Steven Soderbergh had a remarkable 12 films in theaters between 2000 and 2009. That includes two shiny Oscar winners, “Erin Brockovich” (which nabbed Julia Roberts a statuette) and “Traffic,” and a potential third, “The Informant!”; all three installments of the blockbuster “Ocean’s” franchise; three fast-and-loose video experiments (“Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”); an anti-period piece period piece (“The Good German”); an anti-biopic biopic (“Che”); and a sorely underrated remake/distillation of a sci-fi classic (“Solaris”).
And that’s not even counting his contribution to the 2004 omnibus “Eros,” or the ten episodes of HBO series “K Street” he helmed. By virtue of unstoppable output alone, Soderbergh’s made more of a mark on the ’00s than any other working director. But that’s not why he’s my pick for director of the decade.
Back in 1989, Soderbergh kicked off the giddy golden age of independent film with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and while the following ’90s days of Park City wine and Miramax roses weren’t as immediately good to him as to other now brand name filmmakers, he remained, as Roger Ebert put it, the “poster boy of the Sundance generation,” the kid who showed studios that the world actually wanted to watch talky, low-budget relationship dramas, provided they were, you know, really good.
In the Naughts, the floor creaked, sagged and eventually fell out from under the film industry, leaving only those perched on the edges — blockbusters and microbudgets, everyone says, are the safest future if you want to stay in business. Well, Steven Soderbergh, king of the one-for-me, one-for-them career, has been making variations of both for years now.
Actually, “one-for-me, one-for-them” makes it sound as if he shuffles like Persephone from colorless stints in the commercial underworld to brief bursts in the bright daylight of unfettered creativity. There’s no sense that his studio work is any less his own, less distinctive, or less invested in than his more overtly personal projects — as A.O. Scott put it, “Soderbergh may have zigzagged in and out of the movie-industry mainstream in the course of his career, but he has remained, throughout, to an extent matched by very few of his peers, an experimental filmmaker.”
That Soderbergh’s an auteur there’s no doubt, but he’s one whose foremost identifying quality is a quicksilver versatility — the artist as journeyman-for-hire, just as ready to test out new technology and non-professional actors as he is to command a budget in the tens of millions and the biggest stars in the world. You may not like every one of the dozen features he’s turned out in the ’00s, but you can’t deny that they’re all interesting.
He stretches the constraints of genres until they’ve bent into something new, and tests, in a similar way, the limits of the industry’s unwritten rules. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the uproar over “Bubble”‘s 2006 day-and-date theatrical and VOD release — it’s now in no way unusual, but at the time, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners called it “the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today.”
The same goes for his toe-dips up and down the production scale — if you want to make a movie free of outside oversight, you deal with the constraints of budget, and if you want to make a movie with more resources, you deal with the different constraints that come with them. An innate understanding of those facts, of how to work the system, and of film’s place between art and commerce, seems to underline his career. Not to paint that career in too rosy a financial light — “Che,” while a relative success domestically for a four-hour foreign language film, still only made back half its budget worldwide, and Soderbergh was booted off “Moneyball” days before it was slated to begin shooting because of script disagreements, making it seem like the director’s era of sneaking a more challenging approach into a seemingly standard project might be coming to an end.
If it is, that’d be a shame. For me, honestly, it’s films like the “Ocean’s” trilogy, collectively light as a feather, that have the most intriguing underlying push and pull to them between what’s prescribed and what’s possible when you color outside the lines. There’s the unexpected delight in the movie stardom of their leads, a hedonistic joy in taking in their glow, beautifully wardrobed, traveling high-end settings — don’t they look good on camera? — the blurring of public persona and character as the films continued a more interesting examination of our concept of the famous than, for sure, “Full Frontal.”
But there’s no doubt that Soderbergh will keep working. It’s what he does best. He’ll be headed back to Park City next month with a new documentary, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” and not to Sundance but to its punkier cousin Slamdance, where he’ll also participate in a summit on new models for content distribution. I’d listen to what he has to say — he’s done pretty good so far.
This feature is part of the Naughts Project.
[Additional Photos: Debbie Doebereiner in “Bubble,” Magnolia Pictures, 2005; Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and George Clooney in “Ocean’s Twelve,” Warner Bros., 2004]