Mary Kaye Schilling catches the always candid and often eloquent Steven Soderbergh on the eve of his retirement in an article for New York‘s February 4, 2013 issue, and for me, the most interesting takeaway is the thought of just how much audiences — both those producing and those watching films — have shifted since the man’s career began in in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape. I feel his pain: though I’ve got nowhere near as much experience as the man, especially within the industry, the statement that “when I see a movie that’s doing the obvious thing all the time, it’s frustrating” resonates with me, and reminds me of what I said earlier this week when I noted that whether a piece of art makes sense to me or not, I want it to at least stand distinct from other things. How can you not admire Soderbergh for the variety of cinematic styles he’s tried in the last two years alone, or for the fact that when he worked on Contagion, he cut almost an hour of material because he wanted to “take advantage of what that subject had to offer while avoiding disaster-movie cliches,” which made him “think laterally, which was good.” Obviously the man’s frustrated with a world that apparently rewards the lazy unoriginality of A Good Day To Die Hard, or an industry that appears to no longer to respect those who make great movies, only those who make financially successful ones. No wonder he no longer wants to make films for an audience that’s bewildered by ambiguity: “I remember during previews for [Contagion] how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.’ People were really annoyed by that.”
The conclusion he reaches is similar to the one I’ve arrived at:
I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people . . . Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.
The more I think about this, the more I realize that there really aren’t all that many exceptions to the rule, even on the Oscar shortlist. Life of Pi loses much of its effectiveness in the shift from being within the author’s head to a visual medium; Django Unchained is undeniably beautiful, but not really all that revealing; Les Miserables does one risk-taking thing over and over again until it’s driven into the ground; Beasts of the Southern Wild only feels as if it’s something new because it’s covering an overlooked environment in a magical style but I’d rather watch In America or The Fall; Zero Dark Thirty and Argo are both taking varying degrees of flak over their fidelity, though this seems fairly forgivable in the latter’s case; and while I haven’t yet seen Lincoln, I’m not quite sure of its cultural impact, though I’ve high hopes given the actors and director that it’ll be a somewhat penetrating look into a specific point in history. (Silver Linings Playbook and Amour are the two films I’m most looking forward to seeing, but still; that’s two films in an entire year?)
Of course, while films may not matter as much, the act of watching films is apparently bigger than ever. If you don’t watch the Oscars tonight, or at least attend a party about them, your friends may mock you. Live tweeting the awards is just one more step removed from the meditative way in which one once lost themselves in the flickering cinema lights. The cultural impact of a film is less in the way it affects us personally but in the way it affects our self-identity; how many people on their first date inevitably fall back not on discussing a film but on films they happen to like, films that they think reflect positively upon themselves. (Requiem for a Dream, Ratatouille, Almost Famous, if you must know.) This gets back to the superficiality that Soderbergh is fleeing in the cinemas, and which he rightly despises in critics, who he believes to be “easily fooled” and who “praise things that [he feels] are not up to snuff.” Here’s a chilling statement about criticism (and, on a larger scale, the everyone’s-a-critic implications):
I find critics to be very facile when they don’t like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue tied.
If we can’t explain what we like, and often simply dismiss what we don’t, is it no wonder that bad films are proliferating the market? Overwhelming an audience before it can respond seems to be the best way to make a profit, and so perhaps Soderbergh’s correct in shifting attention to television, particularly shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that take a deeper, long-form narrative response, and which, because they give audiences the chance to tune out with each passing week, must do more to earn back viewers than any other medium. Here’s hoping that AMC and HBO were reading this interview and are savvy enough to lock Soderbergh up in the development of a new television series while they’ve got the opportunity.