Thursday, June 24, 2010

Modern Maestros: Steven Soderbergh

Robert here, back with more of my series on great contemporary directors. Last week I promised someone more universally beloved than my subject Andrew Bujalski. I'm not sure if I've kept that promise. Although Mr. Soderbergh is certainly better known (though not necessarily less experimental) which is why he's so damn interesting.

Maestro: Steven Soderbergh
Known For: Politically charged dramas, mini-budget indies and the Oceans films.
Influences: William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, take your pick from the 70's but also Bergman and (according to Soderbergh) Jean-Luc Godard most of all.
Masterpieces: So many of his films depend on personal reaction... but let's say Traffic.
Disasters:I'd say Full Frontal and Ocean's Twelve.
Better than you remember: And how you remember them is also so personal. Let's say Che.
Box Office: 183 mil for Ocean's Eleven... no shock there.
Favorite Actor:After scouring through Soderbergh's vast casts, I find the answer to be Clooney with 5 and Damon with 5.

Why do we admire Steven Soderbergh so? It's because he's decided to make the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them and still achieve success and name recognition. As a director, he's daring, constantly pushing the possibilities of the medium. The results are often flawed, and occasionally downright bad, yet sometimes inspired and even game-changing. No one really seems to think of Soderbergh as a "comeback kid" because there's never any doubt if he'll come back eventually with a new hit (and what he's doing when he's "down," if you can call him that, is always interesting if imperfect.). Consider his output in the years after Sex, Lies and Videotape catapulted him to indie-movement-godfatherdom. There was Kafka, Schitzopolis, King of the Hill (no relation to the T.V. show of the same name), Gray's Anatomy (no relation to the T.V. show of the almost-same name). Then, suddenly he peeks his head above the water with Out of Sight, owns the cinematic landscape in 2000 with Traffic and Erin Brockovich, brings back cool with Ocean's Eleven and then it's back into the experimental. Few other directors can pull that off, if any.

What makes Soderbergh so modern is his subtle infusion of the topical in his films. Bubble isn't about a murder mystery as much as it is about the lives of Mideast factory workers. The Girlfriend Experience isn't about prostitution as much as it's about the state of the economy. Even Traffic and Erin Brockovich, which are more blatantly political, escape traps by focusing on character. The Informant, may be a zany comedy but it's a zany comedy about corporate corruption and bureaucracy. Speaking of which, who makes a zany comedy about corporate corruption and bureaucracy? It may not seem like it at first glance, but The Informant is one more in a line of bold and uncompromising experimental films from Soderbergh. Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience should stand as monuments to independent filmmakers as what's possible. Che may not have been perfect but the idea of a two-part epic where the films' inconsistencies are as important as their uniform elements is a gamble worth noticing. The Good German wasn't perfect, but it's hard to argue with the suggestion that throwback genre's should only utilize the technology and resources of the time they're recreating (I'm looking at you Grindhouse).

Oddly enough, it's not the problems with these Soderbergh films that stand out in his filmography. In his dedication to experimentation, they seem expected, almost necessary. These Soderbergh films may not have been entirely successful, but I'd never call them unsuccessful. In fact, it's primarily when he strays from his standards of modern relevance and technical audaciousness that he seems to miss the mark significantly. Consider Solaris, a film that was perhaps too conventionally filmed and philosophically detached from the social issues and politics that Soderbergh loves to have been much more than a blip in his otherwise interesting canon. And "interesting" may be the key word here. For Steven Soderbergh, success isn't measured in terms of "good" and "bad." It's measured in terms of "interesting" or "not." If something hasn't been done before, if it dares to question the standard interpretations of filmmaking, then it's worthwhile. Usually I dislike that idea, that concept is more important than product in the world of film. Yet Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers (along with his idol Godard) for which it easily and happily applies.



you're right about the "personal" in the reactions. I like what you wrote and I agree that he seems more interested in concept than execution (to a degree) but we have very different takes on what the successes are.

i still can't get into TRAFFIC and still think the mainstream ERIN BROCKOVICH is vastly superior to much of the output that seems more "important"

and i also really like SOLARIS so there we go. different strokes.

Tim said...

Talk about "personal" - your two disasters, Ocean's Twelve and Full Frontal, are my two favorite Soderbergh films of the last ten years.

