Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Steven Soderbergh

A director of more than thirty films, Steven Soderbergh has had a lot on his mind. From professional sports to the Panama Papers, from pandemics to heists, Soderbergh has captured on film more thematic variety than perhaps any other director. And despite his forays into Hollywood filmmaking and celebrity actors,  his films retain their fierce independence and preoccupation with the human condition. Join us this month as we celebrate Steven Soderbergh’s filmography and accomplishments in January’s Retrospective Roundtable.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Sex_Lies_VideotapeSoderbergh’s first feature, a talky, racy film about sex and how it affects the dynamics of human relationships, would usher in a sea change to the film world. It would transform the Sundance Film Festival from an obscure test lab for feature filmmakers to the must-attend event for studio executives to pick out new talent. It would also usher in the boom of indie cinema in the ‘90s and the blurring of the lines between independent and mainstream with the rise of major studios like Miramax and October Films. So it is fascinating to see how such a modestly produced film could have ushered in such a boom. Sex, Lies and Videotape takes place mostly in interiors and, despite its title, is quite short on visibly explicit content. Most of the explicitness comes from frank discussions of sex and sexuality, from Andie Macdowell’s admittance that she doesn’t find sex interesting to James Spader’s odd (at the time) habit of recording women speaking about sex, which he later uses as material to masturbate to. Soderbergh keeps the film interesting with the unpredictability of his characters and their reactions, and coaxing out complex, naturalistic performances from his leads, especially Spader and Macdowell. Soderbergh also manages to make his film visually interesting with the intercutting of Spader’s recorded footage and intimate yet bold close-ups and compositions. Even if some of the discussion of the distance between sex and romance is old hat by now, remember that this would have been quite fresh to contemporary mainstream audiences, and you can definitely see the blueprint for similarly intimate, talky films that would be in abundance even far past the ‘90s. – Eugene Kang

Schizopolis (1996)

SchizopolisThe 90s sure were something, weren’t they? In cinema, the decade meant a challenge of conventions. Movements such as Dogme 95 and films such as Pi, Kids, Happiness, and Taste of Cherry were revered for their aversion to tradition and their affinity for subversive subject matter and innovative means of storytelling. Schizopolis holds a rightful place in this era of filmmaking and represents bold independent filmmaking that undertakes themes such as communication, social norms, and commercialism.

Schizopolis stars the man himself, Steven Soderbergh, in a dual role of Fletcher Munson and Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, the former an office worker and the latter a dentist who Munson’s wife sleeps with. Soderbergh uses these men to portray the irrational, Munson communicating with his wife through descriptions rather than sentences and Korchek abruptly shot dead after strange encounters at his workplace. Schizopolis leans into its portrayal of insanity through its opening and closing scenes as well as its non-traditional opening (Soderbergh appearing as himself speaking to an auditorium) and lack of credits. In many ways, Schizopolis is a visual representation of letting the mind wander, Soderbergh’s childlike imagination manifesting in this absurd comic story. – Alex Sitaras

Out of Sight (1998)

Out of SightOut of Sight would be Soderbergh’s first big-budget feature, and despite proof of his filmmaking prowess in his previous low-budget movies, the film was a bit of a risk. Yet Soderbergh sticks the landing with aplomb. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel with a screenplay by Scott Frank, Out of Sight is slick and stylish, with charismatic leads George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and many colorful supporting characters delivering Elmore’s rich, often ribald, dialogue with a delivery that almost borders on arch. Soderbergh knew to highlight the romantic chemistry between Clooney and Lopez as seen in their first extended scene when they are both in a car trunk bathed in sensuous golden light. For such a verbally dense screenplay, Out of Sight manages to move efficiently through judicious pacing and an insistence on highlight on performance, rather than detracting from it. Bit characters played by Luis Guzman and Steve Zahn not only get to deliver their lines, but Soderbergh makes sure the visuals supplement their performance with fun, creative staging. Soderbergh has said that he prefers working with other people’s scripts rather than writing his own because he likes making movies quickly and efficiently. Even though Out of Sight was not exactly a big box office hit, Soderbergh knew what he had and pulled out the stops. It would be a no-brainer for him to take on the reins of a massive commercial project like Ocean’s Eleven just a few years later. – Eugene Kang

