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SFIFF: Steven Soderbergh Says Art Of Cinema Is Under Attack From The Studios, Decries Profit Driven Decision Making

by Sean Gillane
April 29, 2013 11:03 AM
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Steven Soderbergh, SFIFF
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

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.

Steven Soderbergh
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

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.”

"Is there anyone in the galaxy that doesn’t know that ‘Iron Man 3’ is opening on Friday?"

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.”

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  • Jarod Rebuck | May 8, 2013 3:26 PMReply


  • Scott Tatman | May 5, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Hollywood is and has always been about greed. I love movies as much as anyone, though taste are subjective. But any of us pay (now $14 in NYC) the prices charged to see movies, especially the ridiculous $20 fee for some IMax and/or 3D movies are just as guilty as the studios. Some of these guys make far too much for what they do and certainly get much more praise for their efforts. Getting paid a living wage to produce your art for a living is a wonderful thing but I can't see the justification for $20 million for actor or director x just as I can't see the justification for $200 million dollar budgets. Real indie movies used to mean $10 or 20000 or some such business. Now an "indie" studio (owned by a major studio) has a $30-40 million dollar budget. Can you imagine a young filmmaker with no ties to hollywood whatsoever raising anywhere near that for a movie? What's worse is you now have stars taking over kickstarted and rocket hub to raise millions for projects, completely pushing out unknowns simply trying to raise a couple of thousand.

    I guess the bottom line is that it's pointless talk about Hollywood being greedy in this day and age since it's been going on for years and fans are still willing to go to the theatre, pay the ever increasing prices (even for gimmicks such as 3D) for often mediocre (in my opinion) films. Plus, Hollywood is filled with family franchised actors, directors and so forth who simply go in the door because of who they know. If you named 10 random actors you'd probably find 8 of them with ties to either famous hollywood families or powerful, wealthy players within the entertainment industry (like Rooney Mara for example).

    It ceased to be true art and passion projects a long time ago.

  • Daniel Delago | May 1, 2013 9:10 AMReply

    Brutally honest speech. Since Soderbergh has gone into 'semi-retirement,' he has been telling it like it is. His frustration with the studios has been going on in Hollywood since the days of Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. The best way to fight back is to keep making good quality independent films. Popcorn movies like 'Iron Man 3' have their place during the summer months but the films that resonate with a strong artistic voice will always be the well-crafted indie.

  • Sparky | April 30, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    “If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide, then what is it for?" Well, for one, the collected works of Shakespeare were written at a time when the word genocide didn't exist, so, you know, maybe that wasn't Shakespeare's primary motivation. For Shakespeare, it was to earn a living and to put his writing talent to use. For later generations, it was for stock theatrical companies to have popular, quality material to present to an audience. I think if you're really asking yourself a ridiculous question like that, you don't have any real feeling for or commitment to art. And for him to answer it with "art is inevitable" and "cave paintings," so that he's okay with making Ocean 13, of all pictures, shows me that his question was insincere in the first place.

  • OH_OH_OH | May 1, 2013 9:14 AM


    " I can say with reasonable confidence that Soderbergh knows the value of Shakespeare's work. "

    Delighted to learn of your confidence, but all we have are Soderbergh's adolescent musings on the works Shakespeare being unable to prevent murder and starvation. And while S's concern for the Oceans' electricity bill is touching, it's hard to see how exactly that concern ends starvation and mass murder unlike, say, King Lear or Hamlet.

    "Finally if the man didn't have any commitment to Art, why would he retire from a lengthy career in film making to pursue painting?"

    On that basis, millions of other people are similar "committed" to Art, only they have to work for a living, not being multi-millionaires. Of course, there's also George Bush. So maybe you do have a point.

  • OH SPARKY | April 30, 2013 7:51 PM

    Your literal and, I will admit, well thought out response misses the entire point of the question. He wasn't asking why Shakespeare created his works or why they continue to be relevant. He was asking why any Art (using Shakespeare as an example) exists from a utilitarian perspective. What measurable benefit does society gain from it. And he never confirmed or denied whether or not he finally justified the making of Ocean's 13, he simply raised that point to signal his doubt at the excess of the endeavor and what possible benefits it could be providing others, as a further reason to question the purpose of art. I can say with reasonable confidence that Soderbergh knows the value of Shakespeare's work. Finally if the man didn't have any commitment to Art, why would he retire from a lengthy career in film making to pursue painting?

  • AMAR R SOVASHEYA | April 30, 2013 6:09 AMReply

    Its gr8 and i also want to be a part of...

  • Trevor | April 29, 2013 9:45 PMReply

    BTW: I'm grateful for the address Steven Soderbergh made.

  • Trevor | April 29, 2013 9:39 PMReply

    I blame Steven Spielberg and the invention of vhs for putting us in the toilet that we find ourselves in today.

  • Tim | April 29, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    “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."

    I'd add that this transaction is much more accurately characterized as manipulation, than as an example of free exchange. There's no doubt the general audience is in full support of it, but that's only because they aren't bothering to look beyond what's being heavily marketed to them and what's most easily available -- in other words, beyond what is being force fed to them. The analogy to the process of making foie gras is entirely appropriate.

    The second, compounding, level of this problem is that it is essentially instilling a Hollywood grammar inside the heads of audiences, and to some degree inside the heads of our young filmmakers as well. When a film doesn't fall in line with that, the first reaction is not to like it. This is arguably an even more lamentable reality.

  • Doubting_Tom | April 29, 2013 12:29 PMReply

    This is, of course, nonsense.

    The indie directors Soderbergh cites aren't making high art. Soderbergh himself, with vastly superior resources, doesn't make high art. The movies he got fired off would not have been high art, with his participation. Meanwhile, Soderbergh enjoys a level of privilege and freedom never experienced by far more accomplished artists, throughout history.

    If the man wants purity, free from commercial considerations, it's there for the taking, in traditional art forms which don't require mass-audiences to sustain production. But those art-forms are unforgiving, and the standards are unforgiving. You won't get rich or internationally famous practicing at the level Soderbergh has achieved in film.

    And it would be easy enough to set up a philanthropic film fund, if that's what he really wants to do -- he doesn't have get hired as a studio head to do it. All that's needed is to shame his colleagues Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, etc. who claim to love the medium so deeply, into funding it. What's a few million a year to these people? Absolutely nothing.

    But they apparently don't love film *that* much.

  • OH TOM | April 30, 2013 2:37 AM

    I just want to address your point concerning "pure, commercial free art forms". Isn't that exactly why he left the film business; so that he could, you know, paint?

  • Alan B | April 29, 2013 12:53 PM

    George Lucas is donating a majority of the $4 billion he received from Disney to his education program and has donated $175 million to USC, but I guess that isn't good enough.

  • chris | April 29, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Jonathan Lethem, not Levine.

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