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As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.
In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.
Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).
By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.
Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.
A couple of films in 2013 have been concerned with mental health, in different but interesting ways. The first was Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on Contagion. Like that earlier effort, Side Effects takes a clinical approach to its subject, presenting its themes and narrative through a cool, detached aesthetic rather than drawing the viewer in through an arresting style. This proves to be appropriate, as the film becomes not an in-depth, probing expression of mental illness, but a conspiracy thriller that fails to engage and carries some troubling subtext about mental illness as well as gender and homosexuality. Conversely, Danny Boyle’s Trance begins as a glossy crime film but becomes steadily more convoluted and psychological. While not explicitly a film about mental illness, Trance is certainly about the mysteries of the mind.
Side Effects boasts a palette that is both clear and at times sickly, suggesting the oppressive atmosphere of contemporary urban life, which can be depressing. This is a topic ripe for cinematic exploration, which I will discuss in a future post relating to Drive and Shame. In Side Effects, it is not entirely easy to see why Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) would suffer from depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns to her after serving a prison sentence for insider trading, she has a decent job with a very supportive boss and an equally supportive mother-in-law. Why then, does she attempt to hurt or even kill herself and end up seeing Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and being treated with anti-depressants?
Initially, this appears to be the point: depression is not something to be easily explained by external stimulus. Emily suffers from something debilitating and real, but very hard to be understood by someone else. Jonathan describes depression as “the inability to construct a future”, which would have been very interesting to see on screen. Jonathan is sympathetic and, as the plot develops, insightful as he investigates further, but the film not only fails but actively avoids a cinematic representation of clinical depression.
This is not necessarily a problem, as the film also suggests criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and the conflict doctors encounter between care and commerce. Frustratingly, these issues are touched upon and skirted over, as a change of direction takes the viewer into a different sort of film, conspiracy thriller rather than mental health drama. Yet this thriller element is unengaging once it is revealed, largely because of a lack of thrills. Jonathan’s life is steadily disassembled, but he never seems panicked or more than fairly frustrated. This is not down to Law’s performance, but the script’s disinclination to get under the skin of who is, it turns out, the film’s protagonist, as well as the director’s unwillingness to express his mental state. Soderbergh is more than capable of taking us inside his characters’ heads, such as Terrence Stamp’s grief-fuelled anger in The Limey and George Clooney’s confusion and wonder in Solaris, or even the disillusionment of Michael Douglas and the doggedness of Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. Indeed, Side Effects is especially disappointing as it is lower than Soderbergh’s usual standards, the director following the writer’s swerve into mundanity and a deeply problematic final plot twist.
In my review of Skyfall last year, I commented on the problematic gender relations that film presents, effectively culminating in a reassertion of patriarchal power. Women do not belong in espionage, except as secretaries, is a persuasive reading of Skyfall. It was minor enough in that film not to spoil it for me, but in Side Effects the sexism and homophobia is rather more distasteful. The eventual revelation that Emily has been involved in a cunning plot/salacious relationship with her former therapist Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is narratively dull for being both reductionist and lazy. Furthermore, to have a pair of scheming lesbian lovers behind everything is somewhat offensive: Men, beware of women getting together, they might tear things down for you, could be construed as the message of the film. Jonathan’s eventual triumph over Emily is more than him getting his life back: it is a reassertion of patriarchy far more disturbing than that in Skyfall. Skyfall may discredit women, but Side Effects condemns them.
Perhaps cinema is not capable of truly expressing a mental state that is acutely individual, and Side Effects expresses the ineffability of mental illness. I have heard accounts from people who suffer from depression but never really understood how it feels. As a film ostensibly “about” mental illness but ultimately far from it, Side Effects has the unfortunate effect of cheapening this serious social issue by replacing depression with deception. As a narrative device, this feels like a cop-out, the film abandoning what was initially moving and disturbing in equal measure, to fall back on cliché. The film feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it never had much chance in the first place.
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
That said, cinema has proved itself adept at simulating the mind, especially dreams. This is demonstrated in such works as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, eXistenZ, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Dr. and Inception. These simulations may not be entirely recognisable – I doubt anyone ever had a dream as cogent and organised as those in Inception – but filmmakers utilise techniques like the cut, fade and dissolve, as well as the ability to construct fantastical landscapes, to present something on screen which is akin to dreaming. Even films that do not take place within mindscapes, such as Avatar, reference dreaming in their aesthetic. Of particular note is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which features sequences within a character’s hypnotic trance, much like Trance.
