So farewell then, Steven Soderbergh

Why Hollywood will miss the wisest man in cinema.

 

You will have heard by now that Steven Soderbergh has announced his departure from filmmaking. His farewell dish for cinema, Side Effects, was released last Friday. And there’s still the tantalising final course to come - we’ll see whether it will amount to dessert, cheeseboard or wafer-thin mint- in the shape of his forthcoming HBO Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, which airs in the US at the end of this month. It certainly has genius casting on its side, as this image proves: Michael Douglas is an unbeatable choice for the shy-and-retiring, discreetly-costumed pianist, while Matt Damon plays his lover Scott Thorson (on whose memoir Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is based).

As Soderbergh has made clear, he is only retiring from cinema: “But I still plan to direct - theatre stuff, and I’d do a TV series if something great were to come along.” In this brilliant, fascinating interview from Vulture.com, he elaborates on his decision:

“These things - I can feel them coming on. I can feel it when I need to slough off one skin and grow another. So that’s when I started thinking, All right, when I turn 50, I’d like to be done. I knew that in order to stop, I couldn’t keep it a secret - so many things are coming at you when you’re making films that you need to have a reason to be saying no all the time… It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere… If I’m going to solve this issue, it means annihilating everything that came before and starting from scratch. That means I have to go away, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. And I also know you can’t force it. I love and respect filmmaking too much to continue to do it while feeling I’m running in place. That’s not a good feeling. And if it turns out I don’t make another one, I’m really happy with this last group of movies. I don’t want to be one of those people about whom people say, ‘Wow, he kind of fell off there at the end.’ That would be depressing.”

Side Effects is certainly no disgrace: swansong or not, it’s a dynamic and engaged piece of entertainment. It stars Rooney Mara as a dazed woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just finished a prison sentence for insider trading: as she adjusts to having him in her life again, she starts to experience symptoms of depression, and turns for comfort to a new drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). That’s all I’m going to say about the plot - it was a joy to see the picture without having read anything in advance about it, and without any prior knowledge of the direction in which it might be travelling. But it’s giving nothing away to sing the praises of its woozy cinematography, crisp and disorienting sound design, and precision editing; the atmosphere of incipient panic calls to mind nothing less than Rosemary’s Baby, even if the pleasures and mysteries of Side Effects are finite, rather than continually expanding as in Polanski’s film.

I liked Side Effects a lot: that is, I enjoyed it while it was underway, it left no lasting impression on me and I would be surprised if it yielded any fresh pleasures on subsequent viewings. But as a mildly twisted thriller which has an instant emotional effect on the audience, it’s a blast. It is especially encouraging to witness Soderbergh’s encouraging way with actors, none more so than Catherine Zeta-Jones. Again, I don’t want to say too much about her role in Side Effects, but she certainly relishes the things she has to do (even if she doesn’t get to do quite enough of them to excuse the rather simplistic journey taken by her character - ah, you’ll see what I mean).

It’s been good having Soderbergh around: he’s an energising force, keen to turn cinema into a charged discussion of ideas, and ruthlessly self-critical. (Asked by Vulture what people might people mean when they call a film Soderberghian, he replies:I have no idea. But never use that word to describe your movie in a pitch meeting because it won’t get made.”) When he accepted the Palme d’Or in 1989 for his debut Sex, Lies and Videotape, he famously told the audience: “It’s all downhill from here.” He didn’t get it quite right. A corkscrew rollercoaster would have provided a better analogy. His commercial fortunes diminished with each film he made after his Cannes win, until Out of Sight arrested the decline in 1998. The double-whammy of Erin Brockovich and Traffic made it a distant memory. He has squeezed more creative and artistic peaks and troughs into the years since Traffic won him the Oscar for best director than most film-makers manage in an entire career. The Good German, Ocean’s Thirteen? Trough time. Che, Magic Mike, Side Effects? Peak.

After hitting the buffers with his 1995 thriller The Underneath, he purged himself with the free-form Schizopolis, one of the most masochistic works ever committed to film: a portrait of mental, marital and artistic breakdown in which Soderbergh cast himself and his real-life spouse from whom he was separating acrimoniously. After that picture, which he now describes as a “rebirth,” he felt free to reinvent himself with Out of Sight. That was crucial in kick-starting the second, most fruitful phase of Soderbergh’s career, and in bringing him together with George Clooney, later to become his semi-regular leading man and co-founder of their (now disbanded) production company, Section Eight.

Even once Soderbergh was back on track with confident, playful work like Out of Sight and The Limey, he was not one to parrot the party line on the enchanted world of film-making. Do grab the DVDs of both those films if you can: the commentary tracks feature sustained and often bitter arguments between Soderbergh and his respective screenwriters, who berate him for every perceived distortion or compromise. “I get sick of everyone saying everything’s great all the time,” he once said. “I like to hear about the blood and gristle of the creative process. I hate these fucking interviews where it’s like there’s sunshine shooting out of the director’s mouth. So I try to be very careful about the syntax I employ. I don’t want to suggest, ‘We’ve done an amazing thing here.’” Generally, he’s in favour of letting history decide. “All my pleasure is in making movies,” he said in 2007. “Twenty years from now we'll figure out which ones are great and which ones aren't.” Even those who believe Soderbergh is mad to withdraw from cinema will recognise that as the voice of sanity.

"Side Effects" is on release.

Steven Soderbergh (Credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit