Steven Soderbergh has never told a straight story. Not one of his 26 feature-length films or two television series has played out in a linear fashion. Jump cuts, flashbacks, hallucinations, videotaped segments, dream sequences, unreliable narrators, gaps in logic, cross-cutting plotting, direct address, unresolved threads: They’re all there in all of his movies. He doesn’t do traditional three-act structure, and he never goes from point A to point B. Instead, Soderbergh, 51, has bent the arc of a director’s career to meet his own expectations. He has threatened a quasi-retirement from directing since 2008. He has said he will paint. “I’m always looking for something that will destroy the thing I just did,” he told Esquire back then. “You should be willing to throw it away or annihilate it. I’ll destroy my career if it’s the last thing I do.”
And yet, his stretch since 2011 may comprise his very best work to date. The only certainty now is Soderbergh’s straight line of productivity. This week comes The Knick, his second TV series, a grim, phantasmagoric period piece made for Cinemax that follows Dr. John Thackery, a turn-of-the-20th-century surgeon mad on cocaine and brilliant in an operating theater.
And like Thackery, Soderbergh is a control freak, in the best possible sense. He is the cinematographer on most of his films, under the alias Peter Andrews. He also edits his movies, as Mary Ann Bernard (his mother’s maiden name). He is the author of two books, one a diary chronicling the making of his debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Getting Away With It, which doubles as another diary and an interview collection with his mentor, the director Richard Lester (best known as the guy who made the Beatles movies). Both are riveting. Last year, he crafted a “Twitter novella,” Glue, under his @Bitchuation handle.
Soderbergh has also posted lists of everything he’s seen or read in given years. He’s that kind of public person, flattering the completist and the compartmentalizer, assuaging the list-maker and the box-ticker. He’s visibly intelligent. He seems like a fun guy to bullshit about movies with. His movies have grossed more than $1 billion. He also fails, often. He made the rollicking Ocean’s Eleven trilogy. He also made Kafka, a dystopic, largely unseen biopic about the modernist novelist. Soderbergh is everything and nothing as a director, all the time.
“The career I would like is John Huston’s or Howard Hawks’s,” he said to the French magazine Positif in 1993. “You know, very varied, many different subjects. When you talk about Hawks or Huston or [William] Wyler, they were never fashionable or hip or trendy or prone to fads. That’s the career I would like. I’m not a visionary. I’m not Fellini. I’m not Kubrick. I’m not Fritz Lang. Sometimes I wish I were, but I know that I’m not.”
Like Huston and Hawks, Soderbergh has no biases — he works where and whenever he can, across genre. His career as a major filmmaker began exactly 25 years ago this week, with the release of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. And unlike his films, his career is better when you step back to consider it. If you do, you see one of the most generous and inventive artists of the last two decades. (Soderbergh has recorded at least 10 commentaries alongside other directors for their films.) And though he is almost aggressively modest, he is always going somewhere, always working toward a new project. A new film. A new book. A new series. A new list. Ticking off another imaginary box. Unlocking another idea.
“If I’m a director and I read a script and I say, ‘Yeah, I really want to do this,’ I would never walk away because the deal wasn’t very good — that I wasn’t getting paid very much or that the chances that I would see anything on the back end were remote because of the financial waterfall and the way it’s structured,” he said in 2009. “I would never use that as a reason not to do something. A lot of people do. I think that’s always a mistake.”
This is an attempt to examine the deals from which he didn’t walk away.
