Viking Night: Sex, Lies and Videotape
By Bruce Hall
July 20, 2010
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
One of the pitfalls of writing about the types of films I do is that I usually find myself commenting on material that’s been previously picked over like a breakfast buffet at noon. By nature, this stuff is already coveted by a passionate core of fans and has been repeatedly analyzed by scores of competent reviewers. So, bringing new perspective to it all can be a pretty formidable thing and I generally find it best not to go that route. Instead, I like to try and present a personal perspective based on my own experience with the movie. No doubt you’re wondering what all this has to do with Sex, Lies and Videotape.
The truth is that in preparation for this article I asked myself what I thought I could say about this film that hadn’t been said before, and I couldn’t come up with much. I guess I might mug about how underwhelming Andie MacDowell often is, or rhapsodize about how it helped begin the golden age of independent film - but that would just be boring. Then it occurred to me that this was only the third or fourth time I’d seen this movie; the nuances of the story were so much clearer than the first time I saw it, when I was just trying to take it all in. That probably sounds nerdy, but if you’re not in the habit of watching a movie more than once, you should try it from time to time, because you almost never really see it the first time you see it. Multiple viewings of anything will almost always reveal little details that you failed to notice the first time around. Granted, this is a lot less effective with stuff like The Twilight Saga: Eclipse but with a more upscale title like Sex, Lies and Videotape, it makes the experience feel entirely new and if you’ve seen it only once, you really haven’t seen anything at all.
Often feeling like a play on film, Sex, Lies and Videotape is shot mostly in close quarters on practical locations with a very modest budget. This lends the film an intimate, voyeuristic tone reminiscent of the stage as it tears a page from the lives of its cast and lays it out like a tabloid. Its not unlike a lurid Tennessee Williams inspired reality show circa 1989. The four leads are tormented by outsized versions of common issues, but just like reality television and tabloids, what makes it so fascinating is the same reason we all have for casting stones at each other. I find it perversely amusing to criticize someone else for having a problem that you know you couldn’t solve yourself. It’s the sort of smug satisfaction we usually get from actually overcoming something, but without all the hard work and sacrifice. But by the end of Sex, Lies and Videotape – if you’re really watching – the joke is on us, as we realize that not only are all of these people not so different from one another, they’re really not so different from anyone else. The extreme nature of their afflictions is primarily a smokescreen for something much simpler; the almost pathological need we have to use dishonesty as a defense mechanism either by lying to others, or to ourselves.