Steven Soderbergh, we hardly knew ye

Summer 1998: Soderbergh's breakthrough, and Clooney's too.

Since debuting in 1989 with sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 movies, or more than one film per year. He now maintains that he’s retiring from filmmaking, at the age of 50, to concentrate on painting.

The rare remake that's far superior to the original: OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001).

sex, lies and videotape is credited with kicking off the indie film boom of the 1990s, but what’s little remembered today is that Soderbergh wandered an uncertain creative path for years after it came out, releasing a series of indies that sank without much trace. His breakthrough came with 1998’s Out of Sight, a crime thriller starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez; hardly a sellout, it was more like Soderbergh finding himself as a maker of intelligent, sleekly crafted crowdpleasers.

In quick succession came (among others) The Limey; Traffic; the charming caper Oceans’ Eleven and its two sequels; Solaris; arty micro-indie experiments like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience; the two-part Che; Matt Damon’s goofiest turn ever in the thoroughly odd The Informant!; the underrated biological-disaster movie Contagion; an arthouse action movie by the name of Haywire; and last year’s hit comedy about male strippers, Magic Mike. Along the way Soderbergh also started acting as his own DP, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and showed what a daunting command of cinematic technique he had at his disposal, whether using film or pioneering the use of digital Red cameras.

please God let January be over so good movies can come outContinuing his prolific, ever-unpredictable ways, after Side Effects opens next week, Soderbergh’s last announced project is Behind the Candelabra, premiering this spring on HBO, and which stars Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, Liberace’s boy-toy lover. (HBO rescued the production after every studio turned it down.)

That partial list gives an indication of the restless nature of Soderbergh’s  sensibility, the way he’s been able to roam across genres and styles at will, not to mention move freely between studios and indies, while always attracting the best acting talent in the  movie biz.

What would Laura Mulvey say?

Yet Soderbergh’s tireless productivity and the slightly chilly, cerebral quality of many of his films make him something of an enigma, and certainly an anomaly among American directors today. He has sometimes seemed like a one-man industry, operating at a salutary remove from studio release patterns and awards season hype. Even after 26 movies, critics often seem somewhat baffled by what to make of him.

This week New York Magazine has a lengthy interview with Soderbergh that’s filled with interesting observations — it’s no surprise that he’s smart and mildly acerbic — about filmmaking, the state of the industry, film criticism, working for HBO, and why he would rather show a detail than an emotion in his films. A few highlights:

On the reasons for his retirement:

“It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

On what he dislikes in filmmaking today:

“It’s not pandering so much as being obvious. Do you want to hang out with someone who has the most obvious reaction to everything that happens? That’s boring! And when I see a movie that’s doing the obvious thing all the time, it’s frustrating.

“… The thing I also see a lot of is multiple endings — I feel like movies end like five times now! I remember being very conscious of the Lord of the Rings movies having a lot of endings. But I wonder if the audience has come to expect them.

“Music has become another of the most abused aspects of filmmaking. I’m mystified by the direction scores have taken in the last ten years. It’s wall-to-wall — it’s the movie equivalent of the vuvuzelas from the last World Cup! I don’t understand it at all. For me, it’s ideal when you can get the music to do something that everything else isn’t doing.”

New York Magazine: Have you met any naturally great leaders?
“George Clooney. He inspires people. He listens. He’s generous. He’s loyal. He’s funny, which is crucial. He solves problems better than anyone I know. That’s why people keep telling him to run for office, but he’s too smart for that. If there were 500 of him, you could take over an entire country — but of course three weeks later you’d lose it again because of all the parties.”

You can read the complete interview here, and let’s hope that Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra are a worthy one-two for Soderbergh to go out on.

Capstone to a great career? Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. © Copyright HBO Films.

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