I have been spending some time reading Steven Soderbergh’s filmography, which apparently has come to an end with his new thriller, Side Effects. The “apparently” may require some emphasis, considering that Soderbergh is a habitual violator of the line between fiction and reality. Nevertheless, if we provisionally take him at his word, a major American filmmaker has just quit. This might not be quite as big a deal as Philip Roth’s retirement, but Soderbergh is only 50.
That he would become major was not always obvious, despite an initial success that was brilliant to the point of being disastrous. In early 1989, with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh inadvertently transformed the Sundance Film Festival from a retreat for regional do-gooders into a frenzied auction pit, while giving Harvey Weinstein and Miramax the means to turn “independent film” into a marketing category. A few months later, Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, confirming Soderbergh as the leading new brand in lower-budget American cinema and exposing him to pitiless scrutiny from the likes of Spike Lee, who declared that his own Do the Right Thing (also in competition at Cannes) was far more worthy of the prize.
Lee had a point. Compared with Do the Right Thing, Soderbergh’s four-character adultery-and-neurosis drama was either astonishingly well-crafted and mature or else dispiritingly timid and self-enclosed. There was a case to be made for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it might have begun with the observation that its suddenly famous writer-director was all of 26.
A first-time filmmaker of around that age had once gone on to direct The Magnificent Ambersons. Soderbergh, by contrast, flailingly overreached with his second feature, Kafka, whose faults included just about everything except timidity. Now typed as a would-be profligate auteur (at a time when Michael Cimino was still in the stocks for Heaven’s Gate), Soderbergh performed a kind of penance by next directing King of the Hill, a quiet, modestly budgeted coming-of-age drama set in the Depression-era Midwest. It was a good film of real substance, and proof that producers could afford to trust him, but it also left people wondering whether this auteur had any personality of his own.
The answer began to emerge with The Underneath (1995), the first of the crime thrillers that have wound through Soderbergh’s career until the present, and Side Effects. A loose contemporary adaptation of the 1949 Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross, The Underneath revealed Soderbergh as an artist who drew inspiration from older films but kept his borrowings in check behind more important traits, such as a liking for fractured chronology, brisk pacing, sharply credible vernacular dialogue and emotional sinkholes. His view of the characters was now much like his images. The compositions, though as legible as graphics, were deepened with light, color and movement, so the eye wanted to linger rather than race on. The people, though observed from a slightly skeptical distance, were given an almost tangible pulse (often a desperate one), so the mind did not turn away from thoughts of real bodies in real trouble.
In their different modes, Out of Sight, The Limey, The Good German, The Informant! and even the Ocean’s Eleven series have played out variations of this crime-thriller theme (bearing in mind that Soderbergh’s version of noir sometimes comes in chartreuse). The films I’ve just mentioned are romantic, ethnographic, nostalgic, satiric and frankly commercial, but they all connect you to characters who are coping with (or committing) duplicity and sweating their way through bouts of guilt and self-justification in situations where the pressures of money and class are palpable.