The Beginning and the Breakdown (1989-97)
The Projects: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Sex, Lies, and Videotape diary (1990), Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995), Gray’s Anatomy (1996), Schizopolis (1997)
“I think it’s my regurgitation of Carnal Knowledge.” —Soderbergh on Sex, Lies, and Videotape
By 1988, Soderbergh had worked as a cameraman, a grip, a video coordinator, a P.A. — if there was a job on a set, often on a small television show, he had done it. His best gig in this period was spending a year of his life chronicling the band Yes. In the ’80s. The introduction to his Sex, Lies, and Videotape diary is one of the most heartening passages a frustrated creative can read. Soderbergh, this polymathic, multifarious genius child, struggled for 10 years with several ignored or passed-over scripts before finally landing on the project that put him in the public consciousness. And 25 years later, it still seems deeply strange that this is the movie that did it. Five years ago, at a Sundance Film Festival anniversary screening of the movie, Soderbergh remarked on the impermanent experience of capturing the zeitgeist — “almost by definition it’s gonna date very quickly.” Sex, Lies has some generational hallmarks — its frankness with sexuality, it voyeuristic exploration, its coiled, brilliant performances. In the New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Mr. Soderbergh’s astonishing first film is a ‘Liaisons Dangereuses’ for the video age.” Which is to say, it was released when people were still using phrases like “the video age.” And so Sex, Lies, for all its intensity — James Spader, splitting the atom of leering weirdness and doe-eyed sensitivity — no longer feels what it was lauded for being: modern. In that way, it does share a lot with Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, which captured swinging ’70s masculine brio and quiet fear. Still, Sex, Lies is primarily interested in suburban ennui and society’s collision with technology, concluding with Spader’s Graham unraveling (the never better) Andie MacDowell’s stiff, stodgy Ann into a sensuous person.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape isn’t the rat-a-tat watch it was 25 years ago, but its four stars — Spader, MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo — peaked here. (Soderbergh has a knack for pulling out movie stars’ best performances.) At one point in his diary, published a year after the film’s release, he writes:
We had sent a script to Helen Slater, and her agent is also Spader’s agent, and she gave Spader the script, thinking he might like it. Apparently he did, and although I’m not sure he’s really right for Graham, he is well known, and he is a good actor, so what the hell.
It’s hard to imagine the movie with anyone else. Spader’s character has long been thought of as Soderbergh’s proxy, as close to an autobiographical stand-in as he’s ever had. Graham’s in love with the camera; he’s impotent, literally, without it. Soderbergh, with a camera and the Palme d’Or he won at Cannes, had the world at his feet. So it’s awfully strange what he did with it.
What came next was … Kafka. In 1991, Kafka had Roger Ebert asking in print, “Why did Soderbergh make this movie?” It’s not difficult to understand Soderbergh’s reasoning — a hallowed intellectual figure with knotty, enthralling imagery, and an inventive script by the infamous and brilliant screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Only it doesn’t work. Soderbergh’s movie — shot in black-and-white until a not terribly interesting psychotropic climax in color — is a consciously arty miss. Soderbergh knew it, too. Apparently he’s planning a full-scale reworking of the finished film — but rather than clarify the story or move the narrative into place, he’s going to make it even artier. Classic Soderbergh. Fun fact about Kafka: You can’t buy it in the United States. You can, however, watch it here in full on YouTube. (Though maybe you shouldn’t.)
Soderbergh bounced back, in a way, with the elegant but dull King of the Hill, an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir of St. Louis during the Depression. It’s Soderbergh’s off-kilter coming-of-age tale, in the way that Sex, Lies, and Videotape was his off-kilter talky adult drama and Kafka his off-kilter hagiography. But there is something deep in it, the burgundies and rusted blues in the color palette, and the trove of young actors he discovered, including young Adrien Brody, Lauryn Hill, Katherine Heigl, Amber Benson, and star Jesse Bradford. King of the Hill feels like an exciting young talent settling for a safe version of his career. But at least it was well crafted. What came next was equally safe, but far more destructive.
“I think it’s a beautiful film to look at and I think the score is really beautiful, but 15 seconds in I know we’re in trouble because of how fucking long it takes to get through those credits. That’s just an indication of what’s wrong with this thing. It’s just totally … sleepy.” —Soderbergh on The Underneath
Here’s how insignificant Soderbergh’s fourth feature, The Underneath, is: The entire 99-minute movie has been relegated to a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection edition of King of the Hill. Ostensibly a remake of the 1949 noir Criss Cross, it’s a forgettable heist movie that takes a few interesting formal chances — there are three strands of time intertwining throughout the telling. But it moves like molasses down a mountain. You’ve had more invigorating times at customs. There’s no need to see it unless color-blocking is your favorite directorial trick. (Though the colors in this movie, especially the night-vision green tint, are breathtaking.) In an interview with Criterion, Soderbergh talked about the intellectual catharsis he experienced during shooting.
“By the time we finished shooting, I’d hatched the plan to go and make Schizopolis. I was using that time on the set when I should have been thinking about what I was doing, kinda fantasizing about what I was gonna be doing when it was over … I’m sorry that Universal had to write a check for six and a half million dollars for me to understand that I needed to make Schizopolis, but that’s kinda what happened.”
