Steven Soderbergh Special

Is anyone’s favourite director Steven Soderbergh? Probably not, in spite of the fact he has had as many box office successes and critically acclaimed works as any 21st century auteur you’d care to mention. His filmography lurches from prestigious classics, stylish franchise films, throwaway genre pieces and even more disposable experiments. His works can be divided up into four catergories: crime capers, biographies, big issue ensembles and indie character studies… but not neatly… there are overlaps. He’s often his own cinematographer and he supports new talent. He unexpectedly casts non-actors in lead roles and he quietly championed international talents Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan and Ole Bornedal in their first major Hollywood projects. He frequently announces his retirement from cinema then releases three or four projects in quick succession. He made the best Elmore Leonard adaptation with Out of Sight… undeniably one of the finest movies of the 1990s. I had an unplanned mini season, a little sniff around the less loved borders of his oeuvre, over the last week.

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

Steven Soderbergh directs James Spader, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo in this indie drama about a cheated-on housewife and an impotent young drifter who become drawn to each others’ honesty.

The debut that rewrote the rule book of indie cinema and was heralded a modern classic. One that now no longer feels like it is part of the movie conversation. Haven’t watched this since I was a kid. I was pretty bored by it then, couldn’t see what the fuss is about. As an adult, now far older than the small set of characters we observe, I was still pretty bored. It is an impressive debut in that Soderbergh casually avoids genre or cliche… opens up a stagey premise, has excellently framed patient camerawork and manages to get compelling performances from the normally unpalatable MacDowell and Peter Gallagher. You wonder if they have been cast due in part to their cold, wooden qualities?

Spader and especially Laura San Giacomo are excellent however. Spader (a Soderbergh avatar) has a fetish for filming women making masturbatory interviews about their desires and experiences. This future-echoes Soderbergh’s consistent concerns of intimacy as a transaction and embracing emerging film replacements. I guess there is a nice feminist message in that the man who cares about women’s needs, voices and thoughts over his own ends up adjacent to the girl… and the sisters don’t implode their struggling relationship over the husband who has fucked them both. Yet the dialogue is quite theatrical and the happy romantic comedy ending feels like a betrayal of the unjudgmental freefall we’ve been pushed into for the bulk of the film. There is a sinister, callous air about the film that never really comes to a fulfilling head. And for a film about SEX, it is very prudish. The top piece of IMDB trivia is a telling treat. “The film was playing in Berlin’s largest movie theaters when the Berlin Wall fell. A lot of East Germans crossing over to West Berlin went to see it, expecting Western-style porn.” Oh dear…

6

Schizopolis (1996)

Steven Soderbergh directs himself, Betsy Brantley and David Jensen in this experimental film where a horny Soderbergh look-a-like finds himself involved in a Scientology-esque cult, meanwhile his dentist twin brother is fucking about also.

sex, lies and videotape rewrote the rulebook for a little four year period. A Sundance darling, that was part of a well publicised Miramax bidding war (the first of many for the Weinsteins), that went on to be a multiplex, videoshop and international success. The youngest direct to win the Palme D’Or (without Jacques Cousteau co-directing) and Oscar nominated, Soderbergh had the world at his feet. And he went on to make five unmarketable, unprofitable and increasingly unloved projects. Hollywood were hoping for the next Spike Lee or Scorsese… and in terms of craft and prolific output they got that… but the projects were cold and underwhelming. By the time he released a noir remake of Criss Cross (the underrated Underneath), Soderbergh was an afterthought… garnering little press attention unless it was a negative review punctuated with the question “What happened?” We all had Tarantino by the mid 90s. Cooler, easier to sell, easier to qualify and making bigger and bigger releases we could all embrace after Sundance calling card mimicked Soderbergh’s trailblazing debut’s trajectory. Wunderkind Needed : Vacancy Filled.

I always wondered how Soderbergh raised the $1.2 million and name cast for sex, lies and videotape. Schizopolis feels more like a debut, a calling card, the resourcefulness of a unknown. Non-linear, bleak and silly; it is a love letter to Richard Lester, Monty Python and possibly The Kids In The Hall. Soderbergh plays a pair of brothers – neither of whom can communicate with women, wank a lot and barely thread the pearls that are a series of skits together. The energy almost wins you over, excusing a 1 in 5 hit rate of successful sketches. Maybe Soderbergh made it more as his last film. Hollywood beckoned and he started playing the game bringing his elliptical storytelling style and vivid sense of everyday colour to slick blockbusters and star vehicles for the 15 years that followed. He occasionally dabbles in freewheeling nonsense films like this still… almost to keep his hand in… and you can read Schizopolis’ unchecked influence into the works of David O’Russell, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Mike Judge.

6

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Steven Soderbergh directs Sasha Grey, Chris Santos and Glenn Kenny in this indie drama where a high class call girl tries to boost her standing.

Sasha Grey was probably the biggest pornstar to emerge in the late 00’s. Her unusually striking prettiness, natural body and enthusiastic willingness in a glut of scenes made her “a name” even among circles who didn’t consume hardcore media. She came across in the obligatory short précis scenes before choreographed fucking began as a self aware, overly confident person, always slightly combative of the accepted cliched personas she was cast in by the adult industry. Strange then than in her mainstream lead debut, playing a glamorous sex worker, she does very little in terms of nudity or erotic action (it is a very talky piece that any up-and-coming star could have played with zero controversy) and that personality that seemed so exotic in porn, feels subdued and dull in cinema. She still looks great, yet not movie star flawless, but all the attitude and humanity has disappeared. Here she proves a vacant, monotone presence… and I don’t think that’s intentional.

