Steven Soderbergh Introduction - Essay

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.”