<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>The Films of Steven Soderbergh <p> <p> Relational Independence</b> <p> Steven Soderbergh's twenty feature films present a diverse range of subject matter and formal styles. They range from his 1989 breakthrough hit <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i>, about the sex lives of four twentysomethings, to social-problem films such as <i>King of the Hill</i> (1993), <i>Erin Brockovich</i> (2000), <i>Traffic</i> (2000), Che (2008), and <i>The Informant!</i> (2009). Carefully stylized noir in <i>Kafka</i> (1991), <i>The Underneath</i> (1995), and <i>The Good German</i> (2006) contrasts with the digital-video improvisation of <i>Full Frontal</i> (2002), Bubble (2006), and <i>The Girlfriend Experience</i> (2009). In <i>Gray's Anatomy</i> (1996), Spalding Gray does performance art, while <i>Out of Sight</i> (1998), <i>The Limey</i> (1999), and <i>Solaris</i> (2002) are genre films deconstructed by an element of modernist discontinuity. Even the cost of making his films has shown great variety, ranging from the six-figure budget for <i>Schizopolis</i> (1996) to the star-studded <i>Ocean's</i> series blockbusters (2001, 2004, 2007) that averaged nearly one hundred million dollars to produce. <p> The eclecticism in Soderbergh's movies would appear to invalidate a claim to the distinctive style typical of film authorship. Moreover, one might point to his more commercial projects as evidence of a lack of creative integrity in his work. However, I would argue for the importance of Soderbergh's films for reasons that don't entirely discount these critiques but rather show how the variety of his work and the commercial viability of some of his films are prominent aspects of his individual style. Soderbergh's movies merit a closer look because of his insistence on what David Bordwell calls "art-cinema narration," characterized by complexity and respect for the audience that have too often been lacking in the American cinema during Soderbergh's career as a director ("Authorship" 42). Yet another reason for my interest in Soderbergh's work has to do precisely with his movies that have made large amounts of money, in particular <i>Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven</i>, and <i>Ocean's Thirteen</i>. Rather than simply part of a strategy of making commercial projects to finance more personal films, these movies employ the utopian resolve of Hollywood narrative—an optimistic determination to overcome injustice or inequality—yet contextualize it by representing some of the social determinants of these problems in a way that resonates with large audiences without capitulating to a condescending blockbuster recipe of high-concept, digitally enhanced violence and commodified synergy. Even Soderbergh's most commercial movies offer some of the complexity and critical challenges to viewers found in his art films. <p> An additional characteristic of the films that Soderbergh has directed that supports an assertion of authorial control is his hands-on involvement in various aspects of their production: he has written five of his features, edited seven, and done the cinematography for eleven, including everything since <i>Traffic</i>. Soderbergh's contribution to these important aspects of the filmmaking process has resulted in a large degree of thematic and formal continuity across his apparently diverse range of movies. He consistently builds stories around characters alienated from a world that values wealth, power, and self-interest, and resolution of the conflicts involving such outsider protagonists rarely takes the form of the neat, individualized responses typical of Hollywood. Although he adopts his style to fit the topic at hand, and it therefore varies as much as his subjects, the form in Soderbergh's films often breaks through the fourth wall to create discontinuity that communicates the unconvenitional thinking of such marginalized characters, sets up critical distance for the viewer, or uses self-reflexivity, allusion, or realism to comment on a particular narrative situation. <p> Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963, Soderbergh has stated in interviews that he watched a lot of films growing up and that his university-professor father, Peter Soderbergh, "would let me see anything" (Kaufman 30). Steven showed a talent for drawing, and at age fourteen, his dad enrolled him in an animation class at Louisiana State University. The younger Soderbergh soon began shooting live-action films and continued making movies through high school. At seventeen, he bypassed college and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for several years as a screenwriter and editor. An editing job on a music video for the British rock group Yes led to an offer to make a documentary for the band, <i>9021 Live</i> (1986), that was nominated for a Grammy award. Soderbergh wrote the initial draft of the script for his first feature, <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i>, during a weeklong cross-country trip in 1988 and shot it the following year, primarily with money that RCA/Columbia Home Video had paid in advance for the film's video rights. <p> Although <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> took its audience appeal to a new level, by the time it was released in 1989 American independent cinema was already firmly in place. Filmmakers such as John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, and David Lynch had all found audiences for their movies in the 1980s, aided by the rapid growth in home video but also because they offered an alternative to the dominant tendencies in Hollywood movies. Contrary to the pattern in American movie history—from the founding of United Artists in 1919, through the B pictures of Republic and Monogram, to package production since the 1950s—of films made outside the studio system that were not very different from most of what came from the studio system, the independent cinema of the 1980s was distinguished by its stylistic variation that "disrupts the continuity of Hollywood formal style" or in its "challenging perspectives on social issues" (King, <i>American Independent</i>, 2). Peter Biskind