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Filmmakers of the Decade: Steven Soderbergh 

At the end of the '00s, the chameleonic filmmaker once again shed his skin and captured the zeitgeist

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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Steven Soderbergh spent much of the 1990s mired in a post–sex, lies and videotape cold streak. It didn’t thaw entirely until 2000, with the one-two punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both films netted stellar reviews, grossed a combined $250 million at the domestic box office and earned multiple Oscar nominations, including two for Soderbergh as best director (he won for Traffic).

In the decade since this career transformation, Soderbergh has directed the biggest non–CGI dependent trilogy in recent memory (Ocean’sEleven, Twelve and Thirteen). With his digital experiments for Magnolia Pictures and the simultaneous VOD and theatrical release of his four-hour epic, Che, he’s been at the forefront of major innovations in digital technology and evolving distribution models. And, he has not made a single film to enjoy the culture-conquering triple-whammy of critical acclaim, box-office success and Oscar gold that his two 2000 films seemed to hit almost effortlessly.

Not that this is cause for alarm. As Erin Brockovich and Traffic ushered in a new phase in his career, now Soderbergh has closed the decade by releasing two features that superficially hew to his signature star-vehicle/art-project split, while suggesting an increasing reconciliation between the two poles. Formally playful and acidly reflective of pervasive popular anxieties, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! are good enough, and innovative enough, to usher in their own new Soderberghian era.

click to enlarge CLAUDETTE BARIUS - Soderbergh gets complicated.
  • Claudette Barius
  • Soderbergh gets complicated.

These two films illustrate the contemporary zeitgeist better than anything else to hit theaters this year. So why have they failed to become a major part of that zeitgeist?

In January, Soderbergh gave an interview to TheRumpus.com in which he acknowledged his “refusal to sort of manufacture an emotion or a sense of drama” to make his unconventional biopic Che more audience-friendly.

The Girlfriend Experience, starring porn star Sasha Grey as a call girl paid exorbitantly to absorb the anxieties of high-market clients, and The Informant!, in which Matt Damon plays an ADM executive who cooperates with the FBI in the hopes of greasing his path up the corporate food chain, relate to Che in that both notably lack the kind of contrived insight into their antiheroes’ emotional lives that one would expect from a conventional Hollywood treatment of the same material.

This is a significant evolution for Soderbergh. Though Erin Brockovich and Traffic were taken seriously as works of social consciousness upon their release, watching them today, it’s impossible to ignore their tendencies toward Hollywood hallmarks such as subtext-free monologuing and suspiciously convenient justice.

Early in Erin, Julia Roberts’ title character tries to win over a jury with the declaration, “I just want to be a good mom. A nice person. A decent citizen.” It’s a self-conscious exaggeration of the sincere sentiment that runs through both of Soderbergh’s Y2K films: The People want to be good, but forces stronger than them are closing in, Big Bads that absolve the little guy of both culpability and basic control over his destiny.

Self-serious speechifying is the little guy’s most reliable weapon in both Erin and Traffic, which ridiculously climaxes with Michael Douglas’ drug czar announcing to the press that his teen daughter’s crack problem has completely altered his philosophy on the prosecution of addiction,

Today, many Americans have lost control of their own lives to some extent, but Soderbergh’s 2009 films don’t allow for blame to be shifted on external forces entirely. Nobody in either The Girlfriend Experience or The Informant! “just” wants to be “a decent citizen.” Both films present a much more complicated worldview, rejecting the simplistic moral binaries that underlie Soderbergh’s work from the decade’s start.

In one, the whistle-blower inside the corporate bad turns out to be a fraud and an embezzler; in the other, the careerist hooker is rewarded for her modernity and ambition with heartbreak and humiliation. Each suggests that if the current definition of American success centers mostly on accumulation, then the drive to win at that game is akin to a kind of madness.

Soderbergh makes formal choices that mirror the insanity: What The Informant! accomplishes with Matt Damon’s narration, a meandering yet bitterly petty internal monologue, The Girlfriend Experience matches with its structure, which shuffles a handful of days into thematic rather than chronological order. Both devices approximate a manic stream of consciousness in which the protagonists fall so deep into a constructed reality that they lose their way back to the real real.

That Soderbergh is making films that even approach an honest depiction of our contemporary collective psychological confusion puts his work leagues ahead of much of the competition, particularly such likely Oscar nominees as Up in the Air and Precious.

While those “timely” films are ultimately bound to old-fashioned victim politics, Soderbergh’s ’09 movies present a vision of America where self-delusion is so pervasive that traditional distinctions between criminal and innocent are beside the point. If contemporary American lives are as mired in fantasy as Soderbergh suggests, it’s no wonder mass audiences prefer those entertainments that reference our troubled times without broaching the culpability of the average consumer-citizen.

Soderbergh’s 2009 doubleheader may not have replicated the stunning success of his 2000 one, but as he bridges the gap between his bipolar creative instincts, audiences are starting to come around. The Girlfriend Experience made nearly five times the box-office gross of Soderbergh’s last digitally shot Magnolia release, 2006’s Bubble. The Informant!, arguably a Soderberghian star vehicle squeezed through the mold of a Soderberghian digital quickie, grossed more than all of his non-Ocean’s, non-Oscar-winning films of this decade combined. Not bad for a pair of scarily astute time capsules of a collapse in progress.

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