As I remember it, when it was announced that Steven Soderbergh would be directing Out of Sight, a big studio adaptation of a novel by Elmore Leonard (whose novels it was suddenly considered a good idea to adapt to the screen, following Get Shorty and Jackie Brown), the perception was that he'd given in to fate. After being instrumental in blowing up American independent filmmaking with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape so that it was no longer a ghetto, and so that it could benefit from some level of mainstream popularity without being constricted by mainstream studio rules (Quentin Tarantino, who made Jackie Brown, is just one of the filmmakers Soderbergh helped make possible), Soderbergh's career almost immediately hit what, from a practical standpoint, would have to be considered "the skids." His second film, Kafka, was expensive (relatively speaking) and made nothing, and people didn't even like it. King of the Hill, The Underneath, and Gray's Anatomy, an adaptation of a Spalding Gray monologue, would follow, and nothing was sticking, with audiences or critics, or anybody. All of this might be okay if Soderbergh could take some artistic satisfaction in any of it, but he was inclined to agree with the rest of the world -- I'm aware of no critique of the perfectly good The Underneath more withering than Soderbergh's own. So following his decision to retreat as far from acceptance as he could with Schizopolis, a crazy exercise in comedy, form, performance, and semiotics that secretly exposed the things that have always been the living organs of his work, for Soderbergh to return with Out of Sight initially seemed like an admission of defeat.
Of course, Soderbergh has shown everybody what's up. From 1998 to 2002, he churned out big studio films like Out of Sight and Ocean's 11, as well as the Oscar winners Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and even the beloved independent experiment with genre The Limey. Whether or not you could always bring yourself to agree with Soderbergh's own assessment of his work, or his instincts for material (for the record, as far as I'm concerned Traffic is miles worse than The Underneath), the fact remained that in the long run Soderbergh, his creative crisis in the rearview mirror, was proving that he was smarter than everybody. He could take Hollywood jobs like Out of Sight and find within a particular genre a place for his formal interests to get their hooks in, the resulting combination being exciting, smart, crowd-pleasing, profitable, genuinely creative...everything. What more can one reasonably ask for from the movie business?
The freedom, perhaps, to tick people off and make them think you're some kind of stuck up arthouse fucker or something? Maybe? That's okay because Soderbergh had that freedom too, and anyway that turned out to be the result. The film I'm talking about here is Full Frontal from 2002 (in the middle of Soderbergh's run of Ocean's films, a choice bit of Soderberghian irony of which he could not have been unaware), written (or "written," as there's a lot of improvisation going on here) by Coleman Hough, who would later go on to write Soderbergh's terrific, eerie murder drama Bubble, and starring in no particular order David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts, Nicky Katt, Mary McCormack, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, David Duchovny, Enrico Colantoni, and featuring cameos by Brad Pitt, David Fincher, and Terence Stamp. What might leap out are the names Pitt, Stamp, and Roberts, all Soderbergh veterans doing a favor (though Roberts has a major role in the film, unlike the other two) but I was struck by the mix of big Hollywood names, or actually, not Hollywood so much as movie people, and TV people. Duchovny had recently left The X-Files, Pierce was in the home stretch with Frasier, Colantoni was about done with Just Shoot Me!, and despite plenty of film work Underwood was still famous for L. A. Law. And all of these actors are being dumped into a kind of post-modern sort of Hollywood...satire? Anyway, there are jokes.
I don't think it would behoove anyone in particular to list who all these actors play, at least not in detail, but here's what's important: Underwood and Roberts play actors who are making a movie in which Underwood plays an actor and Roberts is a journalist doing a story on him. We see scenes from the movie they're making (called Rendezvous) and also can't help but notice that these parts of Full Frontal look sharp and cinematic in a way that the fuzzy unsteadiness of the "real life" scenes decidedly do not. It is within that fuzzy unsteadiness that the rest of the film takes place, and where the really key players are David Hyde Pierce as a magazine writer at the end of his tether (it will eventually turn out that he's also the screenwriter of Rendezvous), and Catherine Keener as Pierce's angry wife, an executive whose office is going through some brutal job cuts which she is turning into a bizarre game between her and the soon-to-be jobless. Also at the beginning of the film, we get little "character cards" for all the key players, white text on black at the bottom of which we are told under what circumstances each did (or, in the case of Colantoni, as a playwright whose connection to the film's main action is mostly tenuous, did not) wrangled a place at one of film producer Gus Delario's parties. Delario is played by David Duchovny, and he doesn't show up in the film for some time. When he does it's to get a massage from Keener's sister (McCormack), and then bully her into accepting $500 to give him a handjob, which she does. Spoiler.