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin BrockovichSoderbergh has a way of imputing a populist appeal to his films, and none has arguably had more of a lasting impact in pop culture than Erin Brockovich. The film is a dramatization of the life of the real Erin Brockovich, who was instrumental in bringing the Pacific Gas and Electric company to justice after it poisoned the water supply in Hinkley, California. An unemployed mother of three, Brockovich works her way to a legal assistant position to support her family, and ends up stumbling upon a massive cover-up that caused medical problems over generations of Hinkley residents. She is altruistic and throws herself into the cause, all while wearing a McDonald’s Happy Meal watch and miniskirts.

The film works so well because Soderbergh gives his actors room to grow into their roles and set their limits. Julia Roberts, who plays Erin, won Best Actress for her portrayal, one that is brash, uses gutter language, and left early male reviewers of the film in a tizzy. With great writing from Susannah Grant, Soderbergh lets the actors define a scene and in turn sets a masterclass on letting the biopic define itself. It is funny, gritty, wholly heartening, and just a great time. – Lauren Mattice

Solaris (2002)

Solaris_2002_filmAndrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is one of the pillars of science fiction and world cinema, an incredible accomplishment that stands tall to this day. Steven Soderbergh has been clear that his take on Solaris is not a remake, rather a new adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Soderbergh has never been afraid of a challenge in his career, whether making experimental film using groundbreaking techniques, stepping out of his comfort zone genre-wise, applying distinct stylistic approaches to recreate the look of a bygone era, or spending his free time creating new edits of other filmmakers’ work. Solaris stands as one of those unique challenges, applying his own vision and twist to a story that had already been adapted into a classic. In doing so, Soderbergh shows why he is one of the best and most unique filmmakers working today, delivering a wholly unique work within his filmography and delivering a great film that stands apart from Tarkovsky’s, even if still in its shadow.

An eerie and unsettling science fiction film, Solaris depicts Dr. Chris Klein (George Clooney) being sent to a far-off space station circling the planet Solaris, having been called there by an old friend to study a bizarre phenomenon. As Klein soon discovers, what is happening to the crew and, soon, himself is that the planet is impacting their mind, creating replicas of a lost loved one and projecting it back to them. For Klein, it is his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Soderbergh emphasizes the psychological drama of the story, retaining some of the themes of identity and of predetermination vs free-will that creates the foundation of Solaris – the former, especially in regards to Rheya coming to terms with whether this version of herself is human or just a reflection of one – while prioritizing the guilt, grief, and memory involved in Chris and Rheya’s relationship. Pouring through these with Chris struggling to forgive himself for the role he feels he played in Rheya’s death, this replica version of her being one reflects what he remembers (which may not be entirely authentic to who Rheya was), and them fighting to come to terms with how they exist together now, Solaris is incredibly emotional journey with two phenomenal performances from Clooney and McElhone. Soderbergh’s elegiac film finds further beauty in the score from Cliff Martinez and the stunning special effects, but it is Soderbergh’s vision that helps to set Solaris apart and establish it as a great film in its own right. – Kevin Jones

Contagion (2011)

ContagionThrough experiencing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Contagion’s prescience and understanding of how social media would influence the public’s response to such a crisis is incredible to watch. Steven Soderbergh’s work tracks the evolution of a pandemic from its very few cases and though the MEV-1 virus in the film is considerably deadlier than COVID-19, the modern parallels one can draw are clear. Whether the symptoms, the misinformation, fake treatments (in the film, the drug “Forsythia” is claimed to be a miracle drug), public officials under attack, and more. Soderbergh aims for reality, taking a similar narrative approach to his film Traffic with a sprawling, multi-narrative path with numerous characters experiencing this pandemic in vastly different ways and rarely, if ever, interacting with the other characters. The film feels like a boulder rolling down a hill, picking up speed and proving unstoppable, delivering every horrific detail and side effect of how society would handle a global pandemic. 

