There are few, if any, publications referencing American independent cinema that do not regard the success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (1989) as a crucial moment in that industry’s history. The reasons stated for this are multitudinous, the most commonly cited being that it represented its first cross-over hit – a film enjoyed as much in general release theatres as it was in the arthouse cinemas.
If nothing else, the success of the film indicates the evolving nature of the medium through which filmmakers and audiences alike educate each other about the limits of comprehension. For, with sex lies and videotape, Soderbergh laid bare the urgency of his vision without belittling his audience through esoteric overkill. And he achieved it through disrupting the apparent seamlessness of linear narrative filmmaking, combining elements of fabula, medium and editing in such a way that no single truth or story would emerge; rather a mosaic of truths, fables and formats emerged. This approach has been evident in a number of general release films since then, Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1993), Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1993) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) among them, testifying to the sustainability of Soderbergh’s narrative and media innovations. His return to form in The Limey (1999) and Traffic (2000) serve to reinforce his status as a filmmaker building bridges between film-as-art and film-as-entertainment.
Steven Soderbergh was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1963. He is the second of six children born to the later Professor and Dean of Education at Louisiana State University, Peter Soderbergh, and his wife. At the age of 15 Steven enrolled in an animation class at that University. After high school he moved to Hollywood to work as a freelance editor, alongside writing scripts and making short films for himself. He continued these activities after moving back to Louisiana, where he directed a video for the rock group Yes, Yes: 9012 Live in 1986. His efforts earned him a Grammy award and a year later he made Winston, a short film which would be developed further into sex, lies and videotape.
Despite making films that can be considered ‘cross-over’ successes (sex, lies and videotape won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, earning the film fame alongside the festival at which it premiered – The Sundance Film Festival), his work is considered to be an acquired taste. Recent endeavours The Limey, Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic, whilst critically acclaimed in the United States at least, have received mixed responses from audiences and off-shore critics. I have to admit that it was with trepidation that I approached these three and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), since 1993′s King of the Hill was so damn plain and 1996′s Schizopolis was worthwhile but impossible to repeat. With both The Limey and Traffic I was to be pleasantly surprised by his return to the project of making experimental narratives accessible to an audience bred on the tradition of seamless linearity.
A brief glance at Soderbergh’s filmography reveals that he has been a busy man. I only comment on this because it seemed that he was what music industry journalists refer to as a ‘one hit wonder’. The unavailability of some of these films, either through cinemas or on video, makes it virtually impossible to reference all of his work though, so I have confined this overview to what I have seen. This does constitute a fairly representative sample since it ranges from the pedestrian (King of the Hill, Erin Brockovich) to the experimental (Schizopolis).
Sex, lies and videotape traces the story of a stranger who interviews a group of friends, on video, about their love/sex lives. Starring James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo, the film serves as an exposition of the footage that Spader’s character captures as well as creating a ‘larger picture’ in which he plays a significant sexual role as a voyeur. As the film progresses, we learn more about how Spader perceives himself in relation to those he interviews, something that we as viewers may discern with the splicing together of film and video images. To put it simply, sex, lies and videotape questions the notion of voyeurism, subjectivity and objectivity in a world where the instruments of photographic representation proliferate.
King of the Hill traces the story of two boys who find themselves alone in the world, in their parents’ apartment for the duration of a summer during World War Two. The story encapsulates a certain obsession of older male directors, perhaps older directors overall, with the ‘coming of age’ scenario – with those last moments of childhood, romantically recalled as a time before cynicism. Innocence makes the prospect of being left at home alone seem joyful; knowledge or fear concerning rent, food and utilities cannot possibly exist unless hunger, cold or illness has already been experienced. In the case of boy protagonists especially, audiences bear witness to the ‘little man’ syndrome, where the child believes himself to be shouldering the responsibilities of the adult male world. Whilst I would certainly not claim this represented the acme of Soderbergh’s talent, I imagine that it is more palatable to those who find his other work pretentious.
Schizopolis is another meditation on the ‘coming of age’, but the age being examined and the approach to it are vastly different. As an account of a mid-life crisis, the film relates the mounting obsessions of Fletcher Munson, a speech writer for the founder of a Scientology-like organisation. Apart from the stresses created by his job, Munson knows his wife is having an affair with the family dentist, Dr. Korchek, who for all intents and purposes looks identical to Munson. Both Munson and Korchek are played by Soderbergh, whose performance lacks any nuance and thus creates an impression of the two as different expressions of the same underlying personality. Since this duality and Munson’s paranoia form the basis of the screenplay, the only way to present ‘the story’ is in a non-linear, at times non-sequential, manner. This makes Schizopolis a trying watch, in its way not so dissimilar from Godard’s Week-End (1967). Of his films, it is the least reconciled to the narrative concerns of most studio fare but nevertheless leaves the viewer with a clear depiction of the distortions of time, space and communal realities that extreme anxiety can produce. It is not because Schizopolis is experimental that it is worthy – there are plenty of non-linear narratives out there that are poor articulations of the filmmaker’s intentions. It is because it makes sense but ultimately fails – the poetic sense of it dissolves into meaningless repetition towards the end – that it is worthy of mention. I say this because it emphasises, through strengths and flaws, both the persistent drive towards linearity that the medium presents to directors fond of experimental filmmaking, and subverts that drive without alienating viewers since it is, essentially, a comedy.
