Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 September 1989)

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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...

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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 work, the truer Moss's statement is—in fact, the degree of “inexpressibility” may be the measure of a work's greatness. But every good artist gives us this experience in some proportion. Among American filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, with Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, showed that he began and ended with what we couldn't literally see or hear. Now there appears another young American with the same interest in the inexpressible, the same concern to use the objects and utterances of the everyday as stepping stones to and through the mysterious.

Steven Soderbergh is 26 and, in conventional terms, is virtually uneducated. He began making films when he was 13, in high school in Baton Rouge; after high school, he went to Los Angeles, got some film writing and editing experience, returned home, did odd jobs while continuing to write screenplays, commuted for a time between L.A. and Baton Rouge to pick up editing work, then in 1986 made a feature-length documentary about a rock group. After two more years of striving and tugging, Soderbergh finally got the chance to make his first fiction feature, sex, lies, and videotape (Miramax). (He says he uses lower case in the title because it looks better. Apparently this doesn't apply to his own and other names.) Festival prizes prove very little about quality, but after that history, it's worth nothing that this first film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.

This biographical sketch has two special points of interest. First, it proves yet again that, along with the requisite gifts for filmmaking, the beginner—and not only the beginner—must have immense courage and drive to get the chance to use his or her gifts in the film world. Second, after some ten years of bustle in the workaday world of film manufacture, Soderbergh came up with a film that is subtle and quiet, a matter of resonances.

All three elements in the title are present in the picture, but the lies and the videotape come from and feed back into the sex. The four young people who are the film's center are like sea creatures, and the sea they dwell in is the ambience of sex. John is a successful lawyer in Baton Rouge, married to Ann. No children. And, of late, no sex. We discover this from Ann's sessions with her analyst, which also reveal her to be not especially disturbed by the absence of sex in her marriage. She says. Nearby lives her sister, Cynthia, apparently a painter who supports herself by working as a bartender. Sex is plentiful in her life, most of it being provided at present by her sister's husband. Back to Baton Rouge comes Graham, a college friend of John's whom he hasn't seen in nine years. Graham stays briefly with John and Ann while he looks for a place of his own—long enough for him (without knowing it) to arouse something in Ann.

John is smooth, assured, sexually prodigal, and an excellent liar. Ann is somewhat consciously refined, discontent but not desperate, punctilious, and has the quick protective pride of the unassured. Cynthia is lubricious, casual, high-handed, frank about her behavior except for her current affair. The most arcane figure is Graham, who is at once calm, self-possessed, meditative, yet quite out of love with himself. He berates himself for having been a pathological liar, yet is now generally candid. He has no occupation but seems to have sufficient money. Among the many photographs on the wall of his new home are the faces of John L. Lewis and Lillian Gish. He is no sexual adventurer: he confesses to Ann, who likes him, that he has been impotent for some years (possibly because of his rejection by a girl in college nine years before). Yet he provides the sexual focus and locus of the film—through his videotapes.

For some time Graham has been using a camcorder to videotape interviews with young women who respond to his gentle questions about their sex lives. Each of the women has done this voluntarily after he has promised to keep the contents of the tapes confidential. However, the mere knowledge that this storehouse of sex exists affects other women. When Cynthia volunteers to be interviewed, we can see that it is partly because Graham intrigues her as the person who made those tapes. But there's something else. She wants to be part of that library. And there's something else. The camcorder itself is seductive. It provides a kind of sexual experience, alone yet not alone, exultant yet purgative. All this is aided by Graham's manner, which is reserved, observant, non-judgmental. (The analogy between Ann's analyst and the camcorder is patent.)

These tapes—their very existence, not what's in them—create a kind of gateway through which all four of the principal lives eventually pass into an altered domain of desire. The details of the plot are not novel or surprising; affinities are realigned, the disappointment with that long-gone college girl is unintentionally avenged. What the film is after, beyond its dialogue and action, is the musk of sex, an obeisance to powers little understood and not always controlled. (In this regard the film resembles Pinter's play Old Times.) This is the “non-verbal” that Soderbergh's poem evokes.

The evocation is helped by the way he treats people and space, the sense that each person is surrounded by his or her own penumbra and that these penumbrae can merge hotly. He is helped enormously by the interplay of his actors, whom he has cast like a master. Peter Gallagher as John, Andie MacDowell as Ann, Laura San Giacomo as Cynthia, and James Spader as Graham create people individualized wholly—with subtle shades of inflection and with wry implied humor about their situations in the world of sex. Soderbergh has spoken of the 40 hours of rehearsal before shooting started (very little for a play, enormous for a film), in which the four actors eased themselves into their roles, limbered the dialogue, and “found” one another. They emerged, under the director, as an ensemble.

Walt Lloyd photographed the film with an eye that renders rooms as emblems. Cliff Martinez's music, often electronic, sustains the moods that are everything here. All of those involved have helped Soderbergh to make a film that goes past what it shows to disclose what can't be seen. It's a fine achievement.

John Simon (review date 10 November 1989)

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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 to see her, both with a wad of money and with no visible source for it, both to arouse the two women in the story and to declare himself impotent, both to seem a perfect scoundrel and to end up in what promises to be a good, fulfilling relationship with the wife of his ex-roommate and dear friend, John.

John (Peter Gallagher) is an up-and-coming lawyer who has just been made a junior partner at thirty, but who is cheating on his pretty though troubled wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), with her sexy and sexually voracious sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Cynthia works as a bartender at a strange establishment that has a bar roughly a mile long but only a single, permanent customer, evidently sealed onto his stool, and played with notable lack of virility by Steven Brill. This barfly makes indiscriminate advances to Cynthia and, whenever she drops in, her sister. Ann, however, will no longer be touched, at least not by her husband, who, however, is more than satisfied by Cynthia, with whom he has a nice arrangement: whenever one of them feels horny, a phone call brings the other one running. This seems to be no problem at the mile-long bar, but it does create difficulties for John. First, Ann is so furious at discovering one of Cynthia's earrings near the conjugal bed that she rushes off to be videotaped by Graham in one of those sex interviews he conducts with countless young women. Next, John loses some important clients as a result of his absenteeism and may forfeit his job.

Graham questions women on videotape about their sex lives and fantasies, then uses his collection of tapes to masturbate by, the only form of sex he can still muster. Cynthia promptly ferrets out Graham and not only talks but also masturbates for his camera. This doubly distresses her sister when Cynthia tells her about it because Ann, who has fallen for Graham, was shocked to learn about those tapes; now she is also jealous of Cynthia. Finding that earring is the last straw; Ann actually seduces Graham during her videotaped interview, then initiates divorce proceedings. Earlier, John had raced over to Graham's, punched out his ex-roommate, watched the tape of his wife, then bragged about his affair with Graham's chastely beloved Elizabeth. Whereupon Graham destroys his tapes and embarks on what augurs to be perfect bliss with Ann. Do you buy any of this?

It is the sort of plot worked out easily enough with a slide rule and a prurient, second-rate mind. The film sheds no genuine light, only a lot of spurious heat. The nearest it gets to enlightening us is during Ann's sessions with her therapist (played by Ron Vawter as someone who might have far greater need of psychiatry himself), and it isn't much: Ann assumes funny poses on the confessional couch and rattles on about her worries concerning what happens to all that garbage out there. (Quite a bit of it finds shelter in this film.) For the rest, we get Graham's soulful maunderings and sex scenes between Cynthia and John that look more like parodies. We are to recognize Cynthia's nymphomania by her always running around barefoot, wearing an ankle bracelet, and taking some of her clothes off even when merely visiting her sister.

Yet it is the men in the film who are photographed nearly or wholly nude; the women show little or no flesh. Draw from this whatever conclusions you wish. What offends most, though, is the film's clearly improvised quality: much of the story and most of the dialogue must have been made up during the shooting (the press kit all but admits this). You can see the actors hesitate and fumble as they try to come up with the next line, and Soderbergh clearly encouraged vocal and physical tics as a proof of naturalness. This and confinement to four tight locations (to save money) make the movie look like a series of screen tests for actors trained in the pseudo-Stanislavsky Method.

Andie MacDowell, even if not really an actress, has some touching moments; Laura San Giacomo, though badly overdirected, has spunk and a genuinely erotic voice. Peter Gallagher, who can be good, is a cipher here; the cutesy James Spader comes across as an overweight girl trying hard to deliquesce, and is infuriating in his delusions of sensitivity. Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape contributes handily to the moral untidiness it purports to anatomize.

Karen Jaehne (review date 1990)

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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 MacDowell) can't bring herself to have sex with her husband, while Graham (James Spader), confessing to Ann that he can't get an erection in another person's presence, manages well enough alone by watching videotaped interviews he's made with women about their sex lives.

sex, lies, and videotape reminds one of Cole Porter's lyrics that “Even over-educated fleas do it” in the song “Let's Fall in Love.” It is a comedy, although critics are writing very seriously in response to its unnerving clarion call for love, truth, and confessions. Perhaps it is not so much about sexual politics as it is about the negotiations of sexual politics—that is, what people say and how they move and look when they want a very specific kind of sexual dialog with another human being.

Many critics (mostly male) like to ascribe Ann's alienation to frigidity, while sympathizing with Graham as a New Sensitive Male. How could he not turn kinky in face of all those sexually voracious New Insensitive Females? They're bad girls—their videotaped confessions prove it—and guys like Graham are far too sensitive to make love to them. Masturbation is his only moral option.

The two other principals, by contrast, are sexual athletes. John (Peter Gallagher), Ann's husband, and Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), her sister, are busily engaged in a fling so hot it's a wonder they haven't thought of videotape themselves. Before you can say Peyton Place, John demonstrates the social and ethical dimensions of the New Sensitive Male, a man who has been scared into being honest with and about women, going so far as to try to be like them.

With the latest pop technology, Soderbergh wants Graham to explode the neo-conservative Eighties with video the way David Hemmings did the swinging Sixties with photography in Blowup. This recalls some popular notion left over from cinéma-vérité that psychological honesty can be had on tape. Is this an extension of the myth that ‘The camera never lies?’ Or that women are so narcissistic that only a camera can get to their true selves? The film encourages us to pose such questions, but is equally adept at avoiding answers within its own ‘text’ and context: the young auteur writes a script in eight days driving from the South to Los Angeles, films it on a minuscule budget, only to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and be acclaimed as the new Cassavetes, capable of thrusting us like a hand into a film that fits like a glove.

Deep within this idea of confessing to Graham's camera—which both female protagonists end up doing—there lies the strategy of permitting the (male) photographer to control our perceptions of female sexuality. In short, it's as if Soderbergh read feminist structuralists and decided to goof on them from the p.o.v. of the New Sensitive Male—‘Hey girls, what if I'm a eunuch and guarantee mirror-image reflections of you all doin' the fantasizin'?’ Soderbergh is also smart enough not to attempt to provide the visual imagery of those female fantasies; he covers his tracks here with footage of talking heads.

He may not be lying, but who is he kidding? Soderbergh almost had us convinced that this video camera was a confession booth instead of a seduction ploy. This was only possible because of the empathetic flirtation, the soulful anti-materialism, the self-effacing self-obsession of Graham, who is one of those men who has invested his entire being in knowing more about himself than about anything or anyone else. This gives him sufficient security to stay laid back and let others display their neuroses so that he can then demonstrate his ‘understanding.’ Spader, as directed by Soderbergh, makes this very attractive, but there are moments when his passivity make him little more than an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Plugged into a bourgeois environment, he sucks up any women who happen to by lying around.

Of course, Graham doesn't ask men to expose themselves to his candid camera, because he's not trying to relate to men, although the obvious possibility that he's hiding from his own homoeroticism is left unexplored. Instead, Soderbergh presents him as exploring a new relationship to women as a fragile male who, after discovering that his previous relations with women had made him a pathological liar, is convinced that the only way to stay honest is to avoid sex “if anyone else is in the room,” as he tells Ann.

The very act of telling Ann such a thing is part of his new ‘honest’ monastic code. If Graham's essential male accessory is out of bounds, will women be more honest with him? Or just turned on by the kinkiness of the ploy, as Cynthia clearly is? Does Soderbergh think men would be more honest as eunuchs? Or are we so unaccustomed to seeing men deal with the failures and disaster of their own desire that we simply prefer Graham's candor?

These are the doubts raised by Soderbergh's sincerity. He wants to show us the many ways we wound each other—and can heal each other, not through the traditional laying on of hands, but rather rigidly adhering to a hands-off policy. Graham knows Ann's lying when she tells him that what she likes about marriage is its “security.” That may be the funniest lie in any movie of the last two decades!

Ann's own brand of self-obsession can go nowhere until Graham awakens her, which is made palpable for us in an unusually touching scene. In the dead of night, Ann creeps upstairs to Graham's room to observe him sleeping, defenseless. Soderbergh has made her a lonely prefeminist housewife, devoid of seams that would connect her to any larger world, any friends. So she pays somebody to listen to her—psychiatry as the capitalist approach to friendship—until she discovers a friend in her husband's reformed fraternity brother. Graham's blank slate of Truth gets her to divulge her impression that sex is overrated, which can't help sounding like a kind of come-on, wrapped in her gentle Southern drawl. Her titillating Truth is responded to in kind: Graham tells her he's impotent. Another lie, as she will discover when she finally comes to join his video gallery—and once he turns off the damn camera.

Soderbergh is suggesting that honesty and sexuality intersect only when we stop being voyeurs. For this film is nothing if not a study in voyeurism. He's careful not to be judgmental about three of the four lives (John's an educated thug), he does weigh in with a very strong statement about responsibility, an often neglected aspect of friendship (and sexuality) in American society.

Graham may think he's an island: we may see him as Shane; but Soderbergh succeeds in developing the arc of Ann's character by having her confront Graham with his responsibility in connecting with other people. Just as Graham and Ann are about to admit that they need each other, Graham retreats into his solipsistic routine, with, “I've got a lot of problems, but they belong to me.” His jejune philosophizing and loner pose infuriates Ann. She points out that anyone walking in the door becomes a part of his life. “You've had an effect on my life,” she accuses him, implicitly challenging him to own up to his own feelings.

How often has sensitivity been used as an excuse for people to stroll in, play the nomad prophet on the eve of destruction, and wander away with “Who, me?” Graham seems like a character recalled from the pioneering days of sexual liberation, when it was considered corny to expect sex to lead to commitment. Now that sex has become a dangerous contact sport, guys like Graham may need video for their rogues' gallery, as Jack Nicholson once used slides for his in Carnal Knowledge. Carnal- has become self-knowledge, and Graham is the new ‘self-made man,’ if only from a sexual point of view—an onanistic hipster understandably alienated from his professional peers like the self-satisfied John. (It's hard to describe any of these characters without using ‘self’ in the adjectives.)

While Ann and Graham often seem to come from a Seventies time-warp, John and Cynthia are materialist Eighties' types, practicing a sexual realpolitik. Her motivation for a rendezvous with John in her sister's bed, for example, is hazily sketched out as a not unjustified exasperation with Ann's dim-witted ‘security.’ Screwing John is Cynthia's way of proving that there is no security in the world except ignorance. The film touches on Cynthia's artistic aspirations only to contrast it to John's philistine philandering, and her drudgery as a bartender points up John's laziness as a legal eagle.

In the relationship between Cynthia and Ann, Soderbergh sketches the antagonisms of sisterhood with a depressing absence of feminist consciousness. Laura San Giacomo plays Cynthia as one of those women who knows how to pour blood in men's shark pools in order to demonstrate her innate superiority. Nevertheless, Cynthia is Feminismo triumphant; she is presented as the superior woman, especially at the conclusion when Ann comes to bury the hatchet with news of her new job, her new life, and, between the lines, her thanks for flushing John out. But Soderbergh has us gasping alternately at Cynthia's perfidy and performance in bed.

