Director Spotlight: Steven Soderbergh
by Barry Wurst
June 11, 2007
Like Richard Linklater, here is an American director who has pushed cinema past the realms of the normal. Both a celebrated art house director and a maker of commercial, crowd pleasing hits, Steven Soderbergh has gone back and forth into the mainstream, creating films that are stunning in their technical and intellectual brilliance. His love of varying directors, complex narratives and wildly versatile screenplays has lead to films that some have complained are pretentious and emotionally cold. Yet, nearly every one of his films are better, richer experiences upon second glance and his ability to extract great performances from his actors, create a specific visual style for each of his films and craft a style and tone that changes from each project, make him one of the most interesting and important directors working today.
June 11 - Steven Soderbergh
His debut film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) was an all-around sensation. It won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, was an art house blockbuster ($24 million on top of a $1 million budget) and brought audiences in droves to a critically acclaimed drama that, from the title alone, sounded quite scandalous. It isn't, actually, in fact this quiet, sinister and revealing character drama (which Soderbergh has intriguingly claimed to be "semi-autobiographical") has no on-screen sex scenes but is verbally erotic and thought provoking (as well as genuinely creepy). It launched the careers of Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo, and turbo-charged the reputations of character actors Andie MacDowell and James Spader. Though somewhat quaint today, it's still a compelling work.
Soderbergh's follow-up was seen as a typical sophomore slump, the sort of pretentious, overreaching second film that trips up all promising filmmakers. Truthfully, Kafka (1991) (a tough sell and a weird movie, to be sure) is imperfect and emotionally icy but thrillingly designed and well acted by Jeremy Irons, Joel Grey and Ian Holm. Filmed in black and white, this fictionalized take on the life of author Franz Kafka (whose "Metamorphosis" and "The Castle" are alluded to) has a climactic sequence shot in color that is a crazy sci-fi homage and is the film's wildly creative peak.
Soderbergh's next film was better received by critics but also a box office flop - King of the Hill (1993), a coming of age drama starring Jesse Bradford, Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl (all of whom are excellent). The film has its moments but a dark, depressing turn the story takes late in the film makes it tough to like.
The most remarkable thing about The Underneath (1995) is that Soderbergh confessed that on the first day of shooting he realized the film did not work. While not quite as bad as that seems, this crime story, told with a skewed narrative and starring Peter Gallagher and Elisabeth Shue, isn't especially memorable. Some good scenes and performances stand out, but the film feels like a warm-up for the great crime thrillers that were to come.
Wanting to take a step back and make an entirely independent work that would jump-start Soderbergh as a director, he made Schizopolis (1996). This nut-job of a comedy, starring Soderbergh (as well as members of his family) is a series of comic skits. Some of this is hilarious and fiendishly clever, some of it utterly pretentious and just bad. If you're a fan of Soderbergh, seek this one out - the big laughs outweigh the comic duds and you can understand how making a film this fearlessly inventive would re-boot Soderbergh's confidence and imagination.
Although Out of Sight (1998) underperformed at the box office, the acclaim and popularity of the film made one thing very clear: Soderbergh was back. This excellent crime caper has top notch performances, a tone that is both goofy and gritty, a smart visual approach, and was one of the best films of 1998. Who would've thought that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez would be so sexy together and have the best on-screen chemistry of any movie couple that year? More importantly, the film made Clooney a genuine film actor (and not just a movie star) and was a peak for Lopez. Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Steve Zahn and Albert Brooks are also fantastic and two cameo appearances (which I won't reveal) are priceless.
The Limey (1999) was less-seen though equally a critic's darling. Starring Terrence Stamp, in one of his best roles (which plays off of his status as a film icon), this exciting and smart crime thriller is everything The Underneath tried to be. Soderbergh uses an out-of-order story chronology again, but it and everything else works in this gem of a film.
2000 would be a banner year for Soderbergh, as his Erin Brokovich (2000) and Traffic (2000) both hit, were both box office blockbusters and both gained him a Best Director nomination at the Oscars (he won for Traffic). The former film, a star vehicle for Julia Roberts (who won an Oscar for her performance), is an intelligent and entertaining true-life drama. Even with the great supporting work by Aaron Eckhart and Albert Finney, I have a bone to pick with the film: Julia Roberts. This is not her best performance, the real Brokovich looks and sounds so much like Jamie Lee Curtis that it is astonishing to me that Curtis wasn't cast and Roberts beat Ellen Burstyn for Best Actress in Requiem for a Dream. If you've seen that movie, you understand why I hate that Roberts won the Oscar for her fine but unexceptional performance.