But that's what makes him such a joy to behold: there's something, somewhere in his filmography for every taste, whether it's incredibly well-made genre fare, unexpectedly twisty prestige pictures, straight-up experiments, or, more than once, all three at the same time.

Brilliant essay about maybe my favorite working filmmaker.

Josh said...

points well made!

i remember reading that, back in the late 90s, Soderbergh decided to adopt Orson Welles fabled "one for me, one for them" rule - but really, looking back over the last ten years or so - haven't they all really been for him?

solaris is distinct for me in his recent work because it's the only one that feels (whether it really is or not) like a genuinely, emotionally self revealing work - in a way that maybe only sex, lies and videotape previously was.

but in a way, the other films are just as self revealing - it's just that they reveal soderbergh real, deep love for the nuts and bolts of filmmaking rather than his issues with his parents or women or x,y, and z. consider, for example, that he is his own cinematographer, and then consider the astonishing variety of visual styles that he's tasked himself with mastering in the last ten years (and master them he does, no matter what you might think of the overall film).

he doesn't work on the scale of someone like james cameron, but the crux of his experimentation is frequently along the same lines - concerned more with pushing his own boundaries than with churning out "well made" films and winning awards - or wracking up big box office, for that matter.

Henry said...

It seems like I'm the only one in the world who DIDN'T think Traffic was the universally beloved masterpiece that it's considered to be. It's epically layered, sure, and has a great performance from Benecio del Toro, but I've watched it all the way through three times and I still don't get why everyone thinks it's as good as its reputation suggests.

On the other hand, I KNOW I'm the only one who thought his remake of Solaris was better than people think it is.

Out of Sight, for my money, is still his best film, I think. Jennifer Lopez never looked so good (and hasn't since). And I enjoyed Ocean's 11, but not the sequels.

Jason H. said...

I kinda feel like Soderbergh is also more interested in how he markets his films along with the ideas than the actual execution. I'm not a huge Soderbergh fan - Solaris was a flawed but fascinating attempt at making a modern New Wave film, and Ocean's Eleven (and to a lesser extent Ocean's Thirteen) made the heist film fun and enjoyable again, but apart from that nothing he's done has really wowed me. Like you said, its personal reactions.

Eric Schiffer Fan said...

Love all his movies. Well, except the Ocean's followups

Deivith Coast said...

I love Sodebergh and almost every film by him (not Oceans 12 & 13 and The Good German). But my favourites are Sex, Lies & Videotapes, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Solaris and Full Frontal. The Limey and Out of Sight are also great!! I´m really interested in Soderbergh´s cinema, I think he´s an unsual director with amazing and very interesting movies. Love him to be so prolific.

And Full Frontal is great!!!

cinema adventures said...

Classic = Erin Brockovich!!


I'm with cinemaventurer on the classic Brockovichfront.

Henry -- you're not the only know trust me. I know a few Solaris lovers myself and if I didn't quite "love" it, I still think it's quite good.

Tim -- ewwww. (personal reactions again) why do you love his meta hollywood movies? I find them so annoying. hated hated full frontal.

EVERYONE -- my favorite is still sex, lies and videotape

Andrew R. said...

I actually think Traffic is his best...but his worst is Kafka.

Out of Sight, Solaris, and sex lies videotape are all great too. I love Ocean's 11. Erin Brokovich is good.

He has a Clooney fetish. Aside from 5 films done together, he produced two of Clooney's directorial films.

Volvagia said...

Here's the alternation:

1. Out of Sight (for them)
2. The Limey (for me)
3. Erin Brokovich (for them)
4. Traffic (for me)
5. Ocean's Eleven (for them)
6. Solaris (for me)
7. Ocean's Twelve (for them)
8. Bubble (for me)
9. The Good German (for them)
10. Ocean's Thirteen (for them)
11. Che (for me)
12. The Girlfriend Experience (for me)
13. The Informant! (for them)
14. And Everything is Going Fine (for me)

Volvagia said...

