Article – Steven Soderbergh: A Consumer’s Guide

From sex, lies and videotape to Solaris

(originally published 1/2/03 in Inform Magazine)

It’s hard to describe Steven Soderbergh’s career. It doesn’t exactly form a pleasing shape and he’s been up and down more times than a mason’s trouser leg, with his films veering from the wildly successful to the very experimental to the completely unloved.

Nowadays he is regarded as a genuine Hollywood auteur, and his films are hotly anticipated. His latest, Solaris, will no doubt court controversy for daring to remake a much-loved sci-fi classic, but it must be said he’s always been a director who has shown a remarkable lack of fear.

Winston (1987)

When sex, lies and videotape came along, everyone hailed a remarkable debut. It wasn’t, of course, as Soderbergh has already debuted with this short black and white film after serving an apprenticeship directing the likes of prog band Yes’s concert film 9012 Live.

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

Cometh the hour… At the time, this was hailed as a work of genius, something that it’s hard to agree with on rewatching. The story of two dysfunctional couples – and in particular James Spader’s fondness for taping women’s sexual confessions – it is very pretentious (e.g. the pointless lower case of the title) and heavy going. However, Soderbergh deserved the praise just for doing something different, and in a year when the likes of Batman was dominating the box office, it’s understandable that critics showered praise on this cerebral meditation on sexuality.

Kafka (1991)

An absolute 40 carat disaster of a film that barely limped out on first release and alienated both audience and critics alike (the latter revelling in the new wonder boy falling flat on his face). Lem Dobbs’ script is a mess, as Jeremy Irons (in the title role) tries to piece together a conspiracy involving two underground groups that owes more to The Third Man than Kafka’s work. Seen today, it’s hard to disagree with the initial reactions; it’s slow, piles on all sorts of ludicrous and unbelievable plot points and is a classic example of style over substance. If nothing else, it has to be said that Soderbergh learnt a lesson from this film, and he never again went to work without at least the idea of a decent story. Well, maybe once.

King of the Hill (1993)

Licking his wounds after the Kafka debacle, Soderbergh wisely opted to keep things simple with this story (adapted by Soderbergh from a book by A.E. Hotchner) of a young boy growing up in the Great Depression who has been effectively abandoned by his parents and is forced to look out for himself in a seedy hotel. Not a huge success, but it proved that Soderbergh wasn’t all about shock tactics and fancy camera angles.

Underneath (1995)

Not quite the disaster that was Kafka, but pretty close. Soderbergh’s second attempt at Film Noir and his second failure, as Peter Gallagher returns to his home town to woo his ex-wife and gets caught up in a convoluted gangster plot involving a bank raid. By now Quentin Tarantino had hit big, and Soderbergh was being increasingly thought of as yesterday’s man. Soderbergh co-wrote the script with Daniel Fuchs, but was forced to change his name to ‘Sam Lowry’ (the name of Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil) for legal reasons. Maybe this helped him, as he needed to put as much distance between himself and this film as possible.

Gray’s Anatomy (1996)

Like the earlier Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme), this is a filmed version of one of Spalding Gray’s famous one-man stage shows, here concerned with his paranoia over getting an eye operation. Not really having much to do, Soderbergh indulges himself with the odd visual effect, but wisely keeps the focus on Gray. As good as Demme’s film, and the best of Soderbergh’s early works. But the worst was yet to come…

Schizopolis (1996)

Considering that he hadn’t had a big success since sex, lies and videotape, it’s a wonder how Soderbergh’s career survived this train wreck of a movie. Obviously suffering from delusions of Orson Welles, Soderbergh writes, directs and stars  – playing two roles no less – in this story of a mild-mannered speech writer for an L. Ron Hubbard-like religious leader who discovers his wife (actually played by Soderbergh’s ex-wife, unbelievably) is having an affair with a man who is identical to him. And it’s supposed to be a comedy. Terry Gilliam can do this stuff in his sleep, Soderbergh struggles with the more bizarre material and what’s worse; he really can’t act. Embarrassing.

