In contrast to other well-respected filmmakers whose revisited obsessions traverse and develop across a litany of discrete works, Steven Soderbergh has most often been described as a expressive and ever-experimenting formalist, a master technician, a “process-rather-than-results person,” but never an auteur. But with Soderbergh’s immanent retirement on the horizon (his last theatrical film, Side Effects, will be released Friday, followed by his HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra), there seems to be a sense of urgency in attempting to make sense of a talented filmmaker who’s worked within and without the studio system, through various genres, and with budgets ranging from giant to shoestring.
While Soderbergh is rather open about his process, what compels him to tackle certain subjects, and how they’re tied together, may remain a mystery – if, in fact, there’s any logic informing his choices at all beyond stylistic exercise and an addiction to workahol.
But when examining the five (or, arguably, six) films of his that have been released through The Criterion Collection, an interesting pattern emerges – perhaps not one that encompasses all his works, but one that certainly applies to several films outside the small percentage of the prolific filmmaker’s career represented here.
Soderbergh’s films are constantly exploring the limits and intricate operations of social systems – most often systems of law and order, as represented by films like Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, The Informant!, Contagion, Haywire, and the Oceans films.
But Soderbergh’s work addresses other systems as well: systems of language (Schizopolis), systems of perceived social decorum (sex, lies, and videotape), systems of finance (The Girlfriend Experience), and hermetically sealed subcultures that have their own systems of behavior (Full Frontal, Bubble, Magic Mike).
Sure, subjects like prostitution, environmental lawsuits, revenge, drugs, plagues, and organized crime have made for compelling narratives elsewhere, but what makes Soderbergh’s work so unique is the immersion and attention to detail given to the operations of the system itself. Films like Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Schizopolis, and Magic Mike are essentially plotless, and the narrative detail that makes up works like Full Frontal and Haywire are hardly consequential in their particular details; in the films of Soderbergh, the world of the story is the story itself.
The content of Soderbergh’s work is, in short, always exploring the edge of the construct.
While Soderbergh’s films in The Criterion Collection only make up a small portion of his overall filmography, they are in some ways representative of his career as a whole. Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine encapsulate the fact that Soderbergh often approaches his work by exploring subject matter outside himself; beyond Schizopolis, he is about as far from an autobiographical filmmaker as one could find, and his cinematic concerns are instead realized through projections and investigations of life elsewhere.
Traffic captures not only the mosaic, multi-character narratives that make up a significant amount of Soderbergh’s work, but the film also represents his ability to work firmly within mainstream, high-grossing, “prestige” filmmaking alongside low-budget independents. Schizopolis and Che find Soderbergh at the most extreme polarities of his diverse engagement with filmmaking, with extremely small-scale work on the one hand and ambitious, large-scale filmmaking on the other. But what’s most interesting about these two (or three) films is what connects them: they’re both experimental and audacious within their respective scopes.
Here’s an overview of the work by Steven Soderbergh in The Criterion Collection…
Gray’s Anatomy/And Everything is Going Fine (1996/2010)
While I’m not certain about this, I imagine Soderbergh wouldn’t necessarily consider these two Spalding Gray films (one a recording of one of Gray’s monologues, the other a meticulously edited documentary about the late performer’s work and his words) to be “Soderbergh films,” but rather films Soderbergh made for and in tribute of another artist whose work he greatly admires.
Besides Gray’s palpable talent and mesmerizing employment of language, it’s a bit strange that Soderbergh would find any affinity in Gray, for the character of their respective pursuits could not be further apart. Gray bears his life and his soul on stage, diving into deep introspective observational territory about the best and worst of life, specifically his own. Soderbergh’s work, by contrast, is almost clinical in its economic precision, and “Soderbergh himself” is difficult to find, if available at all; in other words, Soderbergh’s work is the opposite of a monologue.
Yet at the same time, Gray was invested in themes that connect to several of Soderbergh’s films, namely the rupture between the way we’re “supposed” to be have – the way we’re expected to behave in “civilized” society – and the way we desire to act. Of course the man who made sex, lies and videotape enjoys the work of Spalding Gray. Of course.
Easily Soderbergh’s most personal work (he even stars in it!), this madcap, hilariously subversive deconstruction of language, semiotics, and suburban social customs avoids any threat of coherent meaning. The film pushes its characters, and its audience, to the edge of comprehensibility, providing numerous scenarios that resemble conventional social interaction (or, at least, as commonly represented in films and on television), but throws a wrench into each and every semblance of normalcy.
There are few films this funny and enjoyable that revel in revealing the social construction of modern living. It’s like a far funnier version of Godard’s late-60s work. Made after a string of semi-mainstream financial flops, Schizopolis was Soderbergh’s desperate attempt at finding meaning through movies; and he did so, surprisingly, through exploring the false meanings that make up nearly all facets of everyday life.
While Soderbergh’s recent work comprises some of the most interesting output of his career, Traffic was released, arguably, at the apex of his reputation. After releasing some of his best work during the late ‘90s (Out of Sight and The Limey), Traffic was the centerpiece of a triumvirate of considerable critical and financial successes (the others being Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s 11) that placed him at the height of his powers. (I can only interpret his subsequent Full Frontal and Solaris as his deliberate means to avoid the trappings of success among critics and audiences).
Traffic is perhaps the defining Soderbergh film, not because it’s his best (far from it), but because it’s the most legible shorthand for understanding Soderbergh’s style, from the mosaic narrative to the structuring color scheme of the handheld camerawork to the muted flow of action to the presence of Luis Guzman. Traffic is one of the most explicit examples of Soderbergh’s revisited thematic concerns in its exploration of a complex systemic structure through an ensemble of characters that exist on various sides of that structure.
Che can be interpreted as the inverse of Traffic in its exploration of the construct: instead of showing many actors at play with respect to one giant social topic, Che examines profound socio-political change through the framework of one consequential man’s experience. Far from a biopic, Che is a film that creates incredible distance from its iconic central character to the point of demythologizing him while retaining his enigmatic status (this isn’t, in short, the Cliche Guevara of T-shirts or the young lion of The Motorcycle Diaries). Yet at the same time, the film explores the pragmatic means by which ideological projects come to fruition. In juxtaposing Che’s UN visit, narration of his philosophy of war, and portraying two coups that incurred wildly different results. It – like much of Soderbergh’s work – is concerned with the details that make up human interaction within larger social projects.
Che, like the man himself, is made up of a series of contradictions. It’s length is epic, yet this film never necessarily resembles a conventional epic, nor does it come remotely close to painting a comprehensive and consistent picture of the eponymous historical figure. In fact, the film reveals in Che-as-contradiction in its division into two films whose titles each refer to different aspects about his personality: the Argentine idealist and the guerrilla warrior.
If Traffic is Soderbergh’s definitive film by default, then Che is his ur-text, a film that contains many of the prevailing concerns and characteristics of its filmmaker’s career. Soderbergh too is enigmatic and composed of seeming contradictions, always at work within and between disparate polarities of filmmaking. With its sleek widescreen first part and the grainy 16mm-sheen of its second (all masterfully executed through the RED One), Che embodies in a “single” film Soderbergh’s various approaches to style depending on source material. And finally, Che illustrates all the possibilities of living at the edge of the construct: The Argentine promises a world in which systems are subject to change through human will, while Guerilla depicts this same figure at the mercy of systems far too vast to conquer.
Then again, perhaps a career this diverse is summarized best by a film colored by contradiction.