One confrontation in the film promises but doesn't deliver the chemistry of the sensitized types we've been watching in what one could call ‘Alan Movies’ (Alan Alda, Alan Pakula, Woody Allen, and filmmakers feigning the New Sensitive Male schtick who are not necessarily named Alan). Cynthia as the New Tough Killer Femme drops in on Graham, whose ‘sensitivity’ has been impressed on her in tales of his displaced sexuality. Looking lethal, she prowls his empty apartment before she gets down to the Truth with his video panoply: she recounts how the first time she saw a penis she was so amazed that she forgot there was a guy attached to it. The penis is, in fact, the primary problem of every character here. If Ann's feminism is so underdeveloped that getting a job is her first gesture of independence, then Cynthia's feminism has merely got her stuck in the groove of sexual conquest. She seems not to realize that you don't have to crawl; you can walk away.

Soderbergh's characters are achingly familiar but not clichéd, because his direction is as interested in ways they don't lie—the truth of their body language—as in the goals of their relationships. They want or do not want sex with each other; a web of lies and videotape turns that desire into art. Soderbergh tries to shade in the difference between the desire to desire as we watch it in Ann and Graham, and desire to deceive as in John and Cynthia. Which brings us back to the way they negotiate the cold war between the sexes. Ann accuses John of sex with her sister and he lies. John accuses Ann of sex with Graham, and her silence however misleading, confirms it.

Graham lies to himself about celibacy in order to expose women telling the truth. And then a testimony is tucked away for his private pleasure until people like John need it for what facts it may offer. Whatever may be recorded, men are oblivious to the truth—because they “haven't the slightest idea who I am,” as Ann tells Graham when she seizes the camera to turn it on him. The video camera may be the weapon for her own liberation, as the film suggests, and she may be capable of seizing that weapon and making Graham face his own devices. But John interprets the technology of truth as “sick,” as he says after seeing his wife's tape. The health of his organism depends on self-deceit. Graham, too, is operating on the self-deceit, even if he's tipped the Richter scale of sensitivity and fallen apart at some undisclosed point before our story. But he comes to life, as he watches Ann break out of her little solipsistic, shrink-conducted symphony. In a happy ending, these Sleeping Beauties wake up and smell the coffee.

The film refuses to be abstract, while pressing upon us a sense of urgency—but about what? Dismantling the barrier of lies? Stopping video, as Soderbergh says, from “distancing us from other people?” Whether Soderbergh meant Graham to be viewed with skepticism or not, he and James Spader let him turn sex, lies, and videotape into an exploration of the phoniness and dangers of isolationism, as Men's Lib gathers steam. Is the key to liberation an escape from pathological lying about love and sex? This movie exists to ask that question. Wisely, it's too open-ended to answer it.

Kenneth Turan (review date 4 December 1991)

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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 out to be.

Soderbergh is the extremely talented young director whose deservedly lionized sex, lies, and videotape proved a revelation to movie audiences just two years ago because of its carefully nurtured emotional honesty. Apparently fearful of being typecast as the sensitive Woody Allen of his generation, Soderbergh has brazenly made a 180 degree turn here, coming up with an elaborate, artificial, distant film where everything of interest resides in an admittedly gorgeous surface. While Lem Dobbs' script is laden with both visual and verbal references to Kafka's work and is careful to be true to the basic facts of his life, Kafka does not have biography on its mind. Rather it intends, in the director's words, to be “a fictional meditation” on the themes the writer made his own.

Given that Kafka's fiction, among other things, all but invented the fearful and inexplicable nightmare menace of modern totalitarianism, that idea seems to be not a bad one. In practice, however, watching a fictional Kafka trying to unravel a mystery in a world he might have created turns out to be as disjointed and confusing an experience as watching Marcel Proust turn secret agent and single-handedly squelch a violent plot to restore the Bourbons to the throne of France.

Though Soderbergh's success with sex, lies enabled him to put together a splendid multinational cast, including Alec Guinness, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons as Kafka, the real star of this production is the gorgeously Baroque city of Prague. As intoxicatingly photographed by Walt Lloyd in elegant, exquisite black and white, Prague in 1919 is a romantic's dream, a brooding, shadowy city as menacing as it is picturesque.

Kafka, however, is oblivious to its beauty. As a mild-mannered clerk in an insurance office, writing unimportant reports for unimpressed superiors during the day and under-appreciated fiction at night, Kafka doesn't seem to notice much of anything at all. Then, one day, his best friend Eduard Raban disappears. Kafka asks his co-worker and Eduard's friend Gabriela Rosman (Theresa Russell) if she knows anything, and the answers he gets confuse him even more.

The story of Kafka is in theory fairly straightforward, as Franz K. attempts to find out what happened to his friend and why. Neither the script nor Soderbergh, however, seem capable of telling it in a straightforward way. So oddly comic moments, passing references to other films (a score reminiscent of The Third Man, a character named Murnau) and awkward lines like “Oh Kafka, will we see you at the cabaret?” make you wonder if this meandering mystery will ever get untracked.

Unfortunately, when Kafka finally has to come up with a solution to its myriad puzzles, the result is so cheesy and unimaginative it's impossible not to feel not only cheated but also disheartened. What is the point of all that careful photography, the fine if under-utilized cast, the occasional Kafka-like cadences to the dialogue, all those enigmatic references, if the plot is finally so trivial that the man himself probably would have been embarrassed to even read it, let alone have his name associated with it? There is a lot of promise in Soderbergh's career, and some of it in the early stages of this film, but by the time Kafka is all over you'll wonder how even the inevitable “Anything the kid wants he gets” hysteria that greeted the success of sex, lies, and videotape ever got this vehicle off the ground.

Jonna G. Semeiks (essay date spring 1992)

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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 writers have regarded science and the technology it spawns with dismay and distrust. There are a number of reasons for this antipathy, including some very grave and deep reservations about the kind of material and philosophical alterations science has produced in our world. Perhaps a minor reason, however, is that the creation of a literary work has traditionally depended on no more technology than is embodied in the manufacture of pencils and typewriters. The wariness with which many authors continue to regard the word processor, a device which is the greatest boon to writing since the invention of the ballpoint pen, reflects the deep-seated distrust of technology characteristic of the literary world. Movies, on the other hand, are an inherently technological form dependent on advances in science and engineering. As the century moves to a close, this dependence deepens. One has only to think of the big blockbuster films of the past fifteen years with their ubiquitous special effects: the Indiana Jones series, the Star Wars sagas, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and so on.

Every now and then (though not often enough to satisfy that portion of the movie-going audience who complain that Hollywood's products are formulaic concoctions aimed at adolescents and dominated by special effects), a “small” movie appears which eschews intergalactic warfare, vigilante androids, and extraterrestrial creatures, whether benign or malevolent. Such movies are likely to be less expensive to make, to require no stunt men or special effects, and to be primarily interested in the examination of character and dramatic conflict. Steven Soderbergh's movie sex, lies, and videotape, winner of the Best Picture award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, would seem to be such a film. Essentially employing only four actors and serving up only a few sparsely furnished sets, it explores such themes as sexual dysfunction and dishonesty, emotional betrayal and alienation.

But, as its title suggests, technology is at the heart of this film, too. In fact, Soderbergh's movie offers insight into our shifting cultural relationship to technology. It dramatizes the extent to which high tech—so often represented in dystopian fantasy as a dehumanizing force antithetical to the needs and interests of our “natural” selves—has become intertwined with our lives, so that even our most intimate activities are inseparable from it. To appreciate how radical a shift this represents, one need only compare Soderbergh's movie to the fiction of D. H. Lawrence, who was a bitter enemy of a machine-driven age and of much of the “progress” that science and technological innovation bestow. The central situation of much of Lawrence's fiction—a heroine trapped in a relationship devoid of sexual or emotional fulfillment—is present in Soderbergh's film as well. Yet the means by which Lawrence effected his heroines' rescues reveals the striking difference between the two artists' visions.

Lawrence believed, essentially, that machines destroy nature, and not just in the narrow, obvious sense that they ravage the environment, as Lawrence himself had witnessed, having grown up in a coal-mining town whose industrial plant was steadily encroaching on agricultural lands and forests. In a broader sense, Lawrence was convinced that the products, organization and values of modern industrialized and technologized society, where they do not actually destroy human life, create sexual dysfunction and prohibit intimacy and emotional wholeness.1

A glance at Lawrence's novels shows that those characters most allied with machines suffer one or another of the fates I have described above—the disintegrating Gerald Crich, for instance, of Women in Love, who successfully turns even his workers into machines; the corrupt Tom Brangwen of The Rainbow; and the cold Sir Clifford Chatterley of Lady Chatterley's Lover, whom Lawrence, in “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover,’” calls “a pure product of our civilization” (513). But because our age is technological—an age in which, as Lawrence puts it, “the machine is the Godhead” (Women in Love, 218)—nearly everyone is a victim of its values, however unconscious they are of their victimization. Thus Lawrence's fiction, like Soderbergh's film, is replete with unhappy, alienated, unfulfilled characters. Those who are most implicated in the values and functioning of the industrial machine cannot be saved. Others, seeing no way out, suffer blindly and dumbly, or, alternatively, try to deny that “Ours is essentially a tragic age” (Lady Chatterley's Lover, 5).

Lawrence's heroes and heroines, on the other hand, are set on the road to a cure through some epiphanic encounter with nature. Constance Chatterley, for instance, is made fully aware of the barrenness of her life (and her body) when she holds some newly-hatched pheasants in her hands. The married protagonist of the 1925 novella St. Mawr, Lou Witt, whose life is aimless, meaningless and sexless—a mere round of “unreal” social activities—is aroused to consciousness of her plight by a horse. Seeing him for the first time, it is

as if that mysterious fire of the horse's body had split some rock in her, … It was as if she had had a vision, as if the walls of her own world had suddenly melted away, leaving her in a great darkness, in the midst of which the large, brilliant eyes of that horse looked at her with demonish question. …

… She could not bear the triviality and superficiality of her human relationships.


In The Fox, Nellie March's encounter with the titular animal—savage, clever, deeply mysterious—impels her to see how barren and unnatural her relationship with her friend Jill Banford is and leads her, in Lawrence's view, to embrace a richer, more natural relationship with a young man. In The Lost Girl, the vehicle of vision, the lens through which the protagonist is at last able to see her life and society clearly, is a man, not an animal: an inarticulate peasant from Italy, an actor who, impersonating an Indian, performs half-naked. But he is a man so relatively close to nature, so primitive, that he has more in common with a fox or a stallion than he does with a Clifford Chatterley.

It is not just females in Lawrence's novels who are sleepwalking through their quietly desperate lives. Some of Lawrence's men need to be awakened, roused to consciousness, too: Rupert Birkin of Women in Love; Oliver Mellors of Lady Chatterley's Lover; the physician Jack Ferguson of “The Horse-Dealer's Daughter.” Man or woman, single or married, all these characters inhabit the same sexual and emotional wasteland. All of them, by the end of the works in which they appear, are on their way to repairing what is broken in their lives and in themselves (though sometimes Lawrence fails to be fully convincing in this regard). This reparation of self and circumstance is connected to a sympathetic, intuitive, entirely involuntary response to nature. Rupert Birkin's naked and instinctive plunge into the wild vegetation (an act that is eroticized by Lawrence) in an effort to cleanse himself of a perverse and destructive “love” affair with a woman is the most celebrated example.

The capacity to have the same sort of response to another human being that one has to nature, Lawrence believed, is essential to sexual wholeness and fulfillment. Sexual and emotional intimacy in his fiction always depends more on “blood consciousness”—on, that is, a warm, natural, instinctive and unconscious tenderness and sense of relatedness—than on mental contact or “mind consciousness.” Perhaps because Lawrence believed the modern mind was “imprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts” (Women in Love, 34)—concepts largely shaped by the machine age—Lawrence distrusted it, and particularly distrusted it as a mediator between the self and the other. He trusted deeper, more instinctive sources of knowledge and judgment, awareness and connection. Here, for instance, is Birkin, the protagonist of Women in Love, trying to articulate what is nearly inexpressible to Ursula Brangwen:

‘But do you really want sensuality?’ [Ursula] asked, puzzled.

Birkin looked at her, and became intent in his explanation.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that and nothing else, at this point. It is a fulfillment—the great dark knowledge you can't have in your head—the dark, involuntary being. It is death to one's self—but it is the coming into being of another.’

‘But how? How can you have knowledge not in your head?’ she asked, quite unable to interpret his phrases.

‘In the blood,’ he answered; …


But it is precisely this fundamental kind of consciousness which the conditions of modern life, Lawrence insists, have destroyed. “The deep psychic disease of modern men and women is the diseased, atrophied condition of the intuitive faculties,” faculties he links in the essay “Sex versus Loveliness” with sex and beauty (528). What Lawrence hoped we might “restore into life,” he writes in “The State of Funk,” was

the natural warm flow of common sympathy between man and man, man and woman. … If there is one thing I insist on it is that sex is a delicate, vulnerable, vital thing that you mustn't fool with. If there is one thing I deplore it is heartless sex. Sex must be a real flow, a real flow of sympathy, generous and warm, and not a trick thing, or a moment's excitation, or a mere bit of bullying.


Sex in the modern world, however, tends not to issue, Lawrence insists, from “the natural warm flow of common sympathy”—from blood consciousness, that is—but rather from the mind. The mind comes to dominate sexual desire and sexual responsiveness as it dominates all of nature and the body is robbed of its natural fulfillment and its ancient joy. Sex is, in short, displaced from body to mind.2

One of the forms this took, he believed, was pornography, and not simply the kind of pornography produced for commercial purposes. When one of the characters in Women in Love disparages knowing—disparages mental consciousness, that is—because it interferes with living, with one's ability to experience life directly, Birkin protests against the hypocrisy of her disparagement:

‘You are merely making words … ; knowledge means everything to you. Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don't want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them … what you want is pornography—looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.’


It's important to emphasize that consciousness itself, according to Lawrence, is not the disease that plagues us. The kind of consciousness that we possess (and that dominates our age) is, because it is too shallow and too limited to allow us a vital, living connection to nature or to others—or, indeed, to our deeper selves. What we get instead are superficial, one-sided, perverse, or sterile connections, relationships that are “mechanical” and life-denying, rather than “organic” and life-affirming.

Lawrence's work, taken as a whole, presents and dissects the “tragic age” he insists ours is; but it does more, too. It suggests a means to heal the broken selves and repair the damaged, perverse relationships that have characterized the Western world, Lawrence believed, since machines have come to dominate it. The way to salvation begins with an altered consciousness, itself made possible by a heightened receptiveness to something in the natural world.

For Steven Soderbergh, though, salvation begins with a machine. Sex, lies, and videotape is a long paean to the video camera—tribute that comes easily enough, of course, to a filmmaker. In Soderbergh's work, we see that technology works a compelling magic. Ceasing to be a mere recorder of action and conflict, the video camera becomes an actor in the drama, as reviewer Caryn James in The New York Times has pointed out. It creates erotic desire, it alleviates and even cures sexual dysfunction, it heals a divided self, it creates honesty and intimacy and reforms human relationships. In short, though a mere machine, the camera is a sexually and emotionally liberating device, capable of generating powerful erotic experiences and emotional responses. None of the human actors in the film has anything like its talismanic power.

Each of the four main characters in sex, lies, and videotape inhabits an emotional desert. At the beginning of the film, the beautiful, rather old-fashioned Ann (Andie McDowell) is seated on a couch, talking with her therapist about her perennial topic—garbage disposal. She seems disinclined to discuss her personal life, except for its superficial details: a brief mention of a house-guest she and her husband are expecting soon, and whom she'd rather not entertain. Still young (she appears to be about 30), she has no children, no friends, no employment other than the vigorous scrubbing and polishing of her large, already immaculate house—she's like a speeded-up machine in these scenes—and no genuine connection to her husband. (When the house-guest Graham asks her what she likes about marriage, she replies, “This house.”) In addition, her relationship with her only sibling, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), is an antagonistic one. Yet she tells her therapist that everything in her life and marriage is “fine.” While she avoids the truth and the personal, Soderbergh's magical camera takes us where her words will not: into the house of her sister, who is locked in a passionate, fierce embrace with Ann's husband, John (Peter Gallagher).

