That distinction, by the way, is his own:
The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made…. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.
This distinction is the core of Soderbergh’s speech—the inhibition and stultification of the art of cinema by the movie business, and, in particular, by the studios. He says that the cinema is “not about money, it’s about good ideas followed up by a well-developed aesthetic,” whereas, of course, the studios are about the money, which is why he thinks that “cinema … is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.” He blames executives who don’t “love movies” and don’t “know movies,” he blames the trend toward producing big-budget films for the foreign market, because
things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.
He blames the high cost of marketing, explaining that this, not his production budget, is the reason why his forthcoming film about Liberace, “Behind the Candelabra,” ended up at HBO rather than a movie studio. He blames the studio’s excessive reliance on market-testing, on focus groups, and even, ingeniously, on the aftermath of 9/11:
I still think the country is in some form of P.T.S.D. about that event, and that we haven’t really healed in any sort of complete way, and that people are, as a result, looking more toward escapist entertainment…. There’s a very good argument to be made that only somebody who has it really good would want to make a movie that makes you feel really bad. People are working longer hours for less money these days, and maybe when they get in a movie, they want a break.
But, above all, he blames “the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies.” And that’s where Soderbergh’s argument goes off the rails. The word “mainstream” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore. There are many audiences; sometimes it happens that a nine-figure movie, such as “Hugo” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” will be, to use Soderbergh’s term, cinema, but there’s no reason to think that such movies should be any likelier to enter the artistic pantheon than movies made on smaller budgets for ostensibly more self-selectingly sophisticated audiences. It’s hard to accuse studios of pusillanimity in a year’s span that has seen such distinctive, personal, and radical movies as “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Master,” “To the Wonder,” and, yes, Soderbergh’s own “Magic Mike” and “Haywire,” come out for general viewing.
On the other hand, Soderbergh has a very specific proposal in mind, a practical recommendation for the studios to foster the cinema; it’s a brilliant idea, though one that, I think, is better suited to an independent producer who has less corporate structure and less overhead to contend with than do studios:
In my view, in this business which is totally talent-driven, it’s about horses, not races. I think if I were going to run a studio I’d just be gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters. So I would call Shane Carruth or Barry Jenkins or Amy Seimetz and I’d bring them in and go, ok, what do you want to do? What are the things you’re interested in doing? What do we have here that you might be interested in doing? If there was some sort of point of intersection I’d go: O.K., look, I’m going to let you make three movies over five years, I’m going to give you this much money in production costs, I’m going to dedicate this much money on marketing. You can sort of proportion it how you want, you can spend it all on one and none on the other two, but go make something.
Of course, the three filmmakers he mentions are independent filmmakers, working on shoestring budgets and sometimes self-financing, whose films have been released (Seimetz’s, as recently as last Friday) to great acclaim and whose work is personal and distinctive. (I was less a fan of Jenkins’s first feature, but it had some terrific elements and I’m impatient to see what he’ll do next, too.) Soderbergh, who has been involved with Hollywood for more than twenty years, has made his living as a director—something that many independents aren’t doing, and making a living is another of his recurring subjects.
There are, right now, three tiers of filmmaking—the highest financial level, filmmakers who make big-budget internationally marketed productions; off-Hollywood auteurs, such as Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sofia Coppola, who work with Hollywood actors at far lower budget levels, often with money from independent producers; and independent filmmakers who usually work with actors from their own circles (and sometimes turn them into stars) and who struggle to get their films released—and even then have trouble making a living.
Soderbergh is right that outside work makes it harder to make movies (or to do any sort of artistic work). Though teaching is a well-established way for poets and writers to support themselves, filmmaking is both collective and site-specific; “by hook or by crook,” or by any means necessary, is as good a rule of thumb for making movies as for any endeavor, but what Soderbergh envisions for filmmakers who get, in effect, a studio grant—freedom of time as well as a wider range of practical resources—might well liberate great creative energies and result in a spate of original and inventive new movies. I hope that some producer takes him up on the notion. Yet, given the number of good and distinctive movies that are being made, at all three levels (though mainly the latter two), I don’t see any reason to despair. The world of independent filmmaking, for all the practical difficulties that its artists face (and perhaps as a result of those difficulties, which often filter into the substance of their films), is a uniquely powerful engine of artistic invention—and it will continue to be so with or without the benefit of studio support. The most important thing for a filmmaker is to be the master of a process of production, not to be controlled by it, and for all the appeal of a five-year plan of financing, I wonder whether the administrative burden of its management wouldn’t be an extra bureaucratic layer that would weigh down the very creativity it’s meant to foster—and I’d be interested to hear from independent filmmakers on this very subject.
