FILM His Own Lim­its

Shane Danielsen on Steven Soder­bergh’s ‘Un­sane’

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

Given his om­niv­o­rous ap­petite for cul­ture, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that, while work­ing at the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany in 2009, Steven Soder­bergh heard of Nel­lie Melba. There was cer­tainly some of the late dame’s ir­res­o­lute­ness to his an­nounce­ment two years later that he was re­tir­ing from film­mak­ing, al­legedly to de­vote him­self to paint­ing. He was fed up with the stu­dios, he said. Too lum­ber­ing, too greedy. Worse, he claimed to be bored by the sim­ple lo­gis­tics of movie-making. (“When you reach the point where you’re like, ‘if I have to get into a van to do another scout I’m just go­ing to shoot my­self,’ it’s time to let some­body else who’s still ex­cited about get­ting in the van, get in the van.”) Like many oth­ers, I took this dec­la­ra­tion with a large grain of salt. For all Soder­bergh’s in­ter­est in art – and it’s a gen­uine in­ter­est: he’s a ded­i­cated and cred­itable painter – his ex­tremely clever mind in­clines too nat­u­rally to se­quen­tial im­ages to be en­tirely ful­filled by the more static sat­is­fac­tions of a can­vas. In­deed, just a few weeks later he be­gan walk­ing back the state­ment: sud­denly it wasn’t a re­tire­ment but a “sab­bat­i­cal” – a chance to take stock and, in do­ing so, to at­tempt to re­con­nect with the en­ergy (or, per­haps more ac­cu­rately, the fear of bore­dom) that had pro­pelled him through 25 fea­tures in 24 years. Sure enough, he soon be­gan di­rect­ing again, this time for tele­vi­sion: 10 hour-long episodes of the 1900s-era hospi­tal drama The Knick – in­ci­den­tally, some of his finest work to date. A sec­ond sea­son fol­lowed late in 2015, 10 more hours, and though he ex­tolled the virtues of long-form TV sto­ry­telling (“so many de­tails are pos­si­ble, so much depth”), it seemed only a mat­ter of time be­fore he re­lented and re­turned to cin­ema. Lo­gan Lucky was his first the­atri­cal fea­ture since the break; Un­sane (in gen­eral re­lease) is the sec­ond. (A third, High Fly­ing Bird, is al­ready shot and edited, and will be re­leased later this year.) Claire Foy (El­iz­a­beth II on Net­flix’s The Crown) plays Sawyer Valen­tini, a nervy, trou­bled young woman who has re­cently re­lo­cated to Penn­syl­va­nia in an at­tempt to elude a stalker (Joshua Leonard) whose face she nev­er­the­less con­tin­ues to glimpse in the faces of oth­ers. Her new life is far from ideal: her boss is predatory, her work­mates nosy. After ad­mit­ting to a ther­a­pist that she has oc­ca­sion­ally con­tem­plated sui­cide, she finds her­self com­mit­ted against her will to a men­tal hospi­tal – first for a 24-hour ob­ser­va­tion pe­riod, and then, after she freaks out and at­tacks a guard, for a seven-day stretch. Her protes­ta­tions are brushed aside (as she’s con­stantly re­minded, these are pre­cisely the things a crazy per­son would say), and this Snake Pit sce­nario, of some­one slip­ping deeper with ev­ery sec­ond into in­sti­tu­tional quick­sand, feels scar­ily, dis­tress­ingly plau­si­ble. The drama deep­ens with the dis­cov­ery that the hospi­tal’s man­age­ment is pulling a scam: it’s in their fi­nan­cial in­ter­est to com­mit peo­ple, healthy or oth­er­wise, and to hold them for as long as their in­sur­ers keep foot­ing the bills. And for a brief mo­ment, the film’s pur­pose seems to clar­ify: not a psy­cho­log­i­cal drama, as we orig­i­nally thought, but a satire in the style of Bri­tan­nia Hospi­tal – a take­down of Amer­ica’s breath­tak­ingly cor­rupt health­care sys­tem. Ex­cept then it shifts gears yet again, with the ap­pear­ance of Sawyer’s ac­tual stalker, who’s man­aged to get him­self a job in the hospi­tal (un­der a false name, natch) and who pro­ceeds to drive her deeper into mad­ness – and push the film to­wards some­thing Gothic and, alas, more than a lit­tle ab­surd. None of this, you sense, mat­ters much to the film­maker him­self. Since the end of the first phase of his ca­reer, fol­low­ing the box-of­fice fail­ure of 1995’s The Un­der­neath (a film he now dis­owns), Soder­bergh has been driven by process rather than out­come, and by an al­most patho­log­i­cal need to not re­peat him­self. The re­sult is less a fil­mog­ra­phy than a suc­ces­sion of test stud­ies, ex­er­cises in which he sets him­self some par­tic­u­lar goal, or im­poses upon him­self some spe­cific re­stric­tion, and gets to work.

On this oc­ca­sion at least, the re­sult il­lus­trates the lim­its, not the po­ten­tial, of the technology.

