Steven Soderbergh Essay - Critical Essays

Soderbergh, Steven

Introduction

Steven Soderbergh 1963-

(Full name Stephen Andrew Soderbergh; has also written under the pseudonym Sam Lowry) American screenwriter, director, and producer.

The following entry presents an overview of Soderbergh's career through 2001.

After years of working on the fringes of the Hollywood movie industry, Soderbergh emerged into the spotlight as the 26-year-old writer and director of the independent feature film sex, lies, and videotape (1989). The film has since been credited with precipitating the boom in independent filmmaking that took place during the 1990s. Following his initial success, Soderbergh varied his subject matter and style with each successive film, ranging from period drama to experimental satire. Soderbergh eventually began utilizing the assets of big-budget studios, and combined those resources and techniques with his own unique style. His work as a director on films such as Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), and Ocean's Eleven (2001) has been well-received by critics and audiences alike, with each of these films also proving commercially successful at the box-office.

Biographical Information

Soderbergh was born on January 14, 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia. His family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when Soderbergh's father took a position as a professor at Louisiana State University. At the age of thirteen, Soderbergh took an animation course at the university, but found the animation process slow and tedious. He then audited a Super-8 moviemaking class, during which he began making short films. This class was the only formal film education that Soderbergh ever participated in. After finishing high school, Soderbergh moved to Los Angeles. He worked at a series of odd jobs, including video editor, cue-card holder, and game-show scorekeeper. Soderbergh became disillusioned with life in Hollywood and returned to Baton Rouge, where he worked as a coin changer in an arcade. After making the Grammy-nominated video for the rock band Yes's 90125 album in 1986, Soderbergh had the resources to make his first feature film. Several of Soderbergh's own experiences with women served as the basis for material in sex, lies, and videotape. The movie was made for $1.2 million, a small budget by typical Hollywood standards. It was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and was warmly received by audiences and critics. In 1989 sex, lies, and videotape won the Palm d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in France and was nominated for the award for best screenplay written directly for the screen. Soderbergh was besieged with offers to direct and adapt film scripts, but he chose to write and direct another of his own works, Kafka (1991). After a period during which several of his films were critically misunderstood or ignored, Soderbergh returned to his independent roots, directing Schizopolis (1996), which was filmed in his back yard with a group of friends and family acting as the cast. While not a popular success, Schizopolis allowed Soderbergh to regain his perspective for filmmaking. He took an assignment as a director-for-hire for Out of Sight (1998), a film adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, beginning a new phase in his career as a successful studio director. Soderbergh received two Best Director Oscar nominations and two Best Picture nominations for Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000, and won the Best Director award for Traffic.

