The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh
The director’s anxiety about self-definition, evident in the many roles he plays in Schizopolis, has kept his name from congealing into a recognizable brand. “Soderberghian” is a word rarely heard. One could argue that despite his penchant for creative disruption, Soderbergh could slip out of the industry unnoticed. Young filmmakers can romanticize his career but would be hard-pressed to emulate it.
Soderbergh is always articulate when discussing his work, and he refuses to mystify the creative process. In 2011, he released a PDF file of his entire year’s media diet after beginning principal photography on his film Haywire. The unsurprisingly omnivorous list is a blueprint for how to embed your work within a generative sphere of influence. Soderbergh does not discriminate between finishing a painting and watching Seven or Eraserhead; inspiration and output are lines on the same creative continuum. He is transparent about appropriating old tools and adapting them to fit new environments.
As a result, perhaps, of this receptivity, nobody rushes to call this major American filmmaker a visionary. Most of his movies earn unanimous critical approval but baffle anyone looking to define a larger project. J. Hoberman, a fan, has noted that Soderbergh “has no particular stylistic signature and one of the most uneven oeuvres imaginable.” I don’t know what to make of David Thomson’s declaration that “entertaining genre films” like Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999) and Erin Brockovich have “no directorial personality,” but I understand the impulse to ignore Soderbergh’s stamp. Even his greatest films never threaten to combust; they betray few signs of strain, and every surprise seems cleverly engineered. His attachment to ambiguity—a fetish, really—prevents his movies from offering the stirring intoxications of moral certainty. Too cool for sentiment and too mercurial for ideology, he has taken every kind of conceptual risk but rarely seeks exhilaration or rapture. His command of the form can at times resemble a crutch.
Yet few contemporary filmmakers think as hard about the visual and narrative processes of delivering information to an audience. In recent digital thrillers like Contagion (2011) and Side Effects (2013)—the former a gripping, impeccably edited tour de force—he has taken the spread of misinformation as his subject, and in both cases is more concerned with the methods of dissemination than the information itself. I’m comfortable ranking Soderbergh among the savviest manipulators of audience expectations that Hollywood has ever seen. He’s a careful student of genre and a master of concealment and elision. It’s always a chess match: his films encourage the viewer to simultaneously anticipate elements of surprise and appreciate the mind’s unconscious arrangement of discrete particles into a discernible grammar. After making Che (2008), a nearly five-hour anti-epic about the Argentine Marxist insurgent, he told a reporter that his goal was to shoot scenes that would occur “before and after the scene that you would typically see in a movie like this.” The film—split into two parts, each with a distinctive visual palette—sidesteps iconography and avoids emotional entanglement, focusing instead on process, tactics, putting one revolutionary foot in front of the other. Audiences were conditioned to expect a biographical narrative with a comprehensive historical framework or at least a legible moral stance, and instead saw a detached, rigorous procedural as concerned with guerrilla filmmaking (and the mobility of the digital RED camera) as guerrilla warfare. Che betrays its director’s fascination with zealotry, but underscores the fact that the studiously dispassionate Soderbergh makes movies mainly to find out why he’s making them. He was quick to embrace digital video, in large part because small cameras allow him to operate at a rapid clip and correct errors in medias res.
Soderbergh’s boredom with conventional narrative structure is hardly a recent development. Sex, Lies, and Videotape relies on temporal trickery and shifts in perception (and is also devoid of actual sex), and the seemingly classical Out of Sight is told out of sequence. With Gray’s Anatomy (1996), Soderbergh set himself the challenge of turning Spalding Gray’s proudly self-obsessed theatrical monologue into stimulating cinema, and met with stultifying results. Fourteen years later, in the wake of Gray’s early death, Soderbergh tried to solve the problem from a different angle: his documentary And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) fashions a fractured autobiographical narrative out of the raconteur’s previously recorded first-person monologues and interviews, and the collaboration of such dissimilar minds is sublime.
I think Soderbergh is also bored by his own capacity for intellectual subversion. Like David Foster Wallace, he isn’t frustrated simply by his talents and curiosities overrunning his chosen form, but by the impossibility of intelligently provoking an audience trained to anticipate every trick. It’s easy to ferret out the phoniness of stagnant systems, but more difficult to achieve the sorts of immediacy that interest him most. As Soderbergh extends his aesthetic command into the realm of the digital, he’s appreciating that advances in technology only enable new forms of unreliability.
For a pinnacle of cinematic problem solving, see The Limey, modestly described by its maker as a way to “indulge some ideas left over from Out of Sight.” It’s a densely constructed revenge thriller, with intuitively discontinuous editing that bends time with the modernist panache of an Alain Resnais or Nicolas Roeg. Vengeance proceeds in forward motion, but the movie uses overlapping dialogue and recursive imagery to organize and reorganize its narrative along the way. It’s the rare serious movie about old age, in which a palimpsest of regret seems imprinted on faces and buildings, and then suspended in the synthetic Los Angeles sunshine. In the backstory of Terence Stamp’s fiercely vulnerable cockney ex-con, Soderbergh arranges a series of intertextual flashbacks, incorporating mostly silent black-and-white snippets of a younger, warmer Stamp taken from Ken Loach’s kitchen-sink British drama Poor Cow (1967). A detailed history isn’t necessary for Stamp’s nemesis, Peter Fonda’s ’60s-exploiting music mogul. Anyone with a shred of movie memory knows that he’s a warped reincarnation of Easy Rider’s Captain America, handed the spoils of baby-boomer nostalgia and living in vacant luxury at the top of a canyon.
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