Writer, director, cinematographer, editor, producer (lets gloss over his actor credits); since Sex Lies and Videotape was released in 1989 Steven Soderbergh has been making interesting films that are quietly celebrated. I say quietly because for some reason Soderbergh never seems to feature in people’s favourite lists in the way that say Scott, Tarantino, Coppola or Scorsese do. Perhaps his ability to straddle indie, art-house and commercial has something to do with it? Perhaps it is his constant switching between genres? (Some more successfully than others.) And yet between 1998 and 2002 with Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Erin Brokovich, Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris I believe he had a run of perfect films – and even if you disagree with me in regards to their perfection you may be able to agree that it was a bloody good run of films that spanned genre’s as diverse as revenge thriller, drug trafficking drama, true life biopic, Heist and sci-fi.
We at Mostly Film believe it is time to shout a little about Soderbergh. Later this year he returns to cinema screens with Logan Lucky, after a partially self-imposed break/retirement/sabbatical since 2013 when he made “Behind the Candelabra” as a TV movie (he claims studio’s wouldn’t stump up the budget because it was too gay), aside, that is, from his work on TV series ‘The Knick’. From the trailer Logan Lucky looks like an early Cohen Brother’s comedy and reunites the Director with Channing Tatum, who starred in his last commercial success Magic Mike. Sadly we haven’t seen it yet, so we thought we would look back and pick out 5 Soderbergh movies that we think are worthy of your viewing time and encourage you all to watch or rewatch his films and celebrate one of the more understated talents working in film and TV today.
Sex lies and videotape (1989): Writer, Director, Editor
Sex Lies and Videotape (SLVT) was Soderbergh’s first film released in 1989. I was 13 at the time and have no memory of the impact that it had on release, but as it won a Palme d’Or at Cannes it was clearly more impactful than the low budget relationship drama ever expected it might be. By the time I saw it, in my late teens at university, it was teetering on the edge of cult (which I would argue is where it remains), a rare beast, the romantic film that men and women watched; well men and women who liked art house cinema.
SLVT had a profound effect on me. After years of being fed films where the women had little more to do than define the men around them, and in the romantic films of the time (mid 90s) the women were almost always unreal and regardless of age defined by their need for romance; without a man they were nothing. I won’t claim to not enjoying those films, I did and I do, but they were never more than fairy tales and SLVT was anything but.
IMDB describes SLVT as being about a “sexually repressed woman whose husband is having an affair with her sister. The arrival of a stranger with a rather unusual fetish changes everything.” Perhaps, but the only characters who are sexually dysfunctional in this film are the men; and that is one of the reasons that it is and was so refreshing. The two males in the film – James Spader as Graham Dalton and Peter Gallagher as John Mullany – are defined by sex; John through his desire to always have it and Graham through his apparently inability to and both by their constant obsession with it. Both men spend most of their time in the film discussing sex (indeed even the male therapist wishes to speak about sex).
The sisters meanwhile judge themselves in relation to each other and are trapped in different ways. Andie MacDowell, who plays Ann Bishop Mullany, is perfectly cast as the beautiful, repressed, bored, frightened housewife in her late twenties/early thirties and suffocating and trapped in what on the face of it appears a perfect life. Meanwhile her more outgoing sister has freedom – represented here by work, her own home, her artwork and her sexuality – but is trapped by her own need to forever judge herself against her sister; “Do you think I am as pretty as her?” she asks Graham, “I think you are different.” He replies. And in this simple truth he opens the cage door.
Rarely do you find films where the women dictate the narrative in the way that they do here. In SLVT it is the women who call the shots, because it is the women who can forgive, love, judge and grant access to themselves. The men, in contrast, are weak – Graham is stunted by his erectile dysfunctionality and John by his compulsion to lie, to save face, to cheat. And this sense that it is the women who have the power is something of a theme in Soderbergh films, unexpected from a male director/writer/cinematographer, but from a woman’s perspective I can say that it makes his films uniquely appealing even when they’re ostensibly about men. Indeed machismo is something Soderbergh has little interest in. Even when his male characters are all about masculinity – Magic Mike – muscles may be evident but it is the emotional connections that count.
Soderbergh was not cinematographer on SLVT, although he has been on many of his films, which is unusual for a director at his level. When I saw it back in the early 90’s on video it felt so perfectly attuned to the film’s title. The colours are bleached out by the sun. The characters sweat. In one memorable scene it switches from the more granular ‘video-tape’ to the more cinematic, but still televisual, flash back. It felt fresh and interesting at a time when Tarantino and Kevin Smith were the new cool and before digital made it cheaper and easier for directors to pick up a camera and make a film like Blair Witch project – and yet it preceded them all by several years.
