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A filmmaker's celluloid feats

Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for "Sex, Lies and Videotape" at 26. His career, since then, has been a roller-coaster ride of success and failure, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.


BEING PROBABLY among the last people left in the world to still have an LD-DVD player in one, one always makes sure to check out any LD sales going on at video stores when one is travelling. It was in one such sale of phased-out laser-discs, two years ago at Singapore's downmarket Jurong Point, that this writer discovered an LD copy of a 1993 film by Steven Soderbergh called "King of the Hill".

One had not seen the film. At that point one had only vaguely heard of it, although, by then, Soderbergh had already won two Best Director nominations in one year — a feat no one had achieved before — and an Academy Award, for his film "Traffic."

"King of the Hill" was a delight from start to finish.

Although the young man at the video store had looked at one doubtfully when one bought the LD at the throwaway price for which he was offering it, the film was worth every Singapore dollar that one paid for it and more.

It is the story of twelve-year old Aaron (Jesse Bradford), who finds that he has to survive by himself in a seedy transient hotel in St. Louis during the Great Depression. With his mother in hospital, his salesman father somewhere on the road trying to sell watches and his younger brother away with relatives, Aaron manages to pull on somehow.

Soderbergh likes to have interesting side characters in his films. In "King of the Hill," Spalding Gray and Elizabeth McGovern play memorable cameos. The film, adapted by Soderbergh from a memoir by A. E. Hotchner (who, one learns, grew up through the Depression to become the biographer of Ernest Hemingway and Sophia Loren, among others), is richly photographed in 1930s colours, and the hotel interiors have been carefully filmed. Indeed, for this writer , it remains one of the best films ever made about growing up.

"King of the Hill" was not Soderbergh's debut. Another well known film, was. When, in 1989, an unbelievably young director from Louisiana, named Steven Soderbergh, first appeared on the scene with his first feature film, "Sex, Lies and Videotape", which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, he was of course the youngest winner ever of this award. He was 26 years old.

"Sex, Lies and Videotape" also won Soderbergh the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher play Ann and John, the married couple in this film about a group of thirty-somethings with mixed up sex lives. Ann is bored with sex and suburbia, while unbeknownst to her, her husband is having an affair with her sister. The equilibrium of this uneasy troika changes when Graham arrives, a near-stranger who was at college with the husband. This guy has a thing for filming conversations with women about their thoughts on sex.



"Traffic" got Steven Soderbergh the Academy Award for Best Director.

This low-key film, with great performances from its cast, is not merely an examination of contemporary attitudes towards relationships, marriage, eroticism, and power dynamics in the lives of men and women but also of the ways in which the camera and the world it films, real life and art, are related.

Most important, it showed that it was possible to have a movie consisting largely of the forgotten art of conversation. Indeed, when it was shown at the Kolkata Film Festival, people thronged the ticket queues for the wrong reasons. After all, the film had lies in plenty, and much videotape; of the first part of the title there was only much discussion.

Not only did the film win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, it also won the best actor prize for James Spader. In the U.S., first seen at the Sundance Festival, it defined independent filmmaking. The story of how "Sex, Lies and Videotape" was made is now almost a cliché of contemporary film history.

Soderbergh wrote the screenplay in eight days during a trip to Los Angeles and made the film in just five weeks, for a remarkably low-budget, $ 1.2 million dollars. Filmed in Soderbergh's hometown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and without glitzy special effects, the film has a fresh look about it even today.

Again, 11 years later, when Soderbergh won the Academy Award for Best Director for his film, "Traffic," he was doing something that no one had done before. He was beating himself to the award.

Soderbergh's other 2000 release, "Erin Brockovich," had been nominated in the same category in that year. Not that Soderbergh's career has been entirely without any years in the wilderness. Indeed, there were times where there was little other than failure. Like Steven Spielberg, Soderbergh began making movies early in life. He was still in high school at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when he joined a film animation class at the Louisiana State University, where his father was a professor.

