Steven Soderbergh: The Forgotten Films

Tom Seymour

Steven Soderbergh, who has directed 26 feature films in 24 years, has announced his retirement – again. Matt Damon first let it slip doing press for 2009’s The Informant! and Soderbergh – who made Sex, Lies and Videotape at the age of 26 – has talked about it ever since, while making another five films. This time, though, he might be serious. 

"I just don't think movies matter much anymore, culturally," he told Vulture. “I feel like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

Soderbergh’s damning assessment of millennial cinema comes with the release of Side Effects, his Hitchcockian noir thriller starring Rooney Mara as a depressed wife and Jude Law as her dedicated psychiatrist. As is typical of the most unpredictable of directors, Side Effects begins by suggesting it will be one sort of movie, quickly becomes something else, before morphing again.

Rooney Mara in 'Side Effects' - Soderbergh's last movie? 

Side Effects is an effortlessly stylish movie, proof of what a loss to cinema Soderbergh will be. It’s capped a remarkably fertile late period of creativity for the 50-year-old. Last year saw the release of Contagion, Magic Mike and Haywire, while he has also completed Behind The Candelabra, a film considered “too gay” for Hollywood, so HBO have assumed distribution duties.

He’s made sprawling, social-issue sagas (Traffic and Contagion), star-vehicles (Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Eleven franchise), low-budget indie musers (Sex, Lies and Videotape and King of the Hill) socio-historical portrayals (The Che films, The Good German) and slick, genre-led studio bankers (The Informant! and Haywire). He’s a reliably unreliable but relentlessly diverse director; surely one of the best of his generation.

Here are some of his least celebrated films, and yet the ones he should be remembered for:

Out of Sight (1998) 

Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight launched the careers of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez; Clooney plays the suited bank robber who never uses a gun, only a loaded smile. J-Lo plays the most typical of US marshals; dressed in a belted leather coat and wielding a shotgun, with a cigarette and bourbon rasp for a voice. Clooney uses her to escape from prison, and the film stops to allow them – wedged into the trunk of a car – to talk old movies they used to watch. Later they sip whisky in a hotel bar, slowly wrapping their hands around the other. Both scenes burn with flirtation and foreplay, but that’s the point of the film: where fantasy ends and obligation begins. When you exist in a life you want, or could have had, before the fantasy is punctured by the real thing.

Solaris (2002) 

James Cameron tried to buy the rights to Andrei Tarkovsky’s notoriously talk-laden 1972 sci-fi epic. God knows what that would’ve looked like. Soderbergh’s version, which shaves the original 165 minutes to a mere 99, is a still and pensive drama which retains – and even heightens – the Russian’s solemnity and ethereal disquiet. The film doesn’t include one action sequence; barely do we glimpse at Solaris, the strange, beautiful star around which the space station orbits and which, somehow, acts like a human, enabling you to revisit the ones you’ve loved and lost. Soderbergh adapted the film himself, vowing to cleave more closely to Stanisław Lem’s original novel and courting Daniel Day-Lewis for the lead role before Clooney stepped in to anchor it with his cool emotionalism. It’s a wonderfully atypical, occasionally beautiful film; a little-talked of gem of its genre.

Bubble (2006) 

Released in theaters, online and on DVD at the same time, and encouraging non-professional actors taken from the Ohio-West Virginia border to improvise from a basic script, Soderbergh seems to be funneling John Cassavetes and the New Hollywood era with this quiet, enthralling piece of American social realism. The film depicts a love-triangle of sorts, as a platonic friendship is cruelly disturbed by the arrival of a pretty young single mother at the doll factory where they work. Shot in high-definition digital, it’s a haunting, compassionate and enduring film.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) 

This rough and plotless yet strangely stylish film marked another return to independent filmmaking for Soderbergh, who cast Sasha Grey, the porn star willing to go further than any before her, as an upmarket New York call girl working through questions of commitment and loyalty. She has a boyfriend, an amiable personal trainer who seems capable of dealing with her vocation, while also a series of regular clients, some more interested in talking than sex. Set to the backdrop of the 2008 American Presidential election, Grey’s an inscrutable but magnetic lead, the moments of intimacy and warmth she allows all the more conflicted for the actresses’ day-job. Who is this character on screen, and what does she really want? Is she any different from the real Sasha Grey? Underneath the gloss and shine lies a coercive and scary truth.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomSeymour  

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