Watching SLVT today and it doesn’t feel dated – age of the actors aside. For a first feature that is a remarkable achievement and I would suggest the hallmarks of a classic; cult or otherwise.
Schizopolis (1996): Director, Writer, Actor, Cinematographer
Spank The Monkey
Steven Soderbergh’s career took a quite spectacular pivot in 1996. Before that, he was a serious-minded indie filmmaker with one hit and several flops to his name. After that, he loosened up enormously, and launched into a wildly commercial run of features starting with Out Of Sight. What happened in 1996? Schizopolis is the answer: a film that bears no resemblance to anything else he’s made, but without which we probably wouldn’t be talking about him today.
To quote Soderbergh, “all attempts at synopsising the film have ended in failure and hospitalisation,” but I suppose we’ll have to give it a try. The director himself plays Fletcher Munson, an office drone working for religious cult leader T Azimuth Schwitters. Following a co-worker’s fatal heart attack – possibly brought on by a glimpse of the genitals of rogue exterminator Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen) – Munson has until the end of the week to write a big speech for Schwitters. The increased responsibility takes its toll on Munson’s home life, to the extent that his wife (Betsy Brantley) starts seeing another man behind his back. Who is it? Well, that’s where it starts to get complicated.
In retrospect, you can see what Soderbergh was doing here: working his way out of a creative crisis by making a comedy that used every experimental tool in the box. Contrasting film stocks, aggressive sound editing, non-linear timelines – it’s got everything, all the way up to an end credit roll that’s precisely one frame long. There’s something akin to David Lynch in the way he’ll try anything for an effect: the most obvious parallel is the wild somersault that the story takes halfway through, on a par with the similar narrative derailments of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. (Both of which, it should be noted, were made after Schizopolis.)
You could look for themes and deeper meanings in here, notably in the multiple uses of language: from the filthy glossolalia Elmo Oxygen uses to charm women into bed (“Nose army. Beef diaper?”), via the symbolic conversations between Munson and his wife (“Generic greeting!” “Generic greeting returned!”), to the flashbacks where Munson can only speak in foreign languages. Having said that, the English portions of Soderbergh’s script contain some of his funniest writing, notably the declaration of love to someone we only know as Attractive Woman No. 2: “I know that if I could for an instant have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants.”
In the end, though, it’s probably not worth looking for those deeper meanings, given that one early image in Schizopolis tells us all we need to know: a shot of Soderbergh masturbating furiously in an office toilet. He knows how self-indulgent a movie this is, and he doesn’t care. Once he’d got it out of his system, things got really interesting.
The Limey (1999): Director
by Max Fischer
Perversely enough, I’m here to recommend not Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 Terence Stamp vehicle itself, as entertaining as it is, but the DVD commentary track he recorded for it with screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Remember DVD commentary tracks? Remember DVDs? As an inducement to buy a film, the commentary track relied, in retrospect, unsustainably heavily on both the average person’s inclination to rewatch most films and on the level of insight the film-makers were either capable of providing or, shanghaied into the recording booth by the studio, willing to provide (I remember renting Summer of Sam with excitement, which dissipated as I realized that Spike Lee’s approach to the commentary track consisted, in large part, of announcing the identities of actors on screen as they appeared (“Johhny Legs!”).
The Soderbergh/Dobbs track for The Limey would be one of the better examples of the form by any reckoning, containing plenty of interesting information about the history and making of the film, such as the fact that Dobbs (the son of painter RB Kitaj, Lem Dobbs fact fans; his real name is Anton Lemuel Kitaj) first wrote the script as a teenager and tried to get Robert Aldrich to take it on. But what really makes it notable is the way Soderbergh and Dobbs use it as a venue to air what appear to be sincere and significant differences of opinion about their film.
Those differences are not, interestingly, about the film’s fracture timeline and experimental flourishes, such as the use of clips from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow to fill in the Stamp character’s backstory, but about how much heart the film should have and how explicitly it should communicate its themes. Dobbs’s view that Soderbergh’s instinct to streamline takes the legs out from his screenplays emphasis on family and class comes into conflict with Soderbergh’s process-driven view that, as he edited the film, it became clear that it needed, in order to deliver its effects, to concentrate more and more closely on the state of mind of Stamp’s Wilson – that the film is the master, not the script or the writer. Obviously, Soderbergh’s view both elides the ideology of that conflict and assumes the primacy of the director (if Soderbergh’s insistence on shooting and editing his own films is control-freakery, his refusal to take a possessive credit is misdirection) and reinforces the view of his critics that he’s a decadent technocrat whose films don’t express any underlying ideas beyond the accomplishment of making them. But on the other hand, Dobbs’s idealised rubber-ducky speechifying version of The Limey sounds like much less fun than the film we got.
