Monday, February 25, 2013

ABANDONED THEATER: Steven Soderbergh, the Side Effects of a Career Doppelganger


Steven Soderbergh has always been a culmination of many influences. He believes in the entertainment value of a big budget flick as well as the powerful voice a small film and sustains our thinking minds—at least until recently. When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, I was saddened and surprised. I admire his filmmaking quite a bit, and his voice has always been one I admire, at least since I began appreciating film the way I do now. I’m not surprised that he is quitting, having watched some interviews from 2008 on The Criterion Collection’s Che supplements. He doesn’t have faith in film any more. It is too disposable to people, and maybe to itself. When we leave films today, Soderbergh says we ask, “What do we get for dinner?”  And he’s right. And it’s sad.

But back to the positives, and to how we got “here:” Soderbergh’s career has been a slow evolution from indie darling to extremely precise genre cowboy. He can do anything, from an epic like Che to a crowd-pleasing heist film like Ocean’s Eleven to a quiet art house film featuring non-professional actors like Bubble, and he always does it with the sort of precision other filmmakers cannot pull off.

It all started early with Soderbergh, when he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (1989) with his first feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape. He proved to be a major player in the film world, and with the likes of Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight, Dazed and Confused, Bernie) allowed the Sundance Generation (the Gen X-ers) to spark an independent film boom. Soderbergh himself was nominated for a Screenwriting Oscar for Sex, Lies, and Videotape after his Sundance and Cannes wins, which paved the way for people like Benh Zeitlin to accumulate four Oscar nominations for his own Sundance hit this year—Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Soderbergh improved from his impressive debut. His two masterpieces are his Oscar-winning film Traffic and his underrated Che biopic. With Traffic he combined three stories, only related by theme, into one film using very different shooting techniques. It was also the first time he shot his own film as his own director of photography. He used a blue filter for the cold world of politics and family in D.C. and Ohio, he overexposed his footage of Mexican cops dealing with a corrupt drug world, and he used top-lit and strobe-light-like techniques in his DEA storyline in California. The story is coherent, enthralling, and insanely creative in its depiction. On Che, Soderbergh’s craftsmanship continued by acting as his first exposure to RED digital cameras. In two films, Soderbergh impressively tells Che’s story by first shooting vibrantly the heroic ascension of the revolutionary in Cuba in the first film, and then his failed re-revolution in Bolivia with a more handheld, different aspect-ratioed approach in the second. Regardless of one’s opinion of Che, Soderbergh’s journalistic take on how someone can go from hero to failure, yet remaining simultaneously distant to identifiable, especially with such a controversial figure, is well-done.

A wide variety of films are peppered throughout Soderbergh’s filmography, which is the ultimate allure for me to his filmmaking. “What the hell is he going to do next?” is a common thought I have.  He was interested in making commercial films with all-star casts and insanely low budget indie films, like Bubble and the Sasha Grey-staring The Girlfriend Experience. He created schizophrenic depictions of himself in the experimental and masturbatory Schizopolis. In the late 90s, along with Tarantino and Fincher, Soderbergh left a lasting impact on crime films, with The Limey and the George Clooney-starring Out of Sight. His recent string of films (The Informant!, Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, with Haywire being the only possible weak link) is particularly strong and unified in their depiction, even though their stories are vastly different. And now it is over, right when Soderbergh found a style to stick to, and was reaching the outer limits of the genres he is constantly wrangling. The end.


Side Effects, Soderbergh’s last film, according to the director himself, is a nice ending for him. Soderbergh has never so obviously riffed off of Hitchcock, but he does here, and in the best possible way. It is a mystery wrapped in a mystery based on the pharmaceutical and psychiatry industries intermingling with one another. It is broadly political, but more about the twists and turns and characters therein. I’m not going to go into plot details, because this movie is incredibly spoilable, with its twists and turns each wonderful, like in the best Hitchcock films[i].  but I will say that it acts as a perfect culmination of Soderbergh up until this point.

