Steven Soderbergh

Aaron Baker,
Steven Soderbergh
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011
ISBN: 9 7802 520779 68
US$19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Illinois Press)

Since the inception of auteurism, studies of directors have proliferated largely in short-form writing, from the capsule entries in Sarris’ The American Cinema to the slim volumes on directors included in the Secker and Warburg/BFI Cinema One series. One of the most prominent series of monographs on filmmakers currently published is the University of Illinois Press Contemporary Film Directors series, edited by James Naremore. Though the series commenced in 2003, it seems to have hit its stride since 2007, and 2011 alone has seen 6 volumes appear, among them Aaron Baker’s study of Steven Soderbergh. Like other entries, Steven Soderbergh consists of a longish essay on the director’s work, supplemented by an interview section. If Cinema One hosted genuinely groundbreaking work in the application of semiotics and structuralism to the study of films and their makers, the goals of books like Steven Soderbergh are rather more modest: to provide an overview of the arc of the director’s career and to highlight a handful (two handfuls in this case) of key issues in their oeuvre by way of providing a quick summation for the scholar and introduction for the student. In this, Baker’s efforts are largely successful – and if more remains to be said, then he has nonetheless fulfilled his remit.

Baker lays out his key concerns early on, the remainder of the book left to exploring examples and variations. His is a traditional reading of a film author, but one that must grapple with a filmmaker who makes use of Hollywood genre conventions while evidencing a marked affinity for European art films. In this, Soderbergh could be taken as exemplary of a certain kind of ‘off-Hollywood’ independent director, yet his studio projects are among the very glossiest, and he alternates those with far more radically experimental endeavors than are typical of American narrative cinema of any stripe. For Baker, Soderbergh’s work is marked by a “hybrid flexibility” (ix) borne of bringing an “indie” aesthetic into the mainstream, this evident in his production of genre films that nonetheless gravitate to socially critical subjects, an expressive stylization keyed to character psychology, an occasional use of non-linear narratives, and an “aura of realism” (x) in part attributable to his use of “a guerrilla style of shooting with handheld cameras, small crews, and single lighting setups”. (xi) What we have here, Baker correctly notes, is indeed a hybridized kind of authorship: Soderbergh compromises with Hollywood practice in some respects while remaining independent of it in others, thus remaining committed to his own aesthetics and politics. Baker terms this a “relational independence” (1) illustrated by the course of Soderbergh’s career following Out of Sight. That film moved away from the mannered style of his early efforts to a synthesis of genre convention with guerilla filming and realist aesthetics, and to an alternation between obstinately ‘indie’ projects and those which have mainstream commercial viability yet nonetheless affirm his commitment to innovation and an attention to the social dimensions of his stories. Baker summarizes this way: “Soderbergh’s persistent concerns with expressive characterization, allusion, self-reflexivity, and discontinuity in the service of authorial commentary, all within a narrative framework” are what distinguishes his career. (91)

Soderbergh’s hybridized approach gives rise to an eclecticism that for some might compromise that most basic criterion for authorship: Does the director have a “distinctive style”? To this, Baker responds that for Soderbergh, the sheer variety of films he has made is key to any sense of what makes the director distinctive. Given this, though, Baker still tries to discern those common denominators on which claims for authorship typically are founded: practically, Soderbergh’s hands-on involvement in all aspects of his productions, frequently shooting the films as “Peter Andrews” (taken from his father’s name) and editing them as “Mary Ann Bernard” (his mother’s maiden name). Critically, Baker isolates threads running through the films, chiefly around Soderbergh’s characters and how the director sketches the worlds they live in: an insistence on grounding the pursuit of goals in the protagonists’ social determinants, principally in relation to that world of wealth, power, and self-interest from which they are excluded; and the themes of responsibility and connectedness (or the lack thereof) that grow out of their social relations. Too, it is in relation to character that Baker attempts to understand Soderbergh’s use of stylization, reading his use of color, non-linearity, and even (far less persuasively) reflexivity as driven by character psychology. If this is a reasonable position in relation to, say, The Underneath (USA 1995) or The Limey (USA 1999), it is more of a stretch in for Che (France/Spain/USA 2008), Full Frontal (USA 2002), or Schizopolis (USA 1996). Indeed, Baker more or less ignores the latter, though as Soderbergh has testified, it may be considered a watershed in his career.

