sex, lies, and videotape
With his provocative feature debut, twenty-six-year-old Steven Soderbergh trained his focus on the complexities of human intimacy and deception in the modern age. Housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) feels distant from her lawyer husband, John (Peter Gallagher), who is sleeping with her sister (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s old friend Graham (a magnetic, Cannes-award-winning James Spader) comes to town, Ann is drawn to the soft-spoken outsider, eventually uncovering his startling private obsession: videotaping women as they confess their deepest desires. A piercingly intelligent and flawlessly performed chamber piece, in which the video camera becomes a charged metaphor for the characters’ isolation, the Palme d’Or–winning sex, lies, and videotape changed the landscape of American film, helping pave the way for the thriving independent scene of the 1990s.
Previously released by Criterion on LaserDisc, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape returns to the collection with this new special edition Blu-ray. The film is delivered on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been taken from a brand new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original negative.
A set of lengthy notes get into details about the history of the film on home video and the various transfers and restorations it has gone through over the years. Interestingly Soderbergh has supervised every single one, even the original one made for VHS and Criterion’s LaserDisc, and this one is no different. The notes also lead one to believe that this may be the most thorough one and has also undergone a couple of digital “corrections,” though I can’t tell you what they may be.
I can’t say how it improves upon the Sony disc (which was scanned at 2K from an interpositive) but the end results here are marvelous! Not that the film is all that ancient (though I’m a bit shocked to realize it is now pushing 30-years) but it looks brand new, made recently. The colours look wonderful, with superb saturation, looking bright and clean, and the black levels are spot on, looking deep and rich, delivering those wonderful shadows and never crushing out details. The image also retains a wonderful film-like texture, perfectly rendering the film’s grain, which is noticeable but I guess not as heavy as was probably expecting it to be.
There are also no flaws to speak of. Though the extensive notes don’t mention how the restoration went with Sony’s new restoration for their original Blu-ray it suggests that further restoration was applied here. I don’t recall a single blemish of note and the image remains stable throughout, never jumping or pulsing. This has been cleaned up beautifully and thanks to the gorgeous, natural looking encode, it’s a gorgeous looking picture.
The film has an rather ambitious sound design for a low-budget film for the time. Of course, some of this has been enhanced over the years (notes and features on the restoration confirm that this would be the sixth time the mix has been touched) and it’s possible that the film didn’t sound anywhere close to this during its original release, but even then the current 5.1 presentation (delivered in lossless DTS-HD MA) is an impressive feat, and even more impressive when one learns about the rather crazy history around this film’s audio.
Features on the disc get into this aspect in detail, but keeping it basic: due to shooting limitations and some unfortunate “learn-as-we-go” situations the film’s original audio recordings were a mess. The biggest issue fell around a running generator that was unfortunately within earshot and was picked up by the audio equipment. During mixing they tried to drown this out but if I understand correctly this considerably weakened the quality of the final mix, delivering dialogue that was flat and sometimes muffled or pinched. When sound-editor Larry Blake asked for opinions on the mix the common response was “it’s shit.”
He’s tried to correct this over the years (again, this is the sixth time they’ve touched it) and I think technology, along with finally finding the original dialogue stems, has allowed him to get what he wants. A comparison in an included feature compares the original soundtrack with this new one and the improvements are obvious. Dialogue is considerably better, first off, and where it was flat and lifeless originally, it’s now full of incredible depth and fidelity, with far more range. It doesn’t just sound to be drowning into the background and it comes off far more natural. The old audio seemed to have some hints of the generator in the background in some scenes but I don’t recall ever picking that up here. And then Cliff Martinez’s unique-for-the-time score (which has been imitated almost relentlessly, at least since a similar score found in Traffic) manages to creep into all channels effectively with some great low ends.
In the end, no, it’s not an overly aggressive surround presentation, but it’s a very unique and effective one that does work the sound stage reasonably well. And the drastic improvements in quality are also welcome. It really does sound great.
Sony has released the film a few times on DVD and Blu-ray and Criterion appears to have ported most of the material over, at least by including similar features (a Sundance Reunion appears to be the only item not truly replicated here). Criterion also released the film on LaserDisc but it didn’t contain any features other than liner notes. CORRECTION: I was mistaken on the Criterion LaserDisc. It in fact did include a few features, including Soderbergh's short film Winston, a deleted scene, an interview with Soderbergh, the complete screenplay, the production diary, and trailers.
The big feature carried over from the previous Sony editions is an audio commentary featuring Soderbergh with Neil Labute, director of In the Company of Men. Soderbergh regularly has others join him on his tracks (even having him join himself on the Criterion DVD for Schizopolis) and this always keeps things interesting and entertaining. Having a participant with him also allows the track to look at the film from a few angles, with Soderbergh in this case sharing stories about the film’s production while Labute can look at the film from more of distance and off her own interpretations or ideas of what’s going on the film. Labute can then, of course, ask Soderbergh about his intentions with certain scenes or his thinking behind certain decisions, which Soderbergh gladly gets into. The two also talk about their shared experiences making their first feature films. The track was initially recorded in 1998 for Sony’s DVD and elements of it are dated (they talk about this new type of drink called an “Arnold Palmer,” which Labute dismisses as a passing phase) but it’s still an informative and engaging discussion. If you haven’t yet listened to it it’s certainly worth it now.