Side Effects is an homage to the past, filled with its smart thrillers featuring all-star casts, for the modern day. Hitchcock worked with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman time and time again, while Soderbergh has worked with George Clooney and Matt Damon repeatedly. Lately, his fascination has been working with Jude Law and Channing Tatum. Tatum’s work with Soderbergh (Haywire, Side Effects, and especially Magic Mike) is the only reason I take him seriously as an actor. I’ll consider seeing his future movies, because I know he can act and he takes his roles seriously, as shown in his work with Mr. Soderbergh. In Side Effects, Jude Law gives one of his best performances in a while, outside maybe Anna Karenina, and he surprisingly works very well as the Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant character in this case.  He is flawed, a bit unstable, but incredibly identifiable. Of all of the characters in Side Effects, we return to Law’s plight in as the man wronged (not going into detail—no plot here!). But he is not the only talent in the cast. Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a fantastic turn by Rooney Mara round out this effective ensemble.

Soderbergh’s work with ensembles is storied. There is almost no one better at wielding a large cast than he is. He observes each of his characters in Side Effects with care, as he did in Out of Sight, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven. Each character has their moment where we, the audience, identify with them, and each show their flaws in big ways. There is nothing inauthentic about how these people are depicted, through even their worst actions. Part of the strength, other than the acting and writing, is how these characters are depicted through Soderbergh’s cinematography and editing.

The digital image age is upon us, and Soderbergh, alongside those like Michael Mann and even old-school Martin Scorsese as of late, champion its implementation in modern film. Luddites like Quentin Tarantino lament for film and shooting on film, but with modern cameras, there is no limit to the power of the digital cinematography and editing. Soderbergh recognizes this, and he loves the look of the digital image. It sanitizes the shot, as opposed to the cloudier look of a movie shot on film. By using these cameras, smaller and more nimble than ever, Soderbergh investigates the aesthetic of observing people acting. The digital image is better for this sort of observation filmmaking than the more authoritative picture on film.

Sodebergh is interested in observing people acting out roles in the real world. In The Informant!, Matt Damon’s character is a big lie-within-a-lie, fooling everyone that he is some sort of hero, even himself. With Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, we have women protagonists who are playing roles, whether that is of the confidante in times of trouble (Bubble) or the “girlfriend”. Maybe the best example is Magic Mike, in which Channing Tatum’s protagonist is playing the role of male stripper when he is truly a businessman, and even an artist, at heart. It is always for some perceived reward, whether money (Magic Mike, The Informant!) or alibi (Bubble). Side Effects continues this trend in Soderbergh’s observational digital filmmaking, with multiple characters playing roles within the film itself, in a meta way even.

Soderbergh, from the beginnings of his career, has always been an influential force on film. He influenced the indie film generation. He influenced the all-star blockbusters of the 2000s. He influenced the digital film transition today. Yet somehow, he always remained anonymous. The anti-auteur, Soderbergh always made films that could be anyone’s. He is his own cinematographer and editor, but he uses pseudonyms. He is playing roles, like his characters that he is so fascinated by in each film. Side Effects is no different in this approach to filmmaking. Soderbergh is acting as Hitchcock.

While Soderbergh never achieved to be the best filmmaker there ever was, he was incredibly focused in his interest of telling stories in the best ways that he could. And now that he is done making films—save for a made-for-TV movie coming out on HBO about Liberace, another left-turn—we can’t look forward to another Soderbergh film. Except we can. His influence is everywhere, and he always works anonymously. He always was one for playing roles, and thanks to his influence, many other directors are playing Soderbergh.

The snake eats its own tail.

I give Side Effects a Decent 8 out of 10.

[i] I’m looking at you Vertigo!


  1. WOW - Excellent Post, TJ - dense and knowledgeable. As is the case with much great analysis of this kind, I felt like I was learning something interesting, new and valuable that in a way I had already known - just not so distinctly. It also got me fired up to re-watch some of his movies - always a great sign. "The anti-auteur", will stick with me as much as anything I've ever read about Soderbergh. I believe I read somewhere that while he is "retiring" from film-making, he may be interested in television. Or perhaps it was just wishful dreaming! Either way -That would be AWESOME. Big props for this piece!

  2. Good review TJ. There are enough redeeming details in this movie to make it worthy of viewing. Just don't expect this to be the best Soderbergh film of his career.