The idea behind this whole project, or one of them, is to play reality against the typical Hollywood representation of it. There are certain parallels, for example, involving a red letter in Rendezvous and a red letter, or a letter in a red envelope, that Keener leaves for Pierce. There is also Underwood and Roberts in between takes, being directed by Soderbergh (below, on the left) whose relationship with each other is not what it is on screen, which is not to say that it's antagonistic, and it's also not to say that Underwood and Roberts play themselves -- both of these things must have been hard for Soderbergh and Hough to resist, but it's good they did.
Anyhow, stylistically, the film presents reality in a messy way, it's visually ugly. Critics took note. Roger Ebert wrote:
Soderbergh directs at far below his usual level, and his cinematography is also wretched; known as one of the few directors who shoots some of his own films, he is usually a skilled
Peter Rainer wrote:
The jump cuts and the grainy digital-video imagery only add to the ongoing befuddlement about who's who and what's what.
I'm confused by the confusion here, because if anything Soderbergh's motivation for this style is all too plain. I find it hard to fathom that anyone could think Soderbergh didn't know what he was doing, even if they ultimately thought it wasn't especially worth doing in the first place. To be clear, so I can move on, the idea was to draw a very clear visual, stylistic, and metaphorical line between fantasy (Rendezvous) and reality (everything else). That's the baseline for the whole movie.
But it's actually more complicated than that. The other day I was watching the new Denis Villeneuve film Enemy (which, for the record, and this is neither here nor there, but anyway, I absolutely loved), and part of the plot involves Jake Gyllenhaal's character watching a Hollywood movie and seeing his exact double turn up playing a bellboy. 99,999 times out of 100,000, a fake movie scene contained within the body of an actual movie is going to resemble an actual movie almost not at all -- even if meant more or less seriously, these things generally look and sound like parodies of movies. Such is the case with this brief clip in Enemy, but it finally occurred to me -- and I realize this is probably about the most obvious thing on the planet, but shut up, I hate you -- that this was by design, and was simply a practical choice. In real life, movies don't look like real life. Maybe they approximate it, if that's even their goal. So in a movie, that remove from reality must be even greater because it has to be at a remove from the movie, which is already at a remove from life. Full Frontal is not only doing this with the Rendezvous material, but it knows it's doing it, and it's eventually doing this to a greater degree than the viewer might realize, at least until he finally makes it all clear to us at the end.
J. Hoberman wrote that Full Frontal was "full of false intimacies," but this would seem to me to be entirely the point, or entirely one of the points. The final shot of Full Frontal does give the game away, maybe too much, but even so I, for one, before I'd been given the game, found myself reasonably involved in some of what was going on. I found the story of Keener and Pierce's crumbling marriage rather affecting when the two were on screen together, and if that's because I really like both Keener and Pierce in general, well, hey, that's movies for you. And while everything that happens with Duchovny's character may seem a bit absurd, it's played very well by him and McCormack. The fact that she has control over the situation after having been debased is made plausible by Duchovny not being ostentatious with his character's guilt, and by McCormack not screaming her throat raw. She's suddenly the disappointed adult. It may be false, but again, that's movies for you.
As one of what must be about a half dozen transitional films for Soderbergh, Full Frontal is about as stuck in its own head as Schizopolis was, but people like Schizopolis, and I like both. In the end, I don't think Full Frontal is meant to decry the artificiality of films, or even to ask us to reflect on our emotional connection with them. I do think Soderbergh's pointing out, as he suddenly found himself in the perfect position to do, that what Hollywood movies are trying to do and what the vast majority of the American independents are trying to do, are not vastly different things. Maybe it's a preemptive strike against those who were dusting off their notebooks in which they'd written "sell out!" in preparation for the release of Ocean's 12. "Do you see how different all of this isn't?" could be the tagline on the posters for Full Frontal, instead of the blatantly sexual one ("Everybody Needs a Release") that is never paid off. Amy Taubin, who at the time wrote one of the more perceptive reviews of Full Frontal, complains a little bit about the dishonesty of the film's marketing, forgetting maybe how little sex there was in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but I don't care because in her review she points out the following:
Produced in 35mm and Dolby, Rendezvous is the aesthetic foil to the main body of the film, which was shot by Soderbergh with a handheld digital video camera, and has the acidic colors and blown-out look of early color Xeroxes, combined with the grainy effect of Super 8 home movies. (The look is not purely digital: It's the result of a very sophisticated video-to-film transfer.)
I mean, you can think that's not pretty funny if you want to, but I won't live in that world.
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This post has been part of the White Elephant Blogathon, this year being hosted by Philip Tatler IV over at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.