Of the films which post-date Schizopolis my favourite is The Limey. The story operates on the basis of a revenge narrative, where a British man recently released from prison goes searching for his daughter’s killer in Los Angeles. In the poetic sense, it picks up from where Schizopolis left off, but in recognising that film’s flaws utilises similar stylistic devices in order to recreate the protagonist’s feelings of displacement and subdued hysteria.
In using a state-of-mind to create the backdrop for the story as well as its motivation, Soderbergh creates for his audience the sense of how intimately related these two elements are; a long shot positioning our ex-con (Terence Stamp) in front of a garage in one of LA’s industrial suburbs proves an insight to how the protagonist views his own journey. Less a major player, more external to the events of his own existence, certainly external to the reality of his daughter’s death, he wanders through the bleak, dirtied LA brightness with the determination of cold-blood. Where revenge fantasies usually furnish audiences with the ‘darker’ sides of personality via pathos and emotions, The Limey guides us through a city and a character made impassive through necessity. The character is not extraordinary for his actions: he is depicted neither as a good man driven to violence nor a bad man reformed. He is a thug, he wants revenge and there is little pause for reflection, except for small flashback sequences where he is with his wife and child (1).
Soderbergh uses his camera to describe that space, the location and state-of-mind, as squalid and exposed: LA’s blue skies are compromised by the smog, the sunshine is too bright in most places, with not enough real cloud cover to provide the necessary filters. The beautiful hillside mansion of the target, a middle-aged record producer (Peter Fonda), reminds the viewer of sets for home pornography videos, viewed as it is through yellow and brown filters, and including as it does a young woman bathing in a spa bath. These ultimately dystopic scenes prevent The Limey from being a fun, ‘boy’s own’ crime story in the vein of Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) or Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000). Rather, it acts like a melancholic dissertation on the nature of loss when it affects even the morally reprehensible.
Of the remaining films to date, Erin Brockovich is the most linear of Soderbergh’s and for me, as plain as King of the Hill. This is perhaps due to the intricacy of the information being presented. Erin Brockovich is a story about a woman not trained in the law, who pieces together a case from the desire for social justice. In this instance, an experimental narrative would only serve to defy the ‘feel good’ sentiment of this film, which seeks to demonstrate the power of ‘ordinariness’ over the jargon of law and of cultural hierarchies.
Traffic, for its part, is a simple explication of the surface complexities that surround drug issues. Based on the BBC drama of the same name (spelt Traffick) the film presents us with the falsity of political campaigns that use drug issues as a platform for rhetoric. The supply chain between grower and user is neatly illustrated, requiring the complicity of gatekeepers at executive and junior levels of national civil services. Soderbergh easily traces the relationship between countries that benefit from global markets and their not-so-fortunate trading allies, who resort to profiteering off drug trading. He describes the current relationship between the United States and Mexico as one analogous to that between Britain and Pakistan in the late 1980s, where ultimately it is only the rich in drug producing nations who benefit from that trade anyway.
Overall, Traffic is a little hackneyed. The moral dilemmas faced by those unknowingly or indirectly affected by drugs trafficking – the wife of the rich dealer, the politician and his drug-using daughter, the compromised police officer – are hardly new to me. Neither is it news to me that people regarded as high-status are affected by drug use. For one thing, drugs are expensive compared to glue and beer. That’s how they can provide a high income for those who can manipulate the systems controlling export and import of goods to their advantage. The morals of the film also rest on over-simplified presumptions: that the supply chain is singular and direct; and that drug use is an issue that exists because of a moral vacuum. Drug use/abuse‚ as a concept, is not investigated as a social construct, meaning that neither is the morality of profiting from the sale of drugs. By categorising use of and profit from illegal drugs as criminal, Traffic sheds little more light on the multitude of issues surrounding illegal drugs than films like Go Ask Alice (John Korty, 1973) or Christiane F (Uli Edel, 1981).
Solaris (2002) is the latest of Soderbergh’s films in general release in Australia. As a remake of Tarkovsky’s famous film from 1972 it is neither a revelation nor a disappointment, particularly. It is my opinion that the Russian film did not need to be remade: it would be difficult under that condition for the Soderbergh film to make an impact, and thus it did not. Solaris traces the story of Dr Chris Klein, a widowed psychologist, who upon arrival at an orbiting space station called Solaris discovers a chain of strange events that includes the appearances of people he knows to be dead.