If Ann is fruitlessly rooted in her cool, rather antiseptic house, Graham (James Spader) is rooted nowhere. A drifter with no possessions, other than his video-camera and home-made “erotic” cassettes, and no work, he avoids responsibility for anything by avoiding connections with everything. His past is somewhat murky—Soderbergh's “explanation” of how Graham came to be what he is doesn't make much sense—but it's clear at any rate that for years he has been emotionally and physically disengaged from other human beings: his sexual impotence is an outward sign of his emotional distance. He has dropped out of therapy—therapists can do nothing for him—explaining that he doesn't believe one should trust anyone one hasn't been physically intimate with. But of course he is physically intimate with no one.

Though all of the principal characters in the film lie, tacitly or openly, only one—Ann's husband John—seems to thrive on dishonesty. He's content with his spoils—a beautiful, undemanding (if cool) wife, an orderly, expensive house and, ironically, more sexual access to single women than he had before he married. (It is not just Cynthia who finds his marital status an erotic attraction. Soderbergh may be suggesting that many modern young women share Graham's—and John's—aversion to or fear of emotional connection.)

Cynthia's primary emotion is anger, and specifically sexual anger. Always provocatively dressed, she works as a bartender doling out alcohol and sexual rejection to drunken patrons. It's clear that a substantial part of John's appeal for Cynthia is the pleasure she receives in betraying Ann, for whom she expresses nothing but hostility and contempt. (Early in the film Cynthia tells John angrily that she wants to inform the world that “the beautiful, the perfect Ann … is a lousy lay.”) Hers and John's entire relationship consists of their periodic sexual encounters; excluding any possibility of natural growth, it is, for all its heat, mechanical, something undertaken coldly, on purpose, to prove a point.

And what of the other sex in the film? Remarkably, it's all in the head. A number of critics and reviewers have commented on the emphasis the film places on talking and specifically on talking about sex. New York Times reviewer Caryn James argues that “Soderbergh's camera, like Graham's, is more concerned with talk than sex, and he allows dialogue to carry the film's erotic charge.” Richard Corliss concurs (“Talk is the sex of the 80s”) and suggests a reason: our fear of all the sexually-transmitted diseases (65).

The amount of screen time given over to talk about sex is considerable; Graham's videotapes, which concentrate the topic obsessively, serve as an emblem for what's going on in the larger film. Most of the movie's characters think about sex, share confidences about sex, express their fears about sex, occasionally recall an act of sex, voice fantasies about sex. For all the conversational intimacy with one another this implies, however, they don't have sex; they don't touch. Their bodies are quite left out of the picture. This is more than metaphorically true; much of Soderbergh's film, and all of Graham's videotapes (all that we see, at any rate) consist of head shots. The characters become talking heads, talking about sex. Camera and conversation both work towards a distancing of erotic experience, a cooling of emotional ties. Sex is experienced by the actors and communicated to the audience not tactually or sensuously, but mentally.

In a sense, the mind comes to contain (and constrain) sex. Sex has no existence outside the mind. It therefore doesn't do any of the life-giving things we normally expect it to; it doesn't connect, it doesn't bring people “in touch”; it isolates. It is perhaps significant in this regard that when sexual activity is depicted, suggested or discussed in the film (again with the exception of the three or four scenes devoted to Cynthia and John's “love”-making), the form that activity takes is masturbation.

Ann practices no sexual activity of any kind. She tells Graham that she has “never been that much into sex,” that sex doesn't matter as much to women as it does to men. She admits to her therapist that “I don't want [John] to touch me”; when he asks whether she ever masturbates, she covers her face with her hands in a little girl's gesture and protests “No, no, no, no” in confusion and embarrassment. Graham's life is only slightly more vital, more pleasurable. At least he masturbates; at least he's not alienated from his own body or averse to pleasuring it. Except for that activity, however, and except for his video collection, this pallid, unoccupied young man, isolated and voluntarily confined to his bleak, featureless, underfurnished apartment, lives like a monk in an ascetic cell. He, too, like Anna and Cynthia, needs to be released, needs to enter a larger, richer world, needs to be healed.

Graham's camera plays this saving role. Initially its function in Soderbergh's film is purely sexual. Graham's machine allows him to become sexually aroused, something he cannot do in the presence of another human being. The camera also arouses the many women he has interviewed and preserved on tape, to be watched again and again. When the camera is aimed at them and turned on, they too get “turned on.” They open up to reveal sexual intimacies they will perhaps never confide to therapists, lovers, or husbands (e.g., one woman's half-embarrassed, half-delighted recollection of a time she masturbated on a jet-liner, surrounded by unsuspecting fellow-passengers). Sometimes, while they are being taped, Graham explains, these women “do things,” but not to him. There is no touch, no shared erotic contact. Instead, they perform for the camera, which thus assumes the lover's conventional role. Cynthia, for example, though she has literally just met Graham, has just been introduced to his camera, removes her skirt and masturbates for it.

One wonders at the motivation of the women Graham films. They perform neither for money (unlike the stars of pornography) nor for educational or scientific purposes (though Graham likes to pretend he's engaged in something that sounds high-minded—a “research project”). Presumably there is something in the machine itself—in its cool, disengaged eye, in the narcissistic indulgence it affords—which arouses them instantly.

Even chaste, repressed Ann is not inured to its appeal. When she rushes to Graham's house after discovering the truth about her sister and her husband, she wants not Graham's arms, but the machine's witnessing eye. At first, Graham refuses to film her. But soon enough, the tape is rolling, and all of Ann's defenses are down, all her unhappiness and hunger admitted. She says she doesn't know what “satisfying sex” means, adding she's not sure whether she's ever had an orgasm (clearly she hasn't). Then a crucial exchange follows. Pleading with him to touch her, she says, “I'd like to know what I'd look like having an orgasm”—an unusual first desire of a woman who has never been sexually awakened, but one perfectly consonant with the rest of Soderbergh's film and with the place that machines are coming to occupy in our intimate lives.3

Ann's request is also perfectly consonant with Lawrence's theory that sexual pleasure and sexual desire in the modern age are mental constructs, not physical sensations. One thinks, in connection with this idea, of the women in Graham's videotapes, performing not for mirrors (as in Women in Love) but for that other recorder of two-dimensional images, the camera; of Graham, listening to them talk, while masturbating; of Graham, again, refusing to touch Ann as she requests, thus requiring that she make do with the camera and with his watching eyes; of the thrill Cynthia clearly takes in knowing that Graham will be watching her image masturbate; of the extraordinary fact that, in what are some of life's most intimate moments, none of these characters need suffer the touch of another human being. With the exception of the three or four scenes devoted to the coupling of Cynthia and John, then, human sexual activity in the film is reduced to masturbation, and its pleasures in Soderbergh's work are explicitly mental and narcissistic.

While Lawrence's ideas on masturbation no doubt strike many modern readers as puritanical or philosophically or physiologically unsound, one of his insights is valid. “The great danger of masturbation,” he writes in “Pornography and Obscenity,”

lies in its merely exhaustive nature. In sexual intercourse, there is a give and take. A new stimulus enters as the native stimulus departs. Something quite new is added as the old surcharge is removed. And this is so in all sexual intercourse, even in the homosexual intercourse. But in masturbation there is nothing but loss. …


For Lawrence, masturbation involved a kind of death: “the body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of [masturbation]. There is no change, only deadening. This is what we call dead loss” (179).

Lawrence was increasingly concerned with the tendency of life in the modern world to be organized, directed, not by the organic principle but rather by the inorganic or mechanical principle. The particular kind of death he is talking about when he condemns masturbation is treating the body like a machine—the transformation of the living organism into dead mechanism. The act of masturbation, to Lawrence, is equivalent to oiling a rusty machine so that it will continue to function.

To achieve even the solitary and minimal pleasures of onanism, however, Soderbergh's Graham requires a machine, requires technology. But technology—Graham's ever-ready video-camera—has power to spare, other miracles to work, in the lives of most of the film's characters. By the end of the film, Cynthia's encounter with the camera has led to a moral revolution: she abandons John and is forging an honest and affectionate relationship with her sister. Ann renounces John, too, and a new Graham takes his place, a Graham who is able to admit that he has responsibilities to others, that his life touches theirs. The video camera, which Ann has aimed at him, as a rite of purification and discovery, puts him literally in touch with Ann. When her hands meet his face, the film achieves its most intense and intimate moment. Seconds later, Graham turns his video camera off and Soderbergh's camera retreats, too. We assume that Ann and Graham make love, and that the miracle-working camera is unnecessary now. They are healed, restored to human life, capable of emotional and sexual connection.

Technology, then, saves the characters from an existence that is merely mechanical—a matter of routine and habit—from lives robbed of what Lawrence calls “vital significance.” In its ability to transform, to heal, to arouse, to render men and women whole and sexually potent, the machine is assigned the role nature plays in Lawrence's work. In that writer's work, nature is eroticized; sex, and sexual symbolism, are everywhere in his natural landscapes. I have said that Lawrence's heroes and heroines are distinguished by their capacity for a sympathetic, intuitive response to nature. Part of that response stems from an unconscious awareness that human beings are linked to nature by sex and that, further, healthy sex depends upon a deep and vital connection to nature. Machines—technology—lie outside this essential sexual matrix; machines are wholly other; their power (and it is considerable) is entirely destructive. Fulfilling Lawrence's worst fears, but confirming his vision, sex, lies, and videotape shows us that sex—which Lawrence hoped would save us all from becoming mere machines for producing and consuming—has become technologized and technology, eroticized.


  1. Lawrence's father, Arthur Lawrence, was a coal miner—a cog in the industrial machine—whose embittered, combative marriage and whose strained relations with his children Lawrence may partly have attributed to his work.

  2. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, this modern tendency is pushed to its inevitable issue: the guests in Sir Clifford's drawing room, who talk about sex a great deal instead of having it, speak longingly of the day when procreation and gestation can take place in a scientist's vial and when the human body, a source of unhappiness, might be gotten rid of altogether (69).

  3. A recent issue of Newsweek magazine reports that middle-class couples in America are turning to the video camera to record—and presumably enhance—their sexual activities. Couples even repeatedly interrupt sexual intercourse to reposition their bodies, and the camera, for maximum erotic effect.

Works Cited

Corliss, Richard. “When Humor Meets Heartbreak.” Review of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape. Time 31 July 1989: 65.

James, Caryn. “A Dance of Sex and Love, Through a Lens Darkly.” Review of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape. The New York Times 4 Aug. 1989: C12.

Lawrence, D. H. “A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover.Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore. New York: Viking Compass, 1970.

———. Lady Chatterley's Lover. New York: New American Library, Signet Classic Edition, 1959.

———. “Pornography and Obscenity.” Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Edward McDonald. New York: Viking Compass, 1972.

———. St. Mawr from “St. Mawr” and “The Man Who Died.” New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

———. “Sex versus Loveliness.” Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore. New York: Viking Compass, 1970.

———. “The State of Funk.” Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore. New York: Viking Compass, 1970.

———. Women in Love. New York: Viking Penguin, 1983.

Michael Wilmington (review date 20 August 1993)

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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 re-creates Aaron's world—the events of writer A. E. Hotchner's autobiographical 1972 novel—we see everything more clearly. His hotel, the Avalon, is a deteriorating fleabag in 1933 St. Louis, taken over by the bank and slowly being converted into a bordello with dance hall annex. As tenants fall in arrears, they're locked out by a sadistic bellhop (Joseph Chrest). Aaron's father (Jeroen Krabbe) is a glib, threadbare huckster peddling unsellable glass candles, months behind in the rent and one step ahead of the car repossessors. His mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is fragile and work-worn, hospitalized with consumption. His younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) has been farmed out to relatives.

His neighbors are a gallery of alcoholic lawyers, lovelorn epileptics and indigents. His one hero, Lester (Adrien Brody), is an endlessly resourceful Jewish 15-year-old down the hall with a magical pocket knife and lots of angles. Aaron is a great prevaricator—endlessly fibbing on his background to his snob classmates—but his lies are a battered screen. As he's abandoned in the Avalon, life and the bellhop close ruthlessly in.

Or do they? King of the Hill is one of the finest American films of the year—and one of the few which is really about America. It's a story—at once humorous, heartening and harrowing—of a world going nightmarishly haywire. The setting and time explain this: the Great Depression, with the nation in the grip of a remorseless economic juggernaut, hobo jungles and “Hoovervilles” swallowing up the victims. Is it paradoxical that this summer of hardship brings out the best in some—or the worst in others—and that this reminiscence of terrible times takes on a honeyed, shimmering, nostalgic glow?

Soderbergh, famous for his Cannes Grand Prize-winning low-budget debut, sex, lies, and videotape, alienated some critics with his artsy film noir follow-up, Kafka. But, here, he's in command; working with another man's memories, he makes them resonate.

Hotchner's book was lightly sarcastic, deceptively stoic and flip. It was written as if by a youngster—supposedly 13-year-old Aaron a summer later—and, fittingly for a tale by one of Ernest Hemingway's cameradoes, the pathos was husked over with “toughness.” Soderbergh's storytelling has more overt sensitivity. And the images he gets, working with Alan Rudolph's cinematographer Elliot Davis, are huge, luminous and summery-ripe. It's a visual style, like Barton Fink's, reminiscent of Roman Polanski's, full of uneasy subjective shots, grotesque aestheticism, a fascination with innocence ravaged.

It's probably Aaron's innocence that is his link with the alienated voyeur-protagonists of Soderbergh's last two movies. What this movie evokes is not so much the “reality” of the crumbling Avalon, or even Aaron's viewpoint, but a kind of universal “innocent eye,” alive to the world's terrors, yet endowing them with a magical sheen.

Jesse Bradford, the young actor who plays Aaron, is refreshingly bright and alert, with just the resilience Hotchner described. Around him, the rest of the cast—everyone above, plus Spalding Gray as cross-hall neighbor Mr. Mungo, Amber Benson as epileptic Ella McShane, Karen Allen as a teacher and Lauryn Hill as Arletta the elevator girl—make a precise, joyously rich gallery.

But, more than anything else, it's the attitude of King of the Hill that makes it special: its mingled apprehension and delight. In some ways, the story resembles the blockbuster Home Alone—also about a child abandoned, locked in and beset by terrors—but King of the Hill makes that situation more real and dreamlike, its terrors undismissible.

Soderbergh doesn't include the flashback that explains Hotchner's title: a grisly anecdote in which Aaron and his friends play “king of the hill” on a rainy day and get trapped in mud slides so severe that two of them are buried and one killed. The movie reflects a gentler vision than the novel, but tenderness and compassion aren't always in abundance; we should treasure them when we find them.

Because, like anything else, they vanish. Like all the small or “foolish” things that make life precious to Aaron—his collection of cigar bands, his glasses, canaries, Lester's knife, the magazine pictures of roasts and cakes that he cuts out and eats when he's starving—King of the Hill gains its meaning by the love it endows upon its images and words. This beautiful, limber, surprising movie has the glow of great sadness recalled and triumphed over. In its small world, on its dangerous unsteady hill, it wears the crown.

Nick James (review date January 1994)

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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 bizarre and bigger-budgeted Kafka—is unreleasable. His third feature King of the Hill therefore has a lot riding on it, in that the former young upstart is perceived as needing a comeback to recoup his bankability.