Exploring to the fullest extent the complexities of style and narrative form in Soderbergh’s films is, perhaps, beyond the scope of a slim series title like this one. The fairest evalution of Baker’s efforts, then, may come in judging how well he sketches out those aspects of the films that he does actually have room for. From his introductory comments on Soderbergh as an independent filmmaker who carries out his aims surreptitiously when working in blockbusters, he moves on to discuss a range of topics:  Soderbergh’s history of remakes (concentrating on The Underneath, Traffic [Germany/USA 2000], Solaris [USA 2002], and the Ocean’s trilogy); his collaborations with stars (most notably George Clooney, though he is also quite cogent on Michael Douglas’ Bob Wakefield in Traffic); the ways in which his characters may be viewed as social and/or economic “outsiders”; his avoidance of or skepticism toward on-screen violence, which unfortunately sees Baker uncritically accepting Stephen Prince’s simplistic, alarmist stance on the subject (Baker’s reading is sure to be complicated by the upcoming Haywire (USA 2011), Soderbergh’s first action film); his preference for language as a weapon; an elaboration of his earlier arguments concerning Soderbergh as a kind of “independent” via his departures from Hollywood convention, concentrating on European-informed uses of subjectivity and “expressive realism”; his use of digital video in Full Frontal, K Street (USA 2003), and Bubble (USA 2005); his exploration of class and economics in Che and The Girlfriend Experience (USA 2009); and his collaborations with his composers. These sections of Baker’s essay are erratic, but more hit than miss. He does well to contextualize Soderbergh’s remakes in the use of allusion in his other films, as well as a general sense of belatedness in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Likewise, Soderbergh’s “cinema of outsiders” is seen as an outgrowth of 1970s Hollywood’s nonconformist heroes, and this nonconformity can be extended to the avoidance or de-glamorization and de-aestheticization of violence, and even the use of language as the Soderbergh hero’s weapon of choice. The subheading “Independent Form” initiates a reading of Soderbergh’s style that may not do justice to the director’s nuance, complexity, or occasional subversiveness, but is a useful starting point. Baker draws on Geoff King’s definition of “independent” film – lower budget and less market-driven, socially aware, and disruptive of Hollywood norms – showing that subjective stylization and objective realism, used alongside genre devices, contributes to the sense of variation that marks the Soderbergh aesthetic. By continuing to draw on traditional genre storytelling, Soderbergh is able to play on two levels, appealing to audiences while at the same time indulging his own preoccupations. His most persuasive account of Soderbergh’s strategies deals with Out of Sight’s (USA 1998) opening sequences, showing how style is driven by narrative function and a naturalistic performance style. As elsewhere, Baker brings character subjectivity to the fore to explain the editing patterns in films like Out of Sight and The Limey, and the use of color in films as diverse as Kafka (France/USA 1991), Traffic, and even Erin Brockovich [USA 200] (the bleached-out look of the scenes in Hinkley, the town that has been poisoned by chemical pollution).