Major Works

Sex, lies, and videotape examines issues of accountability in personal relationships. The film follows the lives of four people: Ann, a dissatisfied housewife; John, her philandering, self-absorbed husband; Cynthia, Ann's rebellious and adventurous sister, who is also John's lover; and Graham, John's college friend who exposes the lies and deceptions that are festering between the other three characters. As a self-imposed penance for his earlier life as a pathological liar, Graham keeps his contact with women to a minimum. He can only satisfy himself sexually by watching videotapes of women as they talk about their sex lives and fantasies. When Graham videotapes Ann and Cynthia's discussions of their own sexual experiences, secrets are disclosed that alter the relationships among all four characters. Kafka is a fictional narrative that casts the author Franz Kafka as the lead character in a mystery, set in a world reminiscent of the landscapes that the real Kafka described in his prose. King of the Hill (1993), based on A. E. Hotchner's autobiographical novel, follows the depression-era story of a twelve-year-old boy, Aaron, whose life is slowly beginning to unravel. His family lives in the Avalon, a deteriorating hotel where a sadistic bellhop locks tenants out of their rooms when they fall behind with their rent payments. Aaron's mother is confined to the hospital, suffering from consumption, and his father is a luckless peddler who struggles to pay the rent each month. Aaron's younger brother lives with other relatives and the family's future prospects appear dim. However, the film concludes with the family reuniting, suggesting a hopeful, more prosperous future. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh himself starred as the lead character, Fletcher Munson, a speechwriter for a self-help guru. Munson discovers that his wife is having an affair with a man who is his exact double. The plot becomes convoluted as Munson takes his doppelgänger's place, his double falls in love with a double of Munson's wife, and Munson's wife returns to her original husband. Out of Sight focuses on the burgeoning romance between an escaped convict, Jack Foley, and U.S. Marshall Karen Cisco, and the misadventures that result from their relationship. The film contains elements of romance, humor, and crime thriller, and is similar in tone to many 1930s romantic comedies. In The Limey (1999), an English ex-convict travels to Los Angeles to investigate his daughter's death from a suspicious car accident. The film has a distinctly 1960s feel and uses footage from a 1967 movie featuring The Limey's lead actor Terence Stamp during several flashback sequences. Erin Brockovich is based on a true story of a single mother struggling to support her three children, who secures a job at her lawyer's office after he represents her in a failed lawsuit. She stumbles upon a class-action suit in which a utility company is charged with poisoning a town's water supply with toxic chemicals. She stubbornly pursues the case, and due to her persistence and creative evidence-gathering techniques, the victimized families end up winning a judgement of $333 million. Traffic is based on the British Broadcasting Company miniseries of the same name and was filmed by Soderbergh with a hand-held camera. The film presents three story lines that examine different aspects of the war against drugs along the U.S.-Mexican border. The first story follows the lives of several corrupt Mexican police officers; the second relates events in the life of the wife of a San Diego drug lord; and the third examines the plight of a newly appointed U.S. drug czar and his addicted teenage daughter.

Critical Reception

Sex, lies, and videotape was met with overwhelming praise from critics, industry professionals, and audiences alike. Brian D. Johnson commented, “It demonstrates that it is possible to succeed with the barest of essential ingredients: a sharp director, a handful of skilled actors and a canny script about a subject that is endlessly intriguing.” Reviewers have commended the film's cerebral tone and its successful attempt to involve the viewer in the voyeuristic impulses of its characters. A few critics have called into question the plausibility of certain aspects of the movie, including the unlikely pairing of Ann and John, but noted that their improbable relationship did not damage the overall impact of the movie. Soderbergh's follow-up, Kafka, was considered to be a disappointment by a number of critics, with reviewers faulting the film's unimaginative plot and confusing theme. Many commentators have noted the variety of themes in Soderbergh's films as well as his endlessly changing visual style. Throughout his changing oeuvre, however, some reviewers have found a consistent theme in Soderbergh films. Dave Kehr stated, “Solitude—its joys and its terrors—remains the single most persistent theme in Soderbergh's remarkably and carefully varied body of work.” However, much critical debate has surrounded Soderbergh's next series of films. Critics have remained divided in their opinions and assessments of King of the Hill, The Underneath (1995), Gray's Anatomy (1996), and Schizopolis. Some reviewers have argued that these films were ignored by critics and audiences, meriting much more praise and attention than they have been given; others consider them marginal efforts. Soderbergh did not experience widespread critical success again until Out of Sight, a big-budget, studio picture. John Wrathall asserted, “The real star of Out of Sight, […] is director Steven Soderbergh. Previously feted for the intellectual rather than visual qualities of his films, he rises to the challenge of his most mainstream assignment to date with a dazzling display of hip cinematic style.” Erin Brockovich and Traffic were widely critically praised, although some reviewers objected to Traffic, writing that the film did not fulfill its purported aim of making a strong statement concerning America's war on drugs. Some critics also questioned the plausibility of several plotlines, but overall, the film was applauded for its emotional impact and innovative storytelling style. Stanley Kauffmann stated, “Fundamentally, what Soderbergh has done with his career so far is not to beat the commercial film world at its own game—an ambition that is a death trap—but to find a way to employ the best of himself in the most expensive art on earth.”

Principal Works

Yes 90125 Live [director] (documentary) 1986

Winston [screenwriter and director] (film) 1987

sex, lies, and videotape [screenwriter and director] (film) 1989

Kafka [screenwriter and director] (film) 1991

King of the Hill [screenwriter and director] (film) 1993

The Underneath [screenwriter and director; written under the pseudonym Sam Lowry] (film) 1995

Gray's Anatomy [director] (film) 1996

Schizopolis [screenwriter and director] (film) 1996

Out of Sight [director] (film) 1998

The Limey...

