The release of male flesh extravaganza Magic Mike means we are inching ever closer to director Steven Soderbergh‘s fast approaching retirement/sabbatical. It has been a weird couple of years for the filmmaker, as he discussed wanting to leave his chosen profession behind, before reneging on the decision. Recently, though, he changed his mind again and said that he was only taking a break from the industry, to recharge his batteries and to get excited about directing again.
So now we’re in a weird position. After Magic Mike, there are two more films and then that’s it, no more Soderbergh for a while. He has a psychological thriller called The Bitter Pill which reunites him and Channing Tatum for the third time and an HBO movie called Behind the Candelabra, which is based on the life of Liberace and stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
It will be a sad day when he goes but by all accounts, Soderbergh‘s justification for his sabbatical goes beyond him just deciding to quit. There are legitimate qualms he has with where the industry is going that have forced his decision. He said recently:
In movies now, I see less of the things that make something a movie than I used to, like choices, directorial choices… composition and cutting. Something in which choices are made on set, as opposed to ‘Let’s hose it down and we’ll figure it out later.’ Stuff that when I started watching movies for something other than entertainment, I really noticed and I wanted to emulate.
My heroes who were building on what they saw their heroes doing, were trying things and being ambitious and fearless. I just feel like a lot of that is being lost, with some exceptions.
His leaving the profession (unless of course he picks up another project out of the blue like he did with Magic Mike) will create a large gap which many filmmakers can’t necessarily fill. Soderbergh is a great director who manages to tight rope the line between making smaller, independent films with very niche market such as Che, Traffic, or Sex, Lies and Videotape, and also making some amazingly entertaining Hollywood movies like Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven and last year’s Contagion.
The man almost has this dual personality that flickers between the thinking man’s Michael Bay and the experimental third Coen brother. The independent productions, or the films that Soderbergh‘s critics have labelled “important” or “experimental”, are more of a mixed bag and yet there is always something of interest in them. Works such as Schizopolis and Bubble are far from perfect, and at times feel a little quirky or insubstantial, but they are signs of a filmmaker who is interested in looking at film as a form and telling different uncomfortable stories.
Sometimes the style and the material doesn’t work at all. Full Frontal, an ensemble piece that takes a lot of cues from the French New Wave, was a braying turkey of a movie and just a bad misstep. The Good German was another style experiment where Soderbergh created a lavish pastiche of the melodramas of the 30′s and 40s that just didn’t work on any level, other than the visual, and was overwhelmed by its own nostalgia.
Even so, those film’s fail on their own terms and there is a sense in them of what Soderbergh‘s goals were and what his intention was. He just failed to achieve it, though not through lack of trying. The script for Full Frontal was sent out with a list of 10 conditions for the actors which stipulated that the they need to arrive without entourage and you’re expected to be interviewed on camera about your character, and other characters. The film was an attempt to push the form further, he just failed in delivering a coherent piece of storytelling.
The Hollywood blockbusters are similarly mixed and aren’t always the most financially or critically successful, but you can guarantee that they are some of the most intelligent and fun films around. This year’s Haywire received somewhat of a rough ride but the high octane lack of pretension to that film was a breath of fresh air. It was one of the best action films I’d seen in quite sometime. Another one of Soderbergh‘s great mainstream efforts was last year’s Contagion, a glossy, globetrotting horror film with an impeccable all star cast that also had something to say.
And then there’s those films that are just an awful lot of fun. Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven are prime examples of what great summer blockbusters should be: well written and appropriately cast with a sense of fun. While the two Ocean’s sequels are below par, that first film was sublime entertainment that had no pretensions above its station. Its only goal was to produce a film that entertained everyone. On the other end you have the stripped down brutality of The Limey which has the same goal to entertain as Ocean’s movies, only doing it for adults.
Out of Sight, however, is an example of a film that did reasonably poor business, but it remains a film which is unashamedly smart and stylishly sexy for your entertainment. Sometimes the most reductive of pleasures (like watching George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez get it on) can be the most you want from a movie, but Soderbergh somehow manages to not make that seem tacky or cheap. And that comes from the construction of the narrative to allow that payoff to be necessary within the structure of the film.
But Soderbergh‘s greatest power as a director resides in his prowess to make us think and make us feel. This comes across in spades in what Soderbergh refers to as his “important” movies, which he proved most impressively in his two part Che biopic and the film that remains his undisputed masterpiece: Traffic.
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