That Soderbergh should choose perhaps the softest of film options—a rites-of-passage movie—might be an indication of just how badly he wants to be king of the hill again. This impression is amplified by the feeling that, in terms of emotional manipulation, the film is a world away from his impressive debut. Where sex, lies, and videotape was all low-key sensitivity, its modish minimalism emphasising an atmosphere of high sexual anxiety that explicitly includes the audience as voyeur, King of the Hill is distanced by nostalgic high-density colour images borrowed from that treasure-house of 30s Americana, the painting of Norman Rockwell.

Such loving use of period charm is, in a Depression context, deeply ironic, although it does nothing to gainsay the sentimentality that is a given with films taking a child's point of view. Soderbergh, however, keeps his young actor Jesse Bradford on a limited diet of winning smiles, and the boy's voice-over, adapted from the memoir by Hemingway sidekick A. E. Hotchner, has a laconic matter-of-fact edge that keeps any incipient drippiness at bay.

However, the studied weirdness with which the adult characters are presented—reminiscent of that king of all children-in-peril films, Night of the Hunter—signals that Soderbergh is still anxious to appear the auteur, but in a way that fits too snugly into the American independent tradition. You get the feeling that the Empire Hotel may be one of a chain that includes the Earle in Barton Fink and the Arcade in Mystery Train. Take away its moody mise en scène, however, and King of the Hill is otherwise a purely conventional tale of a kid who wins through against the odds. It is curiously underwhelming despite its successful hallucinatory depiction of Aaron's perceptions. And maybe the one thing that it didn't need that it has in common with Soderbergh's debut is its deadpan sense that nothing really matters very much.

John Simon (review date 29 May 1995)

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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 director, with the help of his cameraman, Elliot Davis, immerses us in meaningless color baths that recur throughout. Sometimes everything is awash in greens, sometimes in blues or reds; most often there is no justifying colored-light source. And sometimes Soderbergh contrives a multicolored background as if, with conspicuous arbitrariness, the entire scene were shot in front of a cathedral window.

Equally exasperating are the extreme closeups. Thus someone will be talking in full-face or three-quarters in a very tight shot while, even more unbearably close, is the interlocutor, seen in quarter profile. The effect is visually obstreperous without dramatic necessity. Again, there are double exposures galore; indeed, the whole movie is a virtual double exposure with its dizzyingly alternating time frames: the past, in which the hero, Michael, is bearded; the present, in which he is clean-shaven. That is the only gauge: our orientedness hangs by some facial hair. And there are both flashbacks and flashforwards.

Joshua Donen and Daniel Fuchs's screenplay, a remake of the 1947 Criss Cross, is an unrelenting concatenation of double and triple crosses, the characters' dishonesty compounded by the cheating of the filmmakers. The plot is murky in the extreme, and figures such as Michael's mother and brother pop in and out as contrivances, not integral components. The hero's mistress, his ex-wife, and her gangster husband are all insufficiently explored, which might not matter if the plot were novel or made a modicum of sense, but no such luck.

Two young actresses, Alison Elliott and Elisabeth Shue, are fetching and effective, and some supporting parts are well taken. But the film has a major minus in its middle: the Michael of Peter Gallagher. A passable actor, Gallagher has a most unsettling face: that of a pretty boy with hypertrophic eyebrows and lush, lipstick-enhanced lips. His entire countenance seems to deliquesce into a splotch of spreading goo. In any number of ways, The Underneath is beneath contempt.

Nick James (review date March 1996)

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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 post-Aids suppressed-erotic love. It was less apt to his 30s period piece King of the Hill, adulterating the child protagonist's wide-eyed, trusting point-of-view with anomie. With The Underneath, however—the second film version of the Daniel Fuchs novel Criss Cross, first filmed as a classic film noir starring Burt Lancaster, Dan Duryea and Yvonne De Carlo by Robert Siodmak in 1948—Soderbergh is trying to portray a character who is plausible, but hard to fathom, a man who has come back to his home town but doesn't appear to know why. An unease between people is therefore essential to the film's mood and structure.

The Underneath opens on the day of the climactic robbery. Using a complex flashback structure, it refers back to two periods of time—the chronological events since Michael Chambers' return building up to the robbery, and scenes of Michael as he was before he left Austin: an obsessive gambler with Teflon-coated affability who, according to his psychotic cop brother David, “skated along on looks and charm just like a woman.” These flashbacks are littered with portents of fate and references to gambling: Michael's stepfather-to-be Ed Dutton says at their first meeting, “when the planets don't line up there's nothing you can do about it”; Michael's former-lover Rachel practises announcing lottery numbers for an acting audition; his fellow security guards play cards constantly; and when he visits the club, he is stamped with the legend “SUCKER.”

Luck and motivation are therefore the contrasted themes here, just as they are in the Robert Siodmak film, but Soderbergh calls the fatalism of film noir into question. Is Michael really the pawn of fate inscribed at the heart of the genre, or is he rather the inscrutable manipulator that his lovers keep telling him he is? Even his surname, Chambers, suggests more than one inner sanctum to his mind. Where Burt Lancaster in the original film is clearly lovesick, Peter Gallagher's Michael is just bewildered. He may have returned home for more than his ex-lover. Some way into the film, there is a key pairing of post-coital scenes that offers some clues. The first is in the past: “I feel like you're somewhere else,” says Rachel; “I feel like I'm in an ad for fine wine,” is his reply. In the second, Susan, his casual fling, suggests he's hooked on someone else. “Sort of,” he responds, and later adds, “There's what you want and what's good for you … they never meet.”

Rachel whom he wants and Susan who is good for him never do meet, but he seems to yearn as much for the thrill of his old gambling addiction as for the committed affections of either woman. Romancing Rachel again—despite her attachment to the murderous local hoodlum Tommy Dundee—offers the kind of risk that is the gambler's juice. Equally, Michael could be considering the robbery from the moment he gets the security job. In a film where all the supporting players know exactly who they are, and keep telling him (“you know me, I like money” says Rachel), it is Michael who is the random element. In other words, if the film has a dark heart, like all the great noirs, it may not be the clichéd Chandleresque rottenness of the world but the impossibility of Michael—or anybody else—knowing his own mind.

Michael's glassy inscrutability sits like a transparent mask on Gallagher's fulsome matinee-idol face. His huge pupils loom constantly into close-up without a trace of emotion. His is a perfectly listless performance, a still, bewildered centre around which several subtle marvels of character acting are achieved by others. Soderbergh's framing is so rigorous that the actors' freedom of movement often seems artificially constricted, yet Alison Elliot conveys all the ambiguity of the sleek, attention-seeking Rachel with a few half-cocked smiles and narrow-eyed appraisals. William Fichtner, too, seizes on small gestures to make Tommy Dundee an utterly convincing terror for Michael to behold.

But it seems that no Steven Soderbergh film can ever be performance-driven. The motor here is undoubtedly the rigorously constructed plot, a maze of crossing paths. However, the end of a maze is its centre and there's nothing there but Michael Chambers. Of course, the story has an ending, one as tacked-on and farcical as anything Chandler himself could have dreamed up, but it's this unknowable man that we're left with and it's a chilly feeling.

Peter Matthews (review date October 1998)

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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 the case of crime novelist Elmore Leonard reminds us that the reverse can also be true: there are writers whose sensibility is so exquisitely minor that finding a screen equivalent is nearly impossible. Leonard ought to be a natural for the movies—his books, after all, consist of page after page of laconic, off-the-wall dialogue alternating with functional descriptions of narrative action. No attempt is made to plumb characters' deeper motives, and even a qualifying adjective seems too much of a compromise. “If it sounds like writing,” says Leonard, “I rewrite it.”

It's as if Leonard's thrillers are already movies, with the brevity of language and exteriority a screenwriter is supposed to aim for. But almost without exception the films based on his works (The Ambassador, 1984, Glitz, 1991, and the recent Touch) have been duds—including the three (Stick, 1985, 52 Pick-up, 1986, and Cat Chaser, 1989) he scripted himself. It may be that the streamlined ease of Leonard's tone is deceptive—a wealth of concentrated effort has gone into those weightless, zero-degree sentences. There's a true formal rigour in Leonard's approach: he whittles away at words until nothing remains but absolute deadpan—the expression of an attitude as much as a writing style. Leonard's heroes don't let on much, and neither does he. His books aspire to little more than a consummate cool: of style, conception and character. That probably accounts for their enormous cult reputation. Where a major author opens up our perceptions of the world, Leonard narrows it to the articulation of a precise, hip wavelength. For all their lowlife settings and apparent shagginess, Leonard's novels are as neatly self-contained and morally trivial as drawing-room comedies.


Perfect shallowness demands its own brand of discipline, and that's where the majority of Leonard's screen translators fail. It's not enough to reproduce the plot twists and zingy one-liners—for something of the spirit of the books to come through requires an exactly calibrated nonchalance in the whole treatment. The breezy, buoyant 1995 film version of Get Shorty almost caught it, but faltered ultimately under Barry Sonnenfeld's broad, impersonal direction. Now the screenwriter for that movie, Scott Frank, has teamed up with art-house specialist Steven Soderbergh for Out of Sight, based on Leonard's 1996 book and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

Out of Sight is just a trifle (though at $49 million, an expensive one), but it strikes me as one of the best formula pictures in years. In case that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it should be remembered that not a few of Hollywood's most memorable entertainments—films that still please audiences after decades—are, strictly speaking, production-line sausages. It's not that Out of Sight feels remotely retro: indeed, the looselimbed contemporary vernacular Soderbergh and Frank employ is one of the movie's singular felicities. But there's an underlying compactness and elegance that puts one in mind of classic Hollywood at its most exemplary. Studio craftsmen of former days—professionals merely doing their jobs—could take conventional genre subjects and turn them adroitly into vital popular art. It's this quality of self-effacing tact that keeps Bringing Up Baby or Casablanca fresh when more pretentious efforts have sunk without a trace. And Out of Sight is among the few current movies to suggest that honest commercial know-how isn't entirely dead.

Steven Soderbergh is just about the last person you would think of inviting to direct an Elmore Leonard thriller. His debut feature sex, lies, and videotape (1989) is commonly said to have put Miramax on the map and American indie films into the shopping mall. With an aggressive marketing campaign and that come-hither title, it could hardly miss—but the multiplex audiences who turned out hoping for something kinky may have been startled to find themselves confronting the work of a chilly formalist. His subsequent flops—Kafka (1991) and King of the Hill (1993)—were almost fanatically perfectionist in their look, as if the director had felt compelled to chew over the crystalline imagery frame by frame. By the time he made The Underneath (1995), a glacial meditation on film noir themes, one had the sense that Soderbergh was as stymied by art-consciousness as his hero was by torpor. Shock treatment was indicated, and it was apparently delivered in the self-financed Schizopolis (1996)—so far unseen in Britain, but described by L.A. Weekly reporter Paul Malcolm as a “screwball, stylistic freak-out … with [a] pointed disdain for narrative coherence and [an] emphasis on sheer momentum.” Given the title and Soderbergh's previous bottled-up style, it's tempting to read Schizopolis as the occasion on which the director finally uncorked his id. In Out of Sight he channels this manic high into a technique at once playful and scrupulously controlled.

The movie would appear to be a special case of synchronicity—of the countless things that could be expected to go wrong, going right. I'm not sure Soderbergh has the toughness to make a full career in the mainstream, but serving as a director-for-hire on a project of no importance, he has done better, richer and racier work than he managed as an auteur. Perhaps Soderbergh needed the external discipline of a big-star vehicle to unclench his tight creative personality; in return, he invests a purely commercial enterprise with a portion of his fastidiousness. It's not unlike the proverbial bargain struck between Fred and Ginger—Soderbergh gives the movie class, it gives him sex appeal. The synthesis is a flip elegance that isn't miles away from Leonard's notion of cool.

It's well known that Leonard's crime fiction has exerted considerable secondhand influence on contemporary American cinema via the work of his number-one fan, Quentin Tarantino. Still, I'm glad it was the meticulous Soderbergh and not the blowhard Tarantino who filmed Out of Sight. Judging from the cautious and painfully overextended Jackie Brown (based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch), when Tarantino approaches his idol too directly he chokes up in bashful reverence. Tarantino's indebtedness to Leonard is more patent in his screenplays for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and the benchmarks of his cinema—busy but seemingly random plotting, sudden leaps from comedy to carnage, ‘humanised’ criminals who discuss the merits of consumer items, and non-stop references to movies—are certainly all there in Leonard. But where the author aims at an almost minimalist leanness of effect, the director is a hyperkinetic sensualist who wants to knock the audience flat.

The light touch Soderbergh brings to Out of Sight is far more appropriate to Leonard's book than Tarantino's inflated nihilist chic. That's partly because the story is a crime caper through which a delicate, reticent love affair has been threaded. Fugitive bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Deputy Federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) aren't flamboyant lovers-on-the-lam like the couple in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance. They don't burn up the track with erotic friction; instead, their courtship is oddly oblique, tentative and experimental. Karen, we learn, has a history of romantic waywardness, choosing married men or guys who turn out to be felons. Ambitious to rise in a male-dominated profession, she nonetheless feels an obscure yen for more glamour and adventure than can be safely warranted by the law. (Being a Leonard heroine, she never says so—but you intuit it from Lopez's leggy, provocative demeanour and such carefully planted details as her Chanel suit and the silvery-pink shade of lipstick she wears on the job.) Jack, too, longs for something other. A career criminal with nowhere to go but down, facing a 30-year prison sentence if caught, he harbours the pipe-dream of a regular life where people meet for cocktails, talk about movies, get acquainted. The reciprocity of their desires makes them a perfect fit, like the symmetrical couples (played by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn or William Powell and Myrna Loy) in 30s screwball comedies. Movie love in those days could cause difference to crumble instantly, but Jack and Karen recognise there's no future in their developing rapport: he must continue to dodge the law, and she to hunt him down. The sly conceit of the movie is that these official adversaries choose—now and then, in isolated pockets of the chase—to bunk off from their public roles and find out what could have been.


They indulge their caprice in a handful of the most subtly seductive scenes ever filmed. The first suggests a witty extension (or perhaps contraction) of the ‘meet-cute’ once mandatory in Hollywood romantic comedy. Escaping from a medium-security Florida prison, Jack is obliged to abduct innocent bystander Karen, whom he bundles into the trunk of a getaway car driven by his accomplice Buddy (Ving Rhames). Then he climbs in himself, and illuminated by the lurid red tail-lights, their bodies pressed snugly back to back, the pair soon fall into an easygoing patter about their respective careers and Faye Dunaway movies they have enjoyed. Soderbergh frames this (literal) blind date the only way he can—in huge close-up—yet his darting camerawork offsets the static situation, charging it with emotional expectancy. That trunk stands a decent chance of being as fondly remembered as the motel room across which Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert string the Walls of Jericho in It Happened One Night—and it performs a similar function as a sealed-off free zone where inimical lovers can test their true feelings.

That's the beginning for Jack and Karen, but it's also nearly the end. Since their relationship is untenable, it becomes a utopian space within the narrative—the gateway to a parallel universe where a happier story might be told. In Henry Hathaway's 1935 surrealist classic Peter Ibbetson, the forcibly estranged sweethearts (played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) spend a lifetime visiting each other in dreams. It's almost the same with Jack and Karen. Through some of the most understated techniques of stylisation I've ever seen, Soderbergh lends their love duets a hypnotic quality that abstracts them from the rest of the movie. The effect is most pronounced in the sequence where they have cocktails. Sitting alone in a hotel bar high above Detroit, Karen is chatted up by three advertising types, each of whom she repels. Then suddenly Jack appears, as if materialised by thought.


