Steven Soderbergh has been lambasted for pondering the fate of cinema, but maybe, just maybe, his critics protest too much.
24 Jan 2010 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 3:30 PM

So, Steven Soderbergh wonders, out loud, and in public, whether movies matter, in the way they once did? He has been gently chided for thinking twice about film as an Art – where it's been and where it might be going – as if he were contemplating a kind of career hara-kiri. This sort of heresy has earned him scorn on this site and elsewhere. His critics, if they are to be understood correctly, have scolded him for being egocentric and out of touch with his audience…the box office, as if he were in some way letting the side down.

His critics have looked at Steven Soderbergh and heard his remarks (uttered on the commentary of the DVD for his excellent two-part Che) and asked themselves, “what's he got to be complaining about?” Approaching 50, Soderbergh is a successful filmmaker with a diverse and rich catalogue of work behind him as writer, director, and producer. He doesn't hide his politics, or his doubts about his himself or his abilities. He comes off as decent, committed to the art of motion pictures and whenever he gets the chance he'll take a gamble – hence Che and The Informant, a film shot on digital in 30 days with a major star. In the ridiculous and over-heated parlance of Hollywood scribes, Soderbergh has “clout”. Translated this means: power. But power in a self-conscious filmmaker, one as serious as Soderbergh, invites trouble.

From the beginning he's been a filmmaker interested in process. He wrote a diary about the making of sex, lies and videotape (a movie he thinks is terribly overrated) and had it published. It revealed a filmmaker who comes to the work with a sense of exploration. With all due respect this is it not necessarily typical.

Still, I am not at all certain whether Soderbergh was thinking entirely of the fate of Che at the box office or his own career, which gave him pause to ponder the future of movies.

I don't know what he was really thinking, but let's imagine that Soderbergh was asking himself, not “what am I going to do for the rest of my life”, but rather, “what does this Art form mean, where is it going, what's it for?”

The “industry” has an answer to that last query, money. But movies have always been more than box office and more than entertainment.

As filmmaker Paul Schrader wrote in Film Comment (Sept) in 2006: “Motion pictures were the dominant art form for the 20th century. Movies were the centre of social mores, fashion and design, politics – in short, at the centre of the culture – and, in so being, dictated the terms of their dominance to the other art forms…[which were re-defined]…Movies owned the 20th century.” Movies are only a little over one hundred years old. How far have they come? Schrader concluded that by last century's end the movies had owned the 20th century.
A decade into the 21st century is this still true?

This isn't the time or place to really argue out this question. But in this context it's hard to dismiss Soderbergh's remarks as careerist psycho-babble.

There is another, less abstract context for Soderbergh's comments, I think.
Like quite a lot of cineastes, fans and filmmakers born in the early 60s Soderbergh has made no secret of his passion, perhaps love, of the cinema of the 60s and 70s, especially American cinema. Too young to actually absorb them as a peer, Soderbergh came to those “classics” as an adult – and absorbed them as movie history as well as aesthetic bar-setters and later used them as inspiration – The French Connection for Traffic and Point Blank for The Limey, are just two examples.

Finally, is Soderbergh not only thinking about the movies, but the culture around the movies?

Taking a random selection of any anthology of mainstream movie criticism by the so-called major US critics of the 70s era: Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann to name only a couple and you'll come away believing that film and film criticism was a blood sport. I wonder what a twenty-something of the blogger age would make of the arguments that rage across these volumes (and the terrible wounding feuds waged between these critics who were published in so called respectable journals like The New Yorker, The Nation, and the New Republic?) There is a lot of discussion about sex, violence, censorship, race, form, gender, new story-telling practices and a lot of talk about movies as Art – as in is it is Art form, and if its an Art how do you explain Love Story? There's hardly a word in any of them about what movies work at the box office and why. Movies mattered, because they had something to say in a form that still felt new and 'dangerous'.

Still, when I read Soderbergh's remarks and the blogger reaction to them I instantly thought of something critic Robert Phillip Kolker once wrote of American cinema - that it “begs to be left alone.” The escapist impulse rules and for so many, it seems, matters of style, content and ideology are somehow beside the point.