sums up the appeal of independent films from this period by emphasizing their strong positions on "controversial" issues and a kind of artisanal quality: "If Hollywood sold fantasy and escapism, indies thrived on realism and engagement. If Hollywood avoided controversial subjects, indies embraced them. If Hollywood movies were expensive, indie films were cheap.... Hollywood favored spectacle, action, and special effects, while indies worked on a more intimate scale, privileging script and emphasizing character and mise-en-scène" (19). Michael Z. Newman has emphasized the lower cost of independent films as indicative of a creative freedom that came to be equated with aesthetic quality: "[A] low budget would itself become a discursive fetish object, a means of concretizing a nebulous quality (honesty, truth, vision)" (19). <p> While distinctly different from most Hollywood films in their foregrounding of social engagement, realism, or what Geoff King calls "more complex, stylized, expressive ... forms," the independent films of the 1980s were still mostly narrative (10). Some of these movies therefore generated good earnings in relation to their modest production budgets: Jarmusch made <i>Stranger Than Paradise</i> (1984) for just ninety thousand dollars, and it earned almost $2.5 million. Sayles's <i>Brother from Another Planet</i> (1986), produced for four hundred thousand dollars, made $3.7 million. And Spike Lee spent just $175,000 on his feature debut <i>She's Gotta Have It</i> (1986), which took in seven million dollars. <p> Despite such good earnings, none of the 1980s independents had gone beyond twenty-five million in revenue until <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> demonstrated the possibility of a larger audience, primarily because the co-chairmen at Miramax Films, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, made the bold move of spending $2.5 million on prints and advertising, more than double the production budget, and put it on more screens than was the norm for an independent film. Conventional thinking in 1989 dictated that you don't exhibit art or independent films in mall multiplexes or place more than a four-inch advertisement in the newspaper on opening day. Miramax, however, spent heavily on television ads for <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> and opened it on six hundred screens, including suburban mall theaters, like just another Hollywood movie. This investment in wider marketing and distribution, combined with a rave review from Todd McCarthy in <i>Variety</i> and the buzz created from the awards it won at Sundance and Cannes, took <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> to unprecedented earnings for an independent film, more than fifty million dollars worldwide (Biskind 82). As an exception to his observation that frugality and exclusivity became primary values of American independent cinema, Newman describes Soderbergh as "admired for retaining an indie sensibility even when making movies with wider appeal" (20). The Weinstein brothers would go on to drive the crossover success of independent film in the 1990s—most notably with <i>Pulp Fiction</i> (1994)—by playing on this belief that an alternative vision could coexist with expensive advertising, wide distribution, and star actors. <p> <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> displayed the skillful balance of commercial and personal cinema found in Soderbergh's later films such as <i>Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven</i>, and <i>Ocean's Thirteen</i>. With only five thousand dollars in his budget for set design, Soderbergh shot his debut film entirely on location in Baton Rouge, using long takes and slow tracking shots to preserve the temporal and spatial integrity of the narrative world and overlapping dialogue—that he claimed he borrowed from <i>The Graduate</i> (1967)—to further support a realist style (DVD commentary). Moreover, Soderbergh has acknowledged a personal investment in the story about the sexual entanglements of John (Peter Gallagher), a yuppie lawyer who typifies the self-interest associated with the 1980s; his wife, Ann (Andie McDowell); her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo); and John's college roommate, Graham (James Spader). After learning of his affair with Cynthia, Ann leaves John for Graham, resulting in an upbeat conclusion that Soderbergh defended for its truthfulness: "I changed the ending in a more positive direction ... not out of compromise. My personal experience has taught me that after periods of torment ... you learn that the hardships you have had taught you something" (Kaufman 21). <p> The ending of <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> also makes a broader statement about the importance of connection and responsibility to others, a theme that runs through many of Soderbergh's films. The previously distant Graham finds he needs Ann; the title character in <i>Kafka</i> (Jeremy Irons) leaves his creative isolation to engage in political subversion, and at the end of the film he writes to his parents, "I now can no longer deny that I am part of the world around me." In <i>King of the Hill</i>, the young protagonist, Aaron (Jesse Bradford), and his family are saved by the father's WPA job. <i>Traffic</i> shows the Michael Douglas character sacrificing his career ambitions to help his addicted daughter and reunite his family; likewise, the cop characters in that film (Benecio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman) act to protect their disadvantaged communities. In <i>Erin Brockovich</i>, the title character (Julia Roberts) finds meaning working in a class-action suit that provides justice for hundreds of people victimized by a utility company. In <i>Solaris</i>, George Clooney's character leaves behind life on earth to try again with his wife in outer space. Despite their star power and veneer of glamor, the <i>Ocean's</i> movies are also about the importance of teamwork and loyalty, and as much revenue as these big-budget films generated, they ultimately endorse those two values over money. <i>The Underneath, Out of Sight, The Limey, Bubble</i>, and <i>The Good German</i> present