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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era