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Retrospective: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh

Features
by The Playlist Staff
February 5, 2013 1:03 PM
8 Comments
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Soderbergh 6

If there are two things that mark out the career of director Steven Soderbergh, they arguably could be described as a willingness to fail and a constant routine of creative calisthenics. A process-rather-than-results person, he has, over the last 24 years, been one of the most daring, unpredictable and restless filmmakers around. His output has run the gamut of everything from indie relationship drama to star-packed heist movies, from experimental, micro-budget thrillers to philosophical sci-fi, and from melancholy coming-of-age to kick-ass action.

First arriving as a hotly tipped new thing, one of the first major Sundance success stories, Soderbergh spent his first decade delivering poorly-received follow-ups to "sex, lies, and videotape." And yet, just when many had concluded he was a one-hit wonder, he creatively revived himself with a self-funded indie before making a critically-acclaimed studio picture, which led to a remarkable run of success culminating in a Best Director Oscar in 2001, a particularly impressive achievement given that he was competing against himself in the category (nominated for "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," and winning the statue for the former).

Things have been up and down in the last decade (though the films are rarely dull), but Soderbergh had one final trick up his sleeve: a few years back, he started hinted that he was retiring -- or at least taking an extended hiatus -- from filmmaking. And after a prolific last few years, that's set to take place after his two 2013 films -- "Side Effects" and the HBO Liberace biopic "Behind The Candelabra" -- have been released.

Only time will tell if posterity considers them a fitting grace note to his career (this part of it, anyway), but whatever the verdict he's been behind one of the most fascinating and extraordinary filmographies in recent memory. And with the director recently turned 50 (one forgets that he was only 26 when "sex, lies and videotape" won the Palme d'Or back in 1989), and the release of "Side Effects" this week (our review is here), we thought it was a good time to take a look at his career to date. And once you've taken a spin through our takes on this diverse back catalogue, if you're still hankering for more Soderbergh, why not check out our extensive interview with the filmmaker from this time last year right here

sex lies and videotape
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)
Rare are the films that truly exemplify cinematic eras or movements, but rarer still are films that define them. Steven Soderbergh’s debut, the self-consciously navel-gazey but totally brilliant “Sex, Lies and Videotape” is one of those rarest of cases. Winning the Palme D’or at Cannes in 1989 (over Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery TrainJane Campion’s “Sweetie” and Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies,” among other illustrious competition), its success shone a bright, trailblazing light at the dawn of the independent filmmaking movement of the 1990s, and helped bring a certain H. Weinstein of Miramax bellowing onto a scene he’s dominated ever since. And all this for a low-budget talky adult drama about a group of white, middle-class late-20/early-30-somethings and their sexual dysfunctions. Yet the tightness of the film’s premise is the masterstroke, meaning Soderbergh’s writing and the performances he coaxes from his small ensemble (all of whom turn in career-best work) take center stage. In fact, it’s an early mark of the director’s characterising intelligence that he designed the film so craftily: he didn’t just write a story he’d be able to make with the limited resources available to him, he wrote one that thematically demanded to be made in just such an unadorned, lo-fi manner; the fuzzy, flat-lit aesthetic feels less like a budget-dictated compromise than a stylistic decision. The story is simple: sexually maladjusted Graham (James Spader) drifts into the lives of John, his wife Ann, and her sister Cynthia, with whom John is having an affair (Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo, respectively), and Graham’s fetish for taping women talking about sex gradually uncovers the sewn-up secrets each has been keeping from the other, and from themselves. But what saves it from being potboilery, or salacious simply for the sake of it, is the writing: it’s often very witty, sometimes outright funny and, by its close, surprisingly touching for a film about brittle sexual facades. In fact, (much to the disappointment of flesh hounds attracted by the splashiness of the title) themes of voyeurism aside, we’d argue that it’s really a cerebral love story, detailing a strange but powerful and redemptive connection made between unlikely lovers, through the unlikeliest of means. Soderbergh would make bigger films, glossier films, more ambitious films and more complex films, but over the course of an exemplary, varied and eclectic career, we’re not sure he ever made a truer one. [A-]

Kafka
"Kafka" (1991)
With an initial success like "Sex, Lies and Videotape," Soderbergh was always at risk of attracting tall poppy syndrome with his second outing, and by making "Kafka" -- an offbeat, expressionistic psychological thriller/horror/noir, based loosely on the life and work of the great Czech writer -- he seemed to be actively courting attackers. They came in droves, the film receiving negative notices and few audiences (it's still never been available on DVD in the U.S.), but we'd argue that it's actually the director's most undersung work, even if critics at the time were baffled by a piece of work that falls somewhere between Fritz Lang and David Cronenberg. Lem Dobbs' script focuses on 'Mr. Kafka' (Jeremy Irons), an unprepossessing office drone who, after the disappearance of a colleague, comes across an anarchist terrorist group, and the secret society they fight against. It's undoubtedly something that works better the more familiar you are with Kafka's works ("The Trial" and "The Castle" are the key ones to bone up on), and probably suffered at the time due to relative proximity to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," which owed a huge debt to the writer. But "Kafka" is very much its own beast, from the gorgeous German Expressionist-ish black-and-white photography (anticipating the equally unsuccessful "The Good German" in some ways) from 'Sex, Lies' DoP Walt Lloyd -- the two never worked together again, and Lloyd's been working exclusively in TV for the last 15 years or so -- to the sci-fi/horror tinges and fine supporting performances from character actor greats like Alec Guinness, Joel Grey and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It's so odd, and so unfriendly to general audiences, that it's not surprising that it failed to connect. But as the 'lost' Soderbergh film, it's a very strong and idiosyncratic piece of work, and one that the directors' fans should seek out without delay. [B+]