Schizopolis, and to a lesser extent the Spalding Gray monologue film Gray’s Anatomy, are Soderbergh’s psychic break. They are strange and beautiful and fun and deeply uncommercial. After scavenging for intrigue in broken genre parts for nearly seven years, he ditched the scrap yard and drove straight to the landfill. To explain the tautological three-part story is to turn into a pretzel, so feel free to spoil it for yourself here. But see this movie if you can. It’s a mind-corker. Soderbergh stars, and his ex-wife, Betsy Brantley — their marriage had just come apart at the time — plays his wife. Here’s a sample of the dialogue from an early scene, in which Soderbergh’s character returns home, that captures the movie’s peculiar essence:
Fletcher: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Fletcher: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Fletcher: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!
Schizopolis is the reset button for Soderbergh. He shook off the nerves and the rookie mistakes by diving so deep inside his own ass that he emerged without a stain on him.
The Rebirth (1998-2001)
The Projects: Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
“What was great about The Limey was that the time it took from the moment of meeting to discuss the movie to me delivering the finished film was nine months. The good news was, that fed in me a desire to then do something very normal, and it was during that period of making The Limey that I committed to doing Erin Brockovich, which was a project I had turned down during Out of Sight. And then I went right into Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, which was a good run.” —Soderbergh, 2009
Between 1998 and 2001, Soderbergh made the best Elmore Leonard adaptation there will likely ever be, one of the best modern noir films since Chinatown, helped Julia Roberts win an Oscar, and won a Best Director statuette for helming Traffic. That year, he beat out Ang Lee, Ridley Scott, Stephen Daldry, and … Steven Soderbergh. It was the first time a director had been nominated for two different movies in the same year since 1938 — and despite Soderbergh’s formal inventiveness during this period, it’s the old-school studio system pros that he most resembled.
Soderbergh wasn’t trying to subvert Hollywood, he was trying to take it back to its glorious, prolific roots. Don’t think of his work during this period as an extension of the French New Wave or the ’70s American cinema — think of it as a throwback to the likes of Michael Curtiz and Hawks. Soderbergh’s 2000 run of Traffic and Erin Brockovich is like Curtiz making Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca in 1942, or Hawks making To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River over the course of four years in the ’40s. This was hurry-up, high-end Hollywood filmmaking.
Several of Soderbergh’s films were admired prior to 1998, but we don’t think any film he’s made, before or since, has been loved the way people love Out of Sight. He found perfect pitch in this movie; there’s not one bum note in the whole thing. You ever hear your parents or grandparents talk about the wonder with which they watched Hollywood classics? All those brilliant, bright faces, the get-you-into-bed charisma, the transporting stories, the big love? That’s how we watch Out of Sight. God. Movie stars, right?
It’s just soft-focus enough to be escapist, just hard enough to be Leonard. The stars are almost unbearably beautiful, whether they’re in prison jumpsuits or sweatshorts and Marino jerseys, and the supporting cast — Brooks, Zahn, Cheadle, Guzmán, Keener, Farina, Rhames — is basically the character-actor Avengers. Has there ever been a crime movie so playful? Is the Karen-Jack relationship the most romantic goddamn thing you’ve ever seen? You wanted to tussle? We tussled.
Out of Sight is Soderbergh’s The Color of Money, his make-good after some time in the wilderness, proving that he could produce a competent and bankable product. Where Martin Scorsese used that capital to go off and make The Last Temptation of Christ, Soderbergh delved deeper into commercial filmmaking with Erin Brockovich.
That movie is basically high-end Rob Reiner, even if it’s aspiring for the clarity of Nichols, one of Soderbergh’s heroes. It has some nice moments — especially in the way it captures the feel of lower-middle-class Inland Empire California — but for all the acclaim it garnered, it’s maybe the least interesting film in his catalogue.
You’d be forgiven if, by the end of 2000, you thought Soderbergh was becoming an issues-driven filmmaker. Traffic came out right after Christmas and was a critical success. I fucking hated this movie when it came out, but I realize now I was mostly reacting to how out of place one-third of it feels. Michael Douglas, playing the newly appointed U.S. drug czar, is trapped in a faux-docudrama (look! It’s really Orrin Hatch!) and he can’t get out. But the La Jolla and Tijuana stuff plays like gangbusters. The cast in this section — Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guzmán, Clifton Collins, Miguel Ferrer (!), Benjamin Bratt (!!), Steven Bauer, Jacob Vargas, Tomas Milian — are all in full flight. This is probably my favorite Benicio Del Toro performance, and he was a deserving Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor.
