Full Frontal (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

This self-satisfaction makes Full Frontal's gears grind.

Full Frontal

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Blair Underwood, Catherine Keener, Julia Roberts, David Hyde Pierce, Mary McCormack, Nicky Katt, David Duchovny, Erika Alexander
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-08-02

One early morning, Nicholas (Blair Underwood) leaves his white-on-white bedroom and heads to JFK. There he meets Catherine (Julia Roberts), a reporter doing a major magazine feature on him. They fly to L.A., where he's shooting a film with Brad Pitt; as she probes him about his role, Nicholas talks about his career moves and his choices, then fesses up: he's playing "the sidekick." During the cross country flight, they eat and talk, and he starts thinking she's falling for him, mostly due to a letter on red stationary he finds in his seat, a note in which the writer declares desperate and undying love for him. The more emphatically she says that she didn't write the note, the more he thinks she's his secret admirer ("I am onto you, girl!"). And so on.

In Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, Nicholas and Catherine are characters in a movie-within-the-movie called Rendezvous, played by actors named Calvin and Francesca. In Rendezvous, they appear on 35mm and Catherine wears a wig. When they're not in the movie, they're on video, grainy and handheld, you know, gritty and "realistic." Calvin and Francesca hardly speak. In Rendezvous, Nicholas and Catherine are headed toward a corny romance, pushed along, apparently, by Nicholas' lengthy speech about the lot of black men in the business: no sex scenes, especially with white costars like, say, Catherine-Francesca-Julia. "Can't a brother get some love?" he asks, riding in the studio car taking them to the movie set. "That's the state of being a chocolate leading man in Hollywood today."

Calvin, by contrast, is getting some love, most visibly from his white mistress, Lee (Catherine Keener), a personnel director. Or rather, not very visibly, as their afternoon tryst is shot in blurred out video, so the figures' races and lusty passions are clear, but their faces are unrecognizable. You only see who they are -- or rather, who Lee is, as Calvin is the only black man in Full Frontal -- when they're done, bickering their way to a break-up. Can't a brother get some love? It turns out that Calvin does have a steady, Lucy (Erika Alexander), who has little to do except show up at a party scene late in the film and watch Calvin kiss a little industry ass.

Still, the question hangs over the rest of the film, which is about white folks feeling bereft and beleaguered in their privileged existences. Lee's distress reaches a kind of boiling point when Calvin drops her, but she's so cruel to her own employees earlier in the day (her assignment for the day that takes up Full Frontal's time is to perform a "bloodbath") that even her meltdown is less moving than troubling. Her sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), is a masseuse to wealthy Beverly Hills types, including the producer of the moment, Gus (David Duchovny), posing as Bill and offering money for a hand-job. Lee is married, vaguely unhappily, to Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a writer for Los Angeles magazine, which apparently runs a Brad Pitt cover every month. Not only is Carl responsible for the dreck that is Rendezvous; he's also working on another script with his writing partner, Arty (Enrico Colantoni), currently directing a play they've written, The Sound and the Fuhrer, with an annoyingly supercilious actor playing Hitler (Nicky Katt).

Written by Soderbergh and his frequent collaborator Coleman Hough, Full Frontal is a smug movie about smug characters in a smug environment. On one level -- and it has many too-clever levels -- it explores the tensions between reality and fiction in film, the ostensible appeal of "realism" and the arrogant folly of it. On another, it works themes from 1989's sex, lies & videotape, including sex, intimacy, desire, and fear. On another, it's more of Soderbergh's own Me Show, as when you notice that, on Nicholas and Catherine's plane, across the aisle, sits Wilson (Terence Stamp), the ferocious anti-hero of The Limey. He appears here in an insert from that film, just as The Limey so famously included inserts from another Stamp film, 1967's Poor Cow. So wily, so multi-layered!