I’ve written previously on Danny Boyle and the excessive style he often applies to his films, with varying levels of success. Trance suits his style perfectly, as Simon (James McAvoy) has a fractured mind, and the handheld cinematography and discontinuous editing that were distracting in Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire serve to express the character’s mental state. Furthermore, Trance offers no aspirations, or pretensions, of social conscience or engagement with serious issues. It is a slick, dynamic genre film, a neo-noir directed by someone at the top of their game. Boyle’s skills as a director have been demonstrated across a variety of genres and media, and Trance serves as the ideal project for him to run wild. Doubtless hypnotherapists and psychoanalysts will decry the film’s inaccuracies and many a viewer may doubt its plausibility, but none of that stops Trance from being an engaging ride which displays Boyle’s characteristic visceral thrills.
Boyle is an intensely dynamic director who truly utilises the moving element of moving pictures. Trance is doubly dynamic as it is both a crime thriller with some brutal action sequences and a psychological thriller which expresses confusion and disorientation. When Simon visits hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) and is placed into hypnotic trances, we are taken into the trances as well. Sometimes the trances are clearly delineated from the rest of the action and other times less so, but stylistically the film becomes increasingly erratic and unreliable, as Simon becomes increasingly confused. Trances mix with memories, fantasies and events bleed into each: a key shot (also used in the trailer) is repeated, of Simon tapping glass while light shines upon it, a beautiful encapsulation of our protagonist’s status, seeing something he is unable to reach. But is this a memory, or a hypnotic suggestion? And is the difference between what happens to us and what we believe happens quite so clear?
As the film progresses, the viewer is presented with alternatives to the original set-up. Simon is our point of identification, the film’s protagonist who addresses the camera directly in the opening sequence, explaining (with a clear sense of irony and barely disguised contempt) an auction hall’s “policy” for dealing with attempted robbery. He is quickly injured in such an attempt by Franck (Vincent Cassel), inviting our sympathy further. But quickly we learn that Simon is not all he seems, as he was Franck’s inside man, but he remains a victim as Franck’s gang tortures him for information that he cannot remember. The introduction of Elizabeth at first seems like assistance for Simon, but she becomes an active partner in the plot, and something else as romantic (not to mention dangerous) liaisons develop between her and Simon as well as Franck. Similarly, Simon transforms from oppressed victim to borderline psychopath with explosive moments of violence, eventually subduing Franck who becomes a victim. By the final scene, Simon has become monstrous and very different from how he originally appeared, while Elizabeth’s duplicity (along with her motivation) has been exposed. If we have an identification point, it is with Franck, a helpless victim whose (almost miraculous) escape is cause for celebration. Our loyalties and expectations are confounded and rearranged, as fractured as Simon’s mental state and the film’s method of presentation.
Trance’s great strength is to play games with its narrative expectations, generated both by its genre and its early narrative. Simon is less heroic protagonist as psychotic villain, demonstrated by his re-emerging violence. There is a hint of this at the start of the movie, as Simon’s voiceover mentions several times: “Do not be a hero” – indeed, he is far from that. Furthermore, Franck is less villainous master thief as the patsy duped by Elizabeth. And Elizabeth is far more than romantic interest, as she fills the role of the femme fatale, but ultimately proves to be a former victim who turns a dangerous situation to her advantage. Franck becomes our point of identification by the end of the film, as Elizabeth is left all-knowing but unknowable. Simon knows that he was duped and used, as does Franck, but Franck is left with the option of remembering or forgetting what he knows. As are we, since the film ends on an ambiguous note, reminiscent of The Prestige and Inception, Boyle (like Nolan) leaving us hanging because, in the end, we “want to be fooled”. Screens and panels are prominent throughout the film, including panes of glass like those mentioned earlier, paintings, and tablets (product placement ahoy!), which add to Trance’s meta-cinematic conceit, drawing parallels between Simon and Franck’s investigations and the viewer’s consumption of the film. We don’t want to forget what we’ve seen, so we don’t see Franck take that option. But then again, he might…
Side Effects and Trance provide an interesting demonstration of genre versus “quality”. Side Effects makes gestures towards engagement with a serious social problem but fails to deliver on its promise. Trance presents itself as a straightforward genre piece, but imbues that genre with engaging twists, a highly expressive style and meta-cinematic moments. This is the great opportunity genre has provided filmmakers with for decades. John Ford famously “made westerns”, westerns that have been read in many different ways. Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh have both worked in a variety of genres and demonstrated their respective styles in a multitude of contexts. Soderbergh tends to present his action from a distance, whereas Boyle does not so much draw the viewer in as grab them by the eyeballs and yank them into the diegesis. Both methods are effective, but with Side Effects, the script turns away from its “quality” elements into “lowlier” generic elements, and the style is too uninvolved to compensate with any great tension. Not that there is anything wrong with being generic, as demonstrated by Trance, but if you’re doing a genre piece, be up-front about it. Side Effects’ transition could have been more effective if the thriller element were better handled, but without that, it feels lazy. Trance, however, is imbued with a mischievous energy that dazzles and delights in equal measure. This makes Boyle’s film far more satisfying, and also a more interesting and persuasive expression of the mind on screen.