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« In Which We Watch Steven Soderbergh Mayhem »

Sodey Pop


By now you must know that Saturday afternoon, April 27th, Steven Soderbergh delivered the San Francisco International Film Festival's annual "State of Cinema" talk to a sold out crowd. You can even read the transcript or listen to it online

The speech was a lot of what you'd expect from Soderbergh: sharp and funny and obliquely political. He told some stories about how hard it is to get a movie made, even for him, and he abjured some other stories for fear of murder in the street (a mordant joke, sure, though not entirely implausible?). He also tried to remind the audience that they have agency, that movies and cinema are two different things, that art has its place, but that the industry is primarily a numbers game and a rigged one at that, like any bureaucracy, designed to perpetuate itself in myopic ways. (Greed, like money, is obvious.)

In fact, he got rather specific with numbers about this business/machine he's a part of, and how its transparent economics are so unique in American business. One possible goal of the talk seemed to be to shed some light on the odd, sense-defying trends the industry has enjoyed over the last decade as a way to argue, concretely, that the industry's interest in producing "art" as we understand it has shrunk from little to less.

Bodies-in-the-seats attendance has declined over the last ten years by roughly 10 percent, which we may attribute to any number of things, while the major studio market share has increased, again roughly, from 50 percent to 75 percent, despite releasing 33 percent less movies per year. Meanwhile, "independent" films have more than doubled in the last ten years (approximately 300 releases in 2003, 600 in 2013), which means there are twice as many "little people" scrambling for half as much of the pie left over after the studio system's giant-sized products eat up the other three quarters.

Suffice it to say, getting any audience for a smaller, "independent" film is a long shot. Maybe, by deign of fortune or connections or the right timing or the right marketing or whatever combination of those or any other thing you can think of, a filmmaker could strike a nerve and grab the attention of somebody with a check book, or she sells enough tickets to start building a "respectable" CV in order to fight and scrape against the odds to make another film.

But, again, those are lousy odds. (And for what? Is the goal making films or making money? Or what?) Soderbergh said that when he was starting in the industry, success was like trying to hit a major league fastball--tough to do, sure, but possible--and now it seems like the truly independent are trying to hit a major league fastball not with a bat but with another fastball.

Early in his talk, Soderbergh distinguished between "movies" and "cinema" as a difference between something you go to see and consume like any other product (movies) and something that's been made with a "specificity of vision" (cinema). He was quick to point out that sometimes movies are quite good, though they can be empty at the same time, and that sometimes cinema can be so specific and esoteric that it can become "an unwatchable piece of shit." What we're all looking for from art, he argued, is that moment when, when we recognize not just the artist but that moment that's almost impossible, "which is entering the consciousness of another human being - literally seeing the world the way they see it." What makes this so special, he said, is not just that it's rare but that, if it's really good art, it can be transformative, and it can remind you that you are not alone. 

So, if that goal is rare and the numbers are against filmmakers, "Why do this?" This may be a fanciful answer, but I like Stanley Cavell's argument that cinema was created specifically for philosophy (which I think we all understand to mean, roughly, "the study of life"), "to reorient everything philosophy has said about reality and its representation, about art and imitation, about greatness and conventionality, about judgement and pleasure, about skepticism and transcendence, about language and expression."

That's a tall order, and all those words mean very specific things for Cavell (I encourage you to learn their specific resonances in his wonderful and halfway mad this-and-that style of thinking and writing), but it seems as good an answer as any to why anybody would want to make a movie: to better understand life. 

It likewise may be the long way to get around the barn, but there may be another reason (or three) that there have been so many more "independent" films released every year. For starters, to reiterate the obvious, it's the easiest it's ever been to make a movie, providing you have a certain amount of money (it always takes some money). For another, there's as great a worldwide unrest as ever (since the 1970s, at least) and that makes people want to say something about it, if not exactly try to understand the why or the how of what's wrong, which has lead to that glut. 