negative examples, returning tragic results for characters who can't connect with other people. Finally, Che, the story of a man who martyred himself on behalf of communist revolution in the developing world, takes the idea of responsibility to others about as far as it can go. <p> <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> won the Audience Prize at Sundance and the Palme d'Or in Cannes, beating out Spike Lee's <i>Do the Right Thing</i> at the French festival because, according to the jury chair Wim Wenders, the latter film lacked a heroic character (Taubin, "Fear"). Justin Wyatt sees the appeal of the Graham character less as heroic than for his autoeroticism aided by videotape as a practical response to the late-1980s concern about safe sex in the era of AIDS (79). Geoff King describes the film's alternative sexuality as offering a selling point for American independents; Graham exemplifies how characters "defined as sexually deviant by mainstream society turn up disproportionately often in indie films," creating a "<i>frisson</i> that can be marketable" (<i>American Independent</i> 200). <p> The strong earnings for <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i>, along with the rapid growth of video and cable markets, fueled the increase in the number of American independent films released in the early 1990s (Maltby 219). Yet, such revenue success was a mixed blessing, as it drove up expectations for earnings, setting what Soderbergh called "an unrealistic benchmark for other [independent] films" (Wyatt 80). As production and marketing costs rose, and without the theatrical release and appeal to the family market needed to spur video rentals and sales, many smaller films generated little profit (Maltby 219). The success of independent cinema spurred production to the point of oversupply. By the end of the 1990s, according to King, thirteen to fifteen hundred features were being made each year, many of which wouldn't find a distributor (<i>American Independent</i> 36). To compound the problem for independent filmmakers, higher profit expectations encouraged videos stores to emphasize depth rather than range of copy, so that shelves contained mostly well-publicized films. Sell-through strategies aimed at getting consumers to buy films for home viewing also favored movies with larger marketing budgets (24). As the major media corporations entered the independent market, beginning in 1993 with Disney's purchase of Miramax and Time Warner's acquisition of New Line three years later, money was increasingly shifted to fewer, safer projects during production rather than more adventurous films after they were made (45). <p> Soderbergh's next three movies following <i>Sex, Lies, and Videotape</i> did get distributed to theaters but also resisted the market reality he had helped create by resembling European art cinema with alienated protagonists, stylized form, and ambiguous endings. His second film, <i>Kafka</i>, presents neither a straightforward biography of the Czech writer nor an adaptation of his fiction but instead a representation of experiences that Kafka would later put into his novels, reflecting what Soderbergh called "the manipulation of the individual by the State and the more or less unconscious complicity with evil" (Kaufman 51). Soderbergh shot <i>Kafka</i> in black and white and asked Jeremy Irons to play the title character passively for most of the film, reacting with diffidence to a shadowy expressionist world of political oppression. Even when Kafka rebels by planting a bomb inside the Castle, Prague's citadel of government control, this action's resemblance to earlier ineffective attacks by a small group of anarchists implies the futility of such violent resistance. Moreover, the title character may have decided to act, but near the end of the film he also accepts the statement of a police inspector (Armin Muller Stahl) that a fellow insurgent committed suicide—when in fact she had been tortured—and we last see Kafka in an image of confinement, framed by the window of his room. <p> Soderbergh's portrayal of Kafka as alienated but lacking a viable alternative ideology fits with Bill Dodd's statement that the writer "was certainly familiar with, and appears to have been sympathetic to, radical political theory of the left, but neither his biography nor his fiction suggests that he subscribed to a conventional political philosophy or programme" (146). While Dodd concludes that the notion that Kafka was "in any sense a political writer ... is still somewhat contentious in Kafka scholarship" (131), Iris Bruce has traced the more accepted idea that Kafka's Jewish identity was an influence on his fiction (150). As an example of this influence, Bruce notes that the transformation that affects Gregor Samsa in Kafka's <i>Metamorphosis</i> (1912) "in Jewish forklore [is] generally inflicted as a punishment for transgression" (151). Kafka lived during a period of widespread anti-Semitism—in 1897, when he was fourteen, there were three days of anti-Jewish riots in his home city of Prague—Sander Gilman argues that the writer chose to counter negative stereotypes of Jews as "pathological" and intellectuals as "feminized and marginalized" by "recontextualizing these painful discourses in an ostensibly non Jewish 'universal' discourse, namely ... modernism" (qtd. in Dodd 143). Therefore, echoes of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish army officer was exiled from France for treason, appear—but without specific reference to Judaism—in <i>The Metamorphosis</i> and <i>The Trial</i> (1925). Similarily, Soderbergh evades anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual stereotypes by employing the conventions of American cinema to deemphasize ethnicity and to rely on male protagonists who take matters into their own hands: he doesn't identify the anarchists—Kafka included—as Jewish, and the title character defies stereotypes of intellectuals as weak and irrelevant by acting violently against the oppressive state. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Steven Soderbergh</b> by <b>Aaron Baker</b> Copyright © 2011 by Aaron Baker. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.