The limitations of Baker’s study are apparent here, too. He goes on to invoke David Bordwell’s discussion of “intensified continuity”, and is right to do so, but he does relatively little with it. He mistakenly opposes goal-oriented protagonists to subjective narration, and likewise in equating Soderbergh’s “outsider” characters with art cinema’s relatively passive, talkative characters. Though Baker acknowledges that style can be used for authorial commentary in Soderbergh’s films, in practice, for him, this heuristic is little-used, taking a decided backseat to character psychology unless arguing that Soderbergh is commenting on character psychology specifically, as in The Underneath. Traffic provides an exception to Baker’s reluctance to explore style as commentary, tying in to his admirable sensitivity to Soderbergh’s politics. But Baker can make little of Full Frontal; a fairly standard reading of that film opposes the naturalistic style of the DV sequences with the 35mm artifice of the film-within-the-film. Unfortunately, this can’t account for the juxtaposition of the narrative realism and illusionism of the film-within-the-film to the frequently absurdist incidents of the framing story (though quotes from Soderbergh on forcing audiences to question what they accept as real does point to the complexity of the conjunction of narration and style here).

Baker does well to go beyond the overt politics of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Che to a reading of implicit political themes in Soderbergh’s other films, and in the case of Out of Sight this is well-taken. Reading Ocean’s 11 (USA 2011) and Ocean’s 13 (USA 2007) as elaborate metaphors for indie filmmakers fighting the Hollywood establishment is a stretch, though. Leaving aside the extent to which such a reading courts a kind of tone-deafness when applied to such an aggressively frothy film as Ocean’s 11, it also ignores that the film takes some care to differentiate Terry Benedict from that establishment (the jokey reference to Gerald Levin and HBO) and trades on its stars in ways that would please any studio executive. To read Ocean’s 11’s thieves as using “storytelling, performative, and guerilla technological skills that symbolize the independent film sensibility” (22) is also to obscure the extent to which studio film has absorbed so-called “indie” aesthetics with little actual difficulty; indeed, it’s a rare blockbuster that doesn’t incorporate stretches of handheld camerawork today. For Baker, Ocean’s 13 continues this theme, but because Ocean’s 12 (USA 2004) does not, it can only be seen as regressive, despite the fact that it is 13 that dutifully follows the formula of the first film as a well-behaved studio sequel is meant to, while 12 gleefully overturns every conventional expectation.

Elsewhere, Baker’s critical partiality means that while he is clearly right to assert that Soderbergh undercuts Clooney’s star image in The Good German (USA 2006), the star image in question was largely created in Out of Sight and the Ocean’s films; in this way, Soderbergh deals in conventional stardom in some films just as much as he undercuts it in others. Glossing over the extent to which Soderbergh has one foot planted as firmly in Hollywood as he has the other planted in indie film culture seems part of parcel of a general hostility to Hollywood, one that produces some of the best lines in the book, particular his invocation of “Hollywood’s masturbatory fantasy about its ability to provide pleasure for audiences” in relation to The Girlfriend Experience (78). But that antagonism to the studios also simplifies things a little too much, glossing too quickly over issues that are arguably more urgent for Soderbergh’s authorship than that of most of his contemporaries. Part of Soderbergh’s accomplishment is to approach authorship in contemporary American cinema self-consciously and with a problem-solution mindset: How can one maintain prestige and autonomy in this climate? How can a director maintain the freedom to experiment even as they are given hundreds of millions of dollars to make their films? How can a director maintain a fresh approach to their subjects, to vary their strategies from film to film, and still be recognized as an auteur with the all the material benefits that comes with that status? Soderbergh’s career represents not just one but a whole set of possible responses to these predicaments. Baker acknowledges most of this, but prefers to emphasize auteurist consistencies at the price of fully acknowledging incommensurabilities and contradictions that the director has embraced. Most certainly, this book will be the starting point for subsequent critical discussions; Baker’s analyses are on point, some excesses notwithstanding, and the interview section, including conversations between Soderbergh (and Clooney) with Geoff Andrew and David Sterritt illustrates how unusually cogent the director himself is (for a director). This is indeed a useful book. But more than almost anyone else involved in large-scale studio films today, Soderbergh’s career justifies closer study and lengthier treatment. Let’s hope he receives much more study in years to come.

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

Paul Ramaeker lectures in Film and Media Studies at the University of Otago. He is currently working on a manuscript about the influence of the international art cinema on American film from the late 1960s.View all posts by Paul Ramaeker →