To support this reasoning, Soderbergh went so far as to say that America still has yet to fully process 9/11. I think there may be some credence to this, for a variety of reasons, but let's look at the top three movies from 2012. Tops was The Avengers, which was as all-caps-bold-type an allegory about that very terrorist attack as can be imagined, however much the concept was spun around to incorporate our new crisis of finding sustainable energy so that we, humans mighty and meek alike, may reign supreme in perpetuity. Next was Christopher Nolan's Batman finale, The Dark Knight Rises, which had its own take on sustainable energy and terrorism, and another "superhero" willing to "sacrifice" himself for the myth of a more perfect union among men (if not between man and mother nature, or, y'know, man and woman). Third on the list is The Hunger Games, a film whose source material is no doubt darker than the vanilla wash a studio can impose on something so vile as kids killing kids in order to, at best, outrun the inevitable that is death at the hands of bureaucracy for at least two more sequels. In other words, all three were vaguely apocalyptic. But all three have happy endings, even The Hunger Games, despite the portentous "tune in next time" montage that closes it, because we still need the security of escape. 

I do not mean to dismiss this longing for legible and accepted myths and stories, and neither did Soderbergh want to insult the mass audiences. In fact, he allowed that maybe he's wrong to disparage these films (and this new model the industry is fashioning around such financial gambits). After all, as he said, all signs say that people are happy to pay their good money for these films. These films provide a certain kind of hope, no matter how much somebody like him, or me for that matter, may want to discredit the films' (and their makers') integrities. They provide a digestible idea about good and evil. 

I would argue alongside Soderbergh that 9/11 changed the world but that Americans have yet to fully comprehend how, or we have yet to comprehend how to fashion the world/the country anew with the collapse of the old. In other words, we need new myths. The trouble is that the accepted myths that movies like The Avengers rely on are those tired, strictly linear ideas of triumph. What the wake of 9/11 and the consequent "war on terror" have proven is that there will be no single event to point to as a finish line to mimic the spectacle of collapse we witnessed. After all, that's a lot of what Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty wants to tell us Americans.

One way Soderbergh characterized our modern moment came right at the start of his speech when he told a story about a recent cross country flight from New York's JFK to Burbank. He said he sat on the aisle in the exit row, with the extra legroom for a more comfortable experience, and as the plane reached cruising altitude he saw a guy pull out an iPad to watch a movie. What he saw this "30-something white guy" do was this: Guy had pre-loaded a ton of action films, and he spent the whole five and a half hour flight skipping over every bit of plot just to see the wreckage, the spectacular devastation prevalent in big action movies, in what Soderbergh termed an indulgence of "mayhem porn." This peculiar desire for assault got him thinking about how the world has become so fast, at least to him, that the metronome of life has now become a hum.

Then Soderbergh brought up a recent book by Douglas Rushkoff called Present Shock and said that this concept is what he is "suffering" from. The title of the book is a play on Alvin's Toffler's Future Shock, as Rushkoff's website will tell you, and there's a lot of fascinating ideas to read just on the site about how we've engineered a society that does not have goals, per se, but an endless now. There's even a line about terrorism being non-linear. In any case, Soderbergh used this idea of "Present Shock" to get at how humans have to shift basic understandings of right and wrong, of cause and effect, of any binary really, because it's hard to make meaning with old tools in a new environment.

Soderbergh said, "art is inevitable," for the human species. And there are some people, whom we might call artists, that feel as if they can do nothing but (try to) create something - to satisfy this desire/compulsion - to express whatever it is they think they know about this life. Because art is about life. That may sound like common sense but it is a simple idea that is easy to forget. So please indulge this retread: more often than not, art takes on narrative as a means to make meaning out of life. What's curious is how many people (look at all the names above) attest to how non-linear things have become in life today, or how life has grown yet more de-centered (to inherit a popular concept from the late 20th century) in the 21st century, to the point that we first world humans with the luxury of time to think like this are more often than not leading not just one nor two but many lives across any number of platforms, from the everyday to e-mails to "social media" (and its idiotic multitudes/variations) to office spaces to the very phone-devices we carry on our person and all that its contents point to outside us. In other words, life has gotten somewhat schizophrenic. 

