STEVEN SODERBERGH SAYS the movies are in trouble. After the filmmaker’s recent speech at the SF Film Festival, the Internet lit up with chatter over his bleak assessment of how cinema currently is, and isn’t, made.
If anyone knows about these things, it would be Soderbergh. Here’s a filmmaker who’s managed to be both an indie darling and a smart blockbuster showman, breaking from experimental and abstruse work like Solaris, Bubble and The Good German to churn out hepped-up star extraganzas in three Oceans installments. He’s managed both consistent critical praise and reliable box office success. He’s credited as the screenwriter, cinematographer and editor on several of his films. He’s been to George Clooney’s house.
He also now claims to be retiring from filmmaking. If this guy is frustrated with what cinema has wrought, it really bodes well for no one.
To illustrate his disenchantment, Soderbergh began his speech by describing a familiar spectacle. A fellow passenger on a recent flight with him called up movie files on his iPad. This person didn’t just view one movie, he played several big-budget action films on his device and skipped, in each case, to the high-octane action sequences. This viewer only wanted the scenes of, as Soderbergh nicely described it, “mayhem porn.” This then set up Soderbergh’s central criticisms of the current system in Hollywood: artists’ lack of creative control, film-illiterate executives making key decisions and the safe, boring bets studios place in a global marketplace.
Not long ago on a transatlantic US-bound flight, I expected to come across the kind of grim modern moviegoer Soderbergh encountered. But I didn’t. On my flight, I saw what could have been just as bad. Passengers around me watched the in-flight entertainment on the individual screens on the seat back in front of them. However, I didn’t notice anyone darting to the juicy parts (and this included my young, otherwise fidgety daughters). I watched movies too, as I always do on these airborne long hauls and I did it uninterrupted, not laying a finger on the screen.
I didn’t opt for the mayhem either. Instead, by the turning point in the dance scene in Silver Linings Playbook set to the song “Girl from the North Country,” I caught myself holding back abrupt welled-up tears.
I’m not sure what that means, for either my emotional state at the time, which I trusted to be healthy, or the state of cinema, which I generally trust to be the same.
This dance rehearsal scene between these two characters trying to pull their lives together wasn’t groundbreaking, revelatory cinema, but it possessed this particular beautiful moment. It was enough for me.
I once pretended to know where film was headed. I could presume to take its pulse after so many hours in dark theaters and so many days of overdue rental fees racked up on multiple club cards. Movies did it for me and I never asked why. I even kept a list of every movie I’d ever seen, recorded in a three-ring notebook. It starts with Pinocchio and reaches well beyond a thousand numbered entries. I assumed at an early age that I could pass for a movie know-it-all. Once done with school, I even tried to crack into Hollywood. I moved, post-collegiate and misinformed, out to Los Angeles, working as a background extra in few teen comedies and later as an assistant at a production company. I once watched producer Jerry Bruckheimer yell at a furniture deliveryman over a sofa for his office lobby. I once met actor Alfred Molina at a party who could not have been nicer or wittier. We laughed long into the night. Or at least until 8:30 or so.
These made for funny stories, but I sensed I might not make it out of this business mentally intact if I stepped any closer than the periphery.
After a few years, I moved on and then moved out of the United States altogether. I started a family in France. I drifted away from cinema. I hung around the internet. I wrote more. I cultivated other obsessions.
I clung loosely to filmed narratives. I attempted to remain conscious for Austin Powers 3 and Spiderman 2. I noticed Alfred Molina trying his best in the role of Dr. Octopus. It seemed to be working for the audience of French teens packing the theater, but I couldn’t shake the disconcerting thought that all this big-budget effort amounted to nothing. A frenzy and a disjointedness had hijacked the movies. Maybe the foreign country I’d settled in had transformed me into a sourpuss.
Whatever was happening, I stopped counting movies. My final entry in my long list was Lost in Translation. It wasn’t a statement and I enjoyed this one, but some longstanding movie spell had, by then, been broken.
I try to catch up during flights on what I’ve missed. Of course, the image quality on the postcard-sized individual screen is poor. Perhaps the poorest digitally available in any current movie-going situation. On my last trip, the guy in front reclined his seat causing the image to shift into a color negative until I adjusted the screen angle. Also, I had sound problems. For some reason, every time Robert De Niro’s character spoke, the audio dropped out of one earpiece.
Yet this didn’t destroy my experience. I still got sucked in, despite–possibly because of– these glitches.