There are small moments that feel entirely Soderbergh, whether it’s Guzmán and Cheadle bullshitting in a van, or Cliff Martinez–scored cityscapes like this one:
But the miracle here is the way Soderbergh Trojan-horsed in a Costa-Gavras film on the Christmas 2000 moviegoing public. On the DVD director’s commentary, Soderbergh talks about the influence of The Battle of Algiers, Z, and Sorcerer. This isn’t like when people were trying to tell you that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was kind of like The Parallax View. Traffic is a genuine tribute and meditation on its influences — you can feel it as sure as you can feel the dust in your teeth.
“If I can’t watch a film like Persona and realize, Oh, Ingmar Bergman is an originator and I’m a synthesist, then I don’t know what I’m doing. Part of knowing what you’re doing is understanding, Okay, I can’t drive the lane. But I can shoot from the outside.” —Soderbergh, 2009
You don’t need to worry about dust with Ocean’s Eleven. What if the two best-looking people alive were also cool and pulled off a heist in which nobody really got hurt? Sure. Sounds like a good idea for a movie. Maybe it’s not the best film of the last 20 years, but can you name any that is more rewatchable? The formula here is so potent it’s probably locked away in Area 51, but its pleasures are decidedly earthly. Take Brad Pitt and George Clooney and Matt Damon, surround them with wonderful character actors, dress them well, have them do impossibly cool shit, and then, crucially, have them do stuff like this:
Stars — they’re just like us.
Five Really Great Things in Traffic You Have Forgotten
1. Pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones shouting, “Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!”
2. Benjamin Bratt telling pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones to test the cocaine she has brought him.
3. Benjamin Bratt doing the coke and saying, “THAT’S GOOD COKE.”
4. Miguel Ferrer as “Ruiz” and Dennis Quaid as “Arnie.”
5. Topher Grace teaching Erika Christensen to chase the dragon, and her SINGLE TEAR OF JOY.
The Weirdness (2002-06)
The Projects: Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), K Street (2003), Eros (“Equilibrium”) (2004), Ocean’s Twelve (2005), Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006)
Sean: Chris, we’ve come to a difficult period. How should we chronicle Soderbergh’s middle-aged wandering?
Chris: Ah, but it was a difficult period for the audience, maybe not for Soderbergh. Of this weird, winding, and not-so-entertaining run of movies, Soderbergh told Interview: “The reason that I can jump out of bed every morning and stay happy is that even if you take the list of movies that people don’t like, that didn’t work, either critically or commercially or whatever, even if you just showed me that list, I’d go, ‘That’s not a bad list.'”
Sean: If only this were about the interior emotional life of Steven Soderbergh and not about how we feel about him. Let’s take our crack at these projects, each one sort of troubled, sort of snakebit, and sort of fascinating.
Chris: Has there ever been a director-actor combo that had more cultural capital than Soderbergh and Clooney did in 2002, and decided to spend it in such weird ways as K Street, Solaris, and The Good German? I mean, where was their Band of Brothers?
Sean: Before we go too far, I’ll stick up for K Street. Everyone is very excited to praise The Knick, and they should. But the degree of difficulty on K Street, which is shot like verité, with largely non-actors (James Carville and Mary Matalin primarily), and plays out in the real time of a political race, is a really neat trick. It never fit the conventions of the then-emerging “golden age of television,” but it’s got roots in Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. It didn’t get a second season because it wasn’t supposed to. Bush got a second term.
Chris: Sadly lost to history, too, right? It’s not available on HBO GO or Amazon. Is there some scandalous Dianne Feinstein moment or something?
Sean: You can still buy the DVD. Remember those?
Chris: Settle down.
Sean: So, setting aside K Street, and the segment of Eros that he made, since that’s not a stand-alone project, what are the movies you would fuck, marry, and kill from the remaining?
Chris: Fuck the first 25 minutes of Solaris, marry Ocean’s Twelve because you can spend the rest of your life with those movies, and kill The Good German, which is really as bad as everyone said it was. What about you?
Sean: I’m going to fuck Ocean’s Twelve because of Flustered Brad Pitt.
I will marry Bubble, because that is the true measure of “fuck-you money” and is arguably better than a Barbara Kopple documentary about real people.
