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Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Miramax Films, August 18, 1989 (US)

Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo

The thousands … no, make that undisclosed millions of men and women posing in front of camera lenses with undergarments dropped, displaying their sex in intimate acts, is sickeningly offensive—not because explicit nudity is objectionable but because indiscriminate naked flesh fails to reveal enough. Hungry voyeurs perpetually crave more. For us, video technology has advanced toward sustaining insatiable hungers, and it also embodies the power to transform the face of adult entertainment forever.

XXX actors were once unrecognizable props—athletic specimens on display, breaking taboos, photographed in secret locations and screened in dingy theatres named The Pussycat or The Bijou. Eventually, names and locations grew familiar. Notorious celebrity sex scandals uncloaked the mystique surrounding those willing to bare all in front of electronic recording devices, and the means by which we viewed carnal dalliances moved from the seedy confines of back-alley theatres to cozy suburban homes. Progress has been painstakingly slow.

An early aficionado of erotic trade in the 1950s, Bob Crane, the star of the television series Hogan’s Heroes, is believed to have been bludgeoned to death by a tripod he used to position the bulky equipment recording his trysts. Few have witnessed playback of the magnetic tapes immortalizing Crane’s personal stag shows, partially because a means of affordable mass distribution was not established in the antiquated days he and his group of amateurs fooled around in the field. Crane’s untimely death did not cease experimentation, though. In ensuing years, companies developed portable gear, probably somewhat less deadly, giving rise to a new breed standing at attention, ready to satisfy in his stead.

Rob Lowe, the Brat Pack pretty boy, infamously videotaped a ménage-a-trios inside a hotel room in the City of Light during the late 1980s, in addition to filming a rendez-vous in Atlanta during the Democratic National Convention. At the time the tape leaked, blurry reproductions of the encounters circulated like booze during Prohibition; VHS cassettes were shared among trusting acquaintances, passing hands on darkened street corners late at night. The fallout nearly destroyed Lowe’s career (one participant was rumored a minor), but the groundswell of interest marked a major turning point in that dirty secrets were on the verge of going mainstream. The public was officially turned on.

Then, along came Pamela Anderson, the buxom Baywatch blonde, and Tommy Lee, her former rocker husband, celebrating their honeymoon in flagrante in the 1990s. The video image was considerably sharper than Lowe’s, and copies of the couple’s acrobatics were far easier to procure. DVDs starting replacing tape, and the material was among the first of its kind to make a killing on the Internet. A few computer clicks et voilà! The whole romp stimulated nothing short of a sensation.

For a brief while, it appeared a climax had been achieved with Anderson’s video log, except, in the millennium, a new strata disrobed to overwhelming fanfare. Paris Hilton, a socialite and hotel heir, catapulted to stardom in her role as a seductress opposite Rick Salomon, a man not famous for anything beyond a failed Hollywood marriage. The Internet digitally carried Hilton’s escapades worldwide to computers screens with the push of a button, supplementing the plasma TVs that continued to run the show the old-fashioned way on video players. Multiple options to access the footage delivered Hilton’s indiscretions to anyone with the slightest hint of curiosity. Most significantly, leaving home to get a peek was unnecessary, whether it was viewed directly online or a DVD was purchased by an online retailer and delivered to one’s doorstep. Lowe must have been jealous of the attention, higher resolution and career boost Hilton received. Viewers were relieved of having to sneak around for a fix.

In nearly forty years, dynamics and attitudes evolved from Crane (dead star), operating in the underground, to Hilton (the birth of a star), launching a career with a video camera, moans and groans. The whole time, we watched, aroused and ready to join the orgy of exhibitionism. Jump right in, we did. There was no shortage of cameras.

Consumer-grade camcorders, camera phones, digital cameras, and Webcams are some examples of the photographic inventions currently pointed at our friends, our neighbors, you, and me, making the individuals on our screens more recognizable than ever. We can all but touch the subjects in front of us. This is the YouTube generation, where everyone is a superstar, lost in the ecstasy of his nakedness for any stranger willing to watch. We emulate the cavalier attitude of our forbearers, as the clothes peel off, without considering what trails in the wake behind the rush to press “Record.”

Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell): Garbage. All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I just … I’ve gotten real concerned over what’s gonna happen with all the garbage.

Amateur videos that document the sexuality of our lives proliferate on the Web. Our pants are off, and the common wisdom is that without our genitals, we are nothing. The goods are given up without discretion. Alas, we freely offer glimpses of our most private parts, proudly believing that the clips are revelations of our true selves. Whether we admit it or not, any temporary thrill instills a false sense of candor. We continue to guard our inner-most secrets.

Cynthia Patrice Bishop (Laura San Giacomo): I wish I could just come right out and tell everyone Ann’s a lousy lay. The beautiful, the popular Ann Bishop Mullany.

All the freedom and means to exploit our pudenda, however, comes at a price. An expense to our individuality is suffered, when we troll vast forums of sensual exchange. Our bodies may be in full view, but they become distant objectified interchangeable pieces. Human interaction is stilted, and the ability to relate to one another in person breaks down.

Graham Dalton (James Spader): I’m impotent. Impotent. Yeah, I … I … I well, I can’t … I can’t get an erection in the presence of another person. So, for all practical purposes, I’m impotent.

Cameras permit us to solicit ourselves in cyberspace anytime, but interplay between individuals seldom registers. Face-to-face contact is avoided, aiding in the ease with which lies pad our histories. Personal profiles are written to accompany our video likenesses, as imaginations of someone we never knew. The fallacy of it all is not given a second thought because the mind is so disconnected and devalued from the rest of the body. The camera zooms in on a pillowy breast or a jutting phallus or a perfectly trimmed woman’s parted vagina. Pleased to meet you. . . .

John Mullany (Peter Gallagher): And he doesn’t have sex with any of them? They just talk?

Cynthia: They just sit around and talk.

John: I could almost understand it if he had sex with them. I mean, almost. Why doesn’t he just buy some magazines or some porno movies or somethin’?

Cynthia: Doesn’t work. He has to know the people. He has to be able to interact with them.

John: Interact? Whatever that means.

Romance may prevail in these troubled times. Pam Anderson, on her fourth marriage, recently wed Rick Salomon in Sin City: Two video superstars united in love at first sight. There is no word yet on whether they have tangled in front of a camera. Should a video surface, I will avoid it. I cannot partake in the misuse of technology any longer.

I stated it before, but incessant ogling at naked bodies is dismaying. Skin is everywhere. I am a hungry voyeur in pursuit of something infinitely more daring exposed in entertainment—a little less show and a good amount more tell. Unclothing the human soul, the least viewed and most neglected part of the human form, is a sophisticated proposition for certain. It may be difficult to locate. Nevertheless, the soul swells with passion when goaded. Put those cameras to better use. Make a short. Make a full-length feature. Make a movie for mature adults that frames erogenous zones usually left neglected. Come to think of it, the type of movie I am talking about has already been filmed. I have shown you mine. Now, you show me yours.