Forgot Full Frontal, but that picture satisfies both "for me" and "for them" qualifications. (An experiment about a day in the life of Hollywood. They love self exposes, so that's a win.) said...

sorry to correct you, but it's not a tie. Soderbergh's made 6 films with Clooney in the lead: Out of Sight, Solaris, The Good German, and the Oceans Trilogy. Damon was in the Oceans films and The Informant, and had a blink and you'll miss it cameo in Che part 2. This got my inner geek going, so i checked out all the actors he's worked with more than once:

George Clooney - 6
Don Cheadle - 5
Matt Damon - 5
Julia Roberts - 4
Benicio Del Toro - 3
Luis Guzman - 3
Brad Pitt - 3
Casey Affleck - 3
Albert Finney - 3
Andy Garcia - 3
Elliot Gould - 3
Scott Caan - 3
Bernie Mac - 3
Carl Reiner - 3
Topher Grace - 3
Catherine Keener - 2
Catherine Zeta-Jones - 2
Peter Gallagher - 2
Terence Stamp - 2
Vincent Cassel - 2
Nicky Katt - 2

Interesting point A: none of those actors ever worked both sides of the Soderbergh career border, between Schizopolis and Out of Sight.

interesting point B: Almost every actor on this list started to make much more interesting choices after working with Soderbergh. (Clooney and Roberts being the prime examples.)

God bless the 'Bergh.

Joe Reid said...

No way Full Frontal is a "for them." That was about as self-indulgent a picture as I can remember.

As for the Great Debate of 2000, I think I enjoy Brockovich more (and certainly have watched it more), but I think the ambition in Traffic makes me admire it more.

Though, honestly, I think I might rank Ocean's Eleven as his greatest moment. I don't think people appreciate just how difficult it was to balance the comedy and the stars and the story. That thing is lighter than air, and I think the comparatively heavier sequels just underline what an accomplishment Eleven was.

Peter said...

Clooney has been in 6 of his movies, right? The three Ocean's movies, Out of Sight, Solaris, and The Good German.

I also agree Erin Brockovich is the clearest "classic" on his filmography. You could make arguments for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Out of Sight, and a couple others.

Billabong said...

How bout Sissy Spacek as the psychiatrist - 3 brilliant iconic 60+ oscar winning thespians in a decent adult film. Would be heaven!

Robert said...

Thanks for the corrections on Clooney. I suspected I was forgetting one somewhere.

I'm glad to see that there is Solaris love out there. It's really amusing how people react so differently to all of Soderbergh's films. I admit my anti-Solaris bias as a huge fan of the original.

As for Traffic, it's one of the few "everyone is connected" films that doesn't seem smugly pleased with itself and its own ability to connect all the threads. You've got to give it that.

cal roth said...

Oh boy, Ocean's Twelve is his best movie, IMO. I can't get the auteur Soderbergh, but the mainstream Soderbergh is marvelous: remember Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, the other Ocean movies.

R.E.M. Borja said...

I wish "King of the Hill" was out on DVD. It's a personal favorite of mine with an impressive performance by Jesse Bradford and Elizabeth McGovern.

Anonymous said...

To's funny because that quote 'one for them and one for me' is often attributed to Soderbergh.
In an interview recently he clarified and told me he'd never said that...(I believe it was Clooney, Soderbergh's producing partner at the time) who said that phrase.

Soderbergh went on to say that 'they are all for him' so you are correct in your thoughts. He also said he would talk all of his worst failures...The Good German, Solaris, Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath and Che...and if all of the 'failures' were the only films he'd ever made..he'd still have felt like that was a filmography he would be proud of.
Interesting guy.


Raul -- i remember liking that film but it's hard to see now. Strange that a film so well regarded by a famous current director can't get released on DVD.

Jonothan said...

I love the good manners suggestion before you post here. :) about time!

Erin Brockovich was ok. I prefered traffic and the ocean films. But i was watching several plays in LA with some really good actors in it (Vivi Devereaux, Fiona Gubelmann etc etc ) and it made me wonder how the directors of the old guard are evolving. You hardly ever hear of new directors joining the ranks of legends. I wonder why...

Julia said...

Nice review.

I hated the movie "Traffic". Not my kind of movie i guess. And Jonothan i think i know the guy you are talking about. I saw Vivi in a showcase, And Fiona i saw on tv. Californication and knight rider i think. Its a damn small world and everyone seems to come from California. LOL! Solaris os cool. How Steven Soderbergh do if he had the money that James Cameron can access? Would it be grungy or cool? I want to find out!

Erin Brockovich is my heroine!