Between roughly 1993 and 1998, the post-Tarantino brio that was at one point the most scorching lightning-bolt in cinema shifted to a self-immolating fire, a pox on the cinematic landscape, almost overnight. The beacon of the Weinstein-fronted American independent success story, Tarantino was a shining light on the cinematic landscape until a deluge of golden-child followers (see Boondock Saints) cast their mettle in Tarantino’s gilded name and overindulged in his post-coital cool and sometimes smug pearly whites without actually backing their versions of the tale up with the wit, elan, or the cinematic rattle and hum of Tarantino’s surreptitious style. Posing had suddenly become an art form.
Always the film enthusiast, Tarantino’s underground success was matched exclusively by Steven Soderbergh’s, much more of a connoisseur and one whose light took much longer, roughly a decade, to erupt into the mainstream. Perhaps fittingly, his first mainstream effort, 1998’s Out of Sight, was also the first, and roughly the only, film at the time to reprimand the posers and their hot-to-trot modernism by resurrecting and accentuating the long-dormant romanticism and Old Hollywood suaveness implicit in Tarantino’s filmography. With a stinging, sparkling screenplay by Scott Frank adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel (talk about other mid-to-late ‘90s cinematic love affairs) and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, maybe the platonic ideal of Old Hollywood stardom transposed fifty years, Out of Sight is cooler than ice cold.
Perverting the decades-old “body in the back of a car” trend that Tarantino so lovingly paid homage to in his early films, Soderbergh throws its leads in the trunk half-flummoxed and kindles their act of mutual movie-reminiscence into a tet-a-tet between flirting and fighting. Out of Sight recalls, reorients, and rekindles a love for Hollywood without an ounce of fat or a sliver of conceited calculation. Other films – almost every post-Tarantino oil slick pretending to be a stream of steam – exert buckets of sweat in their self-aggrandizing attempts to plaster on cool and coat themselves in plastic slickness. Out of Sight, like a slip of the tongue or a trickle of ice-water on the skin on a hot day, is soothing, slippery, and smirking. The plot slithers, but it doesn’t swing or flail around in search of another twist. Everything in this film just glides on by.
Essentially, this is Soderbergh’s mainstream bid done up as a commentary on what has been lost in the world of mainstream film over the twenty years between this release and the ‘70s high watermarks of cinema the two principles so carefully dance around in that car trunk near the beginning, a trunk dressed up as a snake-charming red palace-of-love by cinematographer Elliot Davis. Those principles, incidentally, are Jack Foley (Clooney), who marries fury with form in a slyly self-mocking performance as a Cary Grant caliber thief, and Karen Sisco (Lopez), who exhibits a catlike strut, hissing and purring like Faye Dunaway dressing as Lauren Bacall.
So partially we are in the presence of an old school movie star picture as Lopez’s federal agent and Clooney’s career criminal circle around one and insinuate themselves into each other’s presence. But we’re also in the company of a grand, if clandestine, stylist in Soderbergh who manipulates the lighting and the cosmetology of the picture to transform the milieu of the piece into something like a vision, or a phantom memory, of Old School Hollywood rather than a direct mimicry of the era’s formal caliber. What he nails best is the luxuriant silence of the Old Hollywood, the resting willingness to pause on character moments within an ostensibly genre-bound plot, to suggest and insinuate character details rather than proclaim.
Which is to say, Soderbergh’s identity is more than mere genre copycat but instead a more primal drive to discover the essence of a genre beneath the surface, mining the easy mixture of narrative-forward-thrust and the willingness to at least peek at human marginalia on the side, to scribble in the margins of narrative, that so ably defined the whistle of the Hollywood project in the old days. There’s no centrifugality, no bombast, here; we aren’t watching the entropic apocalypse, even though most modern films like us to think we are. The world isn’t unfettering within or insisting itself upon the film; there’s breathing room to look around and linger on little grace-notes like Don Cheadle’s gangster pausing in the middle of a robbery to mix and match his prey’s suits. Or Foley and best friend Buddy (Ving Rhames) contemplating freedom in a car for a moment. Even contemplating doesn’t feel right for something so insouciant and nonchalant, if not unworried; the feather-light filmmaking suggests the casual mastery of Elmore Leonard’s famous free indirect speech that slithers between omniscient and intimate perspectives without a care in the world. Even the moments of melancholy arrive like an unheralded whisper, before slipping away into the night.
In that way, the whole film is like a study in how to apply modernist, serpentine style to a laid-back cool-customer of a classic product. Annie V. Coates’ editing flickers with a modernist twitch to disrupt continuity but also recollects old-school self-composure, pulling a divine sleight of hand when she marries the two during the film’s sharpest moment. In this moment, the almost over-lit pastel hues of daytime simmer down to the low-light romanticism of the two principles meeting in a bar that slips, without us realizing it, into a hotel room exclusively through editing that relies on the similar color palettes of two locations to sidle between them and intermingle time periods without breaking emotional continuity like a suave, tuxedo-wearing Nicolas Roeg film. It’s a slight, not deliberately showy, yet undeniably formally-minded slip of romanticism bubbling down to low-key, catlike near-menace. Similarly, David Holmes’ score is complementary to the film as it slinks around the character beats with both Old Hollywood glamour and modernist synths, registering like a nearly invisible magic trick, much like the whole film.
Out of Sight operates in that mode of off-the-cuff perfection, with Altman-esque zooms playing like sly in-jokes to a more casual time in cinema where a centripetal simplicity was married to a more free-associative ability to peruse quiet details outside the main narrative rather than rush by them. It’s much the same elegance Soderbergh would bring to his next film with Clooney, the divine Ocean’s Eleven, recreating the closeted spirit of classic cinema rather than insisting on it. Any other film – every other film from the late ‘90s it sometimes seems – operates with a contrived knowingness that Out of Sight not only avoids but actively reprimands. There are no switch-arounds, call-backs, references, throw-downs, or flakes of confrontation or complication in a film that operates without any philosophical questions about what it is “supposed” to be or what it “can” be. Smooth as butter, Out of Sight just is.