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Criticism

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 September 1989)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “An Arrival.” New Republic (4 September 1989): 26–27.

[In the following review, Kauffmann discusses Soderbergh's preoccupation with the inexpressible in sex, lies, and videotape.]

Possibly the greatest pleasure in an art work is our perception that there is more in it than what we see or read or hear. Book or music or painting, play or film, what arrests us and awes us is the realization that the inexpressible is arising from what is being expressed. Howard Moss said: “Poetry is essentially the use of words to express the nonverbal,” and the statement is easily adjusted to fit the other arts.

The greater the art...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

John Simon (review date 10 November 1989)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Sex and Violence, Together Again.” National Review (10 November 1989): 61–63.

[In the following excerpt, Simon offers a negative assessment of sex, lies, and videotape, calling it “overrated” and “irritating.”]

Sex, lies, and videotape may be the most overrated, and is surely the most irritating, movie in some time. Made by 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh in his home town of Baton Rouge, it won best-film honors at Cannes for its writer-director, and best-actor prize for James Spader, who plays Graham, a young man who returns to Baton Rouge after a nine-year absence. He comes both to see his old flame, Elizabeth, and not...

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Karen Jaehne (review date 1990)

SOURCE: Jaehne, Karen. Review of sex, lies, and videotape, by Steven Soderbergh. Cineaste 17, no. 3 (1990): 38–40.

[In the following review, Jaehne analyzes the themes of sexual politics and voyeurism in sex, lies, and videotape.]

Sex, lies, and videotape sound like the ingredients for a one night stand, not the culmination of a masculine quest for liberation, as debut director Steven Soderbergh would have us believe. (The title lets us know e. e. cummings has met thirtysomething.) The two most interesting characters suffer from a sexual alienation prissy enough to preempt “Thanks for the memory” with “Thanks, but no thanks.” Ann (Andie...

(The entire section is 2217 words.)

Kenneth Turan (review date 4 December 1991)

SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Kafka: A Beautiful, Confusing Letdown.” Los Angeles Times (4 December 1991): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a negative assessment of Kafka, calling it a disappointing second film.]

Imagine Franz Kafka as the Columbo of Prague, scuttling hither and yon, trying to solve what may or may not be a crime. Imagine the poor man getting involved in a pseudo-Kafkaesque plot that evokes great imaginative works of fiction and then serves them up with the sensibility of Mission: Impossible. Imagine anything you like, you will have difficulty imagining how much of a letdown Steven Soderbergh's Kafka finally turns...

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Jonna G. Semeiks (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Semeiks, Jonna G. “Sex, Lawrence, and Videotape.” Journal of Popular Culture 25, no. 4 (spring 1992): 143–52.

[In the following essay, Semeiks compares Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape to the work of D. H. Lawrence in regard to humankind's relationship with technology.]

Though the mad scientist is a stock figure of science fiction and horror films, as a whole Hollywood movies have reflected a more positive attitude towards technology than that expressed by the generality of novelists, poets and essayists. Beginning with the Romantic Age—shortly after, that is, industrialism began to alter the face and substance of the western world—many...

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Michael Wilmington (review date 20 August 1993)

SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “King of the Hill: A Wonderful Film of Terrible Times.” Los Angeles Times (20 August 1993): 4.

[In the following review, Wilmington praises Soderbergh's King of the Hill as “one of the finest American films of the year.”]

Aaron Kurlander, the boy protagonist of Steven Soderbergh's heart-stirring new movie, King of the Hill, is the plucky, all-around kid many of us would like to have been: precocious writer, academic star, dead-eye marble champ, devoted son and brother, dauntless neighborhood explorer. He's a mensch of 12, king of his shining little hill.

As Soderbergh brilliantly...

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Nick James (review date January 1994)

SOURCE: James, Nick. Review of King of the Hill, by Steven Soderbergh. Sight and Sound 4, no. 1 (January 1994): 48.

[In the following mixed review, James argues that King of the Hill is a conventional coming-of-age tale.]