Soderbergh composes their ensuing tête-à-tête in lustrous two-shots that fill the frame, connoting a self-sufficient world. At the same time, he faintly flattens the image to the dimensions of a comic strip—insinuating perhaps that this world isn't quite real. It's here that the theme of the movie is most explicitly stated. Talking of making eye contact with someone on the street, Jack muses: “And the next moment, the person's gone … and it's too late to do anything about it, but you remember it because it was right there and you let it go, and you think, ‘What if I had stopped and said something?’ It might happen only a few times in your life.” To which Karen quietly replies, “Or once.”

What links Jack and Karen to those flaky 30s movie couples is their willingness to behave irresponsibly, to leave their hide-bound identities and take a chance. What makes them 90s figures is the limited nature of their romantic project. Neither is willing to give up the solid world they live in for something as chimerical as love. And yet Out of Sight becomes possibly even more romantic because that love crystallises in memory as a lost potential, a regret. As Jack and Karen continue to talk, Soderbergh flashes forward to their single act of consummation (and has the taste not to picture it too graphically). Now we understand why the freeze-frames, which in earlier parts of the film seemed an annoying tic, are necessary to its conception—Jack and Karen are storing up images for the long, cold future. The reserved, slightly ceremonial framing contributes to the mood of subdued gravity: we feel the characters are utterly conscious of each moment as it slips away and already view it with sharp pangs of nostalgia.

Aside from the usual condensations and a changed ending, Frank's script stays extremely faithful to Leonard's book. So why does the movie come across as far more vivid and touching? Perhaps the answer lies partly in the ‘reality effect’ of cinema. Reading the novel, you admire the craftsmanlike way Leonard brings everything to a hard point; but he never gives you the impression of a fully imagined world as a major writer can. That's the downside of his authorial poker-face—the locales lack substance, the people feel disembodied. Yet characters who are ciphers on the page become immediately particularised when actors play them on screen. This can feel like a loss in film versions of literary masterpieces, but in the case of Out of Sight the vast gain in concrete physical detail is a compensation. Of course, it isn't merely by virtue of being photographed that Clooney and Lopez elicit our intense emotional involvement—it's because they act together with such unforced charm. And it isn't just that the movie was shot on location in Miami and Detroit that provides a convincing backdrop—it's that Soderbergh, the cinematographer and the production designer succeed in establishing a strong sense of place.

Most commercial directors these days fall back on grandiose aerial views to portray a city. But Soderbergh stays consistently at street level, which keeps the movie looking self-contained and almost suburban. He has said he was after a rough, imperfect feeling, and you can see what he means: outside the formally orchestrated interludes between Jack and Karen, he judders the camera in muted imitation of cinéma-vérité. In some of his previous films Soderbergh would practically quarantine the characters in the tight frame; here it's as if this pan-and-zoom is trying to catch up with them as they go their independent ways.


The style is certainly suited to the ramshackle sub-plot in which Jack, Buddy and a sprinkling of sociopaths conspire to rob millionaire Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks). It's a storyline seemingly composed of ragtags from such 70s films as The French Connection and Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, and indeed there's flavour of early to mid 70s American cinema in the movie's veneer of airiness and spontaneity. But the underlying control is very apparent—for instance in the expressionist use of saturated colour, evolving from pink and green pastels in Miami to blues, browns and blacks in Detroit, that plots the darkening course of the love affair.

There's perhaps only one spot where Soderbergh's debonair technique goes splat. The crudely staged scene between Jack and criminal confederate Snoopy (Don Cheadle) on the stairs of the Ripley mansion is plainly there to satisfy the meatheads in the audience. And ambiguous though it is, I also object to the new ending in which Karen, tongue faintly in cheek, supplies the deus ex machina whereby she and Jack can keep the ball rolling. Frank excises Karen's final words to Jack in the novel—her bleakly realistic: “I'm afraid, though, 30 years from now I'll feel different about it. I'm sorry, Jack.” The return of Jack and Karen for Out of Sight 2 feels like a dim possibility—but the melancholy beauty of their romance rests precisely on it being an evanescent flash in their lives, which they will never forget.

John Wrathall (review date December 1998)

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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 tantalising first encounter in a car boot, washed in the red of the brake lights, the film is fuelled by the sexual tension between the two leads, as opposed to any great suspense about who is going to end up with Ripley's diamonds. Seizing their chance after too many bad films (the nadirs being Batman & Robin for him, Anaconda for her), George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are both much more interesting and real here than they have been allowed to be in the past.

With his slicked-back greying hair and bullish walk, Clooney's Jack is all the cooler for being slightly seedy (in the book, Jack is in his late forties). But he's also quite a poignant figure, aware of his shortcomings (“Do you know anyone who's done one last score and gone on to lead the good life?” he wonders), while at the same time unable to resist over-reaching himself. Meanwhile, despite her fabulous Bond-girl accoutrements (tight leather coat, shiny weapons), Lopez succeeds in humanising Karen. Her handgun, for instance, is a gift from her doting father (Farina), and her verve as a law-enforcement officer is offset by her dawning realisation that she'd rather have an affair with Jack than send him to prison. The supporting characters, a feature of any Leonard adaptation, are equally engaging, notably Ving Rhames as Jack's born-again Christian accomplice Buddy, who insists on confessing every job in advance to his sister; Steve Zahn as the feckless dopehead Glenn, in way over his head; and an uncredited Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, the same FBI agent he played in Jackie Brown.

The real star of Out of Sight, however, is director Steven Soderbergh. Previously fêted 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. His battery of freeze frames, jump cuts and zooms might seem irritating in less confident hands, but they flow perfectly in tandem with the wonderful, 70s-style score. The flashback-dependent plot structure might not seem radical in the wake of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, but, as he did with The Underneath, Soderbergh experiments with more short-term flashes back and forwards, to events only minutes in the past or future. Aided by veteran British editor Anne V. Coates, Soderbergh uses this intriguing technique to best effect during the tantalising sequence in a hotel bar where Karen and Jack finally come face to face. Their flirtation is intercut with what would conventionally be the next scene—making love in the hotel room—in a sly and strangely poignant reversal of the famous sex scene in Don't Look Now (1973). Another 30 years from now, Soderbergh's sleight of hand may well seem as dated as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), but for the time being, it looks very good indeed.

Steven Soderbergh and Sheila Johnston (interview date November 1999)

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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 pointed to a different way forward. But then his next movies bombed: the angst-ridden Kafka (1991); King of the Hill (1993), the story of a small boy struggling to survive the Depression; the glacial film noir The Underneath (1995). Interviewed about the last, Soderbergh launched into a long, morose attack: “I've lost interest in the cinematic baggage you have to use to make a film palatable for a mass audience.”

Unsurprisingly, his career went quiet. He took on a string of behind-the-scenes producing and script-writing assignments including Pleasantville and the ill-fated US remake of Nightwatch. Plans for Quiz Show foundered when Robert Redford hijacked the project. Soderbergh the director appeared to be all washed up: a one-hit wonder.

In fact he had gone to ground to make Schizopolis, a no-budget, Dadaesque comedy in which Soderbergh himself plays the tragi-comic hero struggling with his sense of alienation and his failing marriage (his wife was played by the director's own soon-to-be ex-spouse Betsy Brantley). The film's reception at its Cannes premiere in 1996 was rather more muted than the ovation that had greeted sex, lies, with a torrent of bored and bewildered audience members diving for the exit. With his next film, Gray's Anatomy (1996), a small-scale piece made with the monologuist Spalding Gray, Soderbergh seemed to have disappeared for good beneath the radar.

But then in 1998 he bounced back triumphantly with an unpromising-sounding assignment as director-for-hire on an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Out of Sight, about a failed bank robber and a deputy federal marshall who can't decide whether to arrest the charming felon or fall in love with him. Sexy, elegant and profoundly romantic (a new departure for a director whose work has often been regarded as somewhat cerebral), it was hailed by critics as his best film since sex, lies. His return to favour continues with The Limey, which played out of competition at Cannes this year. The story of an English ex-convict (Terence Stamp) who travels to Los Angeles to investigate his daughter's death following her involvement with a hedonistic record producer (Peter Fonda), it is on one level a straight revenge thriller with strong echoes of Get Carter, while its spaced-out feel and bravura kaleidoscopic editing make it play like a homage to the formal experimentation of 60s and 70s cinema.

Soderbergh has been described by one US interviewer, a little patronisingly if not altogether inaccurately, as a “goofy, balding, lovable geek.” But underneath that persona, thinly concealed, are a steely intelligence and formidable self-awareness. And though he has worked within an astonishing range of registers—from the avant-garde Schizopolis, through the quintessential US indie sensibility of sex, lies and the arty, black-and-white, middle-European universe of Kafka, to such demi-Hollywood genre pieces as Out of Sight and The Limey—he insists adamantly on the continuity of his work.

[Johnston:] You use a very complex chronological structure in The Limey—was that written into the script or created at the editing stage?

[Soderbergh:] I shot it that way. My whole line while we were making it was, “If we do our job right this is Get Carter as made by Alain Resnais,” which I know spells big box office! I was trying to get a sense of how your mind sifts through things and I felt I could get away with a certain amount of abstraction because the backbone of the movie is so straight. Even so, my first version was so layered and deconstructed even people who had worked on the movie didn't understand it. So I had to start working back to find a balance, which I did through screenings for friends: writers, actors, producers, directors, a new group of guinea pigs each time. At one point Artisan [the production company] wanted a public preview. But I said, “For a movie like this it's worthless: it's going to score terribly and I'll get nothing I haven't already got by inviting intelligent, creative people to give me ideas.” A week before we were going to do it, they called and said, “You're right, it's a waste of money. Just finish it the way you're going to finish it and we'll figure out the rest.”

The film's steeped in the mood of the 60s, though you're a little young to have had much direct experience of that counterculture.

I've been working for some time on a book of interviews with Richard Lester called Getting Away with It and I asked him a lot about that period. Mostly we talked about the gradual shift from optimism to disillusion. I was whining about something and then I added, “Still, has there ever been a generation that hasn't said, ‘It's never been this bad’?” He said, “Yeah, in the 60s.” But as soon as it became apparent that the youth movement was an ongoing economic force, it began to be co-opted into mainstream culture, and that—combined with other things like harder drugs becoming available—was when things started to shift. When Lester made two trips to San Francisco to research and shoot Petulia in 1966 and 1967 he said he could feel a very strong, dark undercurrent on the second visit that wasn't there on the first. That's the feeling that permeates The Limey. There's one guy whose dreams of himself were lost in prison and another whose dreams were probably never even his own: he just took everybody else's and made money out of them.

How important was it to cast two icons of 60s cinema?

Both Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda have baggage that's not only specific to the 60s but has to do with a refusal to compromise: they've stayed pretty true to themselves all these years. But I wasn't trying to turn in a pastiche—though clearly when we had Peter Fonda driving in a fast vehicle up the coast, I thought, “We've gotta get Steppenwolf.” Terence seemed like a Who kind of guy—in fact his brother, Chris Stamp, was one of the people who discovered them.

One of the film's most remarkable features is your use of scenes from Ken Loach's 1967 movie Poor Cow, in which Stamp played another thief, to show his character in flashback.

In cinema you can follow actors over a long period—you can really see the accumulation of someone's life experience. So the idea of using Ken's film was intriguing, and as far as I know no one had done that before. There was a lengthy process to get the rights because Poor Cow was based on a book by Nell Dunn, and Carol White, who was in the scenes we wanted to use, was dead. It went on for months and didn't get completely resolved until we were editing. Then I met with Ken and said, “Look, I've got this cleared up legally, but morally I can't do it if you think it's offensive.” But when I explained what I was doing, he said it was fine.

When you took receipt of your Palme d'or for sex, lies, and videotape you said: “It's all downhill from here.” Do you now feel that has been true of your career?

I was being facetious, but what I meant was that it seemed unlikely I would ever again be the recipient of such unified acclaim. A lot of people never are, and to get it for my first movie seemed almost comical. The Palme d'or helped me hugely—it made a name for me in Europe, where people sometimes like my movies more than they do in the States—but if sex, lies had made only half a million dollars nobody would be talking about it today. It was a modest piece with modest aspirations that happened to be what people wanted to see in a way I obviously haven't been able to duplicate. It was pure chance: I have a strong feeling that had it been made a year later it wouldn't have hit in the same way.

Unlike many younger American independent filmmakers, you didn't use the success of your first film as a springboard to a commercial Hollywood career. Are you happy now with the choices you made?

Let's put it this way, I don't regret any of them. There have been good ones and bad ones, but I look back and think, “That's an eclectic group of movies that, for better or worse, belong to me.” I turned down a lot of studio stuff—or rather traditional studio stuff, because two of my films were made by Universal—until Out of Sight, which seemed the perfect blend of what I do and the resources a studio can provide.

What is the difference between coming in on a pre-existing project and creating a film from scratch?

With a screenplay that didn't come from you, you get on that train and it takes a while to start driving it. But you work your way through each car until you get to the front, and once you're close to shooting there's really no difference. By then you usually have a healthy disrespect for—or sense of detachment from—the material, even if you've written it yourself. When we rehearsed Out of Sight I started cutting lines because, though Elmore Leonard writes great dialogue, it seemed in scenes like the last one there wasn't a lot to be said. That's one of the differences between a book and a movie. I met someone recently who was in Days of Heaven and she said there was lots of dialogue in the script, but when they got on the set Terrence Malick would go, “Don't say anything.” When you look at the film you realise that he ended up having to write all that voiceover in post-production because nobody said anything so nobody knew what was going on! You think, “Oh, that's such a great example of stripping everything away,” and then you find out why he did it. Sometimes it's better not to know too much.

Along with Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Out of Sight ushered in a revival of interest in Elmore Leonard, whose work had rarely been successfully translated into film.

Quentin Tarantino's rise has so much to do with Elmore Leonard's world, as he would be the first to admit, that by the time a ‘real’ Leonard adaptation showed up in the form of Get Shorty, everyone had been prepared by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction for that tone. Actually Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight are textbook examples of what a director does, because they all three feel like Elmore Leonard movies but are completely different from each other. When you try to explain what it is you do, this is it: you take a piece of material, it's filtered through your eyes and ears, and it comes out with a very specific atmosphere.

Your films have a lyrical, dreamlike quality that gives them an almost European flavour.

When I was at university I'd see one, sometimes two movies a night: films like 8[frac12] or The Third Man or A Hard Day's Night. I was drawn to European cinema—its approach to character was more complicated and stylistically it seemed more rigorous and interesting. When you see an Antonioni film at an impressionable age it has a huge impact. Everything on screen is there for a reason—even Zabriskie Point, which is odd and flawed, is astonishing to look at.

What's your prognosis for the new generation of US indie directors?

It's much harder for them today. The expectations are much higher and the competition is much fiercer. It's easier to get a film made now because sex, lies and a handful of others have made money. But it's much more difficult to get it released because the marketplace is very competitive and distributors are not as adventurous as they used to be.

What about your future plans?

I've just made Erin Brockovich, which is an aggressively linear reality-based drama about a twice-divorced mother-of-three living at a very low income level who talks herself into a job answering the phone and ends up putting together a case against a large California utility company that results in the biggest direct-action lawsuit settlement in history. She's played by Julia Roberts—if you're trying to sneak something under the wire, by which I mean an adult, intelligent film with no sequel potential, no merchandising, no high concept and no big hook, it's nice to have one of the world's most bankable stars sneaking under with you. Other than that, I'm riding off madly in all directions. I've always had one foot in and one foot out of Hollywood—that's what makes me comfortable. Together with Scott Frank, who adapted Out of Sight, I'm writing an original spec screenplay that's a multi-character murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie. And I'm making notes for Son of Schizopolis—the sequel to the film nobody saw.