And on yet another level, it's all about Acting with a capital A. In casting Full Frontal, Soderbergh issued a list of rules: actors had to provide their own costumes, makeup, and meals, and they had to come up with in-character answers to interview questions he asked during the 18-day, $2 million shoot. These interviews are run as voice-over in several scenes. It's all so low budget, so arty, so penetrating. And so smug.

This manifest self-satisfaction makes Full Frontal's gears grind. While you're watching, you may be inclined to think that the melodramatic plot and silly characters are deliberate devices, such that the absurdity and annoyingness of the "real" (video) sections comment doubly (or triply, as there is yet another layer of film-within-the-filmness here) on the absurdity and annoyingness of the "unreal" (film) sections. So, Hitler "really" is a jerk, and he mistreats his director as well as his girlfriend. Hence, he has no name except "Hitler." Or, you might think, Francesca is a shallow movie-star-diva because she picks at her tuna fish sandwich and orders her lackey to bring her wet-naps. Not exactly an original observation of a star, but okay. Then, she meets someone small, an extra from her past, and she treats him well, apparently glad to meet someone who knew her before she was a shallow movie-star-diva. Gee, Francesca's not "really" so bad after all. Her egotism and condescension are a self-preserving illusion.

Or, you watch Lee resist her dull but stable marriage to a decent man and pursue an exciting but cheerless liaison with a vain one and conclude that she must be "damaged." Just in case you need some help in that deduction, Carl's voice-over lays out that she is genuinely troubled, owing to a childhood trauma: "She's like a dog that was hit by a car. She's still walking, but some very important things inside her are damaged." In other words, Lee's meanness and insecurity have "real" causes, so maybe she's not so bad, either. Maybe Carl can save her, after all.

Pretentious and common, these storylines might appear to be glosses on the pretentiousness and commonness of most movie storylines. And that's one way to read Full Frontal, as an unoriginal but somewhat ambitious self-parody. Soderbergh, however, says otherwise, and if this is more of the parody, it's pretty good, or at least good enough to get over on the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell. Soderbergh has Mitchell believing that the film explores levels of "reality," that it's a small-scale consideration of the "pact" between viewers and films. In this light, he says, it is, like all his films, about "our efforts to connect." (Um, whose efforts?) Here, much as in Soderbergh's other movies, these efforts are at cross-purposes, resulting in repeated frustration and occasional revelation.

Whatever Soderbergh thinks the film is doing, however, is pretty much beside the point. Its layering of fear and intimacy, realness and unrealness, does indeed recall sex, lies & videotape (the film that he and Miramax evoke by opening Full Frontal on the same date, 13 years later), namely, the ways that deceptions (playing roles, fabricating stories, preserving fantasies) sustain as well as spoil relationships, the ways that they are integral to human "connections."

Full Frontal is also one of Soderbergh's celebrated "alternate" projects -- the "little" ones he makes in between the Erin Brockoviches and the Oceans Elevens -- in order to remind everyone that he's not just a skilled mainstream director, but also thoughtful and self-conscious, an artist who recognizes the ugly effects of his chosen business. What this new film doesn't seem to acknowledge is its own participation in such effects. Even at its smartest, Full Frontal points out the obvious: celebrity culture is unreal, reality is contrived, and movies provide sustenance.

Given the banality of these observations, it's either ironic or little wonder that the film's least pretentious appearance is Brad Pitt's. He plays the cop to whom Calvin's Nicholas plays sidekick, and he shows up a couple of other times on Los Angeles magazine covers, hanging in Carl's office, with headlines like, "The Zen of Brad Pitt." When Pitt is moving on screen, it's mostly on playback video: he runs to the camera, through a smattering of passersby ("Outta the way!"), chasing some unseen criminal for his cop-buddy flick, directed by David Fincher. Calvin/Nicholas puffs along beside him. Before you can ask, "Can't a brother get some love?" director Fincher is bestowing much of it on Brad Pitt, so full of Zen, and ignoring the sidekick. The moment is as "real" as Full Frontal movie gets.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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