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Steven Soderbergh and his new film, Traffic

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

The great danger for any artist is to find himself comfortable. It’s his duty to find the point of maximum discomfort, to search it out.

—Orson Welles, in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles

Why am I so attracted to this romantic idea of the guy who can do five things at once and do them all well? Who really gives a shit?

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—Steven Soderbergh, to himself, in Getting Away With It

Steven Soderbergh first left Hollywood when he was 18. It was 1981 and a year had passed since he’d left his hometown of Baton Rouge to live with his sister Susan in San Francisco, then Los Angeles. He’d wanted to make movies, but after working on a couple of television game shows, Games People Play (as an editor) and Laff-A-Thon (as a scorekeeper), he was ready to split. So he went home. After that, he shot his first feature, a concert film about Yes, was nominated for a Grammy for it, made another movie, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for it, got almost famous, got married, made some more movies, had a kid, got a divorce, made more movies. He moved back to Hollywood in 1997, around the time he was working on his eighth feature, Out of Sight, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel of the same title. The film was a succès d’estime, wildly popular with the critics but almost ignored at the box office, and it marked Soderbergh’s return to a business he had never actually left.

To the outside world, it seems that in Hollywood you either make it or you don’t. But it’s a little more complicated than that. You can languish as much in development as out (but drive a better class of car). You can make bad movies and no one will care. You can make good movies and still no one will care. You can date beautiful women who would never have given you a second look if you’d bussed their tables. You can become nearly as celebrated for living down your promise as for living up to it; you can even make a career out of it. Ever since his second feature, sex, lies and videotape, won him the Palme d’Or in 1989, beating out cinematic titans such as Shoei Imamura and a pipsqueak named Spike Lee, Soderbergh has been living down the boy-wonder label he got stuck with. Who could blame him? He was only 26.

He has made eight features since. Some were misfires, none made much money, and all of them were gutsy, in part because each new film seemed a departure, in form and content, from the last. It was with Out of Sight, though, that his industry profile once again began to rise. In the last few years, it has continued to climb nearly as fast as Soderbergh can make movies, which, given that next month he begins shooting his fifth film in four years, is pretty damn fast. Critics have greeted the recent work with enthusiasm, and this year’s Erin Brockovich, a divertissement with a social conscience, has also done exceptionally well with audiences — with over $100 million in domestic returns, it’s an unqualified box-office success. The film is a solid achievement for Soderbergh, a director who had yet to prove he could turn a large profit on mainstream material. What made that achievement more impressive was that when Erin Brockovich opened in March, only seven months and one week had passed since the release of Soderbergh’s last feature, an exercise in fractured storytelling called The Limey.

It’s December now, and if Erin Brockovich is looking better than ever, with its star, Julia Roberts, in line for an Academy Award nomination, it’s because this week yet another Soderbergh movie, Traffic, opens in theaters across the country. An assured gloss on the drug war as lived and endured by half a dozen central players in Mexico and the United States, the new film is radical on a number of counts, including the fact that it’s almost unheard of for an American director to release two features in a single calendar year. You’d have to sift through the B-movie ranks or return to the glory years of the studio system, when the likes of Hawks and Hathaway would make two, sometimes three pictures a year, to find directors who worked this fast, albeit with all the advantages of factory production. Or you could just turn back to 1997, when Soderbergh released his low-budget conceptual parlor trick Schizopolis and the documentary Gray’s Anatomy, featuring monologist Spalding Gray, within a single month of each other.

Soderbergh is fast, very fast, but that’s not what makes him the most exciting young director in the country. A cinematic polymath who has also written, acted in, edited, photographed and even done sound on some of his own films, Soderbergh has in the past decade emerged as the American director who has best absorbed the lessons of Hollywood and of independent film alike. His films are smart, great to look at and listen to, and filled with career-defining performances from the most obscure actor to the most famous. At their finest, they are entertainments in the most honest sense of the word — they please us as much with their immaculate craft as with the depth of their feeling, moving us as adults, bewitching us like children. Even at their most dubious (Schizopolis is as irritating as it is liberating), his films are not guilty of the great unpardonable sin of both contemporary Hollywood and the independents: They never sell short their characters, their audiences or, just as important, their maker.

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