Out Of Sight (1998)

In what must be seen as the reinvention of the century, Soderbergh somehow managed to pull himself back from the dead by out Tarantino-ing Tarantino and actually doing a decent adaptation (by Scott Frank) of an Elmore Leonard novel, something that has eluded many filmmakers, including Tarantino himself with his over-reverent Jackie Brown. Soderbergh got a lot of credit for portraying the bizarre relationship between bank robber George Clooney and FBI Marshall Jennifer Lopez in a believable way. Even the music, by ultra-cool Irishman David Holmes, is great. Clooney and Lopez became big stars and Soderbergh hasn’t looked back since.

The Limey (1999)

In reality, what gave Soderbergh the edge in Out Of Sight was his rejecting of his own earlier artifice after studying of the ultra-realism of the Danish Dogme films, something he continued in this unusual revenge tale written by Kafka writer Lem Dobbs. Thug Terrance Stamp, sporting the broadest Cockney accent since Barbara Windsor, journeys to the US to find out who killed his daughter, before targeting drug baron Peter Fonda. Shot in a fragmented style, complete with ‘flashbacks’ taken from Stamp’s 60s film Poor Cow, it’s a very effective little nostalgia piece for the modern age.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Soderbergh’s new found success meant he could pick and choose his projects, and it’s interesting that he applied his new found realistic style to what was essentially a feel-good chick flick. Adapted from a true story by Susannah Grant, Julia Roberts convincingly plays a white trash mother (complete with push-up bra) who inveigles her way into a law firm and helps investigate a huge criminal lawsuit against a big multi-national. What could have been a sickly movie-of-the-week is saved by Roberts’ uncompromising brashness and Soderbergh’s lack of sentimentality. Roberts won an Oscar and Soderbergh got nominated, although he didn’t win…

Traffic (2000)

Soderbergh was the natural choice to direct this adaptation (by Stephen Gaghan) of a British TV series. His dry as dust style perfectly suited this ensemble piece concerning the impact drugs have on a disparate group of people. Catherine Zeta Jones met Michael Douglas here, regular Soderbergh cast members Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman pop up again, but stealing the show (and another Oscar) is Benicio del Toro as a Mexican drug enforcement agent caught on the horns of a dilemma. Although the style is as ‘natural’ as Soderbergh’s latest films, there is a element of artifice in the colour saturated photography of each story that echoes his earlier work. Soderbergh won the Oscar, after being nominated for this and Erin Brockovich. A good year then.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Being the hottest director around meant he could make this purely entertaining fluff with a cast of thousands. But it’s hard to fault a film that succeeds in being just so damn cool. Returning to the same milieu as Out Of Sight, Soderbergh casts George Clooney as another criminal mastermind, alongside a cast of big Hollywood stars (Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon etc.) and Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle, who is uncredited for some reason, possibly to do with the embarrassment of his character having the worst Cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke. And it’s got another ace David Holmes score.

Full Frontal (2002)

One thing that can be said about Soderbergh is that he’s not afraid to take risks, and this as-yet-unreleased-over-here film certainly does that. Taking his Dogme obsession to the ultimate extreme, Soderbergh insisted that all the actors – including the likes of David Duchovny and Julia Roberts – worked for virtually no money and didn’t bring ego-inflating trailers on to the set. Worthy thoughts, but the finished film, about a day in the life of a bunch of Hollywood types, is a bit insubstantial. People steered well clear in the US so it’ll probably only be released on video over here.

Solaris (2002)

There was no chance that this wouldn’t be released in cinemas over here, as this is a sci-fi film starring George Clooney and produced by James Cameron no less. It’s not your usual sci-fi fare, though, as those who have seen the original Russian film will attest. In a typically cerebral story from Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem (adapted by Soderbergh himself – his first writing job since Schizopolis), a space station orbiting the planet of Solaris is invaded by the dead loved ones of the crew. Heavy going but, as with all of Soderbergh’s films whether good or bad, it’s certainly interesting.

Solaris is released on February 28th

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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