It makes you wonder whether the in-the-moment, one take only performance needs of porn are so un-syncable with the requirements of mainstream scripted screen acting? Whether other current stand-out adult personalities like Penny Pax, Ana Foxx or Abella Danger could make the breakout from Xvideos to Netflix remains to be seen. Nobody away from the likes of Brazzers and Tushy seem to be exploiting their obvious acting chops. So far, it is only the slightly more bimbo-y Jenna Jameson or Sunny Leone or notorious Traci Lords who have significantly “crossed over”.

The experiment behind The Girlfriend Experience was to cast a non-traditional actor in a lead role that suited them. Soderbergh would have more success next try with MMA star Gina Carano in low key action flick Haywire. The movie itself is handsome to look at, presenting another Soderbergian essay on sex as commerce. Everything here is a service. A personal trainer must put hustling subscription packages ahead of encouraging his client. A user review service for escorts, run out of a mattress store back room by an odious parasite, blackmails young entrepreneurs for positive write-ups. It is a pretty damning statement on wealth, finance and the emerging gig economy… while only occasionally giving us a glimpse of the product we have paid for. Grey in, culturally acceptable, nude situations. Apart from the Soderbergh faithful, the target audience for this surely was Sasha Grey “enthusiasts” who want to watch her in a way where their browsing footprint doesn’t get them fired from work or in trouble with the missus. And I’d say its fair comment that as classy whacking material The Girlfriend Experience fails. She spends more time shopping. Listing her outfits and consumerism like Patrick Bateman… but without Brett Easton Ellis’ satirical relish in exposing how shallow these lifestyles are.

4

Contagion (2011)

Steven Soderbergh directs Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law in this apocalyptic thriller where humanity battles a deadly virus in the face of uncooperative government agencies and exploitative pundits of the new media age.

R numbers. Dwindling supply chain. Departmental incompetence. Frontline deaths. Fake news. Face masks. Hand gels. Rushed vaccines. Second only to Traffic, this is Soderbergh operating in his most impressive wheelhouse. The global issues ensemble piece. He arranges a mosaic of characters and subplots and slots them all together into a satisfying drama and rattling rollercoaster. “Peter Andrew”’s glacial yet immaculate framing, the time slaloming editing and a persuasive score by Cliff Martinez make Contagion a terrifying, multi-layered take on what would happen in a global outbreak.

Of course, we’ve just gone through this very scenario in 2020. What felt like subdued, strangely corporate science fiction 9 years ago… now compares pretty accurately with our everyday life. Sure, the streets aren’t rubbish strewn wastelands and consumer society hasn’t fallen apart but that is mainly due to our governments realising abandoning their populations to survivalist chaos would make the economies they rely on to exploit unresuscitable. The UK is going through Brexit to become the world’s deregulated banking conduit. If the virus caused mass unemployment and social instability then our credit rating would sink and conglomerates wouldn’t use us as their trustworthy international banking hub. Far be it from me, a lefty, to celebrate trickle down economics but the surprising Tory backed relief packages and furlough schemes of the last 9 months probably wouldn’t have happened in Thatcher’s Britain where the poor were seen as an exploitable, disposable inconvenience. The one thing this blockbuster doesn’t predict is the pragmatic self preservation of society in the face of death and destruction. 2020’s Coronavirus was an averted apocalypse of quiet and boredom rather than government secrecy and military curfews.

Yet a little hyperbole aside, it is an eyeopener just how much Soderbergh’s speculative juggernaut gets bang on. You only guess things this assuredly with loads of advance research. Scientific voices were clearly listened to. Worst case scenarios noted and adapted with glee. The first casualty comes as an abrupt early shock… suddenly a cute kid is dead too and an A-Lister’s scalp is being peeled in front of their lifeless face. Quick, wounding succession sets the stakes. No one is safe. The racing after infected on public transport and chaos in supermarkets becomes believable. Human error, greed and mistrust come into play. Unheroic characters redeem themselves, other selfless warriors bite the bullet with little fanfare. It is a chilling ghost house ride featuring a career best turn from Jude Law. Will we all be wearing barcoded vaccination bracelets this time next year? I reckon so… A fantasy that has held up so sturdily in the face of reality isn’t one to doubt easily.

8

The Laundromat (2019)

Steven Soderbergh directs Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas in this dramatisation of the machinations behind the Panama Papers scandal; where the global elite were caught legally but immorally evading taxes that you and I have to pay.

There’s some initial pleasures in Oldman and Banderas camping it up and talking to us directly about how Mossack and Fonesca abuse a system of shell companies, tax shelters and credit systems to preserve the richest’s wealth. But garish opulence and silly accents aside, this is heavy handed and way too scattershot. The only moments that rings true is when the naughty corrupt accountants remind us the filmmakers are just the type of millionaires to use such a scheme. Colourful but inaccessible and glib.

3

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