08 February 2013

Profiles: Soderbergh: As Soon as I Realized He was my Favorite Director, He Retires

Today, despite the Fishy Blizzard striking the majority of the Northeast, we see the arrival of Steven Soderbergh's (supposed) last theatrical film, Side Effects (2013). This comes on the heels of a slew of quality films by the director in recent years that I have consumed and suddenly realised that I loved. Soderbergh is an intriguing director. He has simultaneously eschewed critical and commercial success for experimental films and yet has made a handful of films that have benchmarked the past decade of filmmaking. I am no aficionado of his work and my review here will be far from complete. In this profile, I will highlight his more publicly experimental projects as well as demonstrably excellent recent output and sudden retirement.

Early Soderbergh - What a Scamp!

Steve came on the scene with Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989. It launched Soderbergh's career as well as helped the entire Independent Film movement of the 1990s. While it doesn't have the cool jazz music, montages, or widely varied multi-character narratives that characterize recent Soderbergh, it's still very much a Soderberghian film because of its basic idiosyncrasy. It was a film bold in character with independent financing but mainstream appeal and distribution. Its content was also nothing like any of Steve's later work.

For the rest of the 90s, Soderbergh didn't achieve all that much, which is also typical of his career. After a big hit instead of capitalizing on studio work he kept a low profile and ignored popular acceptance. Out of the seven films he directed, only three grossed over $1 million, and only one, Out of Sight (1998) grossed over $2 million.

Middle Soderbergh, or Middlebergh

At the turn of the century, Steven gave us his three greatest critical, commercial, and cultural successes. Between Erin Brockovitch (2000) and Traffic (2000) he was one of an extremely small number of directors to be nominated twice for the Best Director Academy Award in the same year (he won for the latter, his only win). For good measure, Traffic may be the most Soderberghian film for reasons stated earlier, the most exemplary being with a dense narrative with a high volume of characters. What's more is his tenuous relationship with studios, which reflects his fiercely independent background. He battled with Fox over casting Harrison Ford and refused to submit to studio pressure, eventually finding someone else to finance the film. The role went to Mike Douglas, and he had a hit on his hands.

In 2001 Soderbergh made Ocean's 11 (2001), which remains the single coolest movie ever created. In part this style took over his remaining mainstream studio movies, if only because it became his most famous and distinctive. He builds his plot events through simultaneous montages, careful editing and camera placement (including many lingering focuses, foreshadows, and callbacks), and a focus on many characters at once, all of which require careful and repeated viewing with an intact mind to comprehend. While 11 remains the high mark of that particular franchise, the same features are incorporated into the middling 12 (2004), and the successful 13 (2007).

The high success of the Ocean's films gave Soderbergh tremendous clout with every real Star remaining in Hollywood, as well as enough critical and commercial power to direct whatever he could have wanted. Instead he spent most of the rest of the decade making tiny films and other crazy ones with unique distribution methods, such as Bubble (2005). Bubble was shot without a script or professional actors and debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the movie television channel HDNet, with a DVD release four days later. Why would Soderbergh pull such a crazy move that goes against every established principle of Hollywood film distribution? It's the same reason Netflix is producing and releasing shows like House of Cards in big chunks designed for custom viewing. The distribution method favors the distributor and not the consumer. Soderbergh strove to allow his audiences to consume the film in any manner they chose and had access to the technology to do so. It should be the future of media distribution - but there isn't another director in Hollywood that's currently willing to experiment the way Soderbergh does.

Late Soderbergh and His Supposed Retirement

Soderbergh followed up Ocean's 13 with Che (2008), a two-part, four and a half-hour Spanish-language epic concerning the South American Communist Revolutionary Guerrilla. It did not receive studio support and to date has not made its budget back. This still doesn't matter to Soderbergh, though. He made the film because he wanted to make it and thought it would be a good film. He is not concerned with the film finding a life or making a healthy profit. He doesn't even really care if it's seen by anyone. First and foremost he tends to be an artist. Where this gets mucky is when watching things like Ocean's 12 and believing that statement.

So, we now move on to his previous five studio films, all of which have seemed to catch on and really establish his techniques and style as a director. These are, The Informant! (2009), Contagion (2011), Haywire (2012), Magic Mike (2012), and today's Side Effects (2013). The first two star Matt Damon and the last three will all star Channing Tatum. How did Channing Tatum become the go-to actor for Steven Soderbergh? That is a question that shall never be answered.

The Informant! is an especially wacky film about not very wacky things, but it has a very defined high concept, a trait that tends to encapsulate the remainder of Soderbergh's work - The Whistleblower Movie, the Epidemic Movie, the Spy Movie, the Male Stripper Movie, and the Pharmaceutical Movie.

Contagion is really in Soderbergh's wheelhouse. It's a film about an event with the perspectives and narratives at every possible level sewn together chronologically with flawless ease. Soderbergh should direct every film that's like this. It is a true ensemble, and just as a few characters tend to emerge as emotional centers, they die off or are thrown aside in favor of a more genuine account of events. It's built on layers of Scorsese-like sequences that show many things happening at once, which is perfect for a film where a lot happens in a very short period of time. This is the best way to create moving visual art - a congealment of images based on narrative and sequence that stir cognition and reflection. It's brilliant.

Haywire is an intriguing movie. Somehow Soderbergh provided MMA Fighter Gina Carano her first acting gig and in doing so, gave her the chance to beat up Obi-Wan Kenobi, Magneto, G.I. Joe, and Zorro all in one picture. It's a spy film but confined, built on long, natural scenes instead of the more characteristic callbacks and simultaneous happenings. In essence it's not quite Soderberghian, except for the fact that not being Soderberghian is a very Soderberghian trait. It contains a simple narrative and is probably the least deep of all of this final run. It's also a very fun movie, which is more the direction Steve's gone in his final years.

I didn't see Magic Mike. Right now, although I have read it's a very fine film with a very strong performance out of Matt McConaughey, I just have no urge to watch male strippers. I'm sorry - maybe some day. Needless to say, when characterizing Soderbergh's cinematic adventures as bold and idiosyncratic, though, this fits the bill.

That brings us to Side Effects. Opening today, this brings back Tatum, Jude Law from Contagion, and Soderbergh newbie Rooney Mara. Soderbergh has claimed that this will be his final theatrical film and is getting some great reviews. Is Soderbergh going out on top with his best film yet? Will this lure him back? Studying the past twenty years of his filmmaking as well as his relationship with everyone from critics to studios to audiences suggests that he is perfectly content just doing whatever he wants to do. For now that involves him painting and doing whatever the hell else he wants. Supposedly he cranked these out so that he could stop making movies when he turned 50. It has been a tremendous output of quality - really four great movies within a year and a half of each other. It's spectacular. So, now he's done. Caput. These past five films will someday rank among his best - but if you're going to go out, why not do it while achieving the 5-Great Films Test?

If you're braving the storm, go see Side Effects instead of Identity Thief (2013) this weekend. I'm sure you'll be happy with your decision in the morning.

What do you think of Soderbergh's career? Mouth off in the comments below.

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