The airplane had opened a kind of sensitivity. It has done this before for me. Watching an in-flight movie offers some fractured newness to the viewing. We are more vulnerable while flying. After all, we could crash before they catch the villain or before the girl and guy finally kiss. This could be the last movie we ever see. We also happen to be separated bodily from the planet. We can be riveted to the actress in close-up, and then turn to our left to gaze down at the shores of Newfoundland out our window. The movie we’re watching provides a tether to the world. The suspension in air allows a suspension of disbelief.
The shoddier technology might also add something. A quote I recently came across from Marshall McLuhan talks about participation in an image, moving or otherwise. Something that is ‘high definition’ provides more information and therefore does not require as much viewer participation as something that is ‘low definition’. With lesser quality we have to try. With a hi-res iPad film at our fingertips or a 3D IMAX screen with surround sound, we have to do nothing. And nothing is often exactly what happens.
But whatever the peculiar mix of forces at work, the onboard movie experience tends to be surprising. Silver Linings Playbook perhaps couldn’t be called brilliant, but it had these moments worth remembering.
And whatever the changes, Hollywood tends to surprise. Beautiful sequences come out of nowhere, there all along waiting in the wings. The thing still happens, as John Huston and Terrence Rafferty have both vaguely called the indescribable moments in a film. The worn magic keeps coming back with more to give. No matter the screen. No matter whether the names behind the images are indie or studio. Imagination has a way of making itself known.
In his speech, Soderbergh ran the numbers a lot, while talking about how he hates that everyone in Hollywood is running the numbers. The crisis of creativity in Hollywood is real, but he talked as though the idea of money intruding on cinema is a new one. Hollywood’s rock-bottom foundation is the uneasy alliance of commerce and art, and on grand, breathtaking scales for both entities. Safe, boring bets will always be a part of this industry of entertainment.
But so will art. If online network feeds and review aggregators can abound with praise for indie films like Upstream Color, Mud and To the Wonder something good is still in the works. Those films might be harder to find at a suburban multiplex than Iron Man 3, but they have a solid footing in the culture that won’t ever go away. And if we’re going to ask why they don’t pull in the revenue of a studio tentpole release, then we’ve once again entered into a business discussion, not an artistic one.
The Onion, as usual, had the best response years ago to this by-now-customary Hollywood defeatism. The headline ran: “Citing Slow Summer Box Office, Hollywood Calls It Quits.” The article reads: “Hollywood will be shifting its focus to safer, more reliable profit models, including real estate, life insurance, and the sale of hygiene products.” Every summer since, The Onion’s take on movie-folk catastrophizing only rings truer.
I don’t buy that real cinema is dead or dying, anymore than I buy that Steven Soderbergh will actually retire from filmmaking. Perhaps the most profound line of his speech nearly undermined his entire point: “Movies are one of the few things that we do that the world actually likes.”
So what filmmakers really need to do is get back to work and what viewers need to do is take a break from the mayhem. Believing in this possibility, despite disturbing film trends, might make me more naïve than when I first scribbled down Pinocchio as the first in a list. But what does a lifetime of moviegoing afford a person if not hopeful illusions?
Later, settling in after my return, Euro-bound trip, I called my Dad and said the red-eye was fine. He hoped we weren’t too tired. Then he asked me what movies I saw on the way back.
Lincoln, I told him, and he remembered the scene in which the President pays a visit to the three operatives hired to do the dirty work of rounding up votes. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Lincoln, enters the room and James Spader’s character, W.N. Bilbo, declares, “Well, I’ll be fucked!” Lincoln responds “I wouldn’t bet against it.”
It’s a quick, sly line. My Dad and I laughed recounting it, wondering if it might be included into some kind of quotation canon, though probably only ours. After hanging up with my Dad, I replayed this scene in my head wearing Spader’s weary hilarity for a moment and maybe some of Day Lewis’s brooding power.
I replay the unexpected moments cramped into a long plane ride. I don’t record the movies in my long list. But I don’t stop seeing.
I still get to see if Jerry Bruckheimer can make anything of The Long Ranger this summer. I can still see a slave turned bounty hunter sitting down to a mug of beer in a saloon, or a limping crazy man stepping out of limo and whisking Eva Mendes off into a sewer under the Père Lachaise cemetery, or a runaway boy scout and his pre-teen love dancing awkwardly in their underwear on the beach, or a young widow and a released mental patient learning waltz steps to a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash song.
The beauty squeezes through to the surface. The film remains in transit, a marvel of light, and a toehold on the world until we set down again on the other side and wonder, for a second, if we were really aloft all this time.