Mark Steyn (review date 11 December 1999)

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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 Limey's director, Steven Soderbergh, is clever enough to tap into all the baggage that Stamp and Fonda bring with them. So, for his title character's back-story, he simply lifts chunks of Poor Cow, Ken Loach's 1967 debut, in which beautiful young Terence larks around with bottled beehived Carol White. For Stamp's character, the Sixties is Swingin' London monochrome; for Fonda's, it's the psychedelic colours of gatefold album sleeves. But for both men it was their moment—‘The Sixties,’ Fonda explains to his nymphette girlfriend at one point, ‘was really just 1966 and the first half of 1967’—and both men seem, like Austin Powers and Dr Evil, to have stepped out of time for the last act in some ancient saga.

In fact, Stamp and Fonda have never appeared on screen together, and, as the film opens, their characters are not even aware of each other. Stamp plays a man called Wilson (as he did in Poor Cow), a Cockney hard-case who's been detained at Her Majesty's pleasure for most of his adult life. He's come to Los Angeles because his daughter's car careered off Mulholland, dived into the canyon, burst into flames, and Wilson is disinclined to accept a verdict of accidental death. So he's in La-La Land to kick ass—or, more accurately, arse. After a bit of poking around, he discovers the trail leads high up into the Hollywood Hills to a spectacular pad cantilevered out over the valley, the home of record exec Terry Valentine, played by Fonda. As it turns out, they have something in common: both made their money in rock'n'roll—Terry Valentine ‘took the whole southern California zeitgeist and ran with it’; Wilson nicked the receipts from a Pink Floyd gig at Wembley.

The script by Lem Dobbs is as lean and taut and sharp as Stamp himself, following the familiar stranger-in-town-looking-for-revenge trajectory. The twist is that the town's LA and the stranger's a Brit yob. When first we see him, he's unpacking his suitcase—British passport (stiff and blue, needless to say) and Old Spice to the fore. He's a tough old bird who, unlike most Britons in Hollywood, seems to have no desire to assimilate: ‘'Ullo, squire. I know this is your manor but don't get your knickers in a twist,’ he tells the baffled locals. For their part, the Angelenos consistently underestimate him: ‘Stupid English fuck,’ says one, moments before Wilson blows them all away.

That's really what the film's about: two approaches to aging. On the one hand, there's the Fonda/California model: tanned, wealthy, walk-in closets, heated pool, fabulous babes, anything unpleasant contracted out to flunkeys. On the other, there's the Stamp/Brit model: white face, white hair, fiddling the dole, down the boozer, toughened by years of pickled eggs and pints of bitter. Stamp hits the ground with the bounce of an indestructible savaloy: those sun-fried California pussies don't know what's hit 'em. You can see it in the eyes of the sexagenarian protagonists: Fonda's are heavy-lidded, woozy; Stamp's blazing blues bore into you like lasers. California's supposed to be the land of eternal youth, but, in this film, it's like a retirement community: true, the old guys all look young, but the young guys all seem old and slow, at least compared to the purposeful Brit.

When Wilson decides to move on Valentine, he does the standard gangster-movie thing and cases the joint through binoculars, telling his Hispanic sidekick that Valentine's called in some muscle: the entrance is packed with bodyguards. ‘They look a right load of wallies,’ he adds.

The Hispanic takes a peek: it's a group of men in identical vests and bow ties. ‘They're the valays,’ he says.

‘Valays?’ scoffs Wilson. ‘Oo's 'e fink 'e is? The Marquess of fuckin' Tavistock?’

‘They're for parking,’ explains the Hispanic. In this view of the city, both upscale and down-at-heel Angelenos buy into the bullshit, so enfeebled by the rituals of California living that neither group is any match for Wilson. He sails into the party and, in an effort to blend in, orders a sophisticated drink. ‘Babycham,’ he tells the barman. ‘And a Dubonnet with a twist.’ But, in his brief foray into town, Wilson wreaks more havoc in LA than Godzilla did in New York. He even sort of gets the girl, another Sixties survivor, the wonderful Lesley-Anne Warren.

But Soderbergh's hommage to the Sixties extends beyond his principals, his Ken Loach clips and his bursts of rock. His directorial guide seems to have been John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), and, from the first disconnected words and visuals, he tells his story in fragments, splintered scenes and dialogue that jump ahead, back-track, recapitulate and retake themselves. Some American critics are pretty sniffy about all this, arguing that it's a pointless blank: Soderbergh's mimicking the approach to show off rather than for any dramatic purpose. But I don't think so. We're seeing the narrative through Wilson's eyes. He's lost his daughter and, like most people in such circumstances, the most intense memories replay themselves over and over. He's new to LA, so he's on a learning curve, running incidents back and forth to make sure there's nothing he's missed. He's in a hurry for vengeance, so his mind runs ahead of him as he crosses the room, sighting Valentine, pulling his gun out, dispatching him. But he's thinking on his feet, too, so his mind tries another tack, a better scenario. Run all these together and it's almost like the viewer is plugged directly into Wilson's head. And, in the action scenes, Soderbergh drops the dicing and splicing because, after all, these moments, for Wilson and for us, exist vividly in the present. Both Wilson (Stamp) and Valentine (Fonda) are, in their different ways, grappling with lost time, and, by fracturing time itself, Soderbergh conveys the pressures and regrets at play within them. He's so confident of his approach that he even lets Ken Loach have the last word, with a final scene from 1967's Poor Cow that beautifully sums up an entirely different movie made 30 years later. It's a nifty end to a zinger of a film.

Philip Strick (review date January 2000)

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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 disclaimers, distractions and second thoughts. Like most of his leading characters, Soderbergh appears to personify a combination of bravado and vulnerability, two extremes which constantly challenge each other. His protagonists are neither wholly innocent nor irremediably criminal; they are simply trapped by their own fallibility. Which is why the dominating image of Soderbergh's latest film, The Limey, is a wall.

With its montage of flashbacks and flashforwards, images as much from imagination as from memory, The Limey is almost a story that never happened, a fantasy briefly dreamed by airline passenger Wilson, perhaps on his way to Los Angeles, perhaps not. His quest, announced in the darkness punctuating the opening credits, is for knowledge. “Tell me,” he says, “about Jenny.” The demand is not just for information about his daughter's death but for an understanding of the girl he hasn't seen in nine years. There is now a wall of time and silence between them. Soderbergh fills the screen with it, a towering barricade with Wilson's bowed and labouring figure at its base, heading towards an uncertain turning for as long as it takes. The obstacle reappears as part of the litany of ciphers that flash throughout the film, giving way to less forbidding structures as Wilson achieves progress. Soderbergh has an appreciative eye for angular environments: both Kafka and The Underneath were precisely framed, and The Limey is set against a striking series of elegant confinements until, on the final seashore, the walls have all crumbled.

There is also a satisfying geometry about the relationships in the film, a collection of triangles derived from the matrix represented by Wilson/Valentine (Jenny's lover)/Jenny. As well as the underlying symmetry of two car crashes, there is a near-pedantic matching of Wilson as he arrives and as he departs. One suspects, as Soderbergh goes off at a brief tangent, that his attention has again proved capricious and that the fun of, say, intercutting two bloodied hands (Wilson's and Valentine's) transcends any awkward questions about where the blood came from. He cheerfully whips up a stir of allusions, for example, by filming Wilson through Jenny's former voice coach Elaine's security bars. With singular economy, their unyielding framework represents exclusion, restraint, a reminder of the intruder's criminal background, and, in a wild stretch, the barcodes that are Elaine's stock-in-trade (she moonlights as a checkout girl). Few images are simple when Soderbergh's visual vocabulary is at full volume.

And language itself is a continuing theme: where experiments in French, Italian and Japanese represented attempts for a man and wife to communicate in Schizopolis, words in The Limey are a passport to an era of the Who, the Hollies and other late-60s rock phenomena. “Freedom is a word I rarely use,” says Wilson, quoting Donovan to his uncomprehending questioner (who replies: “The thing I don't understand is every word you're saying”) while his use of rhyming slang requires frequent—if ponderous—translation. While Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda rest knowingly on their 60s laurels (the concluding extract from Poor Cow, 1967, reprises Donovan but is otherwise more distraction than asset), the film is subtly stolen by Amelia Heinle, joining such actresses as Andie MacDowell, Elisabeth Shue, Betsy Brantley and Jennifer Lopez as the latest in a line of Soderbergh's saving graces.

Andrew O'Hehir (review date May 2000)

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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 world's judgement that her sex appeal is her most valuable attribute, but isn't sure it's ever brought her anything worth having. Still, the former Miss Wichita has no compunctions about employing her assets when necessary. When her lawyer-boss, the rumpled, beefy Ed asks her how she's so sure she can extract the necessary records from the water board's offices, she replies: “They're called boobs, Ed.” Erin may be a hero, but she's definitely no angel. She's hot-headed, short-tempered, insecure and vain. She can be gratuitously cruel to her co-workers and has little interest in female solidarity. She addresses one overweight female employee as “Krispy Kreme” (a popular doughnut chain) and scorns the suggestion her revealing attire makes other women uncomfortable. “As long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I want,” she says.

It's difficult not to sympathise with her easy-going biker boyfriend George, who feels he's bearing the brunt of all Erin's pent-up resentment against men. But Roberts is completely convincing as a woman who feels she can't afford anything like George's laissez-faire attitude toward love and life. There's a magnificent moment when Erin senses herself falling for him despite her better judgement, and her mouth twists into a grimace of temptation and regret, like someone biting into a delicacy she has sworn off.

If Roberts' delightful performance, shaded with a depth and complexity unprecedented in her career, is the centrepiece of Erin Brockovich, considerable praise is also due to Steven Soderbergh's restrained, respectful direction. Armed with a fine screenplay by Susannah Grant (based on the real PG&E/Hinkley case), Soderbergh never sentimentalises his David-and-Goliath story (in the vein of Norma Rae and Silkwood) or tricks it up with unnecessary cinematic gamesmanship. Edward Lachman's camerawork is fluid but never intrusive. He and the director are content to allow the actors and the crystalline light of California's high desert enough space to do the work.

Perhaps Soderbergh's idiosyncratic pattern of bouncing from star-driven Hollywood vehicles (Out of Sight) to zero-budget independent productions (Schizopolis) has lent him the confidence and perspective for Erin Brockovich. Many mainstream filmmakers would have focused almost entirely on Erin's search for love and validation and boiled the lawsuit down to one or two scenes of heroic courtroom drama. Soderbergh's leisurely pace yields all sorts of unforced moments that heighten the film's naturalism, from Erin's first angry meeting with George tuning up his Harley-Davidson outside at night, to the scene in which she convinces cancer-stricken Donna Jensen PG&E has poisoned her water and lied to her about it. Horror spreading slowly across her face, Donna abruptly runs outside to drag her kids from the swimming pool.

There's also room in Erin Brockovich for fine acting in minor roles, including Marg Helgenberger and Cherry Jones as Hinkley women with whom Erin bonds and Tracey Walter as a slightly creepy local man who seems to be stalking her (but who, of course, holds a valuable secret). Albert Finney's Ed is another of the actor's familiar cantankerous types, mannerisms and accent apparently borrowed from W. C. Fields. Jamie Harrold offers an amusing shtick as a water-board clerk smitten by Erin; Peter Coyote is less fortunate with the generic role of a hotshot lawyer, one of the script's few weak links. Perhaps the best thing about this relaxed and supremely engaging film (for my money the best work either the director or his star has ever done) is that even its near-fairy-tale resolution doesn't offer a magical transformation. When we leave Erin, she is far richer and more successful than when we found her, but she's just as highly-strung and nearly as neurotic. Like the people of Hinkley, she isn't free from the consequences of American life, but she has done what she can to take control of her little piece of it.

Roger Wade (review date May 2000)

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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 exposing people living near one of its plants to dangerous amounts of toxic chromium. On almost every level the film is an exceptional work of craftsmanship: Soderbergh's disarmingly accomplished direction, Susannah Grant's sparkling script, Ed Lachman's subtle cinematography. But it's Roberts' brassy performance that is its mainstay, a striking return to her best form after Runaway Bride strained to shoehorn her trademark charms into an unsuitably nasty role.

If Erin Brockovich—with its richly drawn central character—seems good fresh material for Roberts, it's a far less obvious choice for Soderbergh. Interviewed in Sight and Sound last year, the director described the just-completed film as “an aggressively linear reality-based drama about a twice-married mother of three living at a very low income level.” Put that way it sounds almost like documentary realism—the maverick Soderbergh's chance to emulate, say, Ken Loach while he can still cash in on the goodwill of the studios earned by his mainstream success with Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999).

That Soderbergh might want to dabble in such commercially marginalised territory is not so remarkable a proposition. Never one to hide his stylistic debts to 60s auteurs (his pitch for The Limey was “Get Carter remade by Alain Resnais”), he paid Loach an extensive tribute when he used extracts from Poor Cow (1967) as flashbacks in The Limey. But if such a restless stylist seems an unlikely addition to the ranks of the anonymous but proficient filmmakers Roberts has favoured in the past—Chris Columbus, Garry Marshall et alErin Brockovich is still a blazingly entertaining $51 million Julia Roberts feel-good vehicle.

Roberts herself is one of the most self-aware actresses at work today, well known for assiduously cultivating and managing her public persona. Julia Roberts films tend to encourage certain assumptions about the characters she plays, and Roberts and Soderbergh use these assumptions from the outset. Rather than the long-legged sophisticate we might expect, Erin is the kind of woman who wears push-up bras and tiny tops to the office. Her hair has that sheen-like, over-processed look. Given her appearance, there's no way most people wouldn't make a snap judgement about her intelligence.

The first clue that our preconceptions are wrong comes in the first scene when Erin, desperate to find work, explains to the doctor interviewing her for a medical secretary's job that she knows something about medicine from watching nurses tend to her children. The doctor isn't sold, of course, but that doesn't stop Erin. Breathlessly she tells him of another job she once held: “I fell madly in love with geology.”

The non sequitur completely throws the doctor, even though it's clear he's already dismissed her as a candidate. For there's something about the way Erin declares her interest that suggests tenacity rather than loopiness. The words have tumbled out even before she's assessed whether or not they amount to a good idea. Her eyes gleam almost madly. She flashes that sun-drenched smile. She's part snake-oil saleswoman (she really needs that job) but she's also revealing something true about herself: that she's capable of passionate engagement in working life. She seems to crave that kind of commitment. We see her leave the doctor's office, spilling out of her miniature top and swearing under her breath as she breaks a fingernail unlocking her car door. We're so clearly being invited to think of her as a flighty, bubble-headed floozy it's almost a joke.

But to some extent Erin is everything she seems. She's not wearing those clothes out of cluelessness, she likes to look sexy in that way. Once she finally gets a job with a law firm, her boss Ed Masry (a cantankerous Albert Finney) catches her working through her lunch hour and advises her to tone down her wardrobe if she wants to keep on friendly terms with the other office “girls.” She regards him coolly, then lets the axe fall: “Well, it just so happens, I think I look nice. And as long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I want, if that's all right with you.”

What's irresistible about this dichotomy is that it makes Erin a metaphor for the movie itself: just as her colleagues refuse to acknowledge that a struggling lower-class woman with a gloriously uninhibited taste in fashion might possess the intelligence to follow through a complex legal case, so Erin Brockovich the mainstream crowd-pleaser has its own sophisticated core. There's a heightened level of awareness that springs from Roberts having at last found a role that puts both her charm and her edginess to good use; and from the intuitiveness and sensuality with which Soderbergh directs.

Take his sensitive approach to class. Some of the film's most compelling scenes take place among the blue-collar residents of Hinkley, the town whose water supply is allegedly being polluted by a neighbouring industrial complex owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. These people have contracted various forms of cancer and Erin needs their help in the suit she's preparing against the utility company. Here Soderbergh's clear-eyed and unsentimental direction is well served by Lachman's understated camerawork which neither glamorises these less-than-prosperous lives nor wallows in their desperation. As Erin travels from client to client along roads stretching through lonely, desert-like vistas, you wonder why anyone would choose to live here. But these places—the plant's low-budget Emerald City of rigging and cooling towers, for instance—are presented simply as the stuff of people's lives, places they happen to pass on their way to somewhere else.

