Perhaps no other director epitomizes the tension between art and commerce than Steven Soderbergh who retired recently after twenty-four years of filmmaking. In a widely discussed farewell address to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in April, Soderbergh identified some of the tendencies that had finally convinced him to retire, mostly focused on the difference between “movies” (commerce-driven) and “cinema” (art-driven). Apparently, the possibilities of making “cinema” (think in terms of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa et al) are constrained now more than ever. When Soderbergh refers to baseball below, there is a certain irony since his geeky image belies his proficiency as a baseball player when young, good enough to consider becoming a pro until he learned that he was not that good. When he took an alternative professional route, cinema was the beneficiary.
When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball. That’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.
Those “scary” and “weird” ideas that put off audiences accustomed to the usual juvenilia can be found in “Side Effects”, his last film targeted for theatrical release (his Liberace biopic for HBO came after it.) Like most Netflix subscribers, I am always on the lookout for new releases that merit more than three stars. When I noticed that “Side Effects” garnered 4.3 stars, my interested piqued. And when I discovered that Soderbergh directed it, the deal was closed. The Soderbergh brand was a guarantee that the film was worth watching, whether or not it died at the box office.
Soderbergh told the San Francisco gathering that the marketing might have been wrong: “There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills.” In fact it was both a Hitchcockian thriller with overtones of “Vertigo” as well as a commentary on the widespread use of antidepressants, with each intertwined strand dramatized powerfully. One can easily imagine the late Alexander Cockburn finding much to admire in the film given his take on such substances in the April 2nd 2005 CounterPunch:
As Prozac came off Lilly’s research bench and headed for the mass production line psychiatrists labored to formulate a multitude of bogus pathologies to be installed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whose chief editor in the 1980s was Robert Spitzer MD, an orgone box veteran and adept copywriter skilled at minting new ailments for late twentieth-century America and sanctioning treatment, medication, state funding for the requisite pills (no expensive consultative therapy) and reimbursement by insurance companies.
Rooney Mara plays a chronically depressed female patient who begins using a new medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). The drugs have a side effect—some patients experience sleepwalking. When her husband arrives home at three in the morning, he spots her dicing carrots in the kitchen as if in a trance. When he tries to gently wake her from an obvious sleepwalking bout, she plunges the knife into his midsection repeatedly until he is dead.
When the media blames her psychiatrist for prescribing an insufficiently tested drug, a scandal deep enough to jeopardize his career, he launches an investigation that will remind you of Jimmy Stewart trying to get to the bottom of Kim Novak’s mysterious suicide. It is top-flight cinema from beginning to end.
With an amazing variety of genres directed by Soderbergh over the years, ranging from low budget and almost experimental films like “Bubble” to the expensive and mindlessly entertaining Danny Oceans movies designed to make money, it is a challenge to define the typical Soderbergh work. In preparing this article, I watched Soderbergh’s very first film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” upon which his early success rested. Despite the fact that there were no mysterious homicides in the film, it shared with his latest the theme of couples failing to communicate. There are more dysfunctional couples in the Soderbergh library than any other filmmaker I can think of, excepting Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. A writing instructor at NYU once told me that there are only ten plots in all of literature (including screenplays) with, for example, the same road story found in “Huckleberry Finn” as well as “On the Road”. Soderbergh, who experienced a brutal divorce in 1994, obviously feels an affinity with the “bad marriage” story that can be found in its initial incarnation in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve as well his last film made for TV, the Liberace/Scott Thorson saga.
After “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, Soderbergh made a series of indie type films that died at the box office and left him questioning their artistic merit as well. This led to a personal and artistic crisis that focused his mind on the movie/cinema dichotomy. In his indispensable “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”, Peter Biskind reports that when Soderbergh decided to make “Out of Sight”, a film based on an Elmore Leonard novel reminiscent of Tarantino (of course, Tarantino will just as easily remind you of Elmore Leonard), it was after concluding that his indie films were too “cold” and “cerebral”. He told Biskind: “My apprenticeship is over, and if I’m going to become something other than an art house director, it’s time to step up.”
While “Out of Sight” was a box office success, it was merely a prelude to “Erin Brokovich” and “Traffic”, smash hits that catapulted Soderbergh into the Hollywood elite; he became a bankable director who was the counterpart of the actors who became part of Soderbergh’s repertory company, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon.
This is probably not where Soderbergh expected to end up when he was a teenager in love with art film. In a revealing interview titled “Toward a Universal Cinema” that appeared in the September 2010 World Policy Journal, the director described his original inspirations:
I was attending this laboratory school on the Louisiana State University campus and had access to a lot of films that under ordinary circumstances I never would have been exposed to. I was hanging out with these college film students and seeing movies from all over the world, in addition to classic American films. Watching “8 1/2,” or “Blowup,” or “High and Low” at 14 and 15 is a really extraordinary experience. They imprint you in a way that’s unique, you’re such a sponge at that age.
