Betamax and VHS were introduced in the late ‘70s, but it took several years before home video equipment was affordable enough to become widespread. It took even less time for people to bring the technology into their bedrooms.
The desire to make amature pornography wasn’t a new idea, but before, if you wanted to make an erotic movie with your partner(s), you needed to first get your hands on the specialist equipment, and then find a professional to develop the film for you. The thought of strangers viewing and potentially selling your creation was enough to turn off most. So when home video entered the market, couples welcomed the opportunity to record and enjoy the fruits of their labour in safe, secure privacy.
This all changed when news of the very first celebrity sex tape scandal hit. In 1988, a leaked video of a 22-year-old Rob Lowe having sex with two young women he met in an Atlanta nightclub made headlines. It significantly damaged his career, forcing him into hiding for several years. But more than temporarily damage one actor’s career, the leak ushered in a new wave of anxiety among celebrities and couples alike. Rob’s mishap highlighted the fragility of privacy: the bubble popped and the fantasy turned sour. Of course, someone could steal a sex tape.
Sex, lies and videotape premiered at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival before going on to win Palme d’Or at Cannes later that year – one year after Rob Lowe’s blue movie story broke. The film went on to become an icon of indie filmmaking and a true Sundance success story, thanks to its meandering plot, its beautifully ethereal score and its cultural relevance. Yet despite having the antiquated ‘videotape’ in its title, the film not only feels ahead of its time – it feels completely relevant today. Its themes of isolation, vulnerability and privacy resonate with modern audiences as deeply as they echoed the anxieties of ‘80s audiences on its release.
Unconventional from the start, the film opens with Ann, a wealthy young housewife, confessing her inability to have an orgasm to her therapist. She doesn’t appear upset about it; it’s a fact, an unchangeable part of who she is. She can’t help it, as much as she can’t help having brown eyes or curly hair. Meanwhile, Graham – a lonely drifter and old school friend of Ann’s husband – is speeding his way towards their home. He has no backstory, and offers nothing except one blindingly intimate piece of information, which he reveals to Ann over coffee: he’s impotent.
Graham isn’t impotent in the traditional sense. Alone, he masturbates to homemade movies featuring women confessing their sexaual past. He’s not in the video, but he controls his sterile version of sex from behind the camera, asking questions and enjoying his subject’s vulnerability while keeping himself at a cool distance. He’s secure and free from judgement, but also intimacy, and therein lies the problem.
By all accounts, Graham could be considered a creep; a pervert, a deviant, an abnormality in need of fixing. But that was back in 1989, and watching the film now, his behaviour doesn’t feel that weird. His inability to enjoy the flesh-and-blood warmth of another human being is a problem, yes, but not unusual: putting a screen between ourselves and a lover is commonplace thanks to thanks to webcams and online porn, and an anonymous screen version of sex is sometimes chosen over the real thing.
Vulnerability is incredibly difficult, but screens protect us. They allow us to access our deepest desires without any emotional ties or fear of rejection. Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame addresses the subject with raw intimacy in its portrait of an emotionally scarred New Yorker addicted to porn. And in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, a sensitive loner finds solace in virtual arms of Samantha, his operating system.
Graham places a screen between himself and intimacy to achieve gratification undisturbed, uninvolved. But, as he discovers, he has isolated himself, and can only achieve a richer life once he painfully confronts his own vulnerabilities. But sex, lies and videotape was never an anti-technology, anti-pornography fear piece. The questions it raises about our willingness to incorporate technology into our personal lives are more a tale of caution.
The internet has undoubtedly made sex more private, the consequences which are unclear. In an article for The New Yorker, Katarina Forrester observed: “despite porn’s ubiquity, the Internet has also made it more private, and its effects less knowable. The consequences of seeing sex before having it are as unclear as those of Facebook’s colonization of our leisure time. Pornography isn’t hermetically sealed from the rest of culture, and today it sits on a continuum with other problems of technology that we don’t yet know how to address.”
During the sex wars of the ‘70s, anti-porn protests centred around moral issues of violence towards women. Now, critics declare pornography to be a health hazard.
Watching sex, lies and videotape today feels like we’re watching a warning, not against technology, but of our increasingly dependent relationship to it. Sexually, but also in a multitude of other ways. I know I’ll always prefer to send an email over talking on the phone. I know others who will only willingly express themselves from behind the safety of an avatar. Graham’s impotence is a symptom of his addiction to anonymity, but in the end, he discovers it’s merely an empty illusion, and the cost of protecting it is vast. It’s a hard lesson we’re beginning to learn all over again.