Life after retirement


Life after retirement

With the release of Side Effects earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking, finally took effect. Liberation might be a better word, since his recent activities seem to belong to a restless person newly freed from the constraints of his profession, rather than a used-up man at rest.

A few weeks before heading to Cannes, Soderbergh delivered a remarkably candid address at the San Francisco Film Festival on the State of Cinema, which spread across the Internet. A day later, a hard-boiled suspense novella called Glue began to appear, 140 characters and an occasional photograph at a time, in the Twitter stream of (AT)Bitchuation, known to be Soderbergh’s handle.

For much of his career, Soderbergh has shown a flair for paradox, at once soliciting and shunning the spotlight, much as he seems to be doing now. An ambitious and uncompromising director, he always insisted that he was more journeyman than auteur, never claiming the ‘a film by’ credit so attractive to filmmakers of greater vanity and lesser talent. He zigzagged from splashy, star-packed projects to stubbornly uncommercial experiments.

“The smart move is to pull up stakes and head for the nearest cliche. But you don’t.” That brief passage, from Glue, might stand as a typically self-deconstructing credo. The first sentence is composed almost entirely of the cliches that the second sentence pretends to brush aside. A similar tension runs through Soderbergh’s films, many of which strive to carry out tried-and-true genre moves with intelligence and surprise.
In his account, the world of movies has less and less room for cinema, which he uses more or less as a synonym for art.

“Cinema is an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of arbitrary, and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it wouldn’t exist at all.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that companies, in the supposed service of the audience, have squeezed much of the cinema out of movies. With a mixture of pessimism, resignation and good humour, he surveyed a landscape at once crowded and bleak, as filmmakers struggle to remain true to their vocations.

“When I was coming up,” he said, succeeding with an independent film “was like trying to hit a thrown baseball,” which is not easy, but possible. Now, “it’s like trying to hit a thrown baseball with another baseball.”
Tweeting thoughts
Twitterature is more like T-ball: The risks, the stakes and the degree of difficulty are all gratifyingly low. And Glue, which was ‘published’ within a 24-hour span, has laid its modest claim on the public’s attention with more stealth than hype. (AT)Bitchuation, which Soderbergh has acknowledged as his but which does not bear the mark of Twitter authenticity, has around 6,300 followers, which would be a not-bad readership right now.
The point of his experiment seems to be to isolate the minimal elements of a story. There is a protagonist, ‘you’, who has witnessed his own funeral and who is involved in the globe-trotting pursuit of a mysterious object. Hopscotching among European capitals, you encounter colleagues and enemies, all of them identified by a single letter, including a femme fatale, known as D.
The style owes something to Dashiell Hammett, Samuel Beckett and maybe also the French nouveau Roman of the 50s , which specialised in chilly, knowing deployment of familiar narrative codes. But Glue is perhaps best understood as a Soderbergh film carried out by other means. The novella, so far, is both thrilling and cerebral.
Is it a screenplay in disguise? The attached twitpics do resemble master shots, and some of the writing sounds like instructions for directors, actors and editors. But it is too early to assume that Soderbergh is kick-starting the self-aware genre exercise that will bring him out of retirement (and that would cost somebody a lot of money to make, at least if it uses real foreign locations).
Glue is assuredly not, or at least not yet, a movie. But by its author’s own definition, you could certainly call it cinema.

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