This would explain his affinity for cinema as opposed to movies, but he was never a film snob. He explained:
I think it resulted in my work having this funny combination of both aesthetics—there’s a very American desire to entertain and to tell a story, but there’s also a very European approach to style and character that is obviously influenced by those early experiences.
One cannot be sure that story-telling is uniquely “American” when considering a film like “High and Low”, but at least we can agree that Soderbergh has successfully balanced a career in movies as well as cinema, sometimes combining the two in a work like “Traffic”, sometimes going for the uncompromising independent cinematic vision of a film like “Che”, and sometimes cooking up a fun-filled money-maker like “Oceans 11”. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Soderbergh never appeared to be competing for auteur status. For most of his career, he has simply sought to make well crafted, entertaining films of the sort that Hollywood once cranked out with regularity. With his self-effacing personality and his general aversion to venues like David Letterman’s sofa, Soderbergh is the consummate professional putting all his energy into filmmaking rather than cultivating entourages or inspiring articles in People magazine.
Biskind surmises that Soderbergh identifies with Sidney Pollack based on a remark made on a panel at the 1997 Hamptons Film Festival: “I want to know who’s gonna be the next Sidney Pollack”. Rather than reading Soderbergh’s mind, it might make sense to connect him with Richard Lester since he wrote a book titled “Getting Away With It” in 1999 that is made up primarily of interviews with the director of “A Hard Day’s Night” and many other mainstream films, such as “Superman II”.
Lester is a very witty interviewee but the book is also a must-read based on Soderbergh’s own off-kilter remarks. His introduction is both brief and hilarious:
Brief desultory discussion of forthcoming manuscript’s inception, purpose and potential audience. Self-deprecating remark. Amusing anecdote with slightly serious undertone. Awesome display of ego disguised as humility; joke about same. Transparently hollow thanks to contributors and collaborators.
There are also some priceless entries from the director’s diary:
Monday, 25 March 1996. Baton Rouge/Paris
On the plane. Hard to believe it was almost a year ago to the day we began shooting Schizopolis. Across from me is a couple that I’m assuming must be Famous, because they look the they must be Famous, I’m not sure how to explain that – it’s just an energy or something. The woman very tall and striking, and the man is taller still and sporting a short bleached-blond haircut. They are dressed in really great clothes and appear to be very much in love and I’ve decided that I hate them.
One of the benefits of making box office smashes like the Danny Ocean films is that they allow you to recycle the big bucks into cinema rather than movies. Soderbergh and Clooney formed Section Eight productions in order to fund films that the studio establishment ignored and to avoid the bullheaded cuts often required by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. They saw Section Eight as a compromise between cinema and movies. From Biskind we learn that Clooney saw it this way: “Why can’t we do the aesthetic that came from [the ‘70s]? We just try to push an indie sensibility within the Hollywood mainstream.”
One of the projects they took on was Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven”, a profound examination of race and class that was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s films”. It starred Julianne Moore as the wife of a closeted gay executive who begins spending too much time with the handsome African-American son of their former gardener. The only problem was that Haynes had already spoken to Harvey Weinstein who assumed that he had a lock on the film.
When Weinstein learned that another studio was making the film with Soderbergh as executive producer, he phoned Haynes to bawl him out: “WHAT? YOU FUCKIN’ MADE YOUR DECISION? You fuck, you didn’t fuckin’ give me a chance to fuckin’ talk to you?”
Although Miramax was responsible for distributing “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, the Weinsteins began to view Soderbergh as a lost cause after it was followed by a string of commercial and critical flops, from “Kafka” to “Schizopolis”. When he showed up at the Miramax party after the 1997 Academy Awards on the invitation of Anthony Minghella, the director of “The English Patient” that had garnered a fistful of Oscars, he was denied entrance to the VIP section, where he spotted Minghella through a glass partition. Inside a big-screen TV played excerpts from Miramax’s biggest hits, including “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes”.
The only mystery is why Steven Soderbergh stuck around Hollywood for as long as he did. Perhaps this excerpt from his farewell speech says it best:
But before we talk about movies we should talk about art in general, if that’s possible. Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide then really, what is it for? 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? When we did Ocean’s Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that? Do you justify that by saying, the people who could’ve had that electricity are going to watch the movie for two hours and be entertained – except they probably can’t, because they don’t have any electricity, because we used it. Then I think, what about all the resources spent on all the pieces of entertainment? What about the carbon footprint of getting me here? Then I think, why are you even thinking that way and worrying about how many miles per gallon my car gets, when we have NASCAR, and monster truck pulls on TV? So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it.