He is, basically, the antithesis of a Comic-Con filmmaker, more interested in infusing celluloid with his personal vision than with dazzling moviegoers through visual effects. Not that director Steven Soderbergh is adverse to using advanced technology, or sprinkling computerized wizardry upon the narrative like fairy dust, or including breathless action sequences in his films. Quite to the contrary. Ocean's Thirteen, for example, fairly bursts with playful touches of meta-reality, from handwritten monetary sums dancing around a wide shot of unexpected casino winners to 60s-style split-screen montages, and contains a breathless series of escapades in which no one pulls a gun -- it's all talk.
Thus, it was distressing to hear that Soderbergh spoke with an "air of tired resignation" in an telephone conversation with The Guardian UK a while back. He said he could "see the end" of his career, with just "three or four years worth of stuff" that he hopes to be able to do, and then he "may just disappear." He now wishes he hadn't made the subtle and powerful Che; the production was so intense that he and everyone else "got scarred ... a little bit."
It's understandable that the physical demands of making Che -- the equivalent of two feature-length films -- on a 76-day schedule for the comparatively small sum of $58 million would exhaust anybody. And it may be that the last-minute script disagreements that resulted in his losing the Moneyball baseball flick gig with Brad Pitt were laying him low as well. Some people are angry at him for indulging himself and ignoring the audience, somehow squandering opportunities for other directors to make "smart movies for adults."
The late, great Francois Truffaut once wrote: "There are two kinds of directors: those who have the public in mind when they conceive and make their films and those who don't consider the public at all." That's the introduction to his 1954 review of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, published in his book The Films in My Life. "There is nothing intrinsically better about one or the other; it's simply a matter of different approaches."
Soderbergh has been quoted as saying he has tried to do 'one for them and one for me,' referring to alternating between making a small-budget, personal film with perhaps limited interest for audiences and one big-budget affair aimed at the mainstream. Yet even in that approach, perhaps inspired by Clint Eastwood's directorial career, Soderbergh has maintained his integrity as an artist by subverting genre expectations.
A brief look at his career as a director:
sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Caught the zeitgeist of the moment, both in the culture and in the independent film world. Spurred the idea of the Sundance film festival as a marketplace. Remains powerfully claustrophobic and uncomfortable in its unflinching intimacy.
Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), Underneath (1995), Schizopolis (1996). The first three demonstrated flashes of brilliance mixed with unpolished ideas that he wasn't quite able to master yet, along with stretches of confused mediocrity. I haven't seen Schizopolis.
Out of Sight (1998). He got all the ingredients right in a superb, commercially-minded caper flick that should have been more widely seen, cured George Clooney of his distracting habit of tilting his head sideways, and made the best use of Jennifer Lopez to date.
The Limey (1999). Stunning in its complex simplicity.
Ocean's Eleven (2001). And he's on an amazing roll with a remake that doesn't suck, unfolding with such grace and precision that's it's easy to sit back and luxuriate in its minor pleasures.
Full Frontal / Solaris (2002). The gravy train grinds to a halt. The first was purely experimental and shot on a tiny budget, which is entirely fine. His second remake, though, was a bad idea from start to finish; the material did not lend itself to his gifts and the film struggled to find its footing.
Ocean's Twelve (2004). Returning to more commercial frontiers, he seemed less sure of himself. The film is never able to overcome the deficiencies of a weak script.
Ocean's Thirteen (2007). It's been running on HBO this month and I've watched it in all or in parts four or five times. Initially I felt it was a pallid 'three-quel,' but now I'm thinking it deserves reconsideration as a sly riff on The Godfather, among a host of others.
Che (2008). The four-hour roadshow experience rewarded the investment in time with a sprawling, intimate epic filled with deep historical and personal resonance. It drove a lot of critics nuts with its stubborn refusal to play to the crowd, but this is the kind of movie that deserves periodic revivals and prods heated arguments.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Probably the most fascinating and perhaps the most accessible of his experimental work.
His next film, The Informant! , will enjoy its North American premiere at the Toronto film festival in early September before opening nationwide this fall.
Summing up: please, Steven Soderbergh, don't retire! We need you now more than ever.