He began making short 16mm films, using whatever equipment he could lay his hands on. After high school, Soderbergh went to Hollywood, worked there at odd film-related jobs for some time, and returned home to make shorts and write concepts.

His first major chance came in 1986, when rock group `Yes' took him on tour with them and contracted him to shoot a full-length concert film for them, which eventually earned him a Grammy nomination for the hour-long video, "Yes: 9012 Live".

Following this achievement, in 1987 Soderbergh filmed "Winston", a short (12-minute) black and white film that he made to attract funding, and that would later evolve into the 1989 "Sex, Lies and Videotape," the film that won at Cannes and made Soderbergh an icon of new and independent filmmaking.

But for the major part of the 1990s , Soderbergh was exiled to the Indie desert. In 1991 he made the insular, mostly black and white "Kafka", with Jeremy Irons in the cast, and broadly based on Kafka's writing. The film, however, was not a success.

Soderbergh followed this up with "King of the Hill" which — though, a wonderful film — didn't do well at all commercially. Also during the 1990s he made such low-key films as the film noir enterprise, "Underneath", and the tedious Spalding Gray monologue, "Gray's Anatomy," all of which met with mixed reviews at best.

"Underneath" had a clever, complicated plot about a compulsive gambler who returns to his hometown not only for his mother's marriage but also to woo back his wife, family and friends, all of whom he had alienated with his gambling. As for "Gray's Anatomy," it was well, a monologue. There was also "Schizopolis," in 1996, an unmemorable work that met with critical and commercial failure.

It was in 1998 that Soderbergh made "Out of Sight," his first major success since "Sex, Lies, and Videotape". Perhaps it was the appearance of George Clooney in the film, as a career bank robber getting out of jail that did the trick; or perhaps it was the casting coup of getting Jennifer Lopez to play a U.S. Marshal who is after the crooks; there's also Ving Rhames, who played Marcellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction," playing the second crook here in the twosome; whatever it was, this humorous Elmore Leonard-based thriller did well both critically and financially.

This was followed in 1999 by "The Limey," casting Terence Stamp in this low-key and thoughtful, if over-edited film about the shadowy side of L.A.

And then, in 2000, Soderbergh directed the two major films that are now his most successful to date: "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." These films were both nominated for Best Picture Oscars at the 2001 Academy Awards, and gave him his first ever win.

"Erin Brockovich," which has Albert Finney along with Julia Roberts, is based on the true story of the brassy, gritty single mother who, while working at a legal firm, researched deep into certain files she came across and discovered that a major corporation was fudging pollution parameters, polluting the city's water supply and getting away, literally, with murder.

"Traffic" won him the Best Director Oscar. "Erin Brockovich" achieved an even more astounding success, by winning Julia Roberts an Oscar. "Traffic", a grainy, realist docu-drama about the arduous war on drugs, shot with hand-held camera, different lenses and all over location, is visually riveting.

The film, starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro, was acclaimed as Soderbergh's best enterprise, both technically and thematically.

One often wishes to throw up one's hands and say, will the real Steven Soderbergh please stand up? He has, after all, been nothing if not versatile - but there have been few films as intimate or personal after "Sex, Lies and Videotape," or "King of the Hill," though he has been busy since then. Seeing his parents' divorce and then his own has, perhaps, made him wary of returning to filming the minefield of personal relationships.

The 2001 multi-starrer and Vegas heist-caper, "Ocean's Eleven," a remake of the 1960s Frank Sinatra production, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts, was his most frankly commercial film so far, with a tight plot and intelligently filmed, and did exceedingly well.

The next year, there were two films again: but "Solaris," his thoughtful science fiction love story again with Clooney, based on Stanislaw Lem's novel which had been filmed by Tarkovsky in 1972, didn't quite work; and "Full Frontal," a Hollywood film-about-films with Roberts and David Duchovny, met with unenthusiastic reviews. It was the critical, commercial roller-coaster again. But for Soderbergh, returning to Danny Ocean and George Clooney to make his next project, "Ocean's Twelve," it's all in a year's work.

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