The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh
In his attempt to make a film about how the service sector is rapidly becoming the only economic sector, Soderbergh went to the extraordinary measure of casting a porn star in the lead role. When The Girlfriend Experience was shot, Sasha Grey was a 20-year-old adult film actress who had already received recognition from Adult Video News as “Female Performer of the Year” and for “Best Three Way Sex Scene.” Seeking to be taken seriously outside of porn, Grey had already been profiled in several magazines and appeared on The Tyra Banks Show by the time Soderbergh took an interest. She was a self-consciously sophisticated kind of porn star, just as Chelsea is an intelligent, goal-oriented, smartly attired prostitute. Though stardom and prostitution have long been characterized as points on the same continuum, Grey is the product of a generation for whom the traditional divide between pop culture and pornography has essentially collapsed: the release of a “sex tape” can boost a career rather than compromise it. The Girlfriend Experience shows a skilled freelancer upscaling her brand in real time, and the partnership between Soderbergh the director and Grey the actress is as transactional and mutually exploitative as any exchange depicted in the film. Grey gets to leverage Soderbergh’s respectability and high-brow cachet in her bid for mainstream acceptance, and Soderbergh gets to leverage Grey’s off-screen patina of “lewdness” to lend credence to his depiction of the tawdriness of contemporary consumer capitalism. And, of course, the fact that the film is her mainstream debut provides a great marketing hook for both of them.
Like many of Soderbergh’s recent films, The Girlfriend Experience asks how we evaluate the veracity of any performance, and whether veracity necessarily translates into success. Chelsea is successful at transmitting the sort of affect that flatters her clients’ desires, which is why she can earn thousands of dollars for services that only tangentially involve sex. However, as an actress, Grey cannot transmit the same charge to the audience: she remains a perfect blank. This dampening of affect can be interpreted as a deliberate alienation effect, part of the film’s narrative scheme. Soderbergh may be implying that the audience’s expected rejection of Grey’s flat performance is a way of distancing ourselves from the pathetic businessmen who fall so easily for her charms, while still recognizing that the “girlfriend experience” depends on the same simulation of emotion as any movie performance.
The most significant provocation of Soderbergh’s casting is the willingness to test the speculation that a porn star—especially one who characterizes her work as performance art—could carry a Hollywood film. The Girlfriend Experience steals a glimmer of hope from the idea that while Sasha Grey can successfully and skillfully simulate the mechanics of sex in her pornographic work, she lacks the training and experience required to convincingly simulate the human affect required by the codes of realist drama. (Soderbergh even sets up an obstruction for Grey by depriving her of the kind of scene for which she has developed an expertise: while the film casts an actress clearly comfortable performing sex acts on-screen, the film itself contains none.) Soderbergh is able to reassure the viewer, even if just barely, that we can still maintain a distinction between the mostly utilitarian objectives of pornography and cinema’s resistance to commodification.
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At the end of April, Soderbergh paused on his way out the door to scold the industry, expressing the anxious dissatisfaction with market logic that colors his most recent films. In an address at the San Francisco Film Festival that tackled the “State of Cinema” and his own state of mind, he blamed Hollywood’s dismissal of “cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, God forbid, ambiguity” on the unnecessarily exorbitant costs of marketing. The industry’s interest in producing “cinema”—which Soderbergh opposes to the marketing of “movies”—has ebbed, and the assembly-line studio model that inadvertently nurtured midcentury artisans like Howard Hawks and John Ford, Don Siegel and Robert Aldrich, enabling them to forge remarkably complex personal visions while navigating various studio restrictions, no longer seems viable.
Soderbergh has gone from deadpanning that every movie he makes is “the most important motion picture you will ever attend” to wondering whether movies even have a moral purpose. “Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations?” he asked. “When we did Ocean’s Thirteen, the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that?” All that art can do, in the end, is to skirt ideology and impose some sense of order on the chaos: “Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model,” he said.
The speech has received a lot of attention, in part because Soderbergh asked that his remarks not be filmed or recorded—as he knew they inevitably would be. Reading them, I can’t help but hear the shrewdness that pervades and sometimes contaminates his work. He’s a filmmaker so conscious of the market’s demands, so desperate to avoid implicating himself, that he might have innovated himself out of a job. The director whose unassailable career suggested an escape from the film-as-art/movies-as-entertainment dialectic now thinks his own unassailability is the problem. As he told an interviewer: “I only know everything depends on whether I succeed in becoming an amateur again.”
It may be hard to measure such success. With only a couple of series under his belt, Soderbergh might be considered a television neophyte, but this year he received three Emmy nominations for his work under three different names. He also got on Twitter, dropping profoundly gnomic pronouncements and indulging his inner goofball. But as soon as he used the new form to tweet a noirish suspense “novella,” The New York Times reviewed it like a work of art. And why not? He may claim to be suffering from what Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock,” and threatened by the impossibility of making meaning out of an endless now, but it’s too late for him to disappear into the culture’s information mire. He already has our attention.