Full disclosure time: I think Steven Soderbergh is, pound for pound, our greatest American director. (Joel Coen doesn’t count, because he works so closely with his brother Ethan; Spike Lee lost the title years ago when he made Mo’ Better Blues; no one else can touch Soderbergh’s oeuvre.) His films are smart, stylish, and substantive, and he’s made his peace with Hollywood without selling out — truly a hero for our time.
So I was really looking forward to this book, which collects many interviews Soderbergh has done over the past 12 years. The collection begins with the release of sex, lies, and videotape and covering his filmes all the way up to his Academy Award acceptance speech for his work on Traffic. Soderbergh always seemed like a smart guy to me, and I like his movies — but it’s more than that. I’ve always been a fan of interviews with directors, actors, artists, writers, and other creative people. Hearing people talk about their craft is enlightening; it’s also liberating, in the sense that you can reassess someone’s work on a whole new level. And, because of the chronological setup, there’s the whole social history aspect of being able to experience someone’s career right along with them.
At least, that’s what books of interviews are supposed to be. However, as this collection shows, interviews are held back by one main factor:inept interviewers.
Anthony Kaufman, famously cranky/artsy reviewer for The Village Voice, provides a fairly good introduction to Soderbergh’s career in his introduction, an arc that movie lovers now know by heart: huge success with sex, lies, and videotape, commercial failure with Kafka and King of the Hill; disillusionment with Hollywood around the time of The Underneath; rebirth with his self-made avant-garde freakout Schizopolis and the Spalding Gray vehicle Gray’s Anatomy; re-entry with Out of Sight and The Limey; huge Hollywood success with Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven.
And, just after Kaufman’s intro, the interviews start out pretty great, too. Nice to be able to read Soderbergh talk to Rolling Stone about his own assholery with women and how that led to making sex, lies in the first place. Nice, also, to hear his young unspoiled voice talking very seriously about cinema: “What strikes me about American films is their impatience.” And, in my opinion, a book where anyone talks about how blisteringly sexy Laura San Giacomo was in that movie is a great book.
The interviews for Kafka and King of the Hill with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret for France’s Positif magazine are interesting in that they show just how into each project Soderbergh was at the time, even though both movies tanked at the box office. But then the trouble starts for Soderbergh, and for the book itself, because that’s when the U.S. writers come back into it all. Just about every subsequent review starts with sex, lies and how successful it was, and how he’s not been able to recreate that success since. If it was just once, okay . . . but it gets a bit old when we get later and later into his career . . . and this book.
One does get a fairly well-rounded picture of Steven Soderbergh through these interviews, but most of them focus on the same old stuff: influences, styles, working with Jennifer Lopez, etc. It’s like no one has anything interesting to ask after they run the gauntlet through all the boring-ass questions that only movie reviewers ask: “What’s your next project?” and “What’s with you and messed-up chronology?” That makes getting through the rest of the book extremely daunting and difficult, as well as useless for film fans.
The best interviews, actually, are the ones about films few people saw besides me. Schizopolis, which Soderbergh and a crew of five friends made for about $250,000 in 1995 and released the next year, is one of the funniest and deepest surreal films ever made — not surprisingly, the interviews with Paula Bernstein and Patricia Thomson are the best ones in the book. Hearing him talk with them about how the movie revitalized his career is truly heartwarming: “The analogy in sports would be when you’re in the zone. I just felt in the zone all the time.”
But the rest of the interviews are just so safe and magazine-casual-reader-ready that they’re inconsequential. Anne Thompson’s questions for Premiere Magazine are fairly typical: “Are moviegoers tired of the same old formulas?” (FYI: Soderbergh thinks so.) It’s not really Thompson’s fault–she’s just doing what her editors want her to do. But if an interview contains nothing new, does it really belong in a book? Even Kaufman’s own Village Voice interview with Soderbergh from 2000 is pretty stale: “What was your entry point for Traffic?” is met with a similarly tired response: “I was interested in drugs.” What would be the point of asking better and more informed questions? Who wants to read all that in a newspaper or magazine?
The career of Steven Soderbergh is wide and deep and getting more interesting all the time – -hell, I just saw Ocean’s Eleven again on DVD and it’s nothing less than a masterful caper movie with a lot of heart and flash and fun. But all Soderbergh’s films are like that — jeez, even the much-maligned noir thriller The Underneath is a pretty great movie, no matter what he says about it later. What we really need is a book where someone focuses on each of his films with a fine-toothed comb and really looks at common themes in depth, rather than just disjointed unconnected interviews of varying quality.
Sounds like a job for whoever can get a college grant for it first, huh? Graduate students, start your engines.