But it’s worth looking at another recent interview with Soderbergh—one by the journalist Sebastian Handke which appeared last week in the German newspaper Die Zeit. Soderbergh brings up (as he doesn’t in San Francisco) his personal situation, as a retired director:
Oh, I’m happy not to have to adjust a camera on a damn car anymore. Since I was twelve, I’ve been up to my neck in film. That’s a long time when one is obsessed every day.
Handke asks Soderbergh whether the way he feels now is akin to “the creative crisis after ‘King of the Hill’” and Soderbergh answers,
At that time, I had gone off-course. But I also knew why that was: I was working too slowly. This time, I don’t know how the problem can be solved. I only know everything depends on whether I succeed in becoming an amateur again.
It’s a great line, and a great aspiration; but given Soderbergh’s experience and station, it reminds me of another great line, this one from Picasso: “I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” The amateur or ultra-low-budget filmmaker who struggles to make a living, who puts her own money into a production or sweats to find small sums from private producers or Kickstarter, often makes that the subject of her films. Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” is a brilliant low-budget film about low-rent lives; Shane Carruth’s “Primer” is a startup film about a startup, and “Upstream Color” is about a startup that blows up and goes into the big time. It may not be obvious from these directors’ great powers of cinematic invention, but the convergence of their mode of production with their stories and their aesthetic is itself a part of their art. I suspect that they’ll succeed in doing the same thing at a higher budget level, and when their films achieve a well-deserved level of commercial success and the circumstances of their lives change commensurately. One of the great joys of Soderbergh’s work is his immediate pleasure in the physical side of filmmaking—the camerawork, the editing—which he does himself. Even in a studio production such as his latest film, “Side Effects,” that pleasure comes through strongly. But indulging those pleasures amateur-style also entails a risk. For Soderbergh to scale back his filmmaking to some elemental level while living a life of Hollywood-funded leisure sounds like a recipe for grotesque slumming; I’m reminded of “Sullivan’s Travels.”
But if he’s tempted to return to directing, he says that it would be for a television series: “It’s the pendant to the Russian novel: so many details are possible, so much depth. Television is the place where what distinguishes one director from another is still sought out and encouraged.” Again: theoretically. Europe has had good experience encouraging directors to make idiosyncratic works in the serial format—whether it’s Maurice Pialat’s “La Maison des Bois,” from 1971, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1980. What remains to be seen is whether American television channels are likely to grant movie directors the sort of freedom that Pialat and Fassbinder enjoyed. New series tend to be the work of directors who are often reduced (and I do mean reduced) to the role of writers and show runners, who convey much of the directorial work of their series to others, to noticeable and regrettable effect. Soderbergh may be the filmmaker who breaks through—whose great career persuades one channel or another to give him the kind of non-formatted, non-delegated control of a series that would render it his own multi-hour, multi-part, yet all the more personal work. In other words, he wants to use the financing and the infrastructure of a television series to make a connected set of movies.
In the meantime, we’ll have half a year to fuel another controversy: if “Behind the Candelabra,” which will be screened soon at the Cannes Film Festival, is as good as I hope it is—if it’s as good as Soderbergh’s other recent films have been—then it will be a strong contender for year-end honors, even though, as a movie first released here on television, it won’t be eligible for the Oscars.
llustration by Thomas Ehretsmann.
I’ve really enjoyed Soderbergh’s approach to filmmaking for quite some time. Getting to see and hear him voicing these kinds of opinions and concerns and frustrations about this flawed-yet-important system is really pretty fantastic to me. Issues that I have myself being presented at a podium from the mouth of a credible source who is already deep within the industry himself — yes yes yes.
Ok. So, all these issues are getting more attention paid to them. Good! . . . but now what? What kinds of changes (if any) might Hollywood start to consider, test run, maybe even adopt? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
For the love of film . . .
with passion & gratitude — jennifer