Chris: Shots at Kopple. #duckdownkopple
Sean: And Full Frontal needs to die because Soderbergh should have had the cutesy New Wave–inspired montage stuff out of his system. No bonus points for doing so with Julia Roberts, of whom I am not a fan.
Chris: Cool, I’m coming over to watch Erin Brockovich. See you in 10.
Pictures From a Revolution (2007-08)
The Projects: Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), Che — Part 1: The Argentine (2008), Che — Part 2: Guerrilla (2008)
Here is a not totally unfair set of assumptions we made before Che was released in 2008: This is going to be his David Lean movie. He’s done heists, space, and sex — now he’s doing “the epic.” Benicio Del Toro is in the role he was born to play, in a movie about one of the most compelling people of the 20th century. This is going to be Soderbergh’s Lawrence of Arabia, his Spartacus. It’s even got an overture!
Here is what we got: “What would I want to see if I went to see a movie called Che? In this case, a lot of people have a very personal idea towards him, and the film isn’t very concerned with that [laughs]. It’s not a movie about feelings.” No shit! It’s actually a movie about walking and making lunch and dealing with asthma, along with idealism, Marxism, and revolutions. For Soderbergh, process makes perfect. In this sense, he chronicles the ups and downs of a guerrilla rebellion with the same attention to detail paid to Daniel Ocean’s casino heist.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it’s doubtful that Soderbergh looked at this gig any differently than he did Ocean’s Eleven. In interviews surrounding the film’s release, Soderbergh portrayed himself almost as a gun for hire — coming in to save a movie that had gotten off course. He had developed the movie, and then turned it over to Terrence Malick, who eventually left the project to do The Tree of Life, paving the way for Soderbergh’s return. He jettisoned a planned section about Guevara’s time in the Congo, found what really interested him about the story, and made the movie that best explored that. But even upon completing the film, there was confusion about how it should be released — one four-hour film? Two two-hour parts? At one point he suggested it would have been served better as a miniseries on television.
Che is fascinating for the way Soderbergh denies the viewer the usual triumphs and tragedies that come with historical epics, but it’s even more compelling for what it says about its director. Our preconceptions were right and they were wrong. Soderbergh was a great filmmaker trying his hand at a historical epic; it just so happens that he chose to make his kind of historical epic. You say you want a revolution? Soderbergh had already made that movie — it’s the Casey Affleck story line in Ocean’s Thirteen.
Five Steven Soderbergh Movies That Never Happened
A 3-D Cleopatra musical, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, with music by Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard. Really. This might still happen, on Broadway.
Everyone from Clooney to Gosling to Fassbender was attached to this spy movie tentpole. Guy Ritchie is making it now, with Henry Cavill.
Join the club. Harold Ramis, John Waters, and David Gordon Green have all circled this one. Nobody can seem to get it made.
A 12-hour satire of 17th-century life in London and colonial Maryland? Based on a masterpiece of postmodern literature? Who says no?!
The Passionate Larks (2009-10)
The Projects: The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant! (2009), And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)
“There’s probably a commonality in protagonists who feel through sheer will they can make things turn out the way they want them to turn out, and Che’s the most extreme example of that,” Soderbergh said in 2009. “But in that regard he’s not that much different than Jack Foley in Out of Sight. Or Graham Dalton in Sex, Lies.”
Add The Girlfriend Experience’s Christine (Sasha Grey) and The Informant!’s Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) to that list. Those two roving souls tell two lies for every truth, working in equally illicit worlds: high-end prostitution and corporate whoring. The affectless, porcelain Grey, then a porn star, is compellingly blank in GFE, an unusual experiment. When asked why he made it, Soderbergh said, “The idea of money is really interesting to me, when you begin to think about how that started. Who was the first person to figure out that you could ascribe a value to something like a piece of zinc or gold or a diamond? … What’s fascinating about economics is how clean it is and how clear an expression it is of any culture’s values.”
So there’s that. Time spent with a beautiful woman who makes you feel loved is largely considered invaluable, which is a concept that this movie — which, like Ocean’s Thirteen, was cowritten by Grantland contributor Brian Koppelman — explores at length. It’s not an active picture — it lurks and peers around the bend. It flashes, building structure up and then tearing it down. It’s a callback to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, again casting the implied crudity of sex against the feelings behind it. It’s never less than clever, if not quite fun. Experience is the right word.
