Whenever friends ask for my opinion on Steven Soderbergh, I reply, "Which Soderbergh?'" Are they referring to the man who directs super-stylish, cool, intelligent entertainments such as the Ocean's trilogy, Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, or the man who directed such idiosyncratic experimental features as Schizopolis, Full Frontal and Bubble)? On the surface, his career choices seem among the most perverse and erratic of any modern filmmaker. There aren't any other contemporary directors who are able or willing to switch from one genre and style of filmmaking to another and exhibit such different sensibilities. It is entirely possible to love one side of the man's professional identity, the entertainer -- a side currently represented by his bruising action picture Haywire (2012) - whilst remaining ambivalent about his other, equally important and equally characteristic side, the experimenter.
Soderbergh gained mainstream ecognition for such mainstream films as Traffic (2000) and Erin Brockovich, both released in 2000 and representing his popular peak: both were nominated for Best Picture; Julia Roberts won Best Actress for the latter, and Soderbergh Best Director for the former. And yet Soderbergh sees himself as a filmmaker to whom this work is all of a piece. Where other directors might have reeled after having their vision for a film (Moneyball, 2011) rejected mere days before the scheduled start of production, he took it in his stride, and it seems likely that his chameleon temperament helped him move on. Whether directing big-budget, star-driven, Hollywood movies or micro-budgeted, freeform, experimental works, to him it's the same process, just a different canvas. Soderbergh told The Rumpus, 'That's a delineation only somebody who doesn't make movies would make. They're all for me."
In retrospect his choices were commendable and speak volumes about what kind of filmmaker he is: Soderbergh decided to follow his interests and instincts and damn the consequences, and all the films were at least interesting. Kafka (1991) is a mystery thriller that blended fact with fictional elements from Franz Kafka's novels. It was barely released and isn't readily available even now, being a much sought-after import DVD (Soderbergh has talked of puting together a director's cut of the movie). King of the Hill (1993) was similarly little-seen, but the likeable Depression-era drama was acclaimed by certain critics and won Soderbergh his second Best Directing nomination at Cannes. Perhaps hoping to increase his commercial chances, he next made The Underneath (1995), a modern updating of the Noir classic, Criss Cross (1949). The result was a film that even Soderbergh was disappointed with at the time. (He has described all three films as failures.) He followed that up with his least commercial venture up to that point, the 80-minute Spalding Gray monologue, Gray's Anatomy (1996).
Schizopolis (1996) was the film ended the first chapter of his career. It was also the first evidence of his rebellious, mischievous, quirky side, and his surreal sense of humour. Soderbergh told The Believer that when he finished directing himself in Schizopolis, "I honestly thought...that I was really onto something that was going to be very, very popular. I thought that movie was going to be a hit. I thought people would go, 'This is a new thing'. I thought it was going to be bigger than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. You have to believe that while you're making it. Once I started showing it, I didn't believe it anymore.'
Schizopolis (1996) has a non-linear narrative and tells the same story from three different perspectives. Wholly improvised and shot for $400,000, the film is a surreal satire, but it's (deliberately) unclear of what. Identity? Scientology? The lack of communication in modern life? Our attempts to extract meaning from art? Soderbergh plays the hero Lester Richards, a nod to his filmmaking hero Richard Lester, whose spirit pervades the movie; he also directed, wrote, co-produced, photographed, co-composed and co-edited. It is one of his most personal films, and at the time (or even now to casual fans), it forces one to reassess what one thought one knew about the filmmaker. It's tempting to see it as an act of artistic liberation, a cleansing of the soul, and a questioning of his identity as a filmmaker, husband, father and human being. His marriage to actress Betsy Brantley (his estranged wife in the movie) had ended in 1994,; the couple have a daughter together. Soderbergh had gone his own artistic path, but it had paid no dividends apart from his own personal satisfaction. He had tried to make a more commercial film but failed. Soderbergh would eventually describe Schizopolis as being "about the breakdown of a marriage. It's very simple, in a way. It's about two people who can't communicate. It's all in the service of expressing this emotional detachment and frustration. As crazy as it gets, it's not actually an obscure movie to me." Schizopolis wasn't hated, it just wasn't widely seen, and for the most part critics weren't interested in it. It's a film I didn't like on first viewing, but I now appreciate the artistic bravery, the apparent wish to break free of constraints and simply have fun and not worry about narrative, structure and the profit margin. Its sense of humour is slyly amusing rather than hilarious. A similar thumbing-of-the-nose sense of humour is apparent in Soderbergh's later, more tightly structured and linear The Informant! (2009), a funny and entertaining film.