Soderbergh’s interpretation does make one crucial departure from the Tarkovsky film in that the rationale guiding ex-wife Rhea’s behaviour on the ship is explained through dialogue rather than visuals. After having left her on the ship, at her own insistence, he recalls that her decision to not accompany him is based on the fact that her current existence is based only on how he remembers her, not on how she is. This provides the audience with a glimpse into the profound philosophical nature of the film’s Russian predecessor, where the essence of what it is ‘to be’ is asserted against the rational precursor that describes humans as distinct organisms on the basis of their separation from other entities.
Soderbergh’s film mimics the pacing of Tarkovsky’s but where this creates pause for reflection in the Russian Solaris, in the recent version it becomes empty space. This occurs perhaps because both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh are auteurs in their own right, bringing different strengths to bear upon filmmaking. Tarkovsky is a master of the single shot, composed in a manner that creates intrigue of itself, as well as its own analogy to the rest of the sequence and the film, overall. His strength, then, is the revelation of philosophical resonance between aesthetics and duration, that is the time enough to understand the meaning of perception. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is interested in baring to the audience the structure of narrative drive and does this through disputing hierarchical claims to truthfulness using editing and overlapping narratives as means through which this can be achieved.
Full Frontal (2002) was released here at the end of last year. I missed it at the cinema, however, so I had to wait for the DVD to come out. The film is shot using a digital camera anyway and it was the actors and the DVD’s ‘Special Features’ that actually made the movie more interesting overall. Full Frontal is described as a day in the life of a group of very tenuously connected people, leading up to their friend’s birthday, at which they will all eventually gather. It is also described as the millennial version of sex, lies and videotape. If this means that the film embodies Soderbergh’s cinematic concerns in these last 17 years, then I’m inclined to agree. I can also see why it didn’t make a big splash upon release.
Without knowing the background to the project that Full Frontal represents, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill actors’ improvisation showpiece. Films like Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991) and Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000) have explored similar territory. But those films didn’t have Catherine Keener, Nicky Katz, Blair Underwood or the Alan Thicke-for-the-1990s, David Duchovny (and he’s good!). I’ve loved every film Nicky Katz is in just because he’s in it. I can say the same for Catherine Keener. Duchovny and Underwood really impressed me because I’d never seen either do anything that made me aware of their capabilities. The film hangs together around their performances and is guided by the lesser known actors as well as by the ‘names’ like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. The thing that’s fascinating, though, after watching the movie, is finding out what ‘the rules’ were for each actor. It wasn’t until I realised that on the first day on set, they each had to bring a costume and make-up which would define their characters for the duration of shooting, and limit the directions in which they could take the story, that I appreciated the richness of the project. The idea that Katz turned up on that first day of shooting in a Hitler costume really tickled my fancy. But I fully appreciated the wardrobe that each cast member had chosen – particularly that Duchovny turned up in a pair of boxer shorts and a bathrobe.
In addition to being a prolific director of late, Soderbergh has also been busy writing, producing, editing, shooting and acting in various projects. In 1993, he produced Suture (directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel), a film which literally explores the construction of colour on screen, and in 1996 he produced The Daytrippers (directed by Greg Mottola), a film that featured at the more independent version of Sundance, Slamdance. Apart from playing the lead character, and his double, in Schizopolis, he has also performed in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and Independents Day (1998), a television documentary about the independent filmmaking industry in the United States. Named in the credits as ‘Peter Andrews’, Soderbergh has also acted as the cinematographer on his films Solaris, Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic and Schizopolis. Soderbergh has executively produced most recently Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002), Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002) and A Confederacy of Dunces (David Gordon Green, 2003).
Although this piece would appear to describe his oeuvre as patchy, it is only patchy in the range between good and great. All of his films are at least good and in terms of the so-called ‘mainstream cinema’ he contributes a great deal to the public’s understanding of film by creating work that is in equal measures rich and accessible.
Yes: 9012 Live (1986) video
sex, lies and videotape (1989)
King of the Hill (1993)
Gray’s Anatomy (1996)
Out of Sight (1998)
The Limey (1999)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Full Frontal (2002)
Equilibrium (2004) segment in Eros omnibus film
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Suture (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 1993) executive producer
The Daytrippers (Greg Mottola, 1996) producer
Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) producer
Tribute (Kris Curry & Rich Fox, 2001) executive producer
Who is Bernard Tapie? (Marina Zenovich, 2001) executive producer
Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001) actor
Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002) executive producer
Welcome to Collinwood (Anthony & Jo Russo, 2002) executive producer
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) executive producer
Naqoyqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 2002) executive producer
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002) executive producer
In God’s Hands (Lodge H. Kerrigan, 2003) executive producer
A Confederacy of Dunces (David Gordon Green, 2003) executive producer
Anthony Kaufman, Steven Soderbergh: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Conversations with Filmmakers series, 2002
Jason Wood, Steven Soderbergh, Pocket Essentials, 2002
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Mementoes from Blank Point: Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey by Bill Craske
Steven Soderbergh Online
A dedicated fan site containing news, links to online articles and video clips.
Out of Site
A Soderbergh tribute site not dissimilar to the one above.
Click here to search for Steven Soderbergh DVDs, videos and books at