Soderbergh shows a fascination with response and feeling more than anything in Contagion, dropping these characters into a world on the brink and then watching them try to piece it together. There are plenty of now-modern parallels one can draw here as well, but what is fascinating about Contagion is the emotional side. Towards the end of the film, Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), a teenage girl on the cusp of prom and the relative of two MEV-1 victims, mentions the loss of time. The loss of days, memories, and experiences that could have happened in the time since the pandemic began, but never did and can never be made up. Her father, Mitch (Matt Damon), tries with an elaborate prom date setup for her and her boyfriend once they are “safe”, but those days of fear, nervously watching the news, and uncertainty will never come back. There are plenty of deaths in Contagion, there are people who try to work out of a sense of duty despite being ill, there are doctors sacrificing everything to make progress, there are violent people fighting to survive, social media connecting (working online or texting friends) and driving apart (disinformation and conspiracy theories), and there are people trying to profit off the disease, but what Contagion captures so profoundly is this global pause, where everything has stopped and “normal” is sought out (even at significant health-risk during the pandemic) even if that “normal” can never be quite the same again. – Kevin Jones

Magic Mike (2012)

MM-CB-00067rFollowing Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike was the second film of Steven Soderbergh’s that spun forth a franchise that attained mainstream success. Just over a decade since the release of Magic Mike, Soderbergh will be releasing the third film of the Magic Mike series, Magic Mike’s Last Dance this February.

Known for its stripping scenes and Channing Tatum’s shirtless torso, Magic Mike is more than just that. Underneath its visual spectacle are characters tempted by crime while others are looking for a better future. Mike Lane (Tatum) is of the latter, performing at the Xquisite Strip Club as their star stripper. He dreams of one day starting a custom furniture business, but can’t when the bank refuses to offer him a loan. He meets 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a college dropout searching for a job, and is able to recruit Adam to dance at Xquisite. Magic Mike shows Adam reveling in his newfound success and appeal to women until he ultimately finds himself over his head. It is up to Mike who had promised to Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s sister and Mike’s love interest, to take care of Adam to follow through, even if it comes at personal cost.

For a movie with its strongest selling point to audiences scenes of male stripping, Magic Mike is more than just that. It’s a genuinely well-written and directed film that provides mainstream appeal while also appealing to those who have followed Soderbergh’s filmmaking career. – Alex Sitaras

Kimi (2022)

KimiThe following years will only serve us more films that will explore the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and how such an event affected dramatic storytelling. So leave it to Soderbergh to direct what might be one of the best of these works so far. Penned by David Koepp, Kimi follows Angela (Zoë Kravitz), a data analyst who monitors streams for a AI home aide named Kimi. Angela is agoraphobic due to past trauma from an assault, and the pandemic and lockdown have only exacerbated her fears. After hearing something suspicious in one of the audio streams for Kimi, Angela soon gets embroiled in a crime that will force her to use all of her strength, physical and intellectual, to not only solve the crime but to survive. Soderbergh maximizes the confined spaces that Angela is in, such as her apartment, to clever effect with relatively simple tricks like turning on or off lights or using Kimi itself. The scenes outside the apartment are thrilling not just because of the physical danger Angela is in but because we the audience know the dangers of the virus and the paranoia that it can induce. The action scenes go off like clockwork but never come off as purely mechanical; there is real danger and tension even if the set pieces aren’t super elaborate, which can be attributed to Soderbergh’s eye for action and pacing. The messaging about invasive technology is more ambiguous than one might expect, but that lies more in the script, which is taut and well-constructed nevertheless. Perhaps better movies than Kimi that are set during the pandemic will come along but Soderbergh has set a high bar. – Eugene Kang

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