Soderbergh's next assignment was the intriguing revenge thriller The Limey (1999). Despite its status as a flop, the film is brilliant, and a key entry in the man's ouevre because it was an even more artistically successful melding of experimentalism and commercialism than Out of Sight. The plot - Cockney career criminal Terence Stamp comes to L.A. to avenge the death of his daughter at the hands of music promoter Peter Fonda - is secondary to the innovations beneath the text. Soderbergh skilfully uses flashbacks and flashforwards to reveal the hero's sadness, disappointment and regret of a life ill-spent and his neglect of his daughter, and the anger and will for revenge that such bittersweet memories elicit in him. The approach doesn't come across as arty or self-indulgent but unexpectedly poignant, and it subverts the genre. The plot is little more than a remake of Get Carter (1971), but Soderbergh also pays homage to films from the '60s and early '70s. Stamp's film Poor Cow (1967) supplies the flashbacks and his character's name and occupation: Wilson, thief. (He also played a supergrass apprehended by his ex-cohorts in 1984's The Hit.) Peter Fonda comes across as if his character from Easy Rider (1969) had decided to go mainstream but, despite his cyncism, still had his head in the pot-haze of 1966 to early '67. Andy Warhol repertory company member Joe Dallesandro has a small part as a hot-tempered thug. Barry Newman, who starred in the 1971 chase film Vanishing Point as a disaffected ex-cop angry at The Man, plays Fonda's henchman, and has trouble controlling his car.
Soderbergh would argue that his 'eclectic' upbringing, in which he saw many styles and genres of films, made it natural for him to go "from one genre to the next, with the same satisfaction", but the timing of Full Frontal is interesting. Was Soderbergh worried about becoming typecast as a craftsman, a Hollywood director-for-hire with famous friends who would appear in his films (at reduced fees) at the drop of a hat? Probably not. The film was likely a reaction to the wearying realities of Hollywood filmmaking - the politics, the deal-making, the endless rewriting, the star trailers, the long shoots, etc. Full Frontal was as Un-Hollywood as one could get, and gave him a chance to see who he was as a filmmaker after being embraced by Hollywood.
Full Frontal would be followed by the big-budget remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (2002). It was a worthy remake, more emotional than the original but no less haunting. Its unfortunate failure at the box-office would push the possibility of Soderbergh's experimental instincts and commercial expectations co-existing in a popular film even further into the distance.
He tried something similar in Ocean's Twelve (2004). Whilst a huge hit, the film confounded audience members who didn't want such a complex plot and a twist ending that fooled them. They likely wanted a repeat of the original. Matt Damon remarked that the only reason he returned for Ocean's Thirteen (2007) was to make up for the second film.
Ocean's Thirteen (2007) and the big-budget, two-part (and commercially unsuccessful but well-reviewed) Che (2008) were followed by a kind of companion piece to Bubble titled The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Inspired by Godard and Bergman and shot for $1.3m with a RedOne digital camera, it details a few days (leading up to the 2008 Presidential election) in the life of a high-class Manhattan call girl (real-life porn star Sasha Grey). The movie drew the usual mixed reviews accorded Soderbergh's experimental films, and the New York Post went so far as to call it 'half-assed'. (Roger Ebert, however, loved it.)
Soderbergh told The Believer: "A lot of people who write about art don't understand the importance of failure, the importance of process. Woody Allen can't leap from Annie Hall to Manhattan. He has to make Interiors in between to get to Manhattan. You've got to let him do that."
Perhaps the truth is that we the audience need to be more open-minded and supportive of his artistic choices. His experimental films have to be treated as what they are, "experiments". They are attempts to test the ground and make small steps forward that can advance his art, and the art of film in general. He has learned from his "failures" and is on a quest to make his films clearer. He wants to connect, but his way, telling The Rumpus "...the hardest thing in the world is to be good and clear when creating anything. It's the hardest thing in the world. It's really easy to be obscure and elliptical and so fucking hard to be good and clear. It breaks people. Because you don't often get encouragement to do that, to be good and clear." Soderbergh believes there is a thread that unites all his work, telling the same website: "There's probably a commonality in protagonists who feel that through sheer will they can make things turn out the way they want them to turn out.'
Paul Rowlands writes about film on his website, Money into Light. He lives in Japan, where he also teaches English. Originally from the UK, he has lived in Japan since 1999. His writing has also appeared in the James Bond journal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. On his site he covers films he believes to be misunderstood, underrated or brilliant, and interviews actors and filmmakers associated with such films.