While it would be a stretch to say that with such scenes Soderbergh approaches something like a Ken Loach film, his character-based naturalism is wonderfully unforced. There's no modish fascination with the bric-a-brac of ordinariness. For once Middle America isn't played out as a vast fashion shoot and there's none of the misanthropic anthropology of Todd Solondz or Larry Clarke.

A more obvious point of comparison is Michael Mann's The Insider. Like Mann's compelling true-to-life film about corporate whistle blowing, Erin Brockovich sees two small-time players—Brockovich and lawyer Masry—ranged against the faceless might of a big corporation. It's easy to dismiss Brockovich as the lighter companion piece to Mann's lengthy and demanding film. Where in The Insider most of the action is confined to shadowy board-rooms and the perpetual night of television editing suites, Brockovich is dappled with the soft daylight of Southern California, delighting in the wide-open spaces and utterly unremarkable stretches of downtown LA. There's none of The Insider's tightly coiled intensity.

As a chamber piece centred on investigative journalist Al Pacino and whistle-blower Russell Crowe, The Insider inhabits a closed-off world where the issue at hand—that the tobacco firm Crowe worked for lied about levels of nicotine addiction—becomes a near-irrelevant pretext for a meditation on integrity, trust, responsibility and the consequences of telling unwelcome truths. All of which makes for a richly dramatic experience, but Mann sometimes skates too close to solipsism. In order to be truly tested, it's as if Crowe's character has to become the unbreaking, ungiving loner so beloved of Mann's other films.

There's no such ducking of the issues in Brockovich. Erin's involvement in the lawsuit is bound up with the practicalities of caring for her children, a necessity that plunges us into social and emotional complexities that The Insider (in which Crowe's single-minded determination sees him abandoned by his wife and children) shunts to one side. The relationship Erin strikes up with George (Aaron Eckhart), the good-natured biker who lives next door, takes the pressure off her for a while—he looks after the kids while she works. George explains why: “I like hanging out with kids. They keep it simple.” The look of disbelief on Erin's face says it all—as a working lone parent her life is marked by complications at every level. Inevitably George's notion of responsibility turns out to be far less rooted than hers. There's a moment when George, coming home from an errand with Erin's kids in tow, longingly watches a procession of motorbikes rev past. Not long afterwards he's back on his Harley, chewing up the open road in a sham version of independence and leaving Erin to juggle work and childcare once more.

But even when George is “being the maid”—as he puts it—the film remains sensitive to Erin's trade-offs. Exhausted after a long day's work, she rings him on her cell phone to find out how his day went. He tells her that her youngest has said her first word. Erin's face starts to crumple—how could she have missed such a significant moment? But as George describes how it happened Roberts' moon-glow smile radiates. Soderbergh has his character take second-hand pleasure in the event rather than milking her regret at missing it.

It's moments like these that make you realise Soderbergh was in fact a perfect choice to make a Julia Roberts movie. More than any other US director working today, he seems open to the charisma of his actors. But his approach is usually deliberately skewed. In Out of Sight he cast matinee-idol dreamboat George Clooney in the role of an escaped con smitten with the federal marshal, played by Jennifer Lopez, who is trying to put him behind bars. But Clooney's character is the one who's ruled by his emotions (what Soderbergh has described as the “woman's” role) while Lopez's insists on going by the book. With The Limey he undercut another great fallacy of contemporary movies—that actors over a certain age can't be sexy—by casting Terence Stamp as an ex-con whose glamour quotient seems to have flowered in jail. In some respects The Limey is among the most knowing of recent films about stardom: it trades ironically on the iconic status of 60s veterans Stamp and co-star Peter Fonda to enhance its tale of hippie idealism gone nasty in 90s LA.

Erin Brockovich plays it straighter. It's a defiantly old-fashioned star vehicle that's more George Cukor than any of the 60s auteurs Soderbergh idolises. And after her mushy roles in Stepmom and Runaway Bride and the ice princess of Notting Hill, it's a delight to see Roberts reaffirm her talent for subtlety. Relishing the chance to play a plausibly real person—albeit someone whom the strain of everyday life fails to deglamorise—she is visibly re-energised by Soderbergh's direction and Grant's crackling script. A confident and subtle film, Erin Brockovich is easy to underestimate. When a coldly professional, but-toned-down lawyer tries to do the same with Erin herself, she earns a killer comeback that has Erin's witheringly quick, self-aware attitude stamped all over it: “Lady, all you got is two wrong feet and fucking ugly shoes.”

Kenneth Turan (review date 27 December 2000)

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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.

Given that, it took a certain amount of nerve to tackle the chaotic, unfocused, largely unsuccessful waste of lives and money that is the drug war today in a major motion picture with an ensemble cast including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Complex and ambitious, Traffic is that film, and its examination of how pervasive drugs are, how wide a swath they cut in our society, though not always completely successful, is yet another indication of how accomplished a filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has become.

Soderbergh, whose equally sure-handed but very different Erin Brockovich came out earlier this year, has once again opted for a change of pace. For one thing, as written by Stephen Gaghan (based on a British TV miniseries), Traffic effortlessly intertwines several complex stories across two countries and several cities without ever dropping a stitch. At the same time, using the pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has expertly shot the film himself in a neo-documentary, run-and-gun style whose emphasis on hand-held camera work adds to its immediacy (Soderbergh has mentioned Costa-Gavras' Z as his model here).

Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) has clearly done considerable research into the film's theme, and his script is strongest in its broad outlines, its ability to convey lots of information about the drug trade and show it to be a kind of pernicious octopus, with tentacles powerful enough to make almost everyone it touches corrupt, complicit or potentially so.

Unfortunately, Traffic is much less secure when it comes to dialogue and the creation of individualized characters. Some of its narrative threads are noticeably less compelling than others, and its people, no matter what social strata they occupy, have a tendency to sound a lot like standard brands.

While keeping the notion of intertwined stories from the British original, Traffic has sensibly changed the geographic focus from the Turkey-Britain drug trade to the more near-at-hand Mexico-U.S. situation. And by adroit use of filters and other techniques, Soderbergh has given each segment distinctive visual markings: a brown cast for Mexico, blue for Cincinnati and environs, a bright look for San Diego.

The Mexican section (in Spanish with subtitles) is by far the most effective, partially because it's got the film's best performance. That's by Benicio Del Toro, an actor (The Usual Suspects, Snatch) who's always been much admired for his subtle power but whose nuanced authority has never been more on view than as a state policeman who goes to work for Gen. Salazar (an effective Tomas Milian), the army's designated illicit drug fighter.

The film's biggest star is Douglas, a solid choice for Robert Wakefield, an Ohio Supreme Court judge who's just been selected as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A square shooter who believes in his mission, Wakefield just happens to have a 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen) who, unknown to him, is a major narcotics abuser. When the judge says, “It's time to see the front lines,” he doesn't realize the battlefield is his own bathroom.

Weakest of all in terms of plausibility is the section involving Zeta-Jones as Helena Ayala, a pampered wife who suddenly discovers that her husband (Steven Bauer) and his oily attorney (Dennis Quaid) are major drug players. Even with the expert assistance of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman playing DEA agents, this plot strand takes turns that are way too questionable for its own good.

No matter what straits these people find themselves in at the film's opening, Traffic inexorably tightens the noose around them. If the film's plotting has a flaw, it's that, in its eagerness to make its points in an emotional way, it falls back too readily on the excesses of melodrama. Sometimes we feel we're watching an updated version of Marijuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell, or, to go back even further, a dramatization of the titillating horrors faced by young women in the dread clutches of the white slave trade.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, one of the difficulties with Traffic is that it feels like the filmmakers are tiptoeing around the implications of their good work. As a big-budget film in a controversial area, Traffic seems especially eager to be seen balanced, to be fair—for instance, to the hard-working and sincere anti-drug agents putting their lives at risk. So though it takes important steps in that direction, the film pulls back from what seems to be its own logical conclusion: No matter how much money we throw at the drug problem ($45 billion per annum at last count) and how heroically they're implemented by those at the front lines, current policies simply do not work.

No one expects a Michael Douglas-starring film, and one that has Sens. Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer and Charles Grassley playing themselves, to take the kind of strong stance for drug decriminalization that, for instance, New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson has. Still, many of the film's stronger moments, like Douglas' character getting absolutely no response when he asks for aides to think out of the box about the problem, point in that direction.

Given what this film shows, a clearer stand on decriminalization or even treatment in place of prison seems in order. Without one, watching Traffic, artfully made though it is, feels a little like seeing a version of The Insider that thought it politic to waffle on whether cigarettes were a danger to your health.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 January 2001)

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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 completely barren, were attempts to maintain membership in the slightly lower YDOP Club. (Young Directors of Promise.) Then he saw the light—one kind of empowering light. In 1998 he made Out of Sight, an action comedy-romance, flying with exuberant skill and with zero ambition toward gravity. What confirmed Soderbergh's right in his new mode was that it seemed a new true home for him, no slumming: Out of Sight was enjoyable. After The Limey, a reticent thriller with a strained twist, came Erin Brockovich, which gave Julia Roberts her best role so far and was even more pleasing than Out of Sight. And now comes Traffic (USA), a slick large-scale power vehicle that zooms toward large-scale success.

His career is interesting because it is not a banal account of engulfing commerce, a cause to mourn the passing of the 1989 Soderbergh. First of all, sex, lies, and videotape was so individual a work that it would have been wasteful to try to repeat it. Many a new artist with a new vision—in any art—mortgages his future to a successful debut, attempting to repeat its style. Soderbergh floundered in his first attempts to move on, but at least he didn't try to repeat his original success. It now seems clear that the real importance of that initial success was in its empowerment. The first film brought him the chance to develop technically and to find the growth in imaginative resource that technique can bestow. It enabled him to deal with serious subjects in widely acceptable form. Erin Brockovich was an obviously simplified treatment of ecological troubles, but it plastered that subject on a lot of brows. Traffic will do at least as much with some truth about American drug problems. I have reservations about it, but the film certainly goes where it wants to go, skillfully and strongly.

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. It is an embrace that, when it works, makes both parties smile. There are plentiful precedents: Rene Clair and Billy Wilder, for example, both began outside the mainstream and then moved to the center, abroad and in the United States, without losing the core of themselves.

Traffic derives from a British TV series about drugs, selling and buying. The screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, whose dialogue is fresh and lively, tells three stories set in the United States and Mexico. They are thematically linked but not conventionally interwoven. Number One takes place chiefly in and around Tijuana, and follows the efforts of two Mexican detectives to break a local drug cartel. Number Two is about a federal judge in Cincinnati who is appointed by the White House as drug czar—absolute leader of the government war on drugs—and who soon finds out that his teenage daughter is a druggie. Number Three is about a wealthy young wife in San Diego, mother of one child with another on the way, who discovers only when her husband is arrested that his money comes from drugs.

The reservations. Story Number One is burdened with a weary cliche character. The head of the Mexican police is a smooth, philosophical torturer, like so many that we have met in crime and war films. Number Two has a touch of patness. It is just barely possible that, after federal investigation, the government would appoint a drug czar with a daughter who is a druggie; but after we have accepted the possibility, it leads to the film's most blatant “movie” sequence: the father—a federal judge who now has a prominent presidential appointment—goes searching for his daughter in drug dens, breaking down doors, and so on. Number Three is a mite confusing. Is it possible that the young wife, shown as cool and smart, had no scrap of previous knowledge—no curiosity—about her husband's business? Is it possible that after she finds out, she could immediately take on the role of gang chief, dealing with dealers, ordering a killing?

A few other bothers must be noted. Twice Soderbergh uses the easy irony of two people who matter to each other passing each other accidentally in the street. For only the laziest of imposed reasons, the judge has a farewell moment with a departing black law clerk. An early encounter of the two U.S. detectives with a prime suspect is distended with bad jokes and is unclear in its physical action. In each of the pairs of detectives, one pair Mexican and one American, one man is killed, and in each case it is the less interesting man. (In the theater that role used to be known as “Charles, his friend.”)

In fact, any one of the film's three stories taken alone would leak or lean a bit. Soderbergh's astuteness is in combining them. Thus, in some degree, they reinforce one another, and the sheer size of the trilogy—two and a half hours—propels us out of the specifics of each story to a sense of panorama. Add that the panorama conveys the size and the near invulnerability of the drug problem as it stands now. The film does not dabble in reassurance. Add that the film confronts the horrifying fact that one chief target of drug dealers is the American child. Add, too, that victory in the drug war is shown to rest elsewhere than with the police and the destruction of cartels. (Drug busts always remind me of federal agents' raids on bars and booze warehouses during Prohibition. Bootlegging wasn't stopped by those raids; the solution was otherwise.) Victory rests not with the $20 billion (plus state expenditures) war on drugs, but with elimination of the market. We get a final glimpse of one family's effort to help in this root solution.

But I cannot merely “add” that Traffic is well made: its excellent making is part of its being. Soderbergh and his editor, Stephen Mirrione, are merciless. Early in the film, legends on the screen clarify changes of place. But that's only in the beginning: subsequently the film zips from one story strand to another, usually with a clean cut, sometimes with a quick fade. Soon we learn from the film's visual process that we are to grasp Soderbergh's implication: these three stories are only superficially separable. Though separate, they are all elements in the same situation.

The cinematography is by Soderbergh himself, using (for whatever reason) a pseudonym. A great deal of the shooting is done with a hand-held camera, thus adding a sense of the impromptu yet, in this case, without losing much pictorial value. Throughout, Soderbergh spreads contrasting tones in some sequences, sometimes sepia, sometimes almost icy blue, much of the time sharply realistic. No pattern is apparent in these shifts, though most of the outdoor Mexican scenes are drenched in blistering sun.

For the cast, only praise. Benicio Del Toro, as a Mexican detective, has the film actor's state of grace: he charms while he acts, not by trying to charm. Tomas Milian tries to make the suave torturer unusual and almost succeeds. Michael Douglas, as the judge made czar, paints in pastels, not vibrant colors, but he has a committed intelligence. Don Cheadle, as a DEA agent, knows how to keep secrets and let us enjoy his secrecy. Catherine Zeta-Jones, the wealthy young wife, can't make her role credible—no one could—but it is agreeable to watch her try. As the teenage druggie, Erika Christensen understands, plumbs, presents a crucial and fine performance. In a Washington party sequence, several senators play themselves, roles that they are accustomed to playing.

Luck to Steven Soderbergh. He hasn't changed horses in midstream: he has changed streams and kept the same horse and is trying to head him the same way.

Jonathan Romney (review date 29 January 2001)

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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 confident film to date, and the sort of grand, serious statement by which a journeyman signals to the world that he would rather be seen as an auteur—a stylist and a pensive commentator on the state of things. And maybe the odd Oscar or Golden Globe wouldn't go amiss.

Well, good for Soderbergh that his boat has come in. He is intelligent; he takes risks; he's interested in exploring structures and visual techniques—he even photographed Traffic himself, giving it a wide range of visual textures, from sheened Californian pastel to harsh, urgent deep blue and parchmenty yellow-brown. It's an impressive exercise; I only wish it seemed to be more heart, more urgency, or that it aspired to reimagine the world, rather than attempted such a detached, quasi-documentary view of it. It is a film with a thesis, in a peculiar sense, for it proposes that, when approaching the issue of drug use and trading in the United States, hard-and-fast theses are neither tenable nor useful.