On the other hand, Traffic may end up being Soderbergh's best film. This hugely ambitious film (a remake of a celebrated mini-series) is multi-layered, ultra stylish (with a different filming approach and color scheme for each individual story thread), superbly acted and is one of the best explorations on the good and bad of the "war on drugs" ever made in any form. The film is harrowing, thrilling, surprisingly funny, wrenching and remarkably honest. Full of stand-out performances (Benicio Del Toro won an Oscar for his great turn) but the actors whose work stands out the most for me were Michael Douglas, Miguel Ferrar, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving and a never-better Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The hugely popular Ocean's Eleven (2001) remake came the following year. With one of the most impressive ensemble casts in years (with seemingly every big name actor/movie star in the same movie), this cool, funny and exciting caper film caught on with audiences seeking escape after the horrors of 9/11 bombarded the worldwide conscience. While not big on substance (and, honestly, was Ocean's really better than The Score or Heist, released the same year?), the film was a huge hit for being the one thing many of the fall release prestige pictures weren't: fun.
The following year saw Soderbergh's enormous commercial popularity take a major plunge. His first 2002 release was described as "an unofficial sequel to Sex, Lies, and Videotape". It was called The Art of Negotiating a Turn, then How to Survive A Hotel Room Fire, and finally Full Frontal (2002), a provocative title the film did not live up to in any way. Basically a film-within-a-film-within-a-film, it plays like a star-studded Schizopolis but is nowhere near as good. There are funny and powerful moments, but the film is ultimately pointless. Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Terence Stamp have cameos as themselves and Nicky Katt's bit as an actor playing Hitler is a riot, but Soderbergh's anything-goes approach and the decision to shoot the film in an ugly digital format are among the many reasons this movie, a seemingly can't miss art house event, barely made its $2 million budget back.
That fall Soderbergh released his remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (2002). The original has been called "the Russian 2001", a label I agree with entirely. Soderbergh's intelligent, slow, grim and poignant remake is not as epic-length or symbolic as Tarkovsky's masterpiece, but it is as maddeningly cerebral, a big reason why audiences hated it (this got an F score from theater exit polls). Most wrote it off as a bore, but serious film goers saw it for what it is: one of Soderbergh's best films. George Clooney's anguished, deeply felt performance is his best, the film is a visual and intellectual feast and, in a more stripped down approach (Tarvosky's film has beautiful but long-winded scenes of nature that keep the story from progressing), Soderbergh has honored the original Stanislaw Lem short story, as well as 2001 and the wide reach of the science fiction genre.
During the press junkets for Solaris, a reporter asked Soderbergh and Clooney what they'd do if the movie tanked. Clooney's answer: "Ocean's Twelve, baby!" His jokey answer became a reality two years later, in a needless, unpopular sequel that still made a ton of money. Ocean's Twelve (2004) has some intriguing elements, like the doomed romance between Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones' characters, but the look-how-cool-this-is spell Soderbergh cast in the first film wore off this time. The inclusion of a capoeira techno-dance heist feels desperate and laid back performances and ample surprise cameos make this feel like the most expensive Cannonball Run sequel ever made.
Two small, thrilling experimental films followed. The three-ways release scheme of Bubble (2005) (it opened in theaters, DVD and online, all within the space of a few days) was the most noted thing about the movie. Yet, the film itself, a small-town story about a friendship in a doll factory that takes a sinister turn, is haunting and quite wonderful. Soderbergh cast first-time actors, filmed it digitally and used a scarce screenplay with the intention of improvisation. The result could've been a train wreck. Instead, it's one of his best films.
The Good German (2006) got screwed last winter. Yes, he shot this tribute to WWII thrillers in black and white, using 40's style film techniques and cliches and the poster and trailer promised a retro-experience that most audiences wouldn't appreciate today. Yet, his film is not a mere gimmick and features top-notch performances (Cate Blanchett and especially Tobey Maguire are terrific), a beautiful, Oscar-nominated score by Thomas Newman, an involving, surprise-filled story and gorgeous cinematography. Even with the considerable star power, the film got buried by its studio, a shame, as it was better than most of the Oscar hopefuls that got platform releases last December.
Expectations are high for Ocean's Thirteen (2007), with Sea of Love stars Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin joining Soderbergh's all-star cast. The trailer is promising and Clooney's reported dislike of Ocean's Twelve but approval of Thirteen has most thinking they got it right this time. Early reviews have been good (with Matt Damon reportedly stealing the film) and Soderbergh's skill as a director who can helm stylish crowd pleasers looks to be in full effect. With his upcoming films on Che Guevara (starring Benicio Del Toro) and Spalding Gray (whose spoken-word performance, Gray's Anatomy, was made into a film by Soderbergh), it appears that great, challenging works from Soderbergh are not in short supply.