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Steven Soderbergh in Five Films

From strip clubs to casino heists, few bridge art house and mainstream cinema better

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    Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

    When Logan Lucky was initially announced in 2016, it confirmed what everyone knew already: Steven Soderbergh couldn’t stay away from film. In fact, he never really did. From the occasional cinemaphotography gig (Magic Mike XXL, using his known pseudonym, Peter Andrews) to his stint as the director of Cinemax series The Knick, Soderbergh kept a camera close by even after he announced in 2011 that he planned to retire from filmmaking. Well, a sort of retirement, anyways. The term “retirement” did get explicitly used, but Soderbergh walked it back almost immediately, distinguishing a “retirement” from a “sabbatical,” admitting: “It’s less dramatic than it sounds — it’s just a sabbatical… I feel I need to recalibrate, so I can discover something new.”

    If Soderbergh needed time to regroup, it’s clear he didn’t need much of it, and that’s not all too surprising. While revisiting his filmography, it becomes all too apparent why Soderbergh will always keep making films: he has way too much fun with the process. Whether it’s a limited-run indie that he’s financed independently or a wide-release studio picture, Soderbergh uses film technique in atypical ways to bring the best out of his projects. Brilliant color production, kinetic editing, and irregular shot selections establish a vision of a man who has no pretensions about the cinematic stories he tells. The soufflé-airy and high-budget Ocean’s trilogy gets treated with the same respect as a stone-faced revenge plot (1999’s The Limey) and a straightforward, psychologically driven indie (1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape).

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    Granted, one could argue that Soderbergh abides by the “one for them, one for me” rule, but based on the craftsmanship that goes into each one of his movies, no matter how mainstream or independent they may be, his rule is really “all for them, all for me.” Because of this omnivorous approach, Soderbergh makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to sum up his body of work in a few films, and this guide is evidence of that conundrum. Nevertheless, the five films ahead should at the very least provide a quick snapshot of Soderbergh’s unparalleled talent in bridging cinematic worlds, whether it’s mainstream and indie features or blockbusters and art flicks. Should he ever decide to legitimately throw in the towel for good, he’ll have left behind an envious cinematic legacy. For now, we should all be glad Soderbergh is back in the game.

    Odds are this list will change in two or three or five years.


    An Independent Beginning

    Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

    sexlieshed 0 Steven Soderbergh in Five Films

    Sex, Lies, and Videotape remains one of the quietest splashes in Hollywood history. Released to breathless enthusiasm at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the coveted Palme D’Or, Soderbergh’s debut feature works with very little when it comes to plot and panache. Sure, there’s some of the title’s first vice, but Soderbergh eschews any sleaze and sensationalism for a more psychological experience. Yet, what may appear, in retrospect, to be an unassuming debut wound up spearheading the independent film movement of the ’90s, laying the groundwork for indie auteurs like Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater. Of course, it helped that Soderbergh’s talent would earn the backing of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who bridged the gap between art house cinema and mainstream filmmaking with Miramax.

    Signs of Soderbergh’s talent appear all throughout Sex, Lies, and Videotape, though it would more fully flourish beginning in the late ’90s. The other films of Soderbergh’s early career — Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995), and Schizopolis (1996) – exhibit a kind of quietness that Soderbergh would abandon in favor of swanky scores by composers like David Holmes and flashy, ostensibly commercial production. (Admittedly, the word “quiet” ought not be used for the manic Schizopolis, whose wit too often gets undercut by some grating meta-cinematic devices.) Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the archetype of this quiet period, with the entirety of the movie involving intimate conversations, usually between people who have to work their way to that intimacy.

    James Spader, a flaxen-haired Adonis in this breakthrough, Cannes-winning role, stars as Graham, a cryptic man who comes to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher). (As far as extended cinematic universes go, Graham can easily be seen as a young version of Spader’s character on The Office, Robert California, Graham gone to seed.) Not long into the visit, Graham mixes himself up with the lives of John’s wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), and her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Ann discovers that part of Graham’s mystique is his unusual practice of filming women talking about their sex lives, which is the only way he can achieve sexual satisfaction. As the knots between these four characters become more entangled – John has an affair with Cynthia, Ann begins to develop feelings for Graham – the intimate conversations captured by Soderbergh increase their stakes.

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    Graham’s erotic connection to video metafilmically comments on the importance of film in understanding people. In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, it’s the latter of the three that exposes both of the former for what they are. Had Soderbergh just called this movie Videotape, he wouldn’t be guilty of any miscommunication. What on the surface appears to be a minor character drama in fact stands as one of cinema’s most valuable examinations of itself. The Weinstein brothers, and indeed the whole art world, were not wrong to get behind Soderbergh’s vision for independent filmmaking. Unlike certain self-indulgent, even masturbatory later films about the importance of the movies (The Artist, La La Land), Sex, Lies, and Videotape highlights the value of filmmaking while grounding it in believable character drama without any pretensions.


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