No State of Cinema address at the SFIFF has been as hotly anticipated as this year's by Steven Soderbergh. (Listen to our podcast recording below.)
is not only because he's a prolific and beloved auteur that has worked
in every genre and budget, but because he recently announced his
retirement from filmmaking, in order to spend more time painting, making
collages, writing books, directing a new play by Scott Burns about
Columbine, as well as a stage version of "Cleopatra," and exploring
other avenues of creativity (sign up at his new website for
Of course, Soderbergh allowed as how he was
working on a 12-hour miniseries of John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor,"
so maybe he has a different idea of just what retiring from filmmaking
constitutes than we did. Thankfully.
was introduced by Executive Director Ted Hope, who said that the people
you meet have a lot to do with the life that you lead, and that in
addition to the film industry being filled with narcissistic types,
there were also other types of people. He cited calling Soderbergh cold
when he was trying to put together a film on a Ron Vawter theater piece
and Soderbergh immediately not only said what can I do to make it
happen, but showed up to be in the audience during the filming.
Hope told us that Soderbergh had requested no photography, video, or
recording -- "respect his privacy" -- the man himself strode out
confidently, dressed in a sharp dark grey suit, a lavender shirt, a
darker lavender tie, and his trademark dark-framed glasses. After
taking a swig of water, he began his rapid-fire talk, glancing at a
script from time to time. It was as assured as a stand-up comic's
routine -- and sometimes as amusing. He also left room for
improvisation, digressions, and parenthetical remarks. The following is
my impression of his talk, from scribbled notes that left my wrist
few months ago, he said, on a Jet Blue Flight from JFK to Burbank --he'd spent $60 for the extra legroom, and he was getting ready to relax
when he noticed that the guy next to him had downloaded
action-adventure movies on his laptop. But the guy was just watching
the action sequences and fast-forwarding through the dialogue
sequences. 5 1/2 hours of mayhem porn! A wave went over him, a sense
of "Am I going insane or is the world going insane or both?" He's
getting old, he's in the back 9, he's older than Elvis. Maybe he should
ask his 22-year-old daughter what she thinks.
people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of "The Sopranos" than a woman being stoned to death, what's happening? People think our
government can stage a terrorism attack, and this when we know there are
no secrets today.
was reminded of the experiment that proved if you're in a car and going
more than 20 miles an hour, you can't distinguish a person's features.
Which is an odd experiment in itself. And that was an example of his
circular thinking on that flight. He cited Douglas Rushkoff's "Present
that's what he's suffering from. There's so much information coming
in from so many sources that it doesn't make a story -- there's a
constant distracting hum.
What is art for? If the collective work of Shakespeare can't prevent
genocide, what's the point? On "Oceans 13," the casino set used $60,000
worth of electricity every week. What about all the resources? What
about even the carbon footprint to get him here today?
finally decided art is inevitable -- from the paintings on a wall of a
cave 30,000 years ago to today. We are a species driven by narrative.
We need to tell stories. At the very best, you can enter the
consciousness of another being, and you are altered in some way. The
experience is transformative. Art is also about problem solving, art is
an elegant problem-solving model.
now we arrive at the subject of this rant. There is a difference
between movies and cinema. In cinema, there's a specificity of vision,
an approach in which everything matters. If this filmmaker didn't do
it, it wouldn't exist. An acclaimed movie may not qualify as cinema.
And cinema could be an unwatchable piece of shit. But it's not made by a
likes technology. He likes things that are smaller, lighter, faster.
He cites a quote by Orson Welles: "I don't want to wait on the tool. I
want the tool to wait on me."
is under assault by the studios, with the full support of the
audience. There's a lack of leadership. This is very subjective, and
there's an exception to everything he's going to say (that's so you
won't think he's talking about you).
have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer executives that love and/or
know movies. It's as if he was in a meeting with an engineer and told
him how to build his car. Studios take into consideration the foreign
market, which leads to spectacle, homogenized and simplified. Narrative
complexity and ambiguity go out the window.
he was at a test screening for "Contagion" and a guy stood up and said,
"I hate the Jude Law character, I don't know if he's a hero or an
asshole," he thought "there it goes."
studios run the numbers. It's a fungible algorithm (aside: he doesn't
want to be shot on the streets [for talking about this]. He really likes
his cats). For a start, it costs $30,000,000 to release a film, and
$30,000,000 more to release it overseas. Therefore it has to gross
$120,000,000 at least (because exhibitors keep 50%). That's why the
Liberace movie ["Before the Candelabra," soon to show on HBO after
premiering at Cannes] didn't happen. Even if they only needed
$5,000,000 to make it, it would still cost $60,000,000 to release it.
And the studios thought it was too special a subject.
can you reduce the cost of putting a movie out? There's testing.
"Magic Mike" opened at $38,000,000. Tracking said it would do
$19,000,000. That was 100% wrong. How does that happen? It mystifies
him. He thinks you don't have to spend as much on the sequel. Does
anybody not know that "Ironman 3" is opening on Friday? Yet studios spend
more on opening the sequel.
because of testing that everything interesting gets tossed out --
posters, trailers. But we don't see things in isolation. Maybe a
different poster would stand out if seen in a lineup of many.