Steven Soderbergh's Astonishing Last Rebellion
Has anyone challenged Hollywood norms as entertainingly and effectively at the end of a career as the director of Side Effects, Magic Mike, Contagion, and Haywire has?
Great filmmakers rarely retire. Death put an early end to the careers of the likes of Kubrick, Truffaut, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, while studio disinterest sidelined Billy Wilder and Orson Welles even as they wanted to continue their work. Those who have managed to avoid similar fates often just keep working as long as they're able. The list of directors who have continued to laboring well into their 70s or 80s is long and distinguished: Allen, Altman, and Antonioni, just off the top of the alphabet. The Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is currently in pre-production on his 32nd feature; he just turned 104.
Directors simply don't voluntarily switch careers at the age of 50 or end their runs with films that neatly summarize what their careers have been about. Apparently no one told Steven Soderbergh. Or if they did, he just didn't listen to conventional wisdom. It would hardly be the first time.
In 2009 the director first floated the idea of retiring in a few years, and in 2011 confirmed it more concretely. Since that 2011 pronouncement, he's released four features, capped off with this month's pharma-psycho-sexual-thriller, Side Effects. That's four movies in under a year and a half, a punishing schedule practically unheard of for modern filmmakers. The aforementioned Fassbinder managed that sort of pace, but had to alternate cocaine and sleeping pills (which eventually killed him) to manage it. Soderbergh seems fueled by a pure joy of making movies.
Or maybe that blistering pace is just the heavy foot of a racecar driver enjoying a carefree victory lap following a grueling race. The director's recent candor in an excellent interview over at Vulture paints a picture of an industry where even being a filmmaker as well-regarded as Soderbergh can be a thankless task, making movies for a culture that no longer values the kinds of films he wants to make. While some of his quotes in that interview might sound grouchy, it's hard to argue with his point that "ambiguity is not on the table anymore," given the simplistic and tone-deaf pieces that came out of so many political writers in the wake of Zero Dark Thirty.
But if he sounds tired and jaded in interviews, none of that comes through in his final works, which are skillful, smart, and satisfying pieces of genre filmmaking that never feel heavy even when their subject matter is. That sort of effortless crowd-pleasing is hardly new from the director: His 2001 blockbuster Ocean's 11 is as perfectly constructed for maximum audience satisfaction and as endlessly rewatchable as Spielberg's Jaws.
Soderbergh gained his "one for himself, one for them" reputation by turning out just as many smaller, more experimentally minded works alongside movies like Ocean's and Erin Brockovich. But that label paints films like Out of Sight as impersonal for-hire jobs and films like Schizopolis or Bubble as impenetrable, masturbatory doodles. That's neither fair nor true: All of these films are for himself, and all of them are for us. This last quartet of films makes that clearer by merging his more commercially accessible inclinations with small doses of the experimental spirit of his smaller works.
All four films of Soderbergh's final victory lap are, in some way, about deception. They seem easy to pigeonhole, yet aren't really what they appear to be. This last one, Side Effects, looks like an homage to the '80s heyday of the twisty psychological thriller—Fatal Attraction, Jagged Edge, and Dead Calm—and to a large extent, it plays out as exactly that. But the real twist is that anyone coming into the film unawares might initially be fooled into thinking it's going to be a thinly veiled social/political commentary about over-medication of behavioral disorders, maybe an Erin Brockovich for the pharmaceutical industry. They'll be shocked less by what happens than by the fact that the director is less interested in making statements than he is in skillfully fulfilling genre expectations.
Contagion, from the fall of 2011, initially came off like a large-scale disaster movie, a star-studded return to the days when Irwin Allen would put a bunch of celebrities on a sinking ship or a burning building and kill them off one by one. But this time, Soderbergh commits to making the film more than its pulpy window-dressing. Much as he did with the drug war in 2000's Traffic, in Contagion he uses a complicated, multi-threaded story to get at the deficiencies of our governmental and social institutions—in this case at dealing with a rapidly spreading epidemic. Here he refuses to submit to genre conventions, avoiding the bombastic clichés of disaster movies in favor of the subtle visual storytelling. He says more with a long, ominous shot of a bowl of peanuts as a disease vector than the sort of expository scientific speechifying that less-subtle filmmakers might employ for the situation.
The two strongest films of these final four though, are the two that seem the most unlikely: the action-star espionage film Haywire, and Magic Mike, which many dismissed out of hand as "that Channing Tatum stripper movie." In both of these films, Soderbergh quietly destroys expectations of what the movies appear seem to be.
Haywire is an action vehicle that does everything "wrong." It presents itself as an action-star showcase in the mold of an '80s Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, except that its lead, MMA fighter Gina Carano, wasn't yet a star outside of fight fans. It refuses to submit to the frenetic quick-cut style that is de rigueur for modern action; the long, unforgiving takes in the fights feel like action cinema as directed by John Cassavetes. More subversive than anything else though, is the simple fact that Soderbergh casts a woman to be a traditional action hero without it having to be a big deal.
The more traditional action lead would have been Channing Tatum, but while Carano handles the starring role in the film calling for fists, Tatum takes the one about feelings. Magic Mike winds up serving as a fitting metaphor for Tatum's own career, shoved (somewhat willingly) into roles that called only for a body, when he actually has more to offer. To this day I know people who refuse to see the film because of what it looks like—a flimsy excuse to show some well-toned flesh—and that's a testament to just how skillfully disguised this intimate and insightful character study really is.
All of these works are genre films that don't play out the way multiplex movies are supposed to. For one thing, Soderbergh resolutely refuses to use music as a manipulative force, leaving Carano's fight scenes in Haywire soundtracked only by bone-crushing blows, and highlighting the silence in the spaces of the conversations in Magic Mike or Side Effects. They also are willing to take their time when they need to, lingering over scenes even when conventional wisdom says they may have gone on too long.
The end of Soderbergh's filmmaking career, if this is indeed the end, is the portrait of an artist doing exactly what he wants, without any thought to the future. Impending retirement gave the director, whose work never really felt handcuffed by commercial concerns, even more creative freedom. Not only that, but these modestly budgeted films turned a profit (pending final tallies for Side Effects overseas and on video), proving, as Soderbergh did throughout his career, that art and commerce can coexist quite comfortably.