Steven Soderbergh challenges the idea of ‘auteurism’.
“I want John Huston’s career. I want a lot of movies over a long period of time. And then we’ll go back, if we want to – I don’t want to, but somebody else can – and sort it all out.” – Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh is one of those writer/director/actor/cinematographer/editor – yeah, one of those – that despite having a vast oeuvre does not a signature style. Filmmakers like Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, and Paul Thomas Anderson – all filmmakers that rose out of the independent ‘Sundance’ scene in the 90s – all have a recognizable aesthetic. Tarantino has his violent pop-culture obsessed medley, Coppola has her dreamy teenage angst, and P. T. A has his deeply flawed characters, framed in long-takes. Point being, most contemporary directors do not venture too far out of what they know and do best. But what about Soderbergh? “Soderbergh-esque” hasn’t entered cinematic discourse. No one says “wow that’s just so Soderbergh.” He doesn’t have a defining visual or thematic style that sets him apart. In that way, Soderbergh challenges the very idea of the auteur.
Auteurism arose in the 1950s by film critics at the French journal Cahiers du cinéma who sought to aggrandize the creative vision of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. In their eyes, it was the director, not the screenwriter or the producer, that was the film’s true author. To be considered an auteur, the filmmaker must have a distinct visual style, a thematic thorough line, and a struggle with the film business’ industrial process. In short, a singular creative vision defines the auteur.
Auteurism is highly contentious among film theorists, for it disregards the collaborative nature of filmmaking and often prioritizes the male filmmakers. After all, not that many female filmmakers get the chance to make enough films to be considered to have a body of work. And the theory also doesn’t account for filmmakers like Soderbergh, that is inconsistent filmmakers. What I mean by inconsistent isn’t that some of his films are great and others are terrible, although that is true to a certain degree, that his films waver more in their formal, visual and thematic elements. And few filmmakers who have directed as many films as 30 films would be consistent. In fact, he’s directed more films than Tarantino, Coppola, and PTA combined.
We’ve come to romanticize directors like Tarantino and PTA who make a film every 5 years. Amidst the infinite content, these directors stand out as patient and meticulous artists who haven’t given in to the assembly line production pressures of Hollywood. Yet, lost in this mythology, are entrepreneurial filmmakers like Soderbergh. Not that many directors in Hollywood start off making a Palme d’Or winning film, follow it up with critical and commercial failures (Kafka and Schizopolis) and then go on to win a Best Director Oscar against himself (Soderbergh is only the second filmmaker in history to compete against himself and win (and lose) for the Best Director award). And yet, Soderbergh is not the Indie Auteur turned Hollywood Hack. He’s floating somewhere in the middle, his tent perched in both camps.
As a director who never plays it safe, he’s sure to come out with a few duds. But his bad films aren’t simply bad, they’re disappointing. All of his films are interesting and push the envelope in some way or another, but some of them like Schizopolis and Full Frontal veer off course. When watching some of his less acclaimed films, one gets the sense that his films are more like testing grounds than final drafts. On his low-budget experimental films, he can afford to adopt more than a couple creative roles. As director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, and even actor, Soderbergh honed all the necessary skills needed on a film set which he can then apply to bigger budget films. What’s most impressive about Soderbergh is how daring he is. He doesn’t want to make films the easiest way. In the director’s commentary on The Limey, he speaks about “a desire to just find a new way to give the audience information about the story and the character. There has to be a better way to lay this out for people or at least you can be more adventurous and release information in a way that’s less traditional.” Whether it’s avoiding the shot/reserve shot tradition or creating a non-linear narrative, Soderbergh is always trying to push his boundaries.
Another reason why Soderbergh has largely been dismissed by contemporary film criticism is that his large body of work is too complex. To try to find a through line in all of his films is biting off more than you can chew. In their book of essays “The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh”, Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait dub Soderbergh as a “sellebrity auteur.” They explain that “the term sellebrity auteur is a paradoxical concept that signals the complexities and contradictions of contemporary commercial cinematic authorship, in which the sellebrity auteur injects a consideration of commerce, promotion, and celebrity into conventional theories of authorship.” Indeed, the authors are keen to highlight Soderbergh’s business savvy. What with his filmmaker-empowering financing model on Logan Lucky and that meta-scene in Ocean’s Twelve where Julia Roberts has to pretend to be….Julia Roberts, Soderbergh has proven that he knows how to navigate the industry and use celebrity culture in order to get what he wants. As deWaard and Tait say in their book, “the Soderberghian signature is not a brush stroke, but a full-on filmmaking factory.”