King Of The Hill
“King of the Hill” (1993)
If “Sex, Lies and Videotape” was Soderbergh’s Nevermind, the next three films were akin to Blind Melon records after No Rain; the audience just wasn’t responding in the same way and his sophomore slump lasted about three movies. The director’s always marched to the beat of his own tune and that’s probably never been more apparent in the early ‘90s. While “Reservoir Dogs” was beginning to build the Tarantino brand in 1992, Robert Rodriguez had just delivered the ultra-kinetic “El Mariachi” and filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch were exploring films that tapped into this new slacker/angst Gen-X/disenfranchised energy, Soderbergh was moving upstream and away from the zeitgeist, and tackling a very not-of-the-moment Depression-era coming-of-age story. Based on A. E. Hotchner’s evocative memoir childhood hardships in the 1930s, the film centers on a boy struggling to survive on his own in a St. Louis hotel while his mother is sent to a sanatorium, his absentee father tries to make money as a traveling salesman and he has to parent and feed his younger brother who is soon torn away with him to live with relatives. While ignored because of its out-of-step milieu, “King Of The Hill” is a moving and subtle character-driven tale that’s deeply touching and empathetic. Watching this boy (one of the earliest feature performances by Jesse Bradford) scrape by and the cruel and bleak adversities he must face each day is particularly affecting. Perhaps a non-named cast didn't help either. While Adrien Brody, Karen Allen and Elizabeth McGovern have supporting roles (plus brief appearances by Lauryn Hill and a very young Katherine Heigl), the core family, Bradford, Jeroen Krabbé, Lisa Eichhorn and Cameron Boyd still to this day aren't exactly household names. While it was entered in the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and received generally decent reviews, the film barely grossed $1 million in the U.S. [B]


The Underneath
“The Underneath” (1995)
A messy and impenetrable oddity, even by the admittedly looser Soderbergh standards, "The Underneath" was the director's first foray into straight-up film noir and is worth noting today more as a testing ground for a number of stylistic flourishes the director would refine in later films than a solid film that stands on its own. Apparently it was hell on the filmmaker too, who saw the film as a commercial and creative letdown and, in a fit that would mirror the post-"Che"-pocalypse, followed it up with the insane and insanely personal "Schizopolis" as a way to cleanse himself from the all-around experience of "The Underneath." The movie itself is pretty simple – a former criminal and gambling addict (Peter Gallagher) returns to his hometown of Austin, Texas, for his mother's wedding. While in town, he tries to reconnect with his old flame (a very clear femme fatale played by the always-enchanting Alison Elliott), stay clear of various villains (led by William Fichtner) who want him dead, and plot an armored car robbery. There are a number of Soderberghian touches – there's the chronologically twisty structure, a collection of harsh filters, and a bunch of terse, tough-guy characters less interested in emotionality than breaking off paperback novel one-liners – but these seem embryonic and film school-y, a director working out the kinks in his own genius. Instead of being cool and connective, the editing feels unfocused and confusing, and the central heist lacks dramatic tension or symbolic heft. It's a testament to its lack of resonance that the only home video version available (on DVD) isn't enough anamorphic widescreen. But hey, at least it's on DVD. [C-]

Gray's Anatomy
“Gray’s Anatomy” (1996)/”And Everything Is Going Fine” (2010)
Tragically, writer/storyteller Spalding Gray passed away in 2004, a suspected suicide after lifelong clinical depression and a terrible 2001 car crash. But he'd long before been captured on screen, thanks to Jonathan Demme's "Swimming to Cambodia," Nick Broomfield's "Monster In a Box," Thomas Schlamme's "Terrors Of Pleasure" and a pair of films, the second a posthumous tribute, by Soderbergh. The first, 1996's "Gray's Anatomy" (which premiered at TIFF in 1996, alongside "Schizopolis") is perhaps the best of Gray's cinematic works, which sees him delving into the world of alternative medicine after being told he needs a minor eye operation. Soderbergh's eye as an editor has helped turn the original monologue into something tighter and leaner, with Gray performing it with unbelievable energy, wit and wisdom. And while Soderbergh understandably dresses up a film that involves one person in a room with a certain amount of bells and whistles, he walks the line nicely, never distracting from the core of the piece. In his second documentary about the monologuist, 2010's "And Everything Is Going Fine," the filmmaker lets Gray do all the talking, literally (even his director credit pops up just once at the end and that’s it). The doc is made up entirely of select monologue cuts (and a few TV interviews) that illuminate the man, his anxieties, preoccupations and fascinations about exploring the world and human nature through his own experiences. Particularly affecting and chilling is Gray discussing his obsession with suicide fantasies in the 1990s, and how he was able to vicariously live them out when Soderbergh (unaware of such fascination) offered him a small part in “King Of The Hill,” as a character filled with regret who later commits suicide. Perhaps “And Everything Is Going Fine” is only for Gray and/or Soderbergh completists, but it's still a powerful snapshot of the discourse and sermons which enabled Gray (and his audiences) to have a semblance of sanity in this discomfiting world. [B+]/[B]