The Informant! is an inversion — not about a beauty, but about a dumpy dolt working for Big Corn who embroils himself in a preposterous whistle-blowing scheme. It’s based on a true story, but Soderbergh doesn’t really do docudrama, does he?
But it sure is a sunny true-farce. This may be the quintessential Damon performance — he has worked with Soderbergh seven times (the most of any movie star), but here he is wide-eyed, impervious to intelligence, cheery to the point of grotesquerie, and altogether psychotic. Also fat. The series of reveals about his character’s narration as the story unfolds are incredibly funny and absurd, like watching a liar’s nose grow by the second. Some of the big ideas — corporations are dangerous, and so is every moron on earth — are direct, but not unfair. Soderbergh is outspoken about his views about greed, religion, and violence. He likes to say that his movies are mostly meaningless, that they don’t solve the world’s problems. But they do raise the stakes on discourse — they’re entertainments, but they demand intelligence too. They keep your mind working. The Informant! isn’t quite a lost movie, but it was somewhat passed over by the public, who couldn’t quite sink into its Marvin Hamlisch score or oddball sensibility, and probably not its ideas of betrayal and trust in corporate America. It needs more love. Go check it out.
Of working in the studio system, Robert Altman was fond of saying, “I make gloves, and they sell shoes.” Soderbergh is not like that. He’s not iconoclastic. He’s a hugely appealing creative partner who attracts a hit parade of actors, screenwriters, and collaborators drawn to his drive. The biggest stars shine brightest on his watch. But that doesn’t mean he won’t take detours. Spalding Gray was the beneficiary of one of those detours in 1996, when, during a creative reinvention, Soderbergh took eight days to shoot Gray’s Anatomy, a monologue about the horrors of a decision to undergo a dangerous eye surgery. It’s the third of three Gray monologue movies (Jonathan Demme and Nick Broomfield made the other two) and it’s a woozy exercise, with shifting sets, hypnagogic effects, and visual curios splattered throughout. It doesn’t have the best reputation, but it’s great Kabuki theater. So when Gray — who spoke often of his mother’s nervous breakdown and suicide — took his own life in 2004, Soderbergh began compiling a sort of visual biography composed entirely of interviews and monologue segments. The result, And Everything Is Going Fine, is a tribute, a revelation, and a final act of friendship between two men who dreamed of how big the world could be, but knew how small it often is.
The “Retirement” (2011-present)
The Projects: Contagion (2011), Haywire (2012), Magic Mike (2012), Side Effects (2013), Behind the Candelabra (2013), The Knick (2014)
“After Che, I felt I had gotten the important movie shit out of my system.” Good, then let’s take our clothes off, play some Rihanna, give Gwyneth gooping cough, and have Gina Carano fight all the men.
Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Side Effects — four movies in almost two and a half years — marked the end (for now) of Soderbergh theatrical films. He did not go gentle into that good night, but it sure seemed like he had a blast doing it.
In 30 months, he released a viral outbreak movie, a Bourne movie, a De Palma triple-cross thriller, and a male-stripper romp that gave Matthew McConaughey historical-landmark status and made Channing Tatum an actual star. Magic Mike joins Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven in the “Well, this is on TV, so I guess I am sitting down and watching the rest of it” class of ridiculously entertaining Soderbergh efforts, but all four of his most recent feature films are worth your time.
There is something melancholy about this being a sort of ending for Soderbergh. But don’t mourn him. First of all, he’s not going anywhere (The Knick! Friday! Cinemax!), and, as funerals go, this was a pretty joyous exit.
This is where being a Soderbergh watcher is almost as rewarding as watching Soderbergh films. Sure, there’s inside baseball about, well, inside baseball, but beyond the gossip, following Soderbergh’s career gives you a deeper understanding of his work.
Just take this latest quartet. He made Haywire because he was looking for something to do after leaving/getting fired from Moneyball. He made Side Effects because he walked from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When life hands Steven Soderbergh lemons, he has an iced tea and says, “Lemons are still interesting!” You start to see his films as reactions to those that came before them, whether directed by him, or Ingmar Bergman, or William Friedkin, or David Fincher. You start to see his failures as the experiments they are, or you appreciate his blockbusters as the “the final assault on heterosexuality in movies” that they are meant to be. Everything that surrounds a movie, all the circumstances, all the movies that came before it, is what makes that movie. And that movie makes the next movie, which makes the next painting, which makes the next television show. We just have to watch.