Category Archives: Directing the Directors

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich

erin-brockovichMore traditional and individualistic – almost fiercely so – in comparison to Steven Soderbergh’s more heterogeneous panoplies of varying voices, textures, and tones, Erin Brockovich doesn’t always do more than glisten, but boy does it. It’s pure pop, and it’s easy to criticize Soderbergh for heading in that direction after the more experimental (and better) The Limey.  But no modern filmmaker oscillates between his experimental personal projects and his only-slightly-less-personal commercial properties with Soderbergh’s frequency or his gusto, let alone his singular ability to thin the membrane between private experiment and populist fare so thin that their often isn’t a difference between the two. (Consider the exhaustive meta-textual star-commentary and celebrity hang-out anti-caper film Ocean’s Twelve). Who can blame him for making Erin Brockovich when a fanatically experimental and alienating film like Full Frontal is right around the corner? Or, for that matter, who can blame him when his feather-light pop nothings like Erin Brockovich are this wonderful? Continue reading

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Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: King of the Hill

king_of_the_hill_1-620x264A wonderfully low-wattage, free-verse odyssey and a quiet parody and embracement of classical mythopoetic adventures, King of the Hill’s structure lacks the jostled tempo of director Steven Soderbergh’s more revolutionary films, but inconsequentiality, here, is where the heart lies. A tapestry of repetitions and minute improvements in identity and possibility, King of the Hill is a bildungsroman of a more everyday sort than a classical Greek tragedy.  The adventurer in this case is Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), an eighth grader in Depression-era Saint Louis whose mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is in a sanitarium for an unspecified disease, whose father (Keroen Krabbe) is a travelling watch salesman who goes on long trips to Kansas and Iowa, and whose younger brother has been shipped away to live with his extended family so his parents can save on money. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Che

che-movie-poster2This review is based on both parts of Soderbergh’s film taken as a whole. 

Navigating Steven Soderbergh’s Che is an almost impossible task for the lover of the conventional biopic (a group I am not a member of). Yet judging Che against those biopic standards is perhaps essential for its study in a collapsed man. The almost unanimous criticism of the film – that it gives us little insight into Che Guevara the man – is both entirely astute and indefatigably myopic. It is simultaneously missing the point and exactly the point. Watching Che, it is almost impossible to decode the seeming cipher of a man it presents, but “impossible to decode” is a neutral claim that many viewers take to be a negative or a problem. It is a feature that is assumed a flaw. Their opinion isn’t incorrect so much as it is, in my opinion, limited, the casualty of an individualistic Hollywood formula that threads the membrane between character psychology and maturity so thin that one would be ostracized simply for claiming that there may just be other pathways to truth beyond burrowing into the subcutaneous traumas and fixations of the man whose name adorns the movie poster. That’s because Che isn’t merely a biopic but a thought experiment. Viewed from this angle, it isn’t primarily a study of a person so much as an essay on the nature of revolution. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: The Limey

M8DLIME EC011A mercurial exercise in pure cinematic economy, a gangster tale cut-up and reinterpreted through director Steven Soderbergh’s shattered-glass editing, The Limey is Point Blank dressed up as Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Actually, that’s dismissive. The Limey doesn’t don the exterior garb of a modernistically scrambled study in memory. Soderbergh’s film feels modernism down to its very core. It bleeds vibes of fragmentation, cracks into pieces before our eyes, and in protagonist Wilson’s mind. Played by Terrence Stamp in the performance of his life, Wilson is the lightning-rod around which Soderbergh’s coiled energy and recklessly frazzled editing anti-rhythms commune. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Traffic

2000-traffic-05Logan Lucky, the comeback film of the formerly-but-not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh, is out this month, and the return to cinema of one of the great filmmakers of the past quarter-century is obviously something to celebrate. I’ll do so with a few reviews, the only way I know how. 

Nominated for two Best Director Oscars in one year, Steven Soderbergh won for Traffic, arguably his peak harmony of critical and commercial success and among the most piquant Best Director wins ever. Within reason, of course. It’s still an Issue film, so it’s in the Academy’s wheelhouse. (They’d never do the unthinkable and commit heresy by giving it to a genuine work of directorial singularity like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Edward Yang’s, or Bela Tarr’s films from the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s from the year before, Terrence Malick’s from the year before that, or David Lynch’s from the year after Traffic. You get the picture). But for a somewhat safer film, as well as a work where the “radicalism” is programmatic and pampered enough to be immediately obvious to any viewer, Traffic is a volatile, agitated, uncovered nerve of a movie just waiting to be poked. Continue reading

John Huston (also Un-Cannes-y Valley 1984): Under the Volcano

underthevolcano3It is immeasurably difficult, even impossible, not to crack the glossy lens of “keep it on the screen” in Under the Volcano, peering behind the frame to explore the harsh climate of personal disfigurement and torment in director John Huston’s life. The comparison isn’t unwarranted; it may even be begged for. Huston wanted the film, much as he actively pursued all of his late life projects (perhaps livid with his work-for-hire reputation). And the protagonist, an aging British diplomat in the perpetual downfall of alcoholism wasting away his time in the oppressive Mexican heat, bears an unmistakable imaginative resemblance (if not a physical one) to Huston himself, deeply sick at the time of production and nearing his last bow after decades of severe alcoholism and smoking had withered away his features and left what might be considered a husk of a man in their wake. The comparison catalyzes a reservoir of brutally tormented emotions and hand-crafted, personalized filmmaking on Huston’s part, no doubt, but it also elides the fact that, in Under the Volcano, the primed, pared-down potency of the screen most assuredly speaks for itself. Continue reading

John Huston: Wise Blood

470_film_originalJohn Huston’s career caught the literary bug, an inspiration that quickly, sometimes detrimentally, opened a Pandora’s box he couldn’t close. I mean, the dude erected his career in one fell, volcanic swoop with his debut feature, The Maltese Falcon, an adaptation of a famously convoluted and uncinematic Dashiell Hammett novel. Not to be outdone by his debut, Huston, perhaps in a fit of near-death delirium, concluded his career directing his daughter in an adaptation of that most holy of unfilmable authors: James Joyce (admittedly, Huston went for the big gun of the small gun short stories with “The Dead” from Dubliners, but reaching for something like Ulysses would have been sheer Icarus-inspired lunacy). Ironically, Huston himself was often compared to Hemingway for his no-nonsense virility and the tensile strength of his dead-on filmmaking, putting him at a stark remove from the likes of the infamously spindly, present-tense, tonally fluxional Joyce who was perhaps Hemingway’s polar opposite. Continue reading