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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.