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January 9, 2001 2:00 AM
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LETTERS: Considering Soderbergh's "Traffic"

LETTERS: Considering Soderbergh's "Traffic"



by indieWIRE reader


[EDITORS NOTE: Last week, we published a two-part interview with director
Steven Soderbergh. The following is an indieWIRE reader's reaction to
Soderbergh's new movie, "Traffic." Read the complete interview at
indieWIRE.com:
http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Soderbergh_Stev_010103.html


Dear indieWIRE,


The highly respected, award winning director Steven Soderbergh who
ushered in the indie cinema craze of the 90s with his groundbreaking
film "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1988) is a busy bee this year. Just
months after the award-winning "Erin Brokovich" makes it to video and his
second book hits stores, as he prepares to remake "Oceans-11," the 60s rat
pack extravaganza, his latest film "Traffic" already begins to clean up with
several Golden Globe nominations and an Oscar heads-up before it was even
released. I wish there was also an award for the most tedious, heavy-handed
film of the year so that I could cast my vote for "Traffic" -- maybe the
prestigious wrecking-ball-to-the-gut award. "Traffic" is very often a
long-winded, slickly produced just say no commercial that would create
embarrassing stains on Nancy Reagan's white Chanel suit.


Steven Gaghan's script pays not entirely unsuccessful lip service to the
idea of complex social issues and a further examination of potential
approaches to big problems like "the drug problem" (whatever the fuck
that is). But, in the end, "Traffic" seems to go about redemonizing a
bunch of groups [that] have been working for a really long time at getting
themselves undemonized (re: people of color, women, queers). The most
obvious example is Soderbergh's grainy, cross-processed, eye-burning
Tijuana, shot through yellow filters to represent it's dirty difference from
the antiseptic states (shot often through an unflattering, though cleansing,
blue filter). My problem is that his use of these different filters is only
consistent when south of the border, as if to say that this region is the
only one consistently, irreparably corrupt. I do not wish to attempt any
reconciliation of this kind of Othering with anything else that might go on
in the film.


Another big problem for me is that the script suggests that the only
real "safe space" in contemporary society is the cuddly space of the
traditional nuclear family a la 1950, mighty patriarch at the helm, not
in some far-off-land on an empty quest like Michael Douglas' drug czar
Robert Wakefield was when his daughter became a base-head (by the way:
can you get any more canned than that?). When the father comes home to
the family -- BIG SURPRISE -- things are ok with the wayward daughter. It's
a mess for everyone, but if we can just return return return to this
glorious bygone era, home at five, hi honey, where's my fucking dinner era
(hello! This is NOT ideal) then everything would be ok. See what divergence
from it creates? Your daughter becomes a crack whore. Does this shit sound
familiar to anybody? Well it should. We've been listening to it the entire election year.


Bringing home the valorization of the virtuous patriarchy, there's an
implied narrative punishment for Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who
discovers her husbands line of work is that of drug lord only after his
arrest, gets her bearings and then handles the situation like a true
badass, saving not only her young son from danger, but also the life of
her unborn child (Jones actually played this role pregnant). This is
probably the strongest character in the thing and the suggested ending
seems unnecessarily tragic and an awful lot like that very Hollywood
thing to do: punish the woman for her bravery. It's a fall of Eve
thing. She gains knowledge and must be disciplined for having done so.
Play that against the way the film values the patriarchy and I think
you're gonna be pissed, too. Only difference is that the misogynistic
narrative triumph over Ayala occurs off-screen, which is little difference.


Having said all of that, "Traffic" looks really cool (Soderbergh worked as
director of photography on this film as well -- nobody ever does that --
it's amazing) and the story does have its moments. The clever (if not
successful) use of color and a documentary style approach to the
unfolding of the visual narrative learns from all that Lester, "Hard
Day's Night," type stuff, not to mention the early 90s American indie
shit that Soderbergh helped create and comes off very watchable. The
helicopter shots are to-die-for, as is the way the camera will leave one
character at, for example, the border crossing and latch onto another,
Truffaut-style, heightening the drama exponentially by doing so.
There's also some great acting. Catherine Zeta Jones and Benicio Del
Toro, both deliver something like the performances of their careers.
Jones is brilliant as Helena Ayala. She is, without a doubt, the most
sympathetic and believable figure in the whole film. You're really glad
to see shit work out for her and, as I said above, I'm really pissed
about her implied fate at the end of the story, no matter how consistent
it may be with the often-lame script. Del Toro plays Javier Rodriguez,
the earnest cop from Tijuana who's just trying to get a safe baseball
field for the kids to play in at night. He faces many a moral travail
in his quest. Though that sounds boring-as-all-hell, Del Toro (who's
able to add and drop weight like nobody I've ever seen!) plays the role
with such subdued grace that we don't care how trite the character's
motivations may sound. Too bad Soderbergh can't bring the brilliant,
forward-thinking work he does with these two actors to Gahgan's uptight
script.


In the final analysis, this is one of those films that's going to make a
lot of money, inspire many stylistically, and stir up a lot of shit like
this. There are good reasons to see it, especially the bad reasons I
listed above (if giving your money to them directly bugs you, wait until
video and rent it from an indie retailer). Ultimately, it's a very
conservative story that's as slickly produced as Boygeorge Bush's
cabinet, but often hollow inside, like Boygeorge Bush's cabinet.
Having made that reference, I'll go ahead and suggest that "Traffic" is
awfully well timed socio-politically -- sexy and hip enough to get under
the wire with liberals and knotted together with enough gunplay and
those repugnant "traditional family values" to appeal [to] conservatives. I
predict this kind of stuff will continue to blossom and become more
obviously conservative as the times do, as we lunge headlong into this most
recent RAMBO age, this time for the "new republican." Please pardon my
millennial thinking, I'm a bit on the paranoid side these days. But, in the
very least, "Traffic" will give some happy television producer the
"Scarface" impetus needed to create a "Miami Vice" for the new millennium.
Anyway, I came away from Steven Soderbergh's long, preachy film feeling
annoyed and in great need of a cigarette and a bump or two of coke (just to
pick me up).


Robert Brumfield

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