Where to begin with Steven Soderbergh

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the genre-hopping cinema of indie trailblazer Steven Soderbergh

Alex Barrett

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Why this might not seem so easy

Suitably enough for a filmmaker whose work often plays a sleight of hand with its audience, American director Steven Soderbergh is a tricky man to pin down. An extremely prolific polymath who often shoots and edits his own work, Soderbergh alters his approach from project to project, seeking to find a style from the material, rather than imposing a fixed vision upon it.

Steven Soderbergh filming Che (2008)

Steven Soderbergh filming Che (2008)

His work has encompassed both big budget blockbusters and smaller experimental pieces, but the stylistic quirks of the former, and the frequent A-list casts of the latter, often blur the distinction. Indeed, regardless of the ‘size’ of the picture, Soderbergh’s work is characterised by a continued exploration of the possibilities of film style.

As interested in craft as he is in narrative and character, his experimental (and often self-reflexive) approach has become a defining trait of his work: with Soderbergh, one must expect the unexpected.

But his preoccupation with language is not only visual, and many of his films also play with verbal expression. Add to this the fact that his work often features deceit and betrayal alongside monetary and sexual transactions, and it becomes possible to speak of Soderbergh’s work as one concerned with communication and human interaction. Indeed, the title of his Palme d’Or-winning breakthrough film, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), seems like a fitting summation, even if conventional auteurist readings are problematic, perhaps even pointless, with artists like Soderbergh.

The best place to start – Out of Sight

Out of Sight (1998)

Out of Sight (1998)

Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Out of Sight (1998) offers a perfect example of the way Soderbergh moulds his material. Although he was a hired hand, the film contains many of the stylistic ticks and motifs that have become recognisable traits of his work.

The film centres on career criminal Jack Foley (George Clooney) and the relationship he develops with US Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) after he kidnaps her during a prison break. Caught on either side of the law, the pair manoeuvre around each other as Karen tracks Jack’s movements while he prepares for another robbery.

In telling the story, Soderbergh switches effortlessly between multiple time periods and locales, often using colour to help orientate the viewer. The film’s centrepiece scene – in which Jack and Karen take time out to share a moment together – perfectly exemplifies Soderbergh’s knack for fluidly intercutting multiple scenes, with dialogue and music continuing unbroken as the images chop and change.

In this scene, and throughout, the chemistry between the leads sizzles, and the smart, snappy dialogue is laced with precisely the kind of droll humour that underlies so much of Soderbergh’s work.

What to watch next

The Limey (1999)

The Limey (1999)

With his follow up to Out of Sight, 1999’s The Limey, Soderbergh took his formal experimentation a step further, abandoning chronology and utilising a disjunction between sound and image to create an impressionistic reproduction of human memory – the whole film can be read as the reminiscence of its lead character, Wilson (Terence Stamp). In one of the many knowing nods to cinema history, star personae and 60s nostalgia that pepper Soderbergh’s filmography, The Limey uses clips of Stamp’s 1967 performance in Ken Loach’s debut feature, Poor Cow, for its flashbacks.

The story of a British ex-con who travels to America to investigate the death of his daughter, The Limey also continues Out of Sight’s play with genre tropes, though it was Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that would prove the most commercially successful of Soderbergh’s genre-based experiments. A remake of a 1960 Rat Pack vehicle, Ocean’s Eleven follows a crew of criminals led by George Clooney’s con-man Danny Ocean as they attempt to rob three casinos. Cool, calm, collected and funky, the film would go on to spawn two sequels, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007).

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Smart and swish though Eleven and Thirteen are, Twelve is the most interesting: a sequel to an elaborate heist film that satirises the very notion of the elaborate heist film, playfully subverting the system from within. For those not in on the joke, the film may seem smug and ridiculous – but for those willing to go with it, it’s the height of postmodern fun.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

This same sense of fun can also be found in Soderbergh’s excellent low-budget comedies, Schizopolis (1996) and Full Frontal (2002), while the success of the Ocean’s trilogy also helped him fund three of his most interesting experiments: thoughtful sci-fi drama Solaris (2002), Second World War mystery thriller The Good German (2006) and the two-part Spanish-language biopic Che (2008).

Such freedom to experiment was, in part, also brought about by the double-whammy of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000, both of which were nominated for best director by the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America (he won the Oscar for Traffic). With the former, a drug trade drama, Soderbergh reached the apotheosis of his colour-coded multi-stranded style, while the latter presented a quiet piece based upon the real-life story of a single mother exposing the illegal activity of energy giant PG&E (an anti-corporate stance is another recurring Soderbergh motif). 

Soderbergh had previously explored quiet drama with his earlier sex, lies and videotape and the depression-era King of the Hill (1993), and would later subdue his style to the point of austerity with Bubble (2005) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).

The Knick (2014)

The Knick (2014)

Popular male stripper comedy-drama-come-dance-film Magic Mike (2012) offers lighter amusement, though the best of Soderbergh’s recent work has been made for television: the superb Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra (2013), and the first two seasons of The Knick (2014-15), a period hospital drama that explores the birth of modern medicine and the social mores of the early 20th century. 

Where not to start

Given the variety of Soderbergh’s work, it’s only natural that not all of his films will appeal to everyone, even those who consider themselves fans of his work. From today’s standpoint, it’s perhaps hard to appreciate just how important sex, lies and videotape was to the development of the American independent cinema of the early 1990s, or the extent to which it thrust Soderbergh into the limelight. It’s perhaps also, therefore, hard to appreciate just how baffled and disappointed many were by his follow-up: the (mostly) black-and-white, not-quite biopic Kafka (1991). Mixing elements of Kafka’s life with elements of his fiction, it’s far from a failure, but it’s undoubtedly a strange brew of a film. In 2013 Soderbergh claimed to be working on a new version, but this is yet to materialise.

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

Two other films that don’t quite hit home are the crime comedy biopic The Informant! (2009) and mixed martial arts action thriller Haywire (2011). While the former lacks the spark and snap of Soderbergh’s best work, the latter – which marks Soderbergh’s third collaboration with writer Lem Dobbs, after The Limey and Kafka – replays the structure of The Limey a little too closely to feel fresh, and does so with far less impact.

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