Friday, June 23, 2006

Steven Soderbergh

Now here's an interesting fella. As a (very) young director, he made interesting independent films like Kafka, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Schizopolis. For the serious film watcher, he was definitely one to track. These were intriguing and experimental works. And then Hollywood got him... what followed were big budget mainstream films... the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, and a remake of Tarkovsky's classic Solaris. By the time Ocean's 11 came out, I just simply didn't care what Soderbergh was up to. He was, to my mind, just one more talented auteur turned out and made into a hack by the Hollywood meat grinder. He was off my radar.

But something strange has happened, and Soderbergh has taken a 180 degree turn. He formed a partnership with Mark Cuban (owner of one or another NBA franchise) and a company called HDNet. He made a deal for a cycle of six films, each with small stories, filmed in back-asswards little towns throughout the American landscape, and using non-professional actors that already lived on location. Most unconventionally, the films would be released on the same day on DVD, on cable and in the movie theaters (Cuban's Landmark chain).

The first film, Bubble, was released in 2005. It was filmed in Parkersburg, WV and Belpre, OH- two little towns straddling the Ohio River. It is one of the most voyeuristic narrative films in recent memory, focusing on an unlikely friendship between two workers in a doll manufacturing plant. When a young woman joins the factory staff, jealousy and trouble ensues among the main players. Soderbergh takes his time with the story, and condescends neither to his n0n-professional staff, nor his audience. The extended shots of the doll factory, and the West Virginian landscape are subtly creepy, while at the same time sublime in their beauty. The actors were given free reign to find their ways between plot points, and the technique works in a natural way. In a way, Bubble recalls Godard's early films. And it requires a bit of patience on the viewer's part. But this work countervails the pap churned out by the corporate entertainment industry... the glitz, contrived twisty plots, melodramatic acting, sweeping slick soundtrack, MTV-style editing, and soundbyte dialogue.

Now I can once again look forward to the projects of an American director. This is an all too rare phenomenon in this viewer's experience.

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