Steven Soderbergh, American Auteur

What makes a film Soderberghian? It’s fun

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 17: Steven Soderbergh attends the "Mr. Kneff" Secret Screening during t...
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Rafaela Bassili
What A Picture

Steven Soderbergh puts out so many movies, so breathlessly, that it can be hard to keep up with his pace. Last year, there was the star-studded No Sudden Move, which he shot and directed; the year before, there was Let Them All Talk, starring Meryl Streep on a cruise ship; this year, so far, there is Kimi, a tight pandemic-era thriller starring Zoë Kravitz, which came out on HBO Max early last month.

I've had a nearly unshakeable resistance to onscreen representations of the pandemic — people wearing face masks, trite jokes about Zoom — maybe because it's too soon; most likely because it's so corny. But if Soderbergh is making it, I'm watching it, and Kimi is good. Rather than fall into the trap of making the story about the pandemic, life with COVID becomes part of a set of circumstances for Kravitz's Angela, an agoraphobic data analyst. Her job is to listen to and correct the responses of Kimi — a voice-activated device competing with Alexa and Siri — to problematic commands. It's hard for Angela to leave her industrial Seattle loft, and for the most part she doesn't really have to, until she hears something concerning on one of Kimi's streams: a woman in trouble. The film unravels on a steady course, with a murder plot, an evil CEO, and a heroine overcoming her fears to do right by the world.

Kimi thrives because Soderbergh is so unselfconsciously confident making genre films. The story's own limitations and obstacles — the idea of Angela's physical and mental confinement, and of a world hostile to movement — are the fuel for his imaginative ingenuity. Though there is no shortage of resources for Soderbergh, who has made many studio hits, he has something other commercially-minded directors don't: a spirit of imagination that is like an amusement park for us and for him. Like the studio auteurs before him, the concept of genre itself gives him an opportunity to exercise that spirit: the set contours and tropes of, say, a crime thriller present him with the challenge to make them his. This doesn't mean he wants to reinvent the wheel — or the crime-thriller — but the opposite: by leaning into the genre, he is able to make a movie that basks in the concept of being a movie, a thriller; of being playful. Kimi is funny and weird, concise, a one-and-a-half hour picture ideal to watch on a Saturday afternoon, when you want to root for the good guys in a way that doesn't make you feel like your brain is rotting, but being electrified, boosted with movie magic.

In the mid-fifties, when auteur theory first appeared in the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, the idea was that auteurism could legitimize cinema as art: it provided a framework with which to analyze a director's body of work, how it evolved and how it stayed consistent, in the same way you would a painter or composer. This quickly evolved into what some viewed as a reverie of style over content, as well as what anti-auteurist Pauline Kael called an easy reliance on "cults of personality." Back then, critics who championed auteur theory loved a good genre film, because it exemplified the auteur's ability to transcend the constraints of the story: Hitchcock could make a thousand thrillers and they would always be Hitchcockian. These days, most contemporary American auteurs are writer-directors: Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson all write their own material. They're also famous for their recurring themes, their visual signatures, and cultivated personalities. In the current popular imagination, this is what an auteur is: a director whose work is immediately recognizable.

Soderbergh isn’t often recognized in the company of American auteurs, partially because his signature is a sort of fluidity — a focus on story and unpredictability. Like the old-school auteurists, he loves a good genre film, though he is seemingly unwilling to make a common thematic thread too easily detectable in his work: a Soderbergh film might be a horror movie shot on an iPhone, a two-part project on Che Guevara, or a documentary about Spalding Gray. He rarely writes his movies, but he often shoots and edits them, sometimes under pseudonyms. The idea of a Wes Anderson movie conjures up a very particular, pastel-colored image; but no single image can define a Soderbergh film.

If Soderbergh's oeuvre is unpredictable, it's his interest in heist films and crime-thrillers that creates the most obvious thread. Genre films are not usually my thing — I have to be seduced, like I was by the way Terrence Stamp holds a cigarette while looking out at the valley in The Limey (1999); or by George Clooney's smooth-talking bank-robber in Out of Sight (1998), which is the kind of movie that makes you feel happy there are movie stars. There is a commitment to precision that defines Soderbergh's relationship to the heist film: he seems to be intensely aware that we come to them not for the predictability of the tropes — we know Jack Foley (Clooney) is going to at least get close to getting away with the scheme, and if he's caught he'll meet his demise with wit — but for the film's ability to pull them off with the kind of perfection we expect of Foley in the job. In a way, the best genre films are metonymic: they stand out as representatives of their kind. Out of Sight is as good a heist film as I've seen, packed with charm, twists and turns, and an unbelievable chemistry between Clooney and J-Lo at their best.

The idea of a Wes Anderson movie conjures up a very particular, pastel-colored image; but no single image can define a Soderbergh film.

Still, Out of Sight feels like a warm-up to Soderbergh's heist tour de force. It's hard to talk about Ocean's Eleven without getting too descriptive: every scene warrants indulgence. While Soderbergh's commitment to the job — both the heist itself and the very idea of making a heist film — is what makes the Ocean's trilogy so effective, his imaginative ingenuity is what makes it Soderberghian. At the beginning of Ocean's Eleven, Reuben (Elliot Gould) delivers a line that becomes a motif through the films, establishing his relationship to Danny (Clooney) and Rusty (a dreamy Brad Pitt) and by extension his place in the scheme. He says, "I owe you from that thing with the guy in the place, and I'll never forget it." It perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the trilogy: the details that matter are the logistics of the con. Everything else is the thing with the guy in the place, a hint to the general irrelevance of anything that is not the immediate world of the con, its players and its activity. As the films go on, we become more immersed, like a safecracker tuning out everything around them to focus on the task at hand — another thrill. Watching Ocean's feels like being part of a crew: dangerous, sexy, exhilarating; the world outside a blur.

It speaks to Soderbergh's singularity of vision that his output is consistently good. His first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which premiered to critical acclaim, is such a weird film. The pacing drags along, the dialogue is alternately hilarious and shocking; the characters are so interesting, so creepy. Here, Soderbergh's imaginative sensibility takes hold of its characters (this one he wrote the screenplay for), and with a non-judgmental hand, he guides them into taking the general contours of people you might know while at the same time being unlike anyone and acting unlike anything you've seen before. Without the constraints of genre and the pressures of a big studio, Soderbergh's imagination indulged in the story's sense of uncanniness, the strangeness that made it unique. He never lost track of this sensibility: the thing Erin Brockovich (2000) has in common with The Informant! (2009), both films based on real people and events, is that the stories themselves are extraordinary. It's a different kind of singularity from Sex, Lies, whose distinction is quiet, inconspicuous; but you can stand out for being too loud or too quiet. You're standing out just the same.

Soderbergh's thirst is for stories, in the simplest sense: stories that are fun to watch, fun to make, fun to act. The kind of stuff that reminds us that storytelling has been around forever partly because it can give us a sense of the extraordinary, a way to imagine beyond what is possible. Kael wrote that "without [...intelligence and discrimination and taste], a theory becomes a rigid formula." She also didn't like Andrew Sarris's idea that one of the requirements of being an auteur was to have a certain élan; but isn't it true that Soderbergh has it? If she asked me to define it, I might say that what is Soderberghian is often intelligent, discriminate and tasteful.

Rafaela Bassili is a critic living in New York.