Next January, it will have been a decade since I’ve started this project of chronicling the entire Steven Soderbergh filmography. In that time, I’ve been able to track down every once-available bit of Soderbergh ephemera except one: “Winston”, Soderbergh’s 1987 short said to be an embryonic version of the themes that drive sex, lies, and videotape. Its first and only physical release was on the Criterion Laserdisc of sex, lies in 1990, not even being carried over to Criterion’s Blu-Ray for whatever reason. And since I’ve started looking online for it, it’s only been available once, separated into two parts on YouTube with the only audio being Soderbergh’s commentary for it from the Laserdisc; both parts were taken down before I could watch them. But just two months ago, a brave soul named “bigchoicevideo” uploaded the Laserdisc copy of “Winston” to the Internet Archive, both with and without commentary. This is such a thrilling discovery that I’ve called to order this emergency entry in the Soderbergh series.
David doesn’t like the way Cynthia talks about Winston. It’s unknown whether Winston is Cynthia’s coworker or friend or something more, and David hasn’t even met the guy, but whoever he is, he seems too perfect and too close to Cynthia from how she talks about him. It’s all David can think about and it increasingly spoils the time he has alone with Cynthia. Maybe Winston really is the better option…
“Winston” is not a 1:1 comparison with sex, lies, and videotape, but it’s easy to see the ideas at play here that develop more fully in feature form (the final shot of sex, lies is almost exactly the same as the final shot of this). “Winston” is a sneak peek of what sex, lies might look like if it was just Peter Gallagher’s movie, watching a man poison himself and the object of his desire with the strength of his jealousy and mistrust (the short’s biggest issue is that Cynthia only really gets defined in relation to David, though Sherrill Ducharme is good enough in the part that she puts personality where there might not have been otherwise). David is less of an outright jerk than Gallagher, but he doesn’t make a great case for himself as a romantic partner, by the end he’s so neurotic and obsessive that it’s a wonder he and Cynthia had made it together this long. And he’s not even fighting against a tangible threat like Gallagher is, he’s fighting a figment of his imagination tied to a few brief anecdotes. Winston, as he’s seen in David’s daydreams, is the idea of James Spader in sex, lies minus any of the humanity, he is just the man more suave and charming than you are who will ruin your life.
In the commentary, Soderbergh says that the short was inspired by times he imagined extraordinary characteristics for people he only knew through a third part, people who turned out to be perfectly ordinary when Soderbergh met them in-person. Soderbergh feels he wasn’t distanced enough from the mindset at the time to make a good enough movie about it, repeatedly referring to it as “adolescent”. But I found “Winston”, even if the thinking behind it was juvenile, to be a very effective, clear-eyed portrait of a man sabotaging himself with fantasy, Soderbergh-the-writer threading in his shortcomings through dialogue that seems to be about something else (David’s introduction is him amusing himself and no one but himself with 2001 quotes). His obsession with this phantom person begins with slightly irrational and ends as tragic and pathetic. It’s not unlike Solaris, another movie Soderbergh has publicly expressed some regret over and another movie about a man who destroys a relationship many times over because he imagined someone who wasn’t actually there. I wonder if Soderbergh shies away from this and Solaris because he’s uncomfortable with that level of himself getting into his films (and he holds special dislike for the movie he openly admits he made about his failed marriage, The Underneath), but he underestimates how precise and cutting his movies about his own emotions tend to be.
While Soderbergh says “Winston” was a fun shoot, he dwells on one day of work where he, working as both director and cinematographer, had set up a shot in a way that distanced him from his actors other than to shout directions on how to stay in frame. He says this experience told him he needed to have a proper DP so he wouldn’t get hung up on technical details over the actors’ performances (I guess he figured out a way to balance the two later). This anecdote is a precursor to what he later says about a day filming The Underneath, when he realized he needed to make the exact opposite of the movie he was currently making ASAP, and in both cases I think Soderbergh’s letting a bad production experience cloud his judgment on what does work about these movies (this tendency gets ridiculous when he’s publicly down on Solaris because too much money was spent on the sets). His worry about the style overshadowing the performances is unfounded because his style, because the performances are pretty good, David Jensen doing especially good work as the central figure; he plays David with goofy charm that stubbornly sticks around even as he devolves further and further into hostile jealousy.
But even if the performances weren’t up to par, Soderbergh’s style would still be a point in its favor because, as it is in so many of the movies that follow, it’s elegant and fluid without being look-at-me! flashy. There are a few more slick camera moves than sex, lies has (and this is black-and-white, which he had to be talked out of doing for sex, lies) but otherwise the two are pretty close stylistically, closer to the unshowy dedication of an old studio pro than the overambitiousness of a newcomer. And the flourishes he does throw in are previews of the excellent stylist he’ll shape up to be later. A fevered dream sequence, a jumble of mundane conversation and paranoid delusions, gets dismissed by Soderbergh in 1990 as “visual masturbation” but is clearly 90% of the way to the similarly abstract montages of Solaris and The Limey. And the few scenes Soderbergh has much praise for are ones that dramatize breakdowns in communication, which becomes one of the driving themes of almost every Soderbergh movie that follows. This is the first full glimpse we have of Soderbergh’s artistic personality (his two Yes documentaries don’t offer much of that), and while a lot has changed with him, the core remains basically the same.
I don’t know if “Winston” being hidden from public view is because Soderbergh is embarrassed by it, but his regrets about it are mostly unfounded. Nobody will mistake it for a major part of his filmography but it’s rock-solid, promising much of what Soderbergh will soon deliver while being a compelling little narrative in its own right. Soderbergh in the commentary bemoans that he doesn’t think he evolved all that much from this and his other shorts to sex, lies. He’d obviously undergo many drastic evolutions since that, but in a way he’s still right. The seeds of many of those future changes get planted here.
Lester Scale: Worthwhile divertissement
The Soderbergh Players: At one point in the commentary, Soderbergh says he hopes to work again sometime soon with the short’s four actors. He had already used David Foil, who plays David’s coworker at their bike shop, in a similar role opposite Peter Gallagher in sex, lies, but Foil has no further screen credits. Sherrill Ducharme doesn’t even have the one non-“Winston” credit. But John Mese, who played the tit-u-lar role, returned for Schizopolis and David Jensen became a fixture of Soderbergh’s movies up to Ocean’s Eleven (reuniting with Soderbergh on Kafka soon after this interview was conducted), most memorably giving the medium-redefining performance of Elmo Oxygen in Schizopolis.
Among the very small crew, only one figure continued on with Soderbergh: sound mixer and editor Paul Ledford, who would be Soderbergh’s go-to production sound mixer through Ocean’s Thirteen.
More Notes From the Commentary:
- Towards the end of the commentary, Soderbergh talks a lot about another of his early shorts, 1982’s “Rapid Eye Movement” about the aftermath of a botched move to Hollywood he made after high school. He calls “Rapid Eye Movement” a dense, Richard Lester-inspired comedy that his friends tell him he should make more movies like; it certainly sounds to be a prelude to Schizopolis. 1990 Soderbergh is bullish is releasing it on the disc of one of his future movies, but he mentions an issue of clearing the source music that may explain why it has yet to surface in any form.
- Soderbergh dropping the “visual masturbation” critique five years out from filming the most literal version of that phrase.