Monday, September 29, 2014

Notes Toward A "Late" Soderbergh

I have an upcoming piece on Steven Soderbergh's The Knick, his fantastic medical drama now showing on Cinemax. While writing it, I revisited a piece I began over a year ago on what I called the "Late Soderbergh" period (a poor name in hindsight), covering an era beginning with The Girlfriend Experience and assumably ending with Behind The Candelabra. It was a wild and ridiculous essay, trying to cover way too much ground with flimsy cohesion. I eventually abandoned it. Revisiting the 10,000 word document, however, I found some insights that helped me contextualize The Knick as well as my own thoughts on how Soderbergh evolved in this era. What follows are some excerpts from that, which I found still managed to make sense, and hopefully have some use.

Young and naive Adam (Alex Pettyfer) sits on a couch, pumped up from adrenaline from the experience he just had. On a complete whim, he has does stripped down to almost his bare ass for a loud of screaming young women. He was awkward and a bit silly, unsure of what to do, which made his so-called “performance” all the more exciting for the crowd. He sits on a couch while the rest of his now-colleagues celebrate and joke around for another successful night. Still dressed in only underwear, dollars are flowing out of his pants, as if his cock was spewing it. His body has a value, and we can see it right there.

How does one make a film about a digital economy, about a series of abstract relations that do not exist? Soderbergh’s Body Capital trilogy does not even try and make a film about how we can see and experience digital abstraction, but instead turns toward the physical—the body. His three films—The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, and Magic Mike—speak directly a series of characters who use and exploit their own physical attributes for capital gain, and the toil it takes on their bodies and psychology.
Chris cannot actually change the physical bodies of his clients; his job is only to give the confidence of doing so—they must change their bodies themselves. Soderbergh juxtaposes Chris’s sessions with Chelsea’s dates, as his supposed “friendships” are just as artificial as Chelsea’s dates.

The film’s narration is one of its crucial links—we see the appointments and feel the emotions that might be present, but then Chelsea reduces these interactions down to essential data points (“I wore a black cashmere sweater…he talked the entire time. We didn’t have sex.”).

Everything is a business transaction—the film both opens and ends with clients telling Chelsea to invest in gold, a tangible reality that gives clients something to hold onto, which is the film’s final image—two bodies embracing something physical, not actual reality, but the tangible qualities of being alive.
The world seems to be a daze of beach parties, amusement parks, jumping off bridges, and the daily rituals of audience titillation, but Soderbergh’s frames have a disinterested look to them, viewing it all as “passing time.” When Mike is asked about his furniture business, he claims, “The market hasn’t really hit the sweet spot yet” biding his time (one of the film’s many wonderful details—a logo for Mike’s Mobile Detailing lines his truck, another dream deferred).

The film’s plot is at one point repeated as a series of data points of names and locations by Mallory’s one-man audience whom she takes hostage to start the film: “Jamie, Victor, Rodrigo…Barcelona…” “Hostage name” “Jang.” At one point, Haywire is the kind of stripped down action film uninterested in particulars and their connections to each other, but at another, it almost sees this all as “just business.”

When Fassbender's Paul claims he’s never had to kill a woman, Kenneth retorts, “Oh, you shouldn't think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a mistake.” The tactile qualities of gender only matter in certain parts of Haywire, only as a valuable asset. Mallory protests to the Dublin mission of simply being “eye candy,” which is the only reason to even cast her in that role. While The Girlfriend Experience emphasizes gender, Magic Mike and Haywire subvert their naturally singularized professions to other genders, once again exposing this relationship between the performative nature of the body and the monetary value that can be derived from those physical actions.

His films view the image as a static realm—a pure moment. Just look at his colors: the blue hues the hollow the spaceship in Solaris, the heated, saturated yellows that define Tampa in Magic Mike. The bodies of his characters seems to exist somewhere between space and not space—foregrounds and backgrounds are flattened, so characters move through less of a reality than an environment.

The whole scandal and the character seems so silly and minor you begin to wonder why the hell is Soderbergh making this movie?, as funny as some of his misadventures are. But then you begin to notice details in the voiceover. Why is Whitacare going on about the secret trade skills of polar bears or the number of syllables for words in the German language? There’s so much information—a deluge of data—that we aren’t able to process what it all really means.

Like his other two films with Burns, the windows in The Informant! are almost blindingly white, as if nothing exists beyond the space the image has framed.

Soderbergh has been unfairly described as unemotional director, but that description fits Contagion’s clinical edge: the film is always teetering between its own obsessed paranoia and the rationality needed to combat it. When Kate Winslet realizes she herself has the virus and is going to die, she doesn’t panic. She calls the hotel staff and tells them all they need to do to prepare the rest of the soon-to-be dead. Soderbergh shoots the entire sequence in long shots with an intensely blue palette and rough hard edges. We finally get a close-up as Winslet’s dead body is taken in, the flakes of her skin falling off her body. There’s nothing pretty or sympathetic about it.

For 45 minutes, Soderbergh and Burns put us in the predicament of Emily—a girl who just wants to be normal, but is assaulted throughout by the language and rhetoric of the businesses of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals. Her hair slowly loses its color, and more than any other film, Soderbergh completely isolates the visual space of her character into a flat reality of which she can’t escape. References to Polanski, Hitchcock, and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom make us deeply sympathetic to the plight of a girl in a system that constantly tries to fix her—Banks’s motto is that Americans go to psychiatrists “to get better.”

Side Effects exists in a 21st century landscape where it’s not about the mystery, but putting the elements in the right order. Burns’s plots are almost reflective of Wikipedia articles—there’s too much information, too many details, and it’s all unstructured till its too late. We never realize that we’re just buying into the narratives we’re being told to buy into.

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