Steven Soderbergh spent his 23-year film career building a reputation as a sort of anti-auteur, known for his willingness to jump between star-powered major studio fare and eccentric, cerebral experimentation with ease and eagerness. The words “directed by Steven Soderbergh” at the beginning of a film put the viewer in store for just about anything — a meta-cinematic experiment like The Good German, a middlebrow feelgood star vehicle like Erin Brockovich, or maybe a 4.5-hour Spanish-language historical epic like Che.
Indeed, his approach to his career and choice of material always made him something of a throwback. He often remarked that he never saw himself as an auteur with a personal vision like Terrence Malick or Robert Altman, but always aspired to a career more like the journeyman directors of classic Hollywood like William Wyler or Howard Hawks.
Although this versatility eventually became his directorial calling card, earlier in his career it was seen in a much a different and less sympathetic light. After changing the landscape of independent cinema with his debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape and being crowned “the future of cinema” at Cannes, Soderbergh’s subsequent run of quirky and divergent features failed to recapture that initial success. Rather than the sign of a creative mind eager to explore unfamiliar terrain, his stylistic restlessness was seen as the aimless foundering of a burned out has-been. Ironically, his biggest strength as a filmmaker was initially seen as a liability that almost sank his career.
While every other director who emerged in the independent film boom of the early ’90s was working to stake out their own unique auteurist voice, Soderbergh’s first four films were so wildly divergent in style and tone that they were difficult to get a handle on as the work of the same director. After Sex, Lies, and Videotape and his dark, expressionistic sophomore film Kafka, Soderbergh’s next effort, King of the Hill, could not have seemed like a more unlikely follow-up. Where Kafka was a dark and paranoid European nightmare in the vein of Brazil or Naked Lunch, King of the Hill was the touching, sweetly-observed story of a young boy’s coming of age in Depression-era St. Louis, suffused with golden sunlight and the warm hues of nostalgia. With such a wildly different trio of films to his name, critics could not have been more confused about what kind of a director Soderbergh wanted to be or what he was up to.
Soderbergh’s recent retirement from filmmaking seems to have sparked something of a critical re-evaluation of his career, as if the film world is working to take the measure of what it’s losing. Criterion’s release of King of the Hill, with its little-seen follow-up The Underneath packaged as an extra, is a welcome addition to that discussion, providing a fascinating glimpse into this exploratory, identity-forming early period before critics, audiences, or even Soderbergh himself seemed to have a handle on his erratic muse. While critics and fans may not have previously considered it “essential Soderbergh”, King of the Hill is ripe for reexamination and reevaluation, and reveals the seeds of many of the ideas and obsessions that would later become Soderbergh’s hallmarks.
King of the Hill is perhaps the perfect film to counter those who argue that Soderbergh’s work is too antiseptic, cerebral, and unemotional. The warmth and humanity on display make it possibly his warmest and most tender work. A touching and involving period piece set in the dusty streets and hallways of ’30s-era St. Louis, it’s an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner nostalgic bildungsroman memoir. Shot in a gorgeous Edward Hopper-inspired color palette of mustard yellows, olive greens, and warm burgundies, it presents the slow disintegration of a struggling family through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, played by Jesse Bradford. With his consumption-afflicted mother constantly going in and out of sanitariums and his father scrounging up work as a travelling salesman, Aaron finds himself alone in a world of adults, forced to fend for himself and make it through each day by relying on his own stubborn resourcefulness and a talent for dissembling and spinning tall tales.
The film largely takes place in two central locations. At school, Aaron finds himself navigating a daily minefield of class-conscious economic anxieties, and he copes by hiding his hardscrabble existence by inventing stories about a friendship with Charles Lindbergh, imaginary summer homes, and his father’s top secret job in the highest levels of government. Aside from school, Aaron’s world consists mainly of the crumbling hotel the family resides in, which is populated by a vivid array of drained, and desperate economic casualties. Every resident seems to be in the same dire economic straits, and all are constantly on the lookout for the sinister bellboy whose duty it is to padlock financially delinquent residents out of their rooms and turn them out on the street.
The hotel is a character in itself, and could be a cousin of Barton Fink‘s Hotel Earle with its sweating wallpaper and stagnant, musty air. Like its residents, it was clearly once great but has now fallen on hard times. With its rich woodwork and elegant fixtures growing dull and collecting dust, it seems to be fading away onscreen right before our eyes, right along with its tenants.
As the story progresses, the adults who make up Aaron’s support system disappear one by one, until he finds himself harrowingly alone. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a starving Aaron sets the table and lays out a “dinner” consisting of pictures of food cut out from magazines, which he proceeds to eat with a knife and fork while remarking on their deliciousness to invisible dinner companions.
Essentially required to carry the whole film, young Jesse Bradford manages a wonderfully sympathetic and mature performance, and is ably assisted by a colorful cast of character actors that includes Karen Black, Adrien Brody, a young Lauryn Hill, as well as a clever and memorable turn from Spalding Gray, who would go on to collaborate with Soderbergh on a film version of his monologue Gray’s Anatomy.
Although in an interview included in the special features Soderbergh complains of the film looking too slick and wishes that he had decided to make it grittier, Elliott Davis’ beautiful cinematography perfectly captures the wistful sensibility needed to keep the story from appearing too bleak and brutal. Every frame is awash in golden hues and rich tones, and Soderbergh and Davis perfectly convey the crisp, hyper-vivid imagery of the world as seen through the eyes of an adolescent gradually becoming aware of its tragedies and wonders for the first time.
Packaged with the usual Criterion bounty of illuminating special features that include deleted scenes and an excerpt from Hotchner’s memoir, King of the Hill stands out as one of Soderbergh’s most mature and poignant works, and will hopefully now go on to a more prominent place in the critical evaluation of his filmography.
Soderbergh’s fourth film, The Underneath, is included in the set as a bonus, and comes packaged with one of the oddest special features in memory: an interview with Soderbergh where he candidly outlines what he believes are the film’s many faults, to the point of essentially advising potential viewers not to waste their time watching it. He reminisces with visible regret about aimlessly shooting scenes while feeling totally uninspired and checked-out mentally, and self-deprecatingly describes The Underneath as the work of a director whose increasing obsessions with formalism and stylization had led him to an utterly dead end. (He can’t help but laugh when referring to one infamously odd scene — a dinner table conversation shot entirely in absurdly deep focus with a “split diopter” lens, then a favorite Soderbergh toy — as “a bad idea whose time had come.”)
It’s a disarmingly honest and funny interview and, unfortunately, also totally accurate. It might be interesting to dedicated Soderbergh completists in the context of understanding his overall career, but as a film The Underneath is about as lifeless and DOA as a piece of cinema can be. The pace is glacial, the acting is stiff, the script is vapid, and — adding insult to injury — it even features several bizarrely out-of-place live performances by some truly awful ’90s ska bands.
In the Criterion interview Soderbergh insightfully mentions that quite possibly the only redeeming thing about The Underneath is the fact that, during the torturous process of shooting it, he managed to secretly begin conceiving his radical and experimental fifth feature Schizopolis, the left turn that reset his artistic compass and revitalized his passion for filmmaking. As a result, rather than being the final flicker of a flash-in-the-pan career, The Underneath ended up indirectly lighting Soderbergh’s way out of the dark tunnel he found himself in, sending him on a creative journey with more twists and turns than anyone could have imagined.