The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh

The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh

The Long Goodbye: On Steven Soderbergh

Hollywood’s wonkiest director hasn’t stopped working. He’s finding new problems to solve—and toying with us again.


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Success as a Hollywood director requires, at the very least, pretending to be fascinated by celebrities. They come with the deal: you have to look at them all day, place them in compromising positions, apply emotional heft to their attractive surfaces, leverage their cultural capital. Once Soderbergh lost interest in conventional modes of performance—probably sometime around the release of Out of Sight, when he realized he had the power to make Jennifer Lopez seem destined for greatness—he became the cinema’s most mischievous manipulator of the celebrity-industrial complex. Somehow, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Channing Tatum, among others, have been happy to get played—and play along.

Soderbergh understands that surrendering one’s identity to the public’s illusions of it can offer liberation of a sort, and he knows that celebrities look for chances to indulge it. There is a joke in Ocean’s Twelve—a dumb meta-joke, really—in which Tess, the character played by Julia Roberts, is asked to pose as Julia Roberts in order to gain after-hours access to a museum. (She doesn’t quite pull it off.) Because of this clubby humor, the Ocean’s movies have been criticized as providing a thinly veiled excuse for a bunch of all-star friends to hang out in front of a camera and trade inside jokes. Manohla Dargis, who mostly appreciated Ocean’s Twelve, smelled an off-putting “smog of self-satisfaction.” Implied in such asides, perhaps, is the suggestion that the actors aren’t justifying their paychecks by doing enough work; if there’s no sweat on the screen, and if the stars seem insufficiently alienated from their task, the paying audience is somehow being shortchanged. But Soderbergh casts every role with an eye toward summoning a wide range of extra-textual associations. He knows that actorly presence, buoyed either by fame or a distinct lack thereof, can do as much as any stylistic gesture to signify a sense of intimacy. It’s difficult to imagine a “bad” performance he wouldn’t find interesting. 

If Full Frontal (2002), also starring Roberts, remains Soderbergh’s most unjustly rejected movie, the distaste stems from a similar suspicion of inside baseball, and an obvious discomfort with the participation of real movie stars in a deliberately ugly, self-referential experiment in modes of disclosure. A fleetly produced, partially improvised ensemble comedy about artificial emotions and emotional artifice in the entertainment industry, the film was conceived as a spiritual sequel to Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Shot with a Canon XL1S camcorder, except for its 35mm Hollywood film-within-the-film, Full Frontal is an earnest early reckoning with digital video’s effect on cinematic realism. The movie’s climactic insight—that the handheld, grimy digital image is less reliably “real” than the Hollywood one—is not a revelation, but the drunken cast-party atmosphere (even Terence Stamp shows up, in character from The Limey) suggests that pervasive self-delusion undermines all distinctions between reality and wish fulfillment. 

* * *

Acting is always artificial, even though audiences judge performances on the basis of their relationship to the real. Performances that work, that generate affect—whether in the theater or on film—generally do so on the basis of established norms for the representation of reality. But what if the situation being represented suggests that affect is always commercialized and artificial? How might performance adapt to tell such a story? How might a director or an actor reimagine the performing body in an economy where the production of affect is a chief commodity?

For three of his most recent films, all of them concerned with labor, modes of affect and late-capitalist precarity, Soderbergh ingeniously opted to develop projects around performers known for various forms of noncinematic body work. For Haywire, he cast mixed martial arts star and ex–American Gladiator Gina Carano in a quietly radical feminist spy thriller that depended heavily on visceral, body-to-body combat. Magic Mike (2012), an irresistible smash hit, was conceived around star Channing Tatum’s past career as an exotic dancer. But the key work in this unofficial trilogy was easily the most creatively audacious.

Even for a director who works as quickly as Soderbergh, The Girlfriend Experience, from 2009, felt especially tethered to its zeitgeist. Shot cheaply in downtown Manhattan over a period of two weeks with a mostly nonprofessional cast, it directly addresses the 2008 presidential election and Wall Street’s financial collapse. The film offers an almost documentary-style index of the fears and preoccupations of the newly moneyed—and perhaps soon to be newly broke—transactional capitalists who bought into lower Manhattan’s real estate boom. With crisp digital precision, Soderbergh’s camera seeks out sleek, depersonalized urban spaces and opaque physical objects, and avoids exterior establishing shots. 

The title of The Girlfriend Experience refers to the specific sort of encounter provided by the film’s protagonist, a high-priced escort who goes by the name Chelsea (her real name is Christine). For thousands of dollars, she offers the illusion of intimacy to her well-heeled johns. Her time on the clock is less about sex than the simulation of a monogamous relationship, which includes romantic dinners, movie dates and the illusion of an emotional stake in her employer’s well-being. She seems to spend less time getting physical than she does simply managing her clients’ economically determined emotional crises. The allegorical power of the rent-a-girlfriend phenomenon relies less on the commodification of emotion than on the application of corporate time-management philosophy to interpersonal relationships. For these masters of the universe, the allure of the “girlfriend experience” is that, unlike an actual girlfriend, Chelsea’s services can be compartmentalized into a short period of time, and she herself can be terminated as soon as her ministrations become redundant.

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.

* * *

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.

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