At the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) this past weekend, Steven Soderbergh, who recently announced his “extended sabbatical” from the film industry, outlined what likely has a lot to do with the reason behind that sabbatical in his keynote address on the State of Cinema. If you’re not familiar with Steven Soderbergh himself, you likely are familiar with at least some of his work. Oceans 11–13, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, or the recently released Side Effects, are all among the films he has directed. However, unlike a lot of other filmmakers, Soderbergh is distinct in that he is equally adept at handling big-budget blockbusters as he is low-budget, deeply human stories (King of the Hill, Bubble) and is frequently credited with having started the modern independent film renaissance with his successful 1989 breakout Sex, Lies, and Videotape. In addition to being an Oscar-winning director and screenwriter, he is often his own cinematographer and editor. I had the great fortune of being invited to this exclusive event.
Soderbergh began his speech on Saturday by wondering “when it was decided we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go” in reference to the ubiquitous “noise” of music blaring through speakers in almost every public space. As someone who is supremely sound sensitive, I agree but marvel more at the proliferation of televisions (at the grocery checkout? Really?) than anything else. He then turned to the topic at hand, citing a recent experience on a long flight in which he observed a neighboring passenger watching several action movies on his tablet — except that he wasn’t actually watching them. What that passenger was doing, Soderbergh recounted, was going straight to the action sequences and completely bypassing all the narrative and dialogue, inadvertently creating the perfect metaphor for the current state of cinema.
What Steven Soderbergh (and many cinephiles both within and outside the industry) meant is that the studios are no longer interested in “the narrative.” They’re no longer concerned with telling good or even decent stories; they are interested solely in “the action scenes” that drive profits. Of course, “show business” is and has always been first and foremost a business. But for many filmmakers (myself included) that doesn’t mean the automatic exclusion of either variety or quality in what the industry has to offer. Soderbergh’s biggest concern on this matter, shared by many, is that “you’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make.” With no real connection to the history or pedigree of the medium, with only a tacit understanding of the available technology to work from, executives are looking only at templates for success (sequels, prequels, and remakes); they are giving us “movies” rather than “cinema.”
Cinema, according to Soderbergh, is inherently innovative and progressive in some way; it is created, it is generative. Movies, on the other hand, are only seen. A movie can also be cinema, and cinema doesn’t necessarily qualify as a movie. Cinema may be a bit too avant-garde for its time to be commercially or critically successful but nevertheless provides a model for others to try to imitate. Consider Un Chien Andelou, the 1929 surrealist collaboration of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Particularly for modern audiences, the images are bizarre, illogically juxatoposed, and downright weird. It is all but required viewing, however, for any true afficianado and is often cited (as is Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night) as a source of reference for the structure of the modern music video.
Soderbergh further argued that this “lack of vision” is a result of what Douglas Rushkoff calls Present Shock: “when there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead, the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time.”
When applied to the state of cinema, the result is the almost exclusive cookie-cutter style of production, “so things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and [oh no!] ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film….” Soderbergh’s own success story with Sex, Lies, and Videotape would likely never have happened had he been developing it today; the results-driven film market would deem the project too risky. Even the marketing of films is, metaphorically, stamped out on an assembly line. There is no room for innovation, inspiration, or even dedication from filmmakers; they aren’t interested in a filmmaker’s fresh look or unique take on a topic. They want results (i.e., profits): “that’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies.”
Still, there is hope for the future of cinema, and even disgruntled cynics like Soderbergh acknowledge it: “while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going.” He referred to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which was passed over by major distributors (it was lauded by most, but thought to be too confusing for audiences). Once it was picked up, however, it went on to make nearly three times its budget in its initial release — which is a great thing to remember.
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