The career of Steven Soderbergh highlights the degree to which film reviewing in Britain has to take reputations on trust. All we have seen of his work in this country is his debut, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner sex, lies, and videotape, which was greeted as a critical and popular triumph of economical film making. Yet Soderbergh's reputation is at a low ebb, simply because consensus has it that his follow-up—the reputedly...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

John Simon (review date 29 May 1995)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Subverted Summer.” National Review (29 May 1995): 63–64.

[In the following excerpt, Simon offers a negative assessment of The Underneath.]

I have had scant use for Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, and less for his Kafka and King of the Hill. Now comes a film that he had no writing hand in. So here is a chance to see what he can do when he can concentrate on his directing, which, in American film, is far more important than screenwriting. And I declare that in The Underneath, Mr. Soderbergh flunks the test with flying colors.

These flying colors are not just a metaphor. For the young...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Nick James (review date March 1996)

SOURCE: James, Nick. Review of The Underneath, by Steven Soderbergh. Sight and Sound 6, no. 3 (March 1996): 54–55.

[In the following review, James discusses Soderbergh's directing style, its impact on the performances of the cast, and the overall feeling of The Underneath.]

There is a chill about the films of Steven Soderbergh that's hard to dispel. Like Atom Egoyan, he likes to needle his characters for their ordinariness, to tease the strangeness out of banal circumstances with unnerving pauses and edgy music. This approach was perfectly in keeping with the subject matter of his breakthrough film sex, lies, and videotape with its pathological look at...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Peter Matthews (review date October 1998)

SOURCE: Matthews, Peter. “Blind Date.” Sight and Sound 8, no. 10 (October 1998): 8–12.

[In the following positive review, Matthews praises Soderbergh's film adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Out of Sight.]

It's commonly asserted that pulp fiction is more readily transmissible to the screen than literature. Almost by definition, a major work imposes its own way of seeing, and the adapter—forced to truncate and simplify—usually ends up with a prestige-laden stiff. The second-rate or downright trashy, by contrast, liberates the adapter to improvise freely on its themes and structure, without pangs of conscience that anything too sacred has been violated. But...

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John Wrathall (review date December 1998)

SOURCE: Wrathall, John. Review of Out of Sight, by Steven Soderbergh. Sight and Sound 8, no. 12 (December 1998): 55–56.

[In the following review, Wrathall offers a positive assessment of Soderbergh's “hip, cinematic style” in Out of Sight.]

Like Get Shorty, Out of Sight is adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel by Scott Frank and produced by Danny DeVito's Jersey Films (and also features Dennis Farina in a bit part). But while Get Shorty's director Barry Sonnenfeld played Leonard's material as farce, Steven Soderbergh, in this infinitely more sophisticated follow-up, plays it as romantic comedy.

From Jack and Karen's...

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Steven Soderbergh and Sheila Johnston (interview date November 1999)

SOURCE: Soderbergh, Steven, and Sheila Johnston. “The Flashback Kid.” Sight and Sound 9, no. 11 (November 1999): 12–14.

[In the following interview, Soderbergh discusses his approach to filmmaking and his relationship with Hollywood.]

When sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d'or in Cannes ten years ago, before making more than $100 million worldwide (on a budget of $1.2 million), Steven Soderbergh, then 26, became overnight the poster child of independent American cinema. The blockbuster event movies pioneered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the mid 70s had dominated international markets for over a decade; Soderbergh's brilliant debut...

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Mark Steyn (review date 11 December 1999)

SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Salute to the Sixties.” Spectator 283, no. 8940 (11 December 1999): 72–73.

[In the following review, Steyn argues that Soderbergh's visual style in The Limey successfully portrays the workings of the main character's mind throughout the film.]

Terence Stamp is The Limey; Peter Fonda is, well, the slimey—a scaly music biz exec Stamp flies to California to do battle with. It's a kind of Mod vs Rocker Seniors' Tour—or, to quote a prescient malapropism one of the elderly teachers delivered years ago in Please, Sir!, this is the aging of the dawn of Aquarius. Sixties people are always Sixties people, and The...

