Since the announcement of Steven Soderbergh as this year's speaker at the San Francisco International Film Festival's State of Cinema address, many have been waiting in feverish anticipation to hear the famed director talk about the industry he is now leaving behind, following news that his latest film "Side Effects" would potentially be his last theatrical release. With Soderbergh retiring in favor of pursuing artistic pursuits in painting, writing, and theatre, many wondered if he would take the opportunity to finally highlight what is pushing him out of the industry in the first place, and while he never explicitly referenced his upcoming departure, he did provide ample proof of his loss of faith in the studio-driven industry.
After a short introduction from Ted Hope, Soderbergh began his talk with an anecdote from an experience on a recent Jet Blue flight, before diving into his impassioned rant on the differences between movies and cinema, as well as the studio forces taking film in one direction while artists attempt to take it in the other. While it was requested that no photographs, audio, or video be taken at the event, the speech quickly surfaced online, and we now have a transcript of Soderbergh's full 36-minute talk.
For full audio from the event, check out Thompson On Hollywood's recent coverage of the event here, and look below for a full transcript of the talk:
A few months ago I was on this Jet Blue flight from New York to Burbank. And I like Jet Blue, not just because of the prices. They have this terminal at JFK that I think is really nice. I think it might be the nicest terminal in the country although if you want to see some good airports you've got to go to a major city in another part of the world like Europe or Asia. They're amazing airports. They're incredible and quiet. You're not being assaulted by all this music. I don't know when it was decided we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go. I was just in the bathroom upstairs and there was a soundtrack accompanying me at the urinal, I don't understand. So I'm getting comfortable in my seat. I spent the extra $60 to get the extra leg room so I'm trying to get comfortable and we make altitude. And there's a guy on the other side of the aisle in front of me and he pulls out his iPad to start watching stuff. I'm curious to see what he's going to watch – he's a white guy in his mid-30s. And I begin to realize what he's done is he's loaded in half a dozen action sort of extravaganzas and he's watching each of the action sequences – he's skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. This guy's flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.
I get this wave of - not panic, it's not like my heart started fluttering - but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane - or both? Now I start with the circular thinking again. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's generational and I'm getting old, I'm in the back nine professionally. And maybe my 22-year-old daughter doesn't feel this way at all. I should ask her. But then I think, no: Something is going on – something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there's something wrong. We have people walking around who think the government stages these terrorist attacks. And anybody with a brain bigger than a walnut knows that our government is not nearly competent enough to stage a terrorist attack and then keep it a secret because, as we know, in this day and age you cannot keep a secret.
So I think that life is sort of like a drumbeat. It has a rhythm and sometimes it's fast and sometimes it's slower, and maybe what's happening is this drumbeat is just accelerating and it's gotten to the point where I can't hear between the beats anymore and it's just a hum. Again, I thought maybe that's my generation, every generation feels that way, maybe I should ask my daughter. But then I remember somebody did this experiment where if you're in a car and you're going more than 20 miles an hour it becomes impossible to distinguish individual features on a human being's face. I thought that's another good analogy for this sensation. It's a very weird experiment for someone to come up with.
So that was my Jet Blue flight. But the circular thinking didn't really stop and I got my hands on a book by a guy named Douglas Rushkoff and I realized I'm suffering from something called Present Shock which is the name of his book. This quote made me feel a little less insane: “When there's no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what's going on? There's no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There's no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we've even completed an action. And there's so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there's simply no way to trace the plot over time”. That's the hum I'm talking about. And I mention this because I think it's having an effect on all of us. I think it's having an effect on our culture, and I think it's having an effect on movies. How they're made, how they're sold, how they perform.
But before we talk about movies we should talk about art in general, if that's possible. Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can't prevent genocide then really, what is it for? Shouldn't we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations? When we didOcean's Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that? Do you justify that by saying, the people who could've had that electricity are going to watch the movie for two hours and be entertained – except they probably can't, because they don't have any electricity, because we used it. Then I think, what about all the resources spent on all the pieces of entertainment? What about the carbon footprint of getting me here? Then I think, why are you even thinking that way and worrying about how many miles per gallon my car gets, when we have NASCAR, and monster truck pulls on TV? So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it's because we are a species that's driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And 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 – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you're experiencing that piece of art, you're not alone. You're connected to the arts. So I feel like that can't be too bad.
Art is also about problem solving, and it's obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.
Now we finally arrive at the subject of this rant, which is the state of cinema. First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I'd say Fuck yeah! The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that's made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn't have anything to do with where the screen is, if it's in your bedroom, 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 in which 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 that if this filmmaker didn't do it, it either wouldn't exist at all, or it wouldn't exist in anything like this form.