Two post-scripts: the commentary track amusingly echoes the time-hopping subjective structure of the film, repeatedly looping back on itself and repeating exchanges out of chronology – fair play to whoever had that idea; and also, the disc carries a second commentary track, featuring some typically Stampian riffing from the star on his own image and its uses in the film, that is also essential – if you’re the kind of person that listens to DVD commentary tracks.
I admit I’ve made some bad choices, cinema-wise. I’ve seen films no-one should pay to see (Hello, Sliver!), and swerved some everyone should (Uh, hello 99% of films made since my daughter was born). But just once, when I was 21 years old and dweeby as fuck, I think I made the right choice. A group of us were at the doors to the cinema, and there were two films. Babe 2: Pig in the City or Out of Sight. Now I know Babe 2 has its fans, and is held in high regard by some, but I didn’t want to see it. All my mates did. So I went to see Out of Sight alone.
It’s not a film you forget easily; it isn’t shocking, it isn’t harrowing, it isn’t a film that stamps itself on your memory, it just glides into your brain and gets comfy. I remember quite clearly sitting in that cinema and feeling like I was on holiday from the world. The richness of the colours, the breezy funk of David Holmes’s mix of soundtrack and score, the comfortable performances, the chemistry, my god. If Clooney and Lopez have been hotter, ever, you won’t know about it because any evidence would have melted.
It felt like I’d made the grown-up choice, when all my friends were hanging on to childhood here I was with this smart, funny, sexy movie that lived and breathed in its own world. Sure, sure, there’s a lot of craft we could talk about here, we could discuss the criss-cross timelines and colour palettes and homages to various films but I don’t care. I didn’t care. I walked out of that cinema into the cold evening, leaned against the car that brought us there and waited for them to emerge, giggling, from their talking pig film. I’m not saying it was a transformative cinema experience, but just for one night I was the coolest person in the car… assuming there was no-one in the boot.
Oceans 11 (2001): Director, Cinematographer
There’s a scene in Ocean’s 11 that is perhaps one of my favourite scenes in any film. Don Cheadle, playing Basher, a member of the 11 strong heist crew and their explosives expert, is in a hotel room. He is sat on the sofa watching the television as he tinkers with an explosive device. He stops what he is doing for a moment, mouth slightly agape with all the awe and fascination of a child as he watches the demolition of one of Vegas’ iconic casinos. Behind him, through the window, you see the actual casino explode and collapse. It’s a simple, elegant, funny scene and for me it sums up everything that is great about Oceans 11.
Following Out of Sight, the success of which surely surprised everyone even if they knew that they were onto a good thing, came Oceans 11. It was an ambitious undertaking. A remake of a ‘classic’ rat pack movie – which is better viewed with the aim of enjoying its cast in their ego height prime than as a ‘classic’ in any great cinematic sense – it was an ensemble piece with a starry cast; Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, Damon, Garcia – to name but a few. And it brought Clooney back as a leading man and ex-convict Danny Ocean. A character who shared the charm of his Out of Sight role Jack Foley, but benefited from tuned up smarts and a good deal more sophistication, even if, just like Foley, his love for a girl was as much his undoing as his salvation.
Oceans 11 is so note perfect it hurts. There isn’t one actor you feel is wasted here. The film may be named after Clooney’s Danny Ocean, but it’s a true ensemble piece, with every character offered room to connect with the audience, play their part and have their moment. If there is any scene stealing then it comes from Cheadle, whose explosion loving English accented Basher couldn’t be further removed from his sinister Maurice Miller in Out of Sight. It is cool. The music, the costumes, the locations, the banter, the heist set up, undertaking and reveal – all cool. The one moment where the cool is turned down is at the end, as the crew gaze into the Bellagio’s fountains as they jettison to Debussy’s Clair de lune. It is a moment of calm, reflection and joy, shared between the audience and the cast before them as they quietly take on the magnitude of their achievement.
Soderbergh clearly grasped what a good thing he had with Oceans 11. He brought the cast back for 12 and 13, offering audiences more of the fantastic chemistry that they all shared, if never quite repeating the perfection of the first outing. There are critics that accuse him of being a Director who is “a decadent technocrat whose films don’t express any underlying ideas beyond the accomplishment of making them” (as Max Fischer notes above). I think Oceans 11 is just one of many of his films that prove them wrong, but even if you think they’re right to not enjoy a film like this – where every complex note is so perfectly crafted – is to live with a little less joy.