and unhappily married Ann.  When the two first meet in Ann’s
immaculate home, there is a strange earnest exchange as Graham asks if she’s ever been
on television and then starts asking her about her marriage, thus getting her to admit that
she likes the security of it, even though in a prior scene with her therapist (another device
of the 80’s), she tells us that as a housewife there is a power struggle as she feels that her
husband, a junior partner in a law firm makes all the money and therefore the house is
solely his.  The two are later filmed sitting on opposite sides of a dining room table with
John at the head, bullying his wife’s cooking and the changed Graham who gives his
famous slacker ode of wanting to have one key on his key-ring.  Actor Edward Norton feels
that “people plugged right into that sentiment,” feeling this scene is pivotal:

    “There’s a zeitgeist, there’s a generational energy being expressed in that movie.
    Spader has a hesitancy, a reluctance to engage, a shell-shockedness in the face of
    the collective cynicism of our parents about how messed up things were, that
    many of us connected with." (Biskind 41)

Realizing that Graham has changed drastically, John urges Ann to take him apartment
hunting and the two share an intimate lunch where they confess their mutual sexual
issues of Graham’s impotence and Ann’s dislike of sex.  There is a connection, a “nice lazy
afternoon feel” Soderbergh’s DVD commentary recalls, to this scene that is reprised again
later after Ann gets spooked when learning of the videotapes and flees, then returns to
Graham’s after discovering her husband’s affair and tells Graham she wants to make a
videotape, interestingly, asserting herself from prim housewife to black shirt and jeans
(identical to Graham’s look) and having the upper hand and control, turning the tables on
Graham.  Soderbergh confesses to DVD audiences that the feel of these hot, tense scenes
echo a nonsexual relationship he’d had with a woman whom he had a terrible crush on but
who was involved with another man.  He and his friend would get together for long
afternoon conversations in her home, drinking martinis, feeling like there was nobody else
in the world.  Everyone can relate to these feelings but they are rarely viewed on film
without obligatory sex as to some viewers a work filled with long conversations could be
torture in an era of explosions and the multiplex. These vulnerable attracted feelings
really shine through in the simplistic, unobtrusive cinematography in Ann’s scenes with
Graham, filled with self-conscious gestures, looking away when worried they are revealing
something a tad too personal, feeling a connection that they know could lead them to
another level and indeed, Ann and Graham do end up together in the last improvised
scene of the film, sitting on the stoop of a home, noting that it’s beginning to rain.

The post-production of
sex, lies, and videotape is now famously discussed in several
books on independent film as it debuted at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival (then
still officially named the U.S. Film Festival), and although losing to Nancy Savoca’s
, the film received the Audience Prize.  Its success at Sundance Film Festival was
small compared to what would come as it was later picked up by Bob and Harvey
Weinstein, the studio heads of Miramax Films who wanted to, in the words of publicist
Christina Kounelias, “unghettoize art house films, get them out of the teeny theaters at the
edge of town where the beatniks live, and make them accessible to a broader, more
mainstream audience” (Biskind 57).  The idea that a small, intimate work like
sex, lies,
and videotape
could play in shopping malls in Iowa City was indeed revolutionary and
surprisingly, the film was elevated from being not only an art house hit but a major
success.  The importance of getting Miramax Films interested can not be understated as
exposing it to a mass audience helped get folks who wouldn’t have had the opportunity
normally to see a film they might not, playing it side by side with blockbuster fare and thus
getting the new generation to climb aboard.  

The biggest surprise came when the film played at the Cannes Film Festival, and was
generally said to not have a chance in competition with work such as Spike Lee’s
Do The Right Thing.  According to Biskind, Lee, himself an indie veteran, was
floored when Soderbergh’s film won the highest honor, the Palme d’Or and James Spader
received the award for best actor (79).  At twenty-six, Soderbergh was the youngest
filmmaker to receive such an honor for a fictional feature film and the critical and box
office success suddenly made him an indie darling overnight and the official mascot for
the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax for years to come.  

Although his next few films were poorly received, Soderbergh re-inspired himself by
returning to his indie roots with
Schizopolis, which he feels is his own cinematic Jackson
Pollock painting, analyzing and satirizing his own life, thereby leading him to apply an
indie approach to his next major works
Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich and

The success and shock of
sex, lies, and videotape took not only Hollywood by storm but
also initiated the start of Generation X and the inspiring, intimate nature of the work
made America’s Gen X take note as people from all backgrounds decided that they too
could use this outlet to share their tale and analyze the attitudes and views of their
generation in a more conversational way as opposed to camera trickery and explosions.

In conclusion, although Generation X is largely looked down upon as a laughable cliché of
what my friend Chris Olson refers to as the shift from the Me Generation to the “Why Me”
generation, I wanted to highlight its importance nonetheless as a worthwhile and
overlooked piece of American and cinematic history and feel that the film that is most
important in documenting this change is Steven Soderbergh’s
sex, lies, and videotape.  
Due to the fact that it’s both a recent generation and one not deemed valuable for much
documented study, I felt that as a film student, looking at the media based generation
through the film lens is the best way to address the culture Oake reaffirms thoughout his
essay as media and spectator based and analyze the era much in the way that James
Spader’s Graham does— voyeuristically through the use of video.


Bernstein, Jonathan.  Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies.  New York: St.
Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Biskind, Peter.  
Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and The Rise of
Independent Film
.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Lyons, Donald.  
Independent Visions.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Oake, Jonathon I.  “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.”  Velvet Light Trap: A
Critical Journal of Film & Television Spring 2004: 83-97.  Academic Search Elite.  EBSCO.  
22 July 2005. <>.

Sex, lies, and videotape.  Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. James Spader, Andie MacDowell,
Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo.  Miramax, 1989.
(c) Jen Johans.
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