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Philip Strick (review date January 2000)

SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of The Limey, by Steven Soderbergh. Sight and Sound 10, no. 1 (January 2000): 57.

[In the following review, Strick discusses the recurring symbol of “the wall” in The Limey and how this symbol relates to the various relationships in the film.]

It was around the middle of filming The Underneath that director Steven Soderbergh admits he lost interest in what he was making. There must have been a brisk mood change because The Underneath is undervalued and something of a treat to watch. But such crises of confidence are surely the secret behind the Soderbergh style, which habitually offers an assortment of...

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Andrew O'Hehir (review date May 2000)

SOURCE: O'Hehir, Andrew. Review of Erin Brockovich, by Steven Soderbergh. Sight and Sound 10, no. 5 (May 2000): 47–48.

[In the following positive review, O'Hehir credits Soderbergh for his restrained direction in Erin Brockovich.]

Much has been made of Julia Roberts' purported sexiness in Erin Brockovich and there's no doubt the star is an eyeful in her endless array of cleavage-exposing blouses and minuscule skirts (the question of where a nearly destitute woman gets all these clothes is not answered). But the real brilliance of Roberts' performance lies in the edgy, defensive quality beneath Erin's aggressive hotness. It's as if Erin accepts the...

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Roger Wade (review date May 2000)

SOURCE: Wade, Roger. “A Law Unto Herself.” Sight and Sound 10, no. 5 (May 2000): 14–16.

[In the following positive review, Wade argues that Erin Brockovich is a subtle film that displays the craftsmanship of all involved.]

Of all Steven Soderbergh's films Erin Brockovich is his most mainstream and accessible, the kind of true-story David and Goliath tale that's likely to be written off as a crowd-pleaser. For one thing, it's very much a Julia Roberts vehicle. She plays Erin, a twice-divorced mother of three who elbows her way into a clerical job with a small law firm and ends up spearheading a case in which a large utility company is accused of...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Kenneth Turan (review date 27 December 2000)

SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Blurring the Battle Lines.” Los Angeles Times (27 December 2000): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a generally positive assessment of Traffic, but highlights some of the film's flaws, such as weak individual characterization and moments of melodrama.]

Maybe because the opponent is so terrifying and insidious (“an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind,” someone calls it here), our desperation to win the war against drugs detailed in Traffic has made it the most unexamined conflict of our time, something we are more than willing to throw dollars at but not so eager to actually analyze and reconsider....

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 January 2001)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Three in One.” New Republic (22 January 2001): 22–23.

[In the following review, Kauffmann offers a generally positive assessment of Traffic.]

Steven Soderbergh prospers, and his prospering is a chapter in recent cultural history. He made his debut in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, a small-scale film unique in its intelligent candor and self-confident rhythm. Two years later he presented the disappointing Kafka, not a bankrupt work but one in which Soderbergh was struggling to keep up payments on his residence in art. The same was true of his next picture, King of the Hill. His next four pictures, again not...

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Jonathan Romney (review date 29 January 2001)

SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Take the High Way.” New Statesman & Society 130, no. 4522 (29 January 2001): 46–47.

[In the following mixed review, Romney argues that although Traffic is gripping, it fails to achieve a dispassionate feel.]

In the course of his career, Steven Soderbergh has gone from being a well-meaning, low-budget tyro (sex, lies, and videotape) to a mainstream pro-for-hire (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich), with the occasional blip of personal eccentricity along the way (Kafka, his little-seen absurdist farce Schizopolis, the sublime fish-out-of-water thriller The Limey). Traffic is his most...

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Steven Soderbergh and Gavin Smith (interview date January–February 2001)

SOURCE: Soderbergh, Steven, and Gavin Smith. “Hired Gun.” Film Comment 37, no. 1 (January–February 2001): 26–31.

[In the following interview, Soderbergh discusses the making of Traffic and his shift away from independent films to directing Hollywood features.]

He used to be everybody's favorite indie maverick. Now he's Hollywood's favorite … Steven Soderbergh follows up his box-office smash Erin Brockovich with Traffic, an epic multi-character docudrama about the war on drugs.

“The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw.” That's the subtitle to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh's new book Getting Away...

(The entire section is 3014 words.)