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30 Years Of X: sex, lies, and videotape

Squeezed between the baby-boomer dharma sell-outs and the millennial hordes of tattooed accountants, the throwaway lettuce in a generational bacon sandwich of aspiring corporate drones, sits Gen X, i.e. my generation, sulking mascots of McJobs, deifying burning time creatively doing nothing.

Eventually, we did do something, we invented virtual reality, spurred by inherent lack of enthusiasm for high functioning in the consensus. A purposeful malaise that never really went away.

sex, lies, and videotape(1989) was made at our tipping point. 

Lying is like alcoholism. You are continually recovering – James Spader‘s truth-fetishist Graham was a harbinger of things to come, as the first of Gen X hit their teens mid to late 1980s. The AIDS-education generation – our budding sex lives now could not only cause anxiety, embarrassment, heartbreak and, traditionally, pregnancy – they could also kill. Why participate and risk everything when you can be alone with yourself, and your fantasies?

Not that only sex was on our minds, but I’m pretty sure that trapping kundalini in a box was an extreme isolating factor. There is no true communication without intimacy, and sexual intimacy is always dangerous as is. So the entire decade of the 1980s, in bulk, seemed to be a reaction to an increasing lack of connecting at its root, marked by a sharp turn from a decade of  hedonism, a residue of what short-circuited in 1969, between the White and Red Weddings that were Woodstock and Altamont. Respectively. The time Gen-Xers started to be born, en masse. And man went to the Moon.

Am I oversimplifying? Perhaps. But, it’s true.

Something unthinkable occurred when Gen X came of age, AI marked a significant change in the way we communicate, more so than anything that happened before or since. Up to that point what was occurring was a change in velocity, we were reaching someone else (and somewhere else) quicker, better, safer… But not essentially differently. The change in quality of relating from sheer quantity of communication (Marx would be proud) came with VR. The possibility to interact with the simulacrum, while not having to necessarily get high, or dream. And that changed everything.

So here we are, standing in front of the isolation chamber that is Steven Soderbergh‘s 1989 Palme d’Or winner. It speaks of this sudden existential void that occurred the moment whole chunks of our lives were shipped off to a different dimension, compartmentalised into real and the virtual. This was way before social media, and a tiny bit before the world wide web became accessible to all, but it was the year it was invented – that initial neurological rewiring that made us want to eventually become pixelated.

The film itself aged much like Easy Rider (1969), creature of the times, the beginning of the end, when the birth of a good idea had not completely revealed itself as a bad idea – but does so in hindsight, with enough convenient chronological detachment. It’s also a Rosetta Stone, making it possible to translate the pre-virtual then into the post-virtual now, with a film language that speaks both.

And it starts green. With the word garbage. Andie Macdowell’s poised, beautiful, self-aware Ann is at her therapist’s worrying about the perpetual multiplication of garbage. Her lawyer husband John (Peter Gallagher), red suspenders and everything, took out the garbage one night, and this made her concerned about the destiny of waste. John had also invited an old fraternity friend to stay over, without asking. It’s Graham. This might have triggered the garbage episode.

Straight off, within the first three minutes, we have the story framed: Ann does not like her husband touching her, her husband and her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) are secretly fucking, and John’s mysterious man friend is a drifter dressed in all black, washing in petrol station toilets on his way down, with probably a secret or two of his own.

It’s one of the most elegant and efficient setups I’ve seen in cinema, so effortless it slips us into this vacuum of alienation seamlessly. Like taking a deep dive and seeing the world submerged in water, breathing through an oxygen tank.

Everything is familiar and strange at the same time. Your life as read backwards. No one in the story communicates without script, but the script is diegetic, it plays off in their minds. A fantasy that reality needs to mirror, not the other way around. The switch has flipped, and we are now behind the looking glass.

John is a pathological liar, Ann is pathologically shy, her sister Cynthia is pathologically competitive, and Graham is pathologically removed. However, when he finally drops by, first thing he does is ask Ann personal questions. Intimacy as compulsion.

Graham has a one key life philosophy, owning just one thing that can be locked, which is presently his car. John asks him if he pays taxes. Sure, he’s not a liar. Liars are the second lowest form of humans on the planet. What’s the first? Lawyers.

Graham was once a pathological liar, he says, but he changed. John, politely hostile, sneaks in a mention of Graham’s ex, Elisabeth, still in town.

While John and Cynthia are living the cliché, Graham and Ann are twinned in painful need of genuine expression that manifests as awkward and rushed. Once alone, flat-hunting for Graham, Ann confides in him that she thinks sex is overrated. When prompted to say something personal, Graham tells her he is impotent. That was unexpected. Is he in therapy too? No. He’d never take advice from anyone that does not know him intimately. Meaning, sexually.

We now have Soderbergh defining intimacy in the age of AIDS through his screen alter-ego. But Graham also has a collection of video tapes, his recordings of various women talking about sex. That’s how he gets off.

Inevitably, Ann finds out, by simple inquiry of what the tapes contain. Graham’s internal resolution to not tell lies seems to be written on walls with thick red paint. Why this decision ever came about is the enigma. Which in itself is provocatively bizarre and speaks of the breaking point in Gen X timeline more than anything else in the film. That strange dude that wanders around doing nothing, only saying what is true no matter the consequences. Maybe. Cue in Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites (1994), and a pack of 1990s slacker heroes.

Also inevitably, Cynthia rushes in there, uninvited, desperate to meet this ‘zen master’ that Ann’s got.

The dynamic between the siblings is along the edges of everything unspoken, Ann and Cynthia loathe each other and love each other, and have not managed to solve a single thing between them. They have had clearly designated roles to play in the family, Ann the popular big sister, all in bows, Cynthia the rebellious younger sister, all in leather, and neither of them seems to be able to move away from this freeze-frame. Cynthia acts the more emotionally and sexually evolved until we figure out that her every move is a response to Ann. She’s living the lie much more wholeheartedly.

At Graham’s, a lifetime of unresolved rivalry cracks open. Cynthia is suddenly fragile and soft. They make a tape. Truth as aphrodisiac.

A stressed Ann dives into meticulous house cleaning. All that garbage… And finds Cynthia’s lost pearl earring underneath her marital bed.

The unravelling. Ann makes a tape.

John is watching a tape of a liberated Ann frankly talking about sex. This is after Ann asks him for a divorce and he breaks into Graham’s flat, and before he lets him know that he fucked his ex, the one Graham has been running away from, guilt-ridden over being untrue.

Ann talks about John and her sister, and how meeting Graham changed her life. He disagrees. His problems are his own. Ann disagrees, no one’s problems are their own. Then she stops talking, walks up to Graham, and touches him. He does not move. She walks over to the camera and switches it off.

Fade to noise.

Intimacy to remain intimate.

Ponder on just how much this has aged.

Author: ©Milana Vujkov

2 responses to “30 Years Of X: sex, lies, and videotape”

  1. You lost me a few times but I enjoyed your review and synopsis. A nod to the dialogue of the film I feel and to your generation. I’m a millennial but could relate to how things must’ve been for an X’er. Peace and ever more… garbage!

    • Thank you. Just saw this, the screening of my comments folder must be perpetually bugged. Really appreciate the feedback – yes it was a shorthand, insular text. I think on purpose. Really pleased that it came across as legible to anyone outside the X bracket.

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