Therefore, a good deal of the popular art we're seeing has taken on this every-where-ness quality. What's dispiriting is that its taken on a glut effect at the movies: they're getting longer, more convoluted, and more chaotic. Conflict is nothing new, of course, and necessary for drama, and there have always been popular epics (the numbers tell us Gone With The Wind remains the most financially successful film of all time) but there's a new tenor to the form, most readily identified in quick-cut editing patterns, that feels less a product of vision than catch-as-catch-can product engineering, which is exactly what Soderbergh is arguing against.

But how do we deal with this schizophrenia? Do we embrace it? How? Do we try to tame it? How? The magnetic force of aporia is strong in possible answers to such questions, but I don't think it has to be the only endgame. In fact, I think this is why the old myths stick around.

Here, at this juncture, I could point to Deleuze and Guattari and the latter's Chaosophy in particular but I don't want to stray too far. I keep coming back to the idea that art is inevitable, and by extension so is narrative, because it's a compelling way to make sense of life. 

One of the more fascinating elements of Soderbergh's supposed filmmaking swan song (at least as far as theatrical releases go), Side Effects, is showing how narrative is a trap, how it can even backfire on its author, and how the very attempt to write (or re-write) your story makes you complicit in the world's evil every-where-ness. The film shows the world as a network of traps, one might even say (with a grim grin) a game of escapism, if we understand that concept to mean escaping traps as much as escaping the present, into a new world (and a possibly fictional world).

A nagging problem with this idea is that Jude Law's final escape is in some ways a retreat to the old safeties, the old story, of a wife and kid. We last see him in an expensive SUV, driving away, comfortable in his upper middle class lifestyle. It would be easy to see his character as rewarded for surmounting the infamy and subsequent mania that his public shame brought upon him, but I like to read that closure as false, as if to say he's just written another fantasy but this is the socially accepted one. 

The film seems to argue throughout that humans are doomed to repeat past sins, and Jude Law's character's salvation comes through simply doing to Rooney Mara what she did to him, fabricating events, in essence authoring a more compelling story, which might explain the shifts in tone the film takes at two or three junctures. And in the end it's a paper trail and a tape recorder (What's a film but a record?) that dooms Rooney to return to prison, to pills.

It's a dire, angry film. But I think there's a place for it in our parlous world. Side Effects is by no means a corrective - it's above all an effective thriller with more than a few fun twists and shifts, and let's face it the patriarchy of medicine wins, which could be a sly double move, another stab at this system - but it sure did make me think about pills, about relationships, about greed and sex, about power and authorship, about America, about prisons, about our selves as prisons, about psychology as a kind of escape (for good and bad reasons), about how I write my own story, about how I've built and continue to build my own life. It's the perfect kind of movie that may not be perfect but is so alive with ideas, ideas sometimes competing for your attention, that I don't care to rank it nor rate it. I just enjoyed it. It activated my imagination, my curiosity, and my conversations with friends. 

So that might be an answer, finally, to why do so many people still want to make and release movies in a numbers game so rigged as Hollywood: the very possibility that one might give somebody that kind of spark of thought.  When I attended the Telluride Film Festival in 2008, Peter Sellers said he started New Crowned Hope to help make movies that weren't just gloom and doom, because we all know life is hard. He said, we go to the movies to be reminded why we ought to stay alive. The challenge Soderbergh seemed to leave the audience with was, like he's doing in his own career, to dream beyond the old myth of Hollywood, of old revenue streams and release strategies. Cinema isn't going away, it's changing. The business side will always compromise the artistic side in one way or another but, as Soderbergh's career has proven, you can always find a way to make the limitations of a project enrich the work if you're smart enough. 

After all, if you're lucky enough to make a movie - of any size, length, format, etc - it's your duty to make it work, to make it beautiful, to remind your audience that they are not alone. My favorite thing Soderbergh has said since (and during) his Side Effects media blitz is that he's proud to work in movies because moviemaking is as pragmatic a profession as possible, with no room for ideology, because:

Art is also about problem solving, and it's obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. … The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that [ideology] never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

It sure would be a better world if more human endeavors were so simple at bottom. 

Ryland Walker Knight is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer and filmmaker living in San Francisco. He twitters and tumblrs and even has a website.


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