"Something that can be measured is happening," asserted Steven Soderbergh, early in his talk Saturday afternoon to an enthusiastic crowd of festival-goers in the big house at the Sundance Kabuki. "Life is like a drumbeat, and it has a rhythm, and sometimes it's faster. I can't hear between the beats anymore, and maybe it's a hum."
Soderbergh's anxiety was triggered by a young man on a plane who pulled out a tablet and proceeded to watch only the action scenes in the movies he'd downloaded, fast-forwarding through everything else (like, you know, exposition and character development). "Am I going insane, or is the world going insane, or both?" Soderbergh wondered.
This was a most promising beginning to the State of Cinema address, the San Francisco International Film Festival's annual forum for stimulating, big-picture philosophizing by a renowned creative figure or thinker. Tilda Swinton and Peter Sellars stand as the recognized high points, the thoughtful passion of the former and the visionary enthusiasm of the latter serving as conduits for personal, inspirational speeches on the responsibility of artists in a fearful world.
Wearing a dark suit with a purple shirt and tie, looking like a serious adult and carrying a reputation as one of the most reflective and restless directors in Hollywood, Soderbergh represented an opportunity to consider the future of American movies with someone whose gaze extends beyond Malibu. For one thing, he came out of the indie film world (sex, lies and videotape), and has never fully abandoned its ethos of risk-taking and spontaneity (Schizopolis, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Furthermore, he has aggressively explored fresh ways of telling stories in both studio-backed projects (Out of Sight, Traffic) and low-budget genre pictures (The Underneath, The Limey).
Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
Admittedly, Soderbergh has also directed mainstream hits like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven and its sequels. But he also made the two-part, Spanish-language epic Che, which could hardly be called a commercial venture. Most recently, he revealed his decision to step away from movies and pursue painting. Perhaps it's a strategy to slow the hum and regain the beat, but he made no reference and offered no explanation in his prepared remarks (and did not remain onstage to field questions afterward, as is customary).
At the Kabuki, Soderbergh noted that the casino set of Ocean's Thirteen used a staggering $60,000 of electricity every week, and that getting him to San Francisco for this event made a carbon footprint. He feinted toward offering justifications for art, then pivoted in a more interesting direction. "Art is simply inevitable," he declared. "It was on the wall of the cave in France thousands of years ago." The fundamental impulse? "We are a species driven by narrative. We need to make sense out of all this chaos."
At a time when our society is having obvious difficulties dealing with a number of challenges, Soderbergh noted, "Art is also about problem solving. In moviemaking, all ideas are on the table. Everyone submits to what the thing needs to be." He gradually led into what proved to be, for this listener, his most relevant and valuable passage. "A movie is something you see," he said. "Cinema is something that's made, a specificity of vision, an approach in which everything matters."
Soderbergh quickly tempered his tribute to film's higher calling. "A piece of cinema may not qualify as a movie," he noted. "It may be an unwatchable piece of s--t." He left no doubt, however, that it is still very much worth aspiring to. Unfortunately, Soderbergh informed the crowd, "Cinema is under assault, by the studios and with the full support of the audience."
The studios, owned by multinational corporations, employ few executives who love movies and know movies, Soderbergh informed us. He proceeded from this point on to identify and decry the risk-averse process of green-lighting, producing, testing and marketing Hollywood product. Never less than entertaining, he peppered his litany of frustration with offhand one-liners. "I could tell you a really great story of how I got pushed off a movie, but I'd probably get shot in the street," he remarked. "And I really like my cats."
While never less than amusing, this substantial chunk of Soderbergh's talk offered nothing new to anyone who has spent five minutes reading about Hollywood in the last 20 years or simply observing the kind of movies the studios make (and, more importantly, don't make). He didn't argue for an overhaul of the studio system -- Soderbergh is a pragmatist, not an anarchist, even if some of his ideas seem threateningly radical to execs -- but merely a space where a small amount of "cinema" could be made alongside the mass of megabuck movies. He reported that the number of films released by the studios decreased 28 percent from 2003 to 2012 while the number of indie films doubled, yet the studios' market share increased from 69 to 76 percent. "This is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies," Soderbergh concluded.
It's hardly surprising that a director would argue that the solution lay in his fellow artists. "In the film business, which is totally talent-driven, it's about horses, not races," he declared. He name-checked Shane Carruth (Upstream Color, currently at the Roxie), Barry Jenkins (Medicine For Melancholy, who was in the audience) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine) as "real talent, the kind that sustains. You can't be judging on the basis of commercial success, or hype, or hipness."
An interesting insight, to be sure, but hardly earthshaking. For all the juicy inside-baseball pleasure of Soderbergh's talk, it was a missed opportunity. I wanted to hear him say who he looks to for pioneering approaches to storytelling. Does he envision Europe continuing to be a bastion of cinema, abetted by certain Asian filmmakers, or will every firewall be destroyed by Hollywood exports? (He was speaking at an international film festival, after all, not an industry conference.) In what ways can technology be a boon to film as art?
Soderbergh abruptly concluded his speech with an unearned dash of optimism. He cited the counsel he gives young filmmakers, that no matter how dark and grim the subject of a project they're pitching might be, they should catch themselves, stop and say, "You know what? At the end of the day, this is a movie about hope." Frankly, I doubt that Soderbergh believes his own cynical advice. He certainly didn't give his San Francisco audience any reason to be hopeful about the future of American film.