Criterion then includes three interviews featuring Steven Soderbergh, starting with a 6-minute introduction made exclusively for this release. This introduction seems to have been recorded in place of a Q&A Criterion had originally promoted, where fans could write questions to Soderbergh that he would then answer on this release, similar to what Jim Jarmusch does on Criterion’s editions for his films. Soderbergh confesses it was just too much for him and instead reflects on the film and how he has developed as a director since (including how filmmaking has change in regards to technology). I think this will prove disappointing to those that wrote in but I suspect this short conversation was at least somewhat inspired by those questions and it’s nice to get at least one new interview with the director about the film.
The other two interviews are archival: a 1992 appearance by Soderbergh on The Dick Cavett Show (there to promote Kafka), and a general one recorded in Washington D.C. in 1990. The 1990 discussion (featuring a real baby-face Soderbergh) talks about the film’s influences (70’s staples like Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and The Last Picture Show) before talking about other subjects around the making of the film, including the process of making the trailer (which is further covered in the supplements on this disc). The 13-minute excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show features Soderbergh talking about the success of sex, lies, and videotape and the disorienting experience that comes with a success like the film. He also covers a few other topics, like his love for Jaws and why he is annoyed with the clips of films that are shown on talk shows, pointing out the one from sex, lies, and videotape shown in this segment obviously doesn’t come from his approved home video transfer. I enjoyed both, since, as usual, Soderbergh comes off completely genuine and just has an obvious passion talking about film.
Exclusive to this edition is a new making-of entitled Something in the Air: The Making of “sex, lies, and videotape,”, running 29-minutes and featuring interviews with actors Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura san Giacomo. I was expecting a generic talking-heads documentary but it ends up being one of the more fascinating ones I’ve viewed recently. The three all talk about how they came to be in the project and then talk about their performances and working with one another, which includes James Spader (sadly missing here), who is described as “weird in a very beautiful, beautiful way.” I also rather enjoyed how each goes into detail about how the film impacted their career, all getting boosts, though Gallagher laments that people honestly thought he was like the awful character he portrayed in the film. The best element here, though, is MacDowell, who I have, after all these years, mistakenly assumed to be like the buttoned-down conservative characters she was so good at playing in the 90s. Boy, was I wrong! Soderbergh mentions in the commentary that MacDowell would basically spill out all of her pent-up energy on him, built up thanks to playing such a reserved character, and ended up talking about random subjects, giving him what I guess would qualify as “too much information” at times. That personality comes out here and I thought she was funny, making me wish she received her own dedicated feature. Altogether, though, it’s a great set of interviews.
With James Spader missing Criterion at least digs up a short 5-minute excerpt from a 1989 episode of NBC’s Today featuring the actor talking to Gene Shalit’s hair about the success of the film and his recollection of first hearing about its Cannes wins, something he never dreamed possible.
Criterion then presents a new discussion between sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez. The two have worked regularly with Soderbergh pretty much since this film (Blake did some work with him beforehand) and they talk a bit about that relationship and the sound design of the film but it’s a bit more about Martinez’s unusual (for then) score. It runs 20-minutes.
Criterion then includes one deleted scene that has also appeared on previous releases. The scene revolves around Ann cancelling her psychiatry appointments after her intense discussion with Graham. It’s a good scene, and there is an interesting layer to the psychiatrist, which is apparently why Soderbergh was so reluctant to cut it initially, as he explains in the optional commentary that accompanies it. The scene was meant to show how fascinated Ann has become with Graham but Soderbergh was able to better convey this by simply moving another scene around, which ended up making this one reduntant. It’s presented here from a video source and runs over 3-minutes.
Larry Blake next provides a 12-minute video essay on the film’s rather insane history surrounding its audio mix, playfully called Generators, Noise Reduction, and Multitrack Audio Tape. Speaking over photos recording the time and examples of his software cleaning up the new mix, along with scenes from the film and much more, Blake goes into a overwhelming amount of detail on the problems that arose due to general inexperience and simple mistakes at the time (like having a running generator too close), going a little zealous on noise reduction (because of the generator), which muffled the audio in the end. Blake has tried to correct these problems through the years with each new home video iteration. Eventually we get a series of comparisons using specific scenes, presenting the full untouched audio (complete with that generator), the original filtered 1989 audio, and then the new 2018 audio, showing clear night-and-day differences. I would have been interested to maybe get some of the other mixes made in between the original and this new one but in its present form the feature offers a terrific look into the art of re-mixing film audio. Criterion also includes a note on the picture and sound restorations, written by Blake, which is accessible from the main menu.
The disc also includes a small section regarding the film’s theatrical trailers, presenting Soderbergh’s original edit that wasn’t used—which simply played dialogue from the film over close-up pans of a video camera—and then the final Miramax trailer, which I guess comes off a bit more salacious, but does at the very least make use of that close-up camera footage Soderbergh created for his trailer.
Criterion also gets creative in their packaging. The disc is presented in digipak with a clear plastic o-sleeve to go over it, which in turn features the title and a moiré like patter to make the actual digipak image of Andie MacDowell appear to be on a television display. The package also contains a booklet, first featuring an excellent essay on the film’s impact by Amy Taubin, followed by reprinted excerpts from Soderbergh’s production diary that first appeared in the 1990 book sex, lies, and videotape. It starts with an introduction and is then followed by many entries made between December of 1987 and July of 1988, getting into all sorts of details about planning, right down to casting and what film stock was to be. This might be the release’s best supplement, which is saying something because there is a really strong selection here overall.
I didn’t have high expectations for this release but it has ended up being one of my favourites of the year so far. I think it looks and sounds brilliant and I was absolutely captivated by most of the supplementary material on here. The notes state Soderbergh wishes for you to throw away all previous versions of the film released on home video and I can’t find fault in that advise. This is the one to get.