When a filmmaker with the artistic and commercial pedigree of Steven Soderbergh questions whether movies still matter, you have to ask, “What's he on about?”
After all, this is the guy who changed the face of independent movies 20 years ago with sex, lies and videotape, and since then has had the luxury of alternating between glossy popcorn fare like the Ocean's movies and more personal, passion projects such as Che, The Good German and The Girlfriend Experience.
Yet Soderbergh was so shaken by the failure of audiences to embrace Che, the two-part biopic starring Benicio Del Toro as guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara, that he laments in a commentary on the film's DVD, “It.. made me consider the issue of whether or not movies matter anymore… at all. I think there was a period where they did matter, culturally, but I don't think they do anymore. So that added to the sense of what was the point of eight years of work when movies, I think, have become so disposable… There aren't many opportunities for them to be taken seriously, the way they were in the late '60s and '70s here in the United States.”
I guess his sense of rejection is understandable, given the film has earned just $US1.5 million in the US and less than $300,000 in the rest of the world, according to Box Office Mojo.
But it's a long bow to draw to suggest that the failure of one movie has wider implications for filmmakers who, like Soderbergh, are striving for originality and are willing to take risks.
Soderbergh argues, “We now are in a time period where if a film doesn't receive unified acclaim then it's viewed as damaged, or a failure, or something worse and that's unfortunate. I don't feel like there's a sense anymore that a movie can be polarizing and that can be a good thing. It's literally, what is the number you got on Rotten Tomatoes and if it's below a certain number then your movie's not any good.”
Maybe so, but that argument is undermined by the critical acclaim for Che Part One, which scored a 72% approval rating among critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes (28 fresh reviews, 11 rotten), and similar enthusiasm for part two.
And I doubt the 'movies don't matter' line will fly with the directors of this year's contenders for the best picture Oscar, most notably James Cameron's Avatar, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
Soberbergh's comments prompted a lively debate on the Rope of Silicon website, with most bloggers taking the opposite view. “Movies still have the ability to matter, culturally speaking. Just not a four-hour long movie about Che Guevara,” said one. “How much more egotistic and self-centred can Soderbergh get, to say 'movies don't matter anymore' just because no one was interested in his Guevara biopic?”
One Soderbergh supporter declared, “He's right. They don't seem to have the same gravitas as they did in the 60's and 70's. They are popcorn now. Technology is partly to blame. Attention spans are down, worldwide. Robot Chicken is the preferable length, and even that is pushing it.”