Over the last few weeks, I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if Steven Soderbergh is really retiring, and the short answer I generally give them is, “Of course not.” Not that I’m questioning Soderbergh’s sincerity. He has said for several years that he plans to stop making feature films once he turns 50, and now that the big birthday has arrived (it was Jan. 14), he has clung, quite directly, to that public plan, discussing his new psycho-pharmacological Hitchcockian thriller, Side Effects, as if it’s the last movie of his that you’ll see in theaters. (Behind the Candelabra, his juicy-sounding late-career Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, was turned down by all the major studios, who were scared of the subject matter — are they nuts? — which is why it will be seen this spring on HBO.) I believe Soderbergh when, in his recent wide-ranging interview with New York magazine, he talks about what he plans to do now: continue to “direct,” but in more offbeat mediums (and maybe on television), and to pursue his love of painting. One of the painters he idolizes is Lucien Freud — in the same way, perhaps, that he reveres and even deifies Richard Lester as a movie director. Soderbergh has always been a creature of role models, a guy who emulates from the outside more than he obsesses from the inside, and that may be one of the reasons that he’s such a chameleon as a filmmaker. He has many subjects that stoke his momentary passion (corporate chicanery, Che Guevara, male strippers, antidepressants), but none, perhaps, that rouse him to the point of consuming him. He dives in, then moves on. I like that about him, but a part of me hopes that it’s one of the things his retirement changes.
Soderbergh obviously craves more than a “break.” He wants a major sabbatical, a way to journey through the next chapter (or three) of his life now that he’s officially severed his connection to the art form that’s defined him as much as he’s defined it. And that, to be honest, sounds healthy as hell. I’m sure, too, that he wants to go down that road without having to look over his shoulder at everyone who’s thinking: “What happened to Soderbergh? Did he drop out, crack up, lose his voice? When is he going to make another movie?” This way, he doesn’t have to worry about all that. He has already explained himself, and in a modest, classy, quit-while-you’re-ahead fashion. Besides, he will still be active. He is just done — in his word — with “cinema.” But is he?
Look, what my gut tells me about Steven Soderbergh is that he’s “retiring” the way that David Bowie did for the first time somewhere in the late ’70s. Soderbergh may be ready for other things besides movies, but movies, I believe, will always be ready for him, and they will call him back. They flow through his bloodstream. In the New York interview, he confesses as much when he speaks of “feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through.” That sounds a lot like the wall he hit in the mid-’90s, when his post-sex, lies studio career was starting to depress him, so he shook himself loose of the whole process, making the gonzo experimental psychodrama Schizopolis (1996) to clean out his pipes, which allowed him to direct the blithely sexy and exciting Out of Sight (1998) as if he was a born-again filmmaker. (He was.) In a sense, he discovered not so much a new style as a new filmmaking mood: breezy, playful, crystalline, tossed off (in the best possible way).
He was off and running, and he hasn’t stopped running since. For the last decade and a half, ever since Out of Sight, one has always felt the joy of cinema in Soderbergh’s films, even when they’re not great. And a couple of times, he has been outright amazing. Traffic, in 2000, was a landmark, one of those rare, exhilarating multi-character movies in which every character would have deserved his or her own movie. It was also way ahead of its time in tackling the hopeless folly of the “drug war” and what it’s doing to us. A year after that, Soderbergh made Ocean’s Eleven, which I still believe to be one of the most underrated smash-hit movies of its time. To me, it was a new classic, with a luminous spontaneity and trickiness worthy of Howard Hawks.
But that brings me to the one pesky qualification that intrudes upon my enthusiasm for Soderbergh’s films. The man is such a talent, such a productive and ambitious and thematically promiscuous artist-craftsman, that I don’t simply want him to make a fun, interesting, provocative movie once or twice a year. I want him to be major. As much as I’ve responded to some of his super-sly, pinpoint work over the last few years (I had The Girlfriend Experience on my 10 Best list in 2009, and nearly squeezed Magic Mike onto my list last year), I feel as if Soderbergh has gotten himself to such a sane, centered place about not taking himself too seriously as an artist that I would now like to see him take himself a little more seriously. To see him let in a little more big-picture, swing-for-the-fences insanity.
A case in point: Side Effects, a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed (at least, until the giggle-inducing twists in the final act). It’s clever and engrossing, it’s a good night out, and it’s a thriller that’s even kind of about something: the addictive — and, the film teasingly suggests, possibly dangerous — hold that antidepressant drugs have gotten on our culture. Without trying too hard, Soderbergh folds in more pointed observations about antidepressants than Hollywood has done in 25 years: the prestige psychiatrists on pharmaceutical payrolls, the power of suggestion created by drug advertising — and, of course, the “side effects” that aren’t side effects at all but real effects that we relegate, in our thinking, to the side. But where I took that theme, in my review, at least halfway seriously, a lot of critics treated it as a red herring, and in a way they were right: By the end, all the “ideas” in Side Effects don’t come to very much. Soderbergh would probably be the first to say as much, and that makes him look smartly unpretentious, but I also think that it’s a form of shortchanging his instincts, and maybe his impact, too: Does it bother him that the movie will make little more than one-quarter as much money this weekend than Identity Thief? As resonant as some of Side Effects seems, it ends up being just another of the director’s hiply polished genre baubles. I guess what I’m really asking is: Instead of Side Effects, why isn’t Steven Soderbergh trying to make the Traffic of antidepressants?
That’s the kind of movie that I hope he comes back and makes when he gets through with his retirement. (True, he did make the hugely ambitious Che, but it was a monumentally perverse movie; it turned Marxist passion into a combat-film abstraction.) In the New York interview, Soderbergh admiringly references the quote “I’d rather be No. 2 forever than No. 1 for a while,” and adds: “Just make stuff and don’t agonize over it. Stop worrying about being No. 1.” It seems to me that Steven Soderbergh, following that advice, stopped agonizing about being No. 1 a long time ago, and that it opened up his filmmaking and let it flow. There’s no disputing that he’s been one of the most dynamic directors we’ve got going. He’s his own category — an indie/studio wizard-of-all-trades. But is he one of the great ones? Striving for greatness is sometimes a burden, or even a cop-out, but in Soderbergh’s case it may be that he strived too far away from greatness, and that he has done so for long enough. Somewhere down the line, I hope not just that he retires from retirement, but that he returns to everything in the world that movies can be.
So what’s your feeling about Steven Soderbergh’s retirement? Will you miss him as a filmmaker? What are your favorite movies of his? Do you think he’ll come back? And do you agree with me that, as good as he often is, he could be even greater?
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