The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh
Remember Schizopolis? Probably not, and why would you? It had a quietly disastrous premiere in 1996 at the Cannes Film Festival, where seven years earlier its mastermind, a self-taught, 26-year-old filmmaker, had won the Palme d’Or for his first feature-length work, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Accepting his prize, the newly anointed godfather of American independent cinema looked out across the crowd, paused and said, “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.” In a way, he was proven right by Schizopolis, a masochistic, quasi-autobiographical sketch-comedy psychodrama about a married couple’s communication breakdown.
At the beginning, the writer/director, Steven Soderbergh, who is also the film’s star, steps onto a stage to deliver a warning of sorts:
When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price, not some bargain-matinee, cut-rate deal. In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.
A riff on Cecil B. DeMille, the grandstanding speech is intended as a deadpan joke and is punctuated by the ninety-six minutes of disorienting, self-lacerating vignettes that follow. The film’s most suggestive non sequitur situates the central character—Soderbergh plays multiple roles—in an office bathroom stall, furiously masturbating while timing himself with a stopwatch. It’s the perfect introduction to an artist who’s always trying to beat the clock. His wry public service announcement also mounted a protective shield against further criticism: he tacked it onto the film after it bombed at Cannes.
Self-consciously inscrutable and totally unmarketable, Schizopolis should have been the end to a very brief directorial career. Instead, it jump-started Soderbergh’s creative and commercial energies. In 1998, a Universal Studios producer gifted Soderbergh with the screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s romantic thriller Out of Sight, and he dressed it up as a sophisticated and seductive old-school caper. Operating with calisthenic fervor and peak efficiency, Soderbergh began turning out a new film about every nine months, usually working pseudonymously as his own cinematographer and editor. After wrapping up the smash hit Erin Brockovich (2000), he shot the globe-trotting drug war epic Traffic (2000) himself with handheld cameras in nine cities; then, as a lark, he launched the major Hollywood franchise Ocean’s Eleven (2001) less than a year later. He molded himself into such a finely tuned and profitable machine that the studios couldn’t help but ignore his idiosyncrasies. In 2001, he would become the first person since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to earn two Oscar nominations for Best Director in the same year. He lost, to himself, and the moment recalled the sequence in Schizopolis when he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with his doppelgänger. The off-balance frisson of every subsequent Soderbergh film—and there have been many, with many varieties of pleasure—suggests that his Schizopolis speech wasn’t entirely a joke. A potential Schizopolis lurks within even his most straightforward genre exercises, and the madcap, convention-busting Soderbergh is as serious about his craft as the socially conscious Soderbergh of Traffic. (Tellingly, both films are available as Criterion Collection discs.) Though he became a pragmatic and professional studio craftsman, a self-styled journeyman (vocally opposed to the “a film by” credit), and the bald, bespectacled guy who looked at ease on the Kodak Theatre stage receiving his Oscar, he never quite succeeded in camouflaging the unrepentant weirdo, the cleverer-than-thou postmodern eccentric who enjoys toying with the audience. At the very least, Soderbergh is one of the wonkiest individuals ever to be afforded some measure of creative control over multimillion-dollar Hollywood projects. Somehow, his intellectual and creative vitality has been challenged, but never constrained, by industry conventions.
On paper, every Soderbergh project sounds unaccountable. A big-budget Andrei Tarkovsky remake? A recession-era drama about male strippers? These are films we didn’t know we needed. His last completed picture dramatized Liberace’s relationship with a younger lover. His 3-D rock musical biopic of Cleopatra languished in development, as did his update of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but somehow his quixotic twelve-hour television adaptation of John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor has advanced to the early planning stages. Soderbergh is not the only bankable filmmaker with an absurdist streak, but he’s a savvy operator with enough accumulated industry capital to give his pet projects a public airing.
The typical line on Soderbergh is that he oscillates between blockbusters and indies in a “one for them, one for me” quid pro quo. Besides being wrong, this formulation implies a zero-sum exchange of labor for pleasure, and I can’t imagine Soderbergh shooting a film he didn’t absolutely want to make. He is driven by a constant sense of creative impasse and a willful resistance to repetition; every Soderbergh movie, not just the weird ones, is a palate cleanser. Even Ocean’s Twelve (2004), a narratively unnecessary sequel—which is, in part, about the inevitability of sequels and the pressures of retirement—plays like the most enjoyable European vacation ever captured on film. Soderbergh treats each project like inspired work for hire, as if he’s just an ace freelancer who really loves his latest gig.
Indeed, he has often seemed like the least alienated laborer in Hollywood, bending various systems to his own logic, never wasting a motion, making it all look effortless. And now he doesn’t want to punch the clock anymore. “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me,” Soderbergh told New York magazine earlier this year, “or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.” At 50, he is following through on a plan to stop making feature-length movies, focusing on various related pursuits instead: painting and theater, importing a brand of Bolivian liquor, selling T-shirts, looking out a window every once in a while, and continuing to challenge all forms of deadening knowingness. It would be foolish to think that an artist as restless as Soderbergh would ever stop working; he’s posing new challenges to his creativity, finding new problems to solve. But he also might be toying with us again, needling us to consider what this self-proclaimed lucky bastard has already gotten away with.
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