Tuesday, February 28, 2006


The Soderbergh Effect.

If there is one identifiable element of an insurrection happening in Hollywood, it revolves around Steven Soderbergh, a big budget indie director with his own production company and a growing coterie of Soderbergh-tutored directors. Two of them, George Clooney and Stephen Gaghan, had Soderbergh-esque movies out this year, and they're up for a combined eight Oscars.

Soderbergh's personal renaissance began in 1996 with Schizopolis, which was a palate-cleanser following a couple of big-budget disasters. I saw him as he presented Schizopolis to the Portland International Film Festival that year, and he said that it was the creative spark he needed to rediscover his love of direction. (Schizopolis is a bizarre, very amateurish movie. Periodically he directs very low budget movies that seem critical to his process, but aren't great art. See also Full Frontal.)

He was at a moment in his career when he wasn't sure if he'd ever really make it as a director--which seems inconceivable now--because of the stultifying effect of the studio machine. He said, in an amused, philosophical aside, that although he was rejuvenated artistically, he didn't know how long it would last: he was about to start production on a film with George Clooney. We all chortled in comiseration at the prospect of having to work with cheeseball Dr. Green Ross from ER.

Whatever Soderbergh learned with Schizopolis, it served him well. He went on a tear, making Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, and Traffic in three years (1998-2000). In that phase of his career, the Soderbergh style emerged. It seems slightly paradoxical visually--he creates a spare, focused visual palate that is mannered and remote (and occasionally sterile), but at the same time, his style has a quality of naturalism about it. He doesn't create artificial gloss to delight the eyes (like Spielberg, for example), and gets his actors to give perfectly natural performances, as if in a documentary. So it is at once artificial and intimate.

In that 1998-2000 period, he also worked with a group of people who keep appearing in the Soderbergh constellation. He has now worked with Clooney a number of times, and Good Night and Good Luck is George's second directorial outing (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his first, is unfortunately overlooked.) Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Traffic, is in his debut with Syriana.

They have the same focused-yet-remote quality, the feeling of peeking in on reality (despite the obviously mannered shots). I noticed that they used sound like Soderbergh does, too, emphasizing a single track (a voice, a specific background sound like a car, or ambient sound). It enhances the effect of intimacy and focuses the storytelling without intruding.

In content, too, these directors seem to share a vision. Soderbergh's films tend to have an element of social commentary (his glam movies like the Oceans franchise excepted), but they're not polemics. They address real issues without becoming political documents. Even Erin Brockovich, which was stridently anti-corporate, was commercially successful because it was subtle. Both Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck are political movies, yet both are subtle and layered, which makes them better art and more subversive politics.

(The Soderbergh effect may send further ripples out into the filmscape. Ted Griffin has emerged as a house writer for Section Eight. One of Soderbergh's assistant directors is directing Wind Chill now.)

In terms of commerce, Soderbergh may have an effect, too. His experimental Bubble (which I haven't seen) was released theatrically simultaneously with its DVD release and appearance on HBO. Despite being an obvious indie with no market, subverting the usual theatrical release to DVD to TV cycle shocked and scared Hollywood, who has once again declared the end of movies will result.

But right on cue, Soderbergh has Oceans Thirteen lined up, which is about as timid a commercial venture as Hollywood could design. So even while he steps out of the dessicated Hollywood formula, he remains a charter member of the club. Actually, his dual commercial/experimental approach probably makes Soderbergh appear all the more scary to Hollywood. Much as with his approach to social issues, this seems a subversive double standard which they can't interpret.

Who knows--the Soderbergh effect may already be over. It's never easy to know what a director's shelf life is going to be. But with Bubble following up Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, I wouldn't bet on it.


iggir said...

just read the "end of movies" article...i wouldn't mind seeing Regal take a serious hit. the costs to see a movie are outrageous. not to mention being tortured by "The 20".

zemeckis said...

soderbergh shows what a rare commodity a competent film director actually is.

i dont even particularly like his films and he's high up on my list of living directors

Jeff Alworth said...

He's kind of remote, and I could imagine not liking, but respecting, his films. Not to suggest that's what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

Ah, hate to be a nit-picker, but George Clooney didn't play Dr. Green on ER. Anthony Edwards did.

It also seems worth noting that Soderbergh and Clooney are actually partners in Section Eight. And did you hear the rumor that they will close the company at the end of this year so that both can focus more on directing?

Jeff Alworth said...

Good catch. Doug Ross--how soon we forget. I'll correct it in the text.

On the Section Eight closure--no I hadn't heard that. According to Imdb.com, they have projects scheduled through 2008. But of course, they could end funding new projects, which may be what you heard. It would be a shame, though--they seem to have had quite a bit of success with the company.