Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Soderbergh Ready to Move to Florida; Start Complaining About Weather Incessantly

According to a recent articles out there on the Interwebs, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has announced that he is retiring from directing films. According to Soderbergh, he is simply done with making films, and he wants to get out and make way for others who still have the passion.
Soderbergh is probably known to most people as the director of the films in the Ocean's Eleven franchise, as well as the guy who, in one year, directed both Traffic and Erin Brokovich. Both were nominated for Best Picture. But he leaves behind a much larger legacy as one of the most successful and innovative independant filmmakers and as a champion of "little films".

He burst onto the American film scene with his first feature film sex, lies and videotape. It caused a sensation when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and pretty much put that fest on the map. It also sparked a massive interest independant film. Its success paved the way for Clerks, Reservoir DogsMetropolitan and other indie films that revolutionized American movies throughout the next decade.

Soberbergh had trouble connecting with audiences during this time. His follow up films, Kafka and King of the Hill, were not well-recieved. He began making more complex and idiosyncratic films, the best example of which is Schizopolis. But in 1998, he made a film, and found a collaborator, that would help catapault him to the top of the film world. That film was Out of Sight, and while it wasn't a big hit, it had a couple things going for it. First, it showed Soderbergh could make a mainstream film without sacrificing the qualities that made him unique. second, he worked with George Clooney, then a TV actor struggling to make his mark in the movies.

Out of Sight was well-recieved by critics, and it began to grow on audiences on video as well. His next film, The Limey was even more well-recieved, and it was clear that Soderbergh had found his groove working in the system. He was great at making mainstream films feel fresh and innovative. It seemed like he was ready to go to the next level, and craft a film that could be both a big hit and an artistic success.

In 2000, he directed two films. Erin Brokovich was pure Hollywood; a well-told story of an underdog beating corporate fatcats on behalf of sick kids and their poor parents. Traffic was an examination of the drug trade, from its manufacture in Mexico to its consumption by American youth, and was based on a British miniseries. Both were two of the best reviewed films of the year. Julia Roberts won an oscar for playing Brokovich, and Benicio Del Toro won an Oscar for his role in Traffic. More importantly, Soderbergh won Best Director. Now, he truly had a freedom that few directors achieve.

He followed this run with another Hollywood film, and reunited with Clooney in the process. It was a remake of the Rat Pack classic, Ocean's Eleven, this time with a ton of current stars (Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle), some legends (Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould) and some up and comers (Ben Affleck, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac). It was cool, it was fun, it was a massive hit.

He had set up a production company with Clooney, and began producing a number of significant films; Insomnia, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, Far From Heaven, Keane, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly, and Michael Clayton.

But, he seemed to view all this success as what he needed to achieve in order to do the bizarre, small, challenging work he truly loved. He followed up his Oscar year with Full Frontal, an experiment in no-frills filmmaking that flopped. Solaris was a big budget sci-fi film, but was more concerned with inner life than outer space. It didn't set any box office records, and wasn't tremendously well-recieved, but has since been rexamined, and is now far more well-regarded.

The sequel Ocean's Twelve was a hit, but made little sense. It seemed like an obligation more than anything else. But it allowed him to do Bubble, another small, innovative, esoteric film. Bubble was released simultaneously on DVD, on cable, and in theatres. It was an experiment that did not work, but no one could accuse him of being too mainstream. The Good German was an attempt at a throwback to Classic Hollywood that didn't work, and while Ocean's Thirteen successfully purged to bad taste left by the previous installment, it was clear that the latest film would be the franchise's last.

From here, Soderbergh evidently felt he had nothing left to prove, and so he seemed content to make films about subjects that interested him, in the way he wanted, without any compromise. He made a two-part film, in Spanish, about Che Guevara. It was heralded as a masterpiece by some, called flawed by others. But it was certainly an achievement. He followed up that opulent project with The Girlfriend Experience, a film about a prostitute starring Sasha Grey, a former porn star.

There was an indication he was returning to a more mainstream subject with The Informant!, a film that seemed to be a wacky comedy starring Matt Damon.  But the film wound up being more sad than wacky, even though it was darkly funny. It was around this time that Damon began intimating that he believed that Soderbergh might retire soon. The production company that he ran with George Clooney was closing down, and there were more and more rumours that Soderbergh was simply tired by the mechanics of directing a film.

He's got two upcoming movies already in the can; Haywire and Contagion, both action thrillers. Then, he's committed to film Liberace, a biopic of the pianist starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. After that, he'll complete a film version of The Man from UNCLE starring frequent collaborator George Clooney, and then, he says, he's done.

Soderbergh had this to say:

When you reach the point where you're, like, 'if I have to get into a van to do anther scout I'm just going to shoot myself,' it's time to let somebody else who's still excited about getting in the van, get in the van...And so it's just time. For the last three years, I've been turning down everything that comes my way, so you're not going to have Steven Soderbergh to kick around anymore.

Soderbergh must be exhausted. There's a reason why so many film makers get accused of seeling out, of making inpersonal commercial films instead of complex passion projects. And that reason is that it's really, really hard to do. Directing any film is a massive undertaking, I don't care if it's Breathless or Max Payne. This is why alot of film directors turn out formulaic stuff in their later years. It's simply too hard to keep going at that level day in, day out. And most of the time, something you slaved over will get dismissed out of hand, or altered, or reviled.

So, I can appreciate why he's leaving. And I can admire his integrity in saying, "I'm not going to just cash a cheque." But I'll miss both Steven Soderberghs. The Commercial Soderbergh brough a deeper sense of complexity and style to standard Hollywood fare. The Outsider Soderbergh wasn't afriad to try anything or take on any subject. I hope whoever comes next from the indie world has even a little bit of his talent.

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