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."
This attitude frustrates some critics and fans and has been a source of some personal difficulty for the director. Soderbergh's commercial films have made money, earned critical respect and won awards. I always compare his Hollywood features, or at least the best of them, to the amazing work done by John Schlesinger on Midnight Cowboy (1969). Like Schlesinger, Soderbergh is no hack. The man is a brilliant director of Hollywood films, bringing experimental style and techniques to his movies that add richness, class, emotion and taste. His intrinsic understanding of what Ocean's Eleven could be is what turned it into the crowd-pleaser that it became; he talked of Jaws (1975) and Ghostbuster (1984) being the models for that 2001 hit, and he brought out the best in his large cast. His decision to film the separate storylines in Traffic using different filters and film stock led some critics to call the movie schematic, but it made a potentially confusing story easy to follow and compelling. (Compare Traffic to the similarly plotted but very confusing 2005 film Syriana, which was directed by Oscar-winning Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, but had an unvarying visual style.) A career built exclusively on the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's films would satisfy most directors.
But over the decades Soderbergh has built a parallel career of small-scale, experimental films which, whilst always interesting, are always flawed and rarely, to be honest, accomplished. They all have the air of needing to be made to satisfy some personal quirk or to test new technology. In a word, they are 'experimental'. And Hollywood doesn't understand 'experimental'. It's a results-based town.
Such distinctions frustrate Soderbergh because he doesn't see himself as an art house director who compromises himself every time he makes a commercial feature, nor as a mainstream Hollywood director who makes a bit of art on the side. He's a total filmmaker who writes or cowrites, directs and produces his movies and often shoots and edits them as well (under pseudonyms). He wants a cinema that can be both experimental and commercial. And if he does continue to make movies (in 2010, he talked about plans to quit film for painting), his challenge will be to find ideas that interest both him and a large audience – a lesson that he learned during the first decade of his career.
When Soderbergh, at the age of 26, won the Palme d`Or at Cannes (the youngest to ever do so) for Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), he joked, "It's all downhill from here." And commercially at least, until Out of Sight almost a decade later, it was. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a phenomenon – it revitalised the independent filmmaking community and briefly made it seem as though "indie" films could crossover to the mainstream with ease. While other independent filmmakers flourished in his wake, Soderbergh stood his ground and went his own way, making films that unfortunately didn't interest many critics and failed to cross over. As Soderbergh told The Telegraph about his commercial and critical disappointments, '…they failed because the ideas were too narrow. Not enough people were interested in the ideas."
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.
Schizopolis has since become a cult film and was included in The Criterion Collection, but it did nothing for Soderbergh's career, and its US gross was only $10,500. The offer to direct George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight must have seemed a strange prospect to him, but it set him on the road to commercial and critical recovery and gave him a new agenda: to make mainstream films, but to bend their structure, play with their style, and tinker with their tone; in short, to make films that both he wanted to make and that audiences would appreciate. Out of Sight's nonlinear narrative is probably what held it back from being more than a modest hit. But it may also be what made it seem so fresh at the time (attracting the attention of Hollywood producers previously disinterested in him), and is surely one of the reasons it holds up so well.
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.
The Limey was followed by three critically acclaimed, commercially successful movies in a row: Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven. He followed this run of movies with Full Frontal (2002), his first fully-fledged experimental piece since Schizopolis and likewise a movie that confounded critics and barely made a dent at the box-office. I didn't enjoy it at the time, finding it tedious, self-indulgent and pretentious. But my second time was a different experience. It's not a serious film, but a lark in the spirit of some of Godard's work, all about the artificiality of the Hollywood or L.A. life, and its sense of humour is subtle but playful. Like Schizopolis, it's an opportunity to flex the muscles and act on the impulses that commercial filmmaking doesn't require, and to refocus and replenish energy. As great as his previous three films were, Soderbergh had had to work hard to make them his own – proving his worth as a filmmaker able to tackle any project – and Full Frontal was a film just for himself: a freewheeling, French New Wave-inspired comedy docudrama, shot in a month on digital video for only $2m. I feel embarassed that I sat on my first viewing attempting to compare it with his previous three films. it's not aimed at same audience. One shouldn't look for the qualities found in his commercial work in his experimental work because they are not there. His commercial films have star performances and feel professionally and stylishly made. His experimental films tend to be shot on digital formats, feature non-professional actors, and have a lo-fi, off-the-cuff feel.
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.
Twelve was followed by a third experimental venture: Bubble (2005). It was again low-budget ($1.6m), filmed without a script (just an outline by his Full Frontal collaborator Coleman Hough) and with Soderbergh working in various capacities (director, producer, cinematographer, editor). The film was shot on HD video, and was controversially simultaneously released in cinemas and on cable/ satellite network HDNet Movies. The DVD followed a few days later. Only 73 minutes in length, the thriller tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged factory worker whose infatuation with a much younger co-worker has deadly consequences. The actors in the film were not professional actors but simply people Soderbergh had chosen from areas of West Virginia and Ohio. If anything, with his experimental features he was getting further and further away from the films that had made his reputation, and many saw him as being deliberately obscure and self-indulgent.
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.'
Soderbergh's latest releases, Contagion and Haywire, prove he's a remarkably versatile, resourceful filmmaker who is still trying to fuse the two strands of his cinematic personality into a coherent whole. Haywire is a low-budget action thriller that has found critical acclaim and proves that the aesthetics, practices and lessons learned from his experimental films can be applied to a popular genre with strong results. Soderbergh's medical thriller/ disaster movie Contagion (2011), released only four months earlier, was a mainstream blockbuster with a similarly restless sensibility, and is a culmination of lessons learned and skills honed. It's globetrotting, and has many inter-connected storylines and a lot of information and allusions to impart, but like Haywire star Gina Carano, it's lean, direct, and packs a hell of a punch. It's an experimental in its digital, raw, docu-style, but the approach fits the essence of its reality-based story, and helps the audience accept mega-stars (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow) as real people.
He is a uniquely interesting and challenging filmmaker who time and again subverts our expectations. I may not always like the films he makes, but I understand his need to make them. We have to look at the bigger picture and see that whilst Godard had two careers with a clear chronological split in the middle, Soderbergh has two careers running parallel, but they are coming from the same adventurous spirit, and both are essential to understanding his artistic sensibility. If he does indeed retire to take up painting, it will be our loss.
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.