Written by Stephen Gaghan, the film was inspired by Traffik, the mid-1990s Channel 4 series about the drug trade. It is structured as a panorama of the drug trade in America, suggesting that it infiltrates every corner of life. Soderbergh and Gaghan propose a collection of jigsaw fragments that gradually fit together, almost too conveniently at moments. The characters include a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro), his task-force boss (Tomas Milian) and, in the US, the worthy, patrician politico Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas, whose screen gravitas is just about perfect these days). Wakefield is soon to take on the post of national drug tsar. In Cincinnati, a gang of well-heeled high-school kids sit around sampling coke and smack. In San Diego, a group of ladies who lunch chat about the dangers of cholesterol.

Little by little, the picture builds up. The fresh-faced schoolgirl (Erika Christensen) taking her first steps towards being a junkie is none other than the daughter of the drug tsar. One of the rich women (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers her wealthy businessman husband has just been arrested for drug dealing, with connections leading straight back to Mexico. Everyone and everything will tie up one way or another; and while this sort of self-enclosure can be gratifying in more fanciful fictions (in something as playful as Magnolia, say), it is uncomfortable in a film that claims to comment on the real world. It is too crushing an irony that Wakefield's daughter should become a junkie just as he is stepping up to the podium to announce his commitment to the “war on drugs.” That leads to a pointed scene in which he denounces the uselessness of the military metaphor—what can it mean when you end up waging war on your own family members? Too often, the narrative seems engineered specifically so that characters can make points about moral contradictions.

The film is at its best when it dares to be fragmentary and cut corners. At one point, Del Toro's detective is despatched to the US to intercept a dangerous hood. He finds himself getting chummy with his target in a gay bar, but, just as we wonder what will come next, the miscreant is already back in Mexico, under arrest. The secret to these sprawling, thousand-and-one-story structures is that some stories should simply go untold, or merely be hinted at.

That is why the film starts to freeze when we get into the story of Wakefield and his daughter. Suddenly, it's in danger of becoming a problem-of-the-week TV movie, as Wakefield trawls through seedy hotels looking for her. The most awkward moment comes when we are simply read a lesson by an unconvincing embodiment of absolute corruption, a cynical posh boy out of Bret Easton Ellis, who reads Wakefield a street-smart lesson on inner-city economics. Much the same happens when the drug dealer Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) lectures his captors on the futility of their attempt to control border traffic. “We on Larry King, man?” quips a cop, mercifully puncturing the didactic mood.

Overall, Traffic is rarely that preachy, but has many sensible, liberal points to make. It points out that corruption and compromise are so rooted in the economic system that attempts to target an easily identified and demonised enemy are meaningless and hypocritical. It takes special issue with the warfare metaphor, particularly through the too obviously sinister figure of Milian's General Salazar, who is there to show that military ideology inevitably goes hand in hand with betrayal and senseless attrition.

Nor is this a moralising film, although the moral nature of some characters is too clear-cut for it to be truly analytical. Traffic is gripping because it is, in effect, a melodrama, and a very well-directed and well-acted one. It pretty much avoids the hysteria that usually comes with the subject, but it doesn't quite live up to its intent to be a dispassionate, “state of things” film. But it will give pundits on Larry King and other current affairs shows plenty to chew over—and that, you suspect, was what was intended all along.

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

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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 with It, and it sums up a career that stands on its head Fitzgerald's line about there being no second acts in American lives.

The book consists of Soderbergh's interview with director Richard Lester on his life as a filmmaker, oddly interspersed with the younger director's own journal entries from 1996 and 1997, the “wilderness years” of his career. This was the interval between the unveiling of Schizopolis and the start of production on Out of Sight. Soderbergh had stalled as an independent filmmaker and had yet to establish himself as Hollywood's smartest, most unassuming in-demand director for hire.

Soderbergh hit the ground running in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, which met with delirious acclaim at both Sundance and Cannes, and effectively marked the kickoff of the Nineties independent film boom. The world appeared to be his oyster. But over the course of three more films, each one intriguing, idiosyncratic, and accomplished, each one a box-office no-show, he receded further and further from the limelight. Soderbergh seemed to have taken on a strange role: American cinema's most interesting underachiever. Finally, he went into self-imposed exile, chucked the baggage of a career that no longer added up, and assembled a small crew of friends to make the determinedly, defiantly unclassifiable Schizopolis, featuring himself in the lead role. This satire of the inauthenticity and sexual intrigue of middle-class suburban life and corporate culture (partly parodying the likewise Baton Rouge-set sex, lies, and videotape) represented a personal breakthrough. Soderbergh had suddenly decided to stop making sense, and even if some of its comic conceits seem strained, there's a giddy feeling of breakdown and liberation in Schizopolis.

It was Soderbergh's degree zero, and the beginning of his creative reinvention. A year later, he was hired to direct Out of Sight, his first studio picture and a critic's fave. While it wasn't quite a financial success, this sexy, self-assured Elmore Leonard adaptation clinched Soderbergh's role as a kind of up-to-the-minute Don Siegel. He quickly followed up less than a year later with the low-budget independent succes d'estime The Limey.

Buffering one film with another, he cemented his new-found A-list status with Erin Brockovich. As fully realized as Out of Sight, this populist crowd-pleaser exemplified Soderbergh's ability to make himself at home while playing by Hollywood's rules, accommodating and maximizing a top movie star's potential but also creating a film of genuine integrity. (Brockovich's unemphatic insistence on the economic struggles of ordinary working people is a perfect instance of Soderbergh's essentially sympathetic sensibility.) At the same time, his streamlined, independent-style “run-and-gun” approach to production (working fast and loose, staying mobile, shooting with two handheld cameras, using available light) offers a persuasive alternative to the lumbering inefficiency of Hollywood's customary practice. Soderbergh's films are light on their feet but they never succumb to forced energy: he's equally at home with the structural and stylistic risk-taking of The Limey—with its memory-fractured time lines a la Point Blank, which can be traced back to his 1995 film The Underneath—or for that matter his Richard Lester book.

Featuring multiple narratives and harsh, bracingly deglamorized visual textures, his new film, Traffic, is constructed in the latter mode. Based on Traffik, a five-part 1989 British TV miniseries, the film's complex storyline links together the drug war's front lines, home front, and halls of policy-making, and follows three protagonists. In the first plot strand a Mexican state cop (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner (Jacob Vargas) are drawn into a feud between two powerful drug cartels. In the second, a newly appointed Washington drug czar (Michael Douglas) is simultaneously confronted with the enormity of the task facing him and the fact that his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) has become a junkie. In the third story, the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of an arrested San Diego drug smuggler (Steven Bauer) is forced to take charge of her husband's multimillion-dollar business and outwit the cops in charge of the case (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman). Pushing the run-and-gun approach to new extremes, Soderbergh served as his own DP, and jokes that Traffic is a $49 million Dogma film.

The film's directness and matter-of-fact approach to character and situation bring new life to perhaps over-familiar material, grounding it in recognizable human events and exchanges: a group of Cincinnati private-school kids experimenting with drugs; Catherine Zeta-Jones chatting with friends at a San Diego golf club; Michael Douglas gradually segueing from cautious confidence to weary, rattled defeat; Benicio Del Toro's soulful, self-contained cop quietly watching a Little League baseball game, somewhere between hope and regret.

I met with Soderbergh recently in Los Angeles, where he was finishing up post-production on Traffic and preparing for his next project, a remake of Ocean's Eleven. The 37-year-old director and I discussed his graceful transition from amateur to pro.

[Smith:] The basic stories of two of Traffic's plotlines are essentially the same as in the original miniseries, only compressed. Why did you replace the original's third plotline about the poppy grower in Pakistan with the Mexico story?

[Soderbergh:] In terms of throughline, the two stories that [screenwriter] Steve Gaghan and I kept are very similar, but if you went back and watched the series now you'd realize the amount of work that went into rewriting those characters, revoicing them for the States, and incorporating things that have been going on here in terms of policy and day-to-day events. We talked about whether we wanted to go back to where the drugs are made and follow that throughline as it was in the original series, but at the end of the day when you're talking about this issue in the States, since 65 per cent of the drugs that come into this country are coming through Mexico, the story that you have to tell is the story of our relationship with Mexico. All of us were more interested in how complicated that relationship is, and how this issue of the certification of Mexico as a partner in the drug war is a somewhat hollow exercise. If we were to decide not to certify them, I don't know what it would change. In theory the people we don't certify as a partner in the war on drugs are then subjected to economic sanctions, but with NAFTA in place that's never going to happen. It's a Gordian knot that nobody's been able to unravel.

Why did you want to do a movie about drugs?

I certainly didn't want to make something that pronounced, This is what we should do. There are three major social issues that this country is struggling with: education, poverty, and drugs. Two of them we talk about, and one of them we don't. I know people who've had problems with drugs and I also know people who don't, in that they are recreational users, and their lives for some reason haven't seemed to fall apart. We know what the issue is with people who can't turn off the switch. I know why we can't have a frank discussion with our policymakers—if you're in the government or in law enforcement you cannot acknowledge that drugs are anything but inherently evil and morally wrong. Here's what I hoped people would come away with. It's as simple as this: when it's your kid, it's a health-care issue; when it's somebody else's kid, it's a criminal issue. That gap in the way that we think, to me, is what the film's about.

What unifies the three storylines and their protagonists' experiences?

Each of the stories is about control—which, when you're talking about the drug problem, is the central issue, on a personal level and on a larger societal level. Gaghan and I would remind ourselves every time we went through the script that the issue of control was our Rosetta stone.

What you were going for in terms of the film's look?

The whole movie should feel as though we showed up and shot and that there was no design. By the end of the film, the more real it feels and the less it feels like a Hollywood movie, the more the audience will connect with it. Eventually it should become a given, and they will hopefully go more with the idea that this is happening in front of them, that this was caught instead of staged.

In practice, did that mean that you worked with a smaller crew, without lights, etc.?

We didn't work with a lot of lights, but we worked with them more than you might think seeing the film. Because of practical issues that you couldn't control, like weather, I had to create the non-look. But there were also entire interior sequences in which there were absolutely no lights used other than whatever practicals were in the room. For me, it was an opportunity to do stuff it's hard to get cameramen to do. And that's not a knock. I'm just saying I wanted to go to extremes.

What did you do to differentiate the three different storylines visually?

We wanted to make it easier for the audience to know where they are. As soon as you cut to another story, before you even see a character, you know where you are. It's also partially driven by the desire to give an emotional overlay to each of the stories. In San Diego the idea was to contrast the idyllic visual scheme with the rotten underpinnings of Helena and Karl's story. So for those scenes we were flashing the negative ten percent, which reduces the contrast and makes the highlights blossom, and using diffusion filters to give it a very desaturated, bright, soft look. And then on the East Coast we wanted a little bit more of a spare feeling, so we were shooting tungsten-balanced film in daylight without doing any color correction, which gives you a very cold, monochromatic look. Mexico was shot using extreme overexposure and printing down, adjusting the shutter angle to 45 degrees to give it a very strobey look, and using “tobacco” filters, which give you a very yellowish-brown feel. We then printed those scenes on Ektachrome, which required a number of additional printing steps, so that it would be seven generations down from the original negative. Originally we were going to do the whole film that way.

Why did you decide to shoot the film yourself which entailed having to go to the trouble of qualifying as cinematographer?

Because the conversations on the set—“I want to do this,” “Are you sure you really want to do that?”—would have taken up hours.

Haven't you worked with a DP who trusts you implicitly at this point?

I have, but part of it is that if the DP were anyone else, it would have been very hard for me to convince the people paying for the movie not to fire them, really. What the fuck is this guy doing? But if it's me, they assume there's a methodology there that's going to pay off. Are they going to call me and say, You've got to fire yourself? I've worked with some very good cameramen, and obviously I've learned a lot. I watched what they were doing very closely.

Will you go back to working with a DP in the future?

I don't think so. It would be hard for me and for whoever I hired. It's a compromise in a way. There are numerous cameramen who are better than I am, and the opportunity to learn from them is lost. On the other hand, the speed with which I feel we are able to work and the intimacy it provides are worth it.

Did the success of sex, lies, and videotape become an albatross around your neck?

Nothing but good came from that. It bought me so many opportunities to go out and try a lot of different stuff and see what stuck. It bought me a lot of failure because people kept thinking, Maybe with this one, he'll find the audience again. When things go right it's hard to figure out why, but when things go wrong it's really easy. Even though those movies didn't find audiences and a couple of them just don't work at all, I learned a lot. I'm very comfortable with failure. I'm very comfortable being the guy who disappoints people. It played right into my idea of myself. I find comfort in how not upsetting it was to have people go, Wow, what happened to that guy, what is he doing? Why is he making that shit? I really like not being watched. What's happened lately has been much more odd. The great thing about the business is how Darwinian it is. We have to swim or die—if you are found wanting over a period of time, you've either got to change what you're doing or find something else to do.

Did Schizopolis in some sense represent a final break with the independent film world?

I wasn't sure how to react to the lack of interest. I knew it was an odd movie, but it wasn't like we were asking for money; we just wanted somebody to put it out. I didn't realize how much the independent film world was shifting in that period, 1996–97. It's totally shifted to the point where I don't even know what you call that stuff anymore. When a film like Chris Nolan's Memento cannot get picked up, to me independent film is over. It's dead.

During this transitional period, why did you get involved in so many side projects—rewriting Mimic and Nightwatch, directing a play, working on the Richard Lester book, and executive-producing The Daytrippers (96) and Pleasantville (98)?

It seemed like the way to go at the time. I guess I didn't feel confident enough to be searching in a big public way. I was very content at the time to toil in obscurity on things that I thought might point me in certain directions or teach me certain things—not knowing what that would be. I was trying to figure out what I should be doing. I don't consider myself to be particularly gifted in the way that other filmmakers are gifted. I'm not the guy who hits.360 and is a 20-game winner and strikes out 15 guys a game. I'm more like a good utility player, who, when he's given the odd opportunity, delivers in a way that makes you think he's integral to the team when in fact he's just really good at making it seem that way—good morale booster, solid hitter, solid fielder, but not exceptional. That's what I'm good at. I look at other filmmakers and see skills in them that I wish I had but I know that I don't. I feel like I have to work really hard to keep myself afloat, doing what I do. But I find it pleasurable.

So in the most positive sense of the term you've become a consummate director for hire.

Right. And so when I got sent Out of Sight, one of the reasons I was so aggressive about pursuing it was I felt, This is the movie where I can now put to use what I've just been through in the last two years. I would have ruined that film if I had made it right after The Underneath. It would just have been turgid.

And in each film since, your stock has risen higher.

Let's put it this way. It's pretty clear to me that working as a director for hire agrees with me. I like it. The films that have come out of that, I personally like better than the ones that didn't. However, that other stuff will need to come out occasionally. My m.o. is gonna be, when that happens, to do it for $250,000 instead of $10 million. Which I can do without a problem. I literally have the equipment and I can go do that anytime—and I will. I just want to be good at something. I helped get a lot of things kickstarted because I came in and said, Hey, there's a good movie there, can I get in? If that ends up being my strength, then fine. I could compose a personal ad: “Experienced director, responsible with money, ready to bring his vision to your material, call …”

How would you define the director's job?

To me the director's job is to leave it in better shape than you found it, literally. I'm not being glib. It's easy to do the opposite, and I've done the opposite—I've been my own worst enemy at times. Sometimes it means taking a very cold look at what you're doing and whether you're putting yourself ahead of the material.

How's Ocean's Eleven shaping up?

I love caper films. One of the great things coming off of Erin and Traffic is that it's a film of no importance whatsoever. It's just a big windup toy and when that stuff's done well, I love it. The cast is George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Alan Arkin. It's a scary film in terms of scale, and we will have to work very hard in order to not disappoint people. We've got a terrific script and we're putting a great cast together but if this movie is smug, we're fucked. We've got to make sure everybody knows we've got to go to work. And I've really got my radar up for when I feel someone is coasting, and I'm going to be on them. We've got to earn this. It's not a slam-dunk. No movie is.

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