Schizopolis
“Schizopolis” (1996)
More self-aware (and self-critical) them most of his contemporaries, twice in his career Steven Soderbergh has attempted to recharge his creative batteries in a do-or-die manner. The second endeavor won’t technically begin until the spring of 2013 when his final HBO film, “Behind The Candelabra” is released and his promotional duties are complete. Retirement/sabbatical is his latest stab at a forced, creative shift. In the mid ‘90s, his first crack at circulating the creative juices was “Schizopolis,” a film he’s described as a self-imposed "wake-up call to himself."  After “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” three films followed that the filmmaker wasn’t entirely happy with (and none were successful either). “Schizopolis,” a maddening, form-eroding free-for-all was the would-be cure. An experimental, non-linear narrative broken into three acts, Soderbergh (in his first and only starring role) plays a disillusioned office drone and speech writer for a New Age-y guru modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, in a the film that tells the same story from three different perspectives, with the filmmaker even playing his own doppelganger. Deranged and nonsensical, there’s definitely an air of purging frustrations and anger into one wild vomit of creative ideas that challenge all the structures of film conventions. There’s even a wry warning at the beginning: "In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours.” Released in 2000, fans of the movie or the director’s history should also read, “Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw,” which is kind of a companion piece to “Schizopolis” and part journal about his creative breakdown/breakthrough. The book also features reflections from his mentor Richard Lester, and while “A Hard Day’s Night” is nowhere near madcap as “Schizopolis,”  there’s definitely a kindred spirit vibe that is passed down within. [Generic Grade Unavailable At This Time]

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8 Comments

  • Clay Castille | February 6, 2013 8:40 AMReply

    I for one think Ocean's 12 is underrated. I'm not calling it Top Tier Soderbergh, not at all, but within the context of the series, I'm happy to see the Playlist give it even this much love. Yes, the seams begin to show, but any phony feelings are purged by the magnetism of the cast. I remember reading interviews with Pitt and Damon during filming and it didn't sound pressured at all (for better and for worse). They spent a lot of time at Clooney's home on Lake Cuomo, boating, swimming, etc. Having a blast. The chemistry shows on screen and in my eyes makes it the most honest of the Ocean's films. It is the only one of the three that comes close to acknowledging what they are, a one big 2 hour long A-list wankfest. Forget 13 with its earthquake machine, a bizarrely bed-ridden Elliot Gould and Matt Damon's fake nose. 12 was the cast and Soderbergh at their loosest and wildest without descending into parody (and also saccharine nostalgia). A strange, kooky meta-movie in which our world's biggest movie stars weren't just paid to look like they're having a blast with each other, it's up on the screen, the heist is on all of us.

  • Stephen B | February 6, 2013 11:36 AM

    Agreed. It's the most rewatchable for me because it's fun. It reminds me of a '60s film like Gambit. There's a few things that don't work, but overall it's Soderbergh throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks, which is what this kind of movie should be. Ocean's 13 played it too safe for my taste.

  • Richard313 | February 5, 2013 10:01 PMReply

    It should also be said, Soderbergh provides some of best director commentaries ever on his films. Each one is a master class in filmmaking. Its a shame we did not get commentaries on Contagion or Mike.

  • Glass | February 5, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    Holyshit!! Awesome retrospective. That's a shitload of work, guys. Soderbergh will always be one of my favorite directors, and I'm really glad he's retiring, in a weird way. I'd rather he stop now instead of making the work of an obviously bored artist. So happy he's on twitter now, too.

  • rodie | February 5, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Great summary of Soderbergh's career. I'll just add that anyone who hasn't seen Schizopolis, do so now. There's a great Criterion version. It's such a hilarious movie. Incredibly low budget, shot completely in Baton Rouge. If someone like Bill Murray had starred in the film, instead of Soderbergh himself, then it would be a cult classic today! To us Soderbergh fans, it still is. Thank you Playlist.

  • jp | February 5, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Still think Matt Damon's turn in The Informant is his finest and one of my favorite performances of recent memory.

  • Stephen B | February 5, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    Although no DoP is credited, Schizopolis was Soderbergh's first time serving as cinematographer.

    The Underneath has a couple of great scenes, especially the sequence with the is-he-or-isn't-he? hit man in the hospital room. Also think Haywire is better than a C+, but everything else is pretty dead-on.

  • Damian | February 5, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    Ellen Barkin is in Ocean's Thirteen, not Burstyn...

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