Saturday afternoon at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh presented an audience his take on the current state of cinema. The State of Cinema Address is an annual event held at the festival that allows a speaker (not always a filmmaker, last year the festival saw author Jonathan Lethem give his take on the subject) to lay down their thoughts on contemporary film. This year the San Francisco Film Society, the organization that runs the festival, was able to land the prolific Steven Soderbergh at a particularly interesting time in his career: the beginning of a hiatus from directing.
In order to speak on the topic of cinema, Soderbergh expressed a need to first define what the word cinema even means to him, but not before discussing the disconnect in culture and the acceleration of noise that’s affecting it. “When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of the surprise, than some woman being stoned to death, there’s there’s something,” he said, referencing both, the conclusion of “The Dark Knight Rises” and recent atrocities in Africa.
He explained, circuitously, that cinema’s a difficult procedure at this point in time as the modern experience flashes by at a frequency so high that it results in an ambiguous hum as opposed to identifiable cultural beats. Sharing an anecdote about a flight to L.A. where a nearby passenger stacked up an iPad with nothing but action sequences from popular movies of the last fews year free from their narrative, the filmmaker said this practice left him depressed and dumbfounded.
He confronted the issue, quoting Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock,” which he said articulated his recent cultural sensation. “There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result and instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming at once - and from so many different sources- that there’s simply no way to trace the thought over time.”
He continued on to define his idea of cinema, speaking with an accelerating enthusiasm, asking, “Is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on ‘Team America’ I would say, 'Fuck Yeah!’ The simplest way I could describe it is, a movie is something you see and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the capture medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, whether it’s in your bedroom or on your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial; it could be something on Youtube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach where everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee and it isn’t made by a company and it isn’t made by the audience. It means if the filmmaker didn’t do it, it wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist anything like this form.”
Soderbergh stopped short of describing himself as an author of cinema; in fact, whenever he used his own films as touchstones during the talk it was primarily to relate firsthand financial facts that he could confidently stand behind, but it felt like more of an attempt to find an objective platform to speak from than out of humility. He did, however, log a good number of minutes talking about discovering how to come to terms with the unnecessary extravagances of his profession.
He admitted to having struggled with the thought of film, and art in general, being wasteful in a world where there is real suffering going on, asking himself, “If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide, then what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending this time and resources sort of alleviating the suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and the plays and art installations?” Soderbergh recalled being startled during “Ocean’s 13” at the information that the electricity cost for keeping their casino set operating ran the production $60,000 a week. After much internal debate on the topic he eventually landed on a thought that granted him permission to continue, despite his immediate intellectual objections:
“What I finally decided was: art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of the cave in France 30,000 years ago. And it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. And art is storytelling; we need to tell stories. We need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information to try and make sense out of all this chaos. Sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being and literally seeing the world the way they see it.”
Having described what cinema means to him, he went on to explain the troubles that it currently faces, saying, “The problem is that cinema, as I define it and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and lack of vision and a lack of leadership you’ve got a trajectory that is pretty difficult to reverse.” While he described the war on cinema, he also admitted that it is an attack of indifference, not intention, explaining, “The idea of cinema as I’m defining it is not on the radar of the studios, it’s not a conversation that anybody’s having, it’s not a word you’d ever want to use in a meeting.”