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Steven Soderbergh: He keeps working, and changing, to stay fresh

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steven-soderbergh_lI have yet to see Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, The Informant! (it opens next week), but I can hardly wait to see it — and that’s how I feel, more or less, every time his name is on the credits. Whatever you end up thinking of a Soderbergh film, you can always bet that he’s bending himself in a new direction, trying for something fresh and bold and zingy and different. Okay, okay: He did make three Ocean’s films in seven years. But the first of them, Ocean’s Eleven, is one of his most nimble, lit-from-within creations — a perfect toy of a movie, a vision of men-at-work-as-devious-high-play that rivaled, in the cool casualness of its bonding, the films of Howard Hawks. Soderbergh himself would admit that the Ocean’s franchise is something he bought into, in part, to cement his power, to win himself the right to do what he likes to do in between. And part of what sets him apart is how much he does.

It’s not Soderbergh’s way to rest on his laurels, to sit back and take epic pauses between projects. (Hello, James Cameron!) He doesn’t spend two years taking a break to set up a deal. He doesn’t go slack or waste time. He makes movies, tossing them off like a one-man studio-system factory. Even when he fails, he does so in a way that keeps the process alive.

It was back in 1996, with the loony-tunes experimental bauble Schizopolis, that Soderbergh first started to make defiantly uncommercial, lo-fi, shoestring-budget “palette cleansers” in between his larger projects, and by now he has made enough of them that they no longer seem exotic; they’ve become part of the Soderbergh rhythm. That’s because some of them are incredibly good — like Bubble (2006), a working-class murder mystery that had oodles to say about the secret resentments of dead-end lives (it was like The Executioner’s Song set at a doll factory), or this year’s The Girlfriend Experience, a shot-on-the-fly portrait of love in the age of commodities, a kind of dispassion play that dipped into the intersection of romance and money, refracting the early days of the economic crisis through a call girl’s hall of mirrors. It was an inspired, fascinating, and resonant film, a guerrilla essay in the spirit of Godard. Though largely unseen, it was his best movie in years.

But what I really want to say about Soderbergh is that even when I don’t care for his films (like, say, the second half of Che — the first half was a gripping diagram of how a revolution actually occurs), I’m drawn to the no-muss-no-fuss directness with which he works: the speed, the variety, the insatiable output, the fact that he serves as his own cinematographer (as if he literally couldn’t stand to have another set of eyes between him and his actors), the way that he treats even his big heist-caper franchise as a series of larks, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and the rest bringing a spirit of off-camera high jinks on screen. Indulgent celebrity narcissism? Or the closest that popcorn movies are likely to come these days to honest irreverence? (I loved the last Ocean’s movie, so to me Soderbergh, even at his most compulsively crowd-pleasing, is still two for three.)

The news that Soderbergh, at the last minute, had the plug pulled on his big, ambitious, backstage baseball drama, Moneyball, which he was supposed to make with Brad Pitt, and in which he wanted to incorporate semi-documentary sequences (reportedly a major reason for why the project got KO’d), was dismaying, to say the least. A director of his stature, backed by a star like Pitt, should be an automatic “go,” and in the Hollywood of not so long ago it would have been. But today, anything that isn’t a popcorn movie is an art film; even Steven Soderbergh has to keep fighting to do what he does. You wonder what hoops he’d have to jump through now to make a movie like Traffic, arguably his richest work of the past decade. Still, the fight looks good on Soderbergh: It keeps him working, experimenting, improvising, which is what filmmakers should be doing..even though too many of them aren’t.

So do you prefer Soderbergh’s “big” movies or his “small” ones? And what’s your all-time favorite Soderbergh film?