It was easy, for ex­am­ple, to mis­take 2006’s The Good Ger­man for an awards-sea­son pres­tige pic. All the req­ui­site Os­car el­e­ments were in place, from the A-list cast (Ge­orge Clooney, Cate Blanchett) to the re­cent his­tor­i­cal set­ting (Ger­many in the af­ter­math of World War Two). In fact, it was a pure experiment in form, an at­tempt by the di­rec­tor to re-cre­ate the shoot­ing con­di­tions of 1940s-era Hol­ly­wood, com­plete with a filmic vo­cab­u­lary dic­tated by the lim­its of that pe­riod’s equip­ment: wide-an­gle lenses, in­can­des­cent sound­stage light­ing, booms rather than ra­dio mics. Dis­missed on its re­lease as a blood­less homage to films like Casablanca, it was in­stead some­thing both less and more: a sim­u­lacrum. Ex­cit­ing for its maker – a chance to step into the shoes of a Michael Cur­tiz or a Joseph L. Mankiewicz – but slightly less so for its au­di­ence. Al­ter­na­tively, he may choose to mimic a par­tic­u­lar genre. Thus Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was his heist flick; Con­ta­gion (2011) his end-of-the-world movie; Side Ef­fects (2013) his take on a Hitch­cock­ian thriller.

The Girl­friend Ex­pe­ri­ence, his 2009 Sasha Grey ve­hi­cle, was partly a re­sponse to the Amer­i­can eco­nomic cri­sis, but mostly (it seemed to me) ei­ther an af­fec­tion­ate or pas­sive-ag­gres­sive at­tempt by Soder­bergh to re­make his friend Lodge Ker­ri­gan’s 1998 call­girl drama Claire Dolan. (That Ker­ri­gan then went on to make a TV ver­sion of The Girl­friend Ex­pe­ri­ence, along­side fel­low di­rec­tor Amy Seimetz, only goes to show that artists have com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships.) This time, the chal­lenge is a tech­ni­cal one: work­ing from a screen­play by Jonathan Bern­stein and James Greer, Soder­bergh elected to shoot Un­sane en­tirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. He’s hardly the first Amer­i­can film­maker to at­tempt this: Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) was shot on the streets of Hol­ly­wood us­ing three iPhone 5s de­vices. But it marks a fur­ther short­cut in an al­ready re­mark­ably ab­bre­vi­ated creative method. Soder­bergh these days serves as his own cin­e­matog­ra­pher (un­der the nom de tra­vail Peter An­drews, his fa­ther’s given names) and edi­tor (as Mary Ann Bernard, his mother’s maiden name). He works ex­tremely quickly: film­ing only what he re­quires and cut­ting it to­gether on his lap­top at the end of each day’s shoot. As such, he’s drawn to technology that can fur­ther nar­row the gap be­tween cap­ture and de­liv­ery. It was of­ten said of Max Ophüls, one of cin­ema’s most fluid and el­e­gant shoot­ers, that he “wrote with the cam­era”. To­day, of course, the metaphor has be­come lit­eral: one can hold the pri­mary record­ing de­vice com­fort­ably in one’s hand. (Though, for the record, Soder­bergh used a rudi­men­tary rig with the iPhone at­tached.) Yet, on this oc­ca­sion at least, the re­sult il­lus­trates the lim­its, not the po­ten­tial, of the technology. Un­sane’s im­ages feel flat and dead. Shots are mostly un­der­lit, and of­ten de­fi­antly,

In com­mit­ting so fully to his con­ceit, Soder­bergh pays scant at­ten­tion to the de­fi­cien­cies of the script.

de­ter­minedly ugly. Cam­era moves are es­pe­cially hit and miss: there are some lovely low-slung dol­lies down hospi­tal hall­ways, rem­i­nis­cent of The Shining, but pans and lat­eral track­ing shots mostly look crappy. Soder­bergh has aug­mented the de­vice with var­i­ous lenses – no­tably a fish-eye, which dis­torts im­ages to­wards the edges of the frame – but much of the rest has the flat­tened, af­fect­less qual­ity of sur­veil­lance footage. There are some ex­per­i­ments with forced per­spec­tive, ev­ery­day ob­jects like cof­fee cups loom­ing in the fore­ground while the ac­tors run their di­a­logue be­hind, rem­i­nis­cent of mid-pe­riod Raúl Ruiz. Which is … fine. But so what? Over­all, the ef­fect is a lit­tle like that of a ma­gi­cian who can’t re­sist telling you, mid trick, how he’s pulling off the il­lu­sion. With its smudged tex­tures and op­ti­cal dis­tor­tions, the film is ba­si­cally scream­ing CAN YOU BE­LIEVE THIS? I SHOT IT ON A PHONE, DUDE! It in­tends, pre­sum­ably, to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing of the febrile in­ten­sity of a dis­so­cia­tive per­son­al­ity, or the floaty, de­tached feel­ing of be­ing strung out on meds. The prob­lem is, in com­mit­ting so fully to his con­ceit, Soder­bergh pays scant at­ten­tion to the de­fi­cien­cies of the script. And while the su­per­sat­u­rated pal­ette of Tangerine also evoked the tex­ture of its char­ac­ters’ milieu – style, there as here, was placed at the ser­vice of sub­ject – Baker’s film also pre­sented us with two ex­tremely dis­tinc­tive, be­guil­ing char­ac­ters in Sin-Dee and Alexan­dra. So we soon for­got the nov­elty of the tech­nique, and con­cen­trated in­stead upon the story be­ing told. In this one, lack­ing even a mod­icum of gen­uine in­ter­est in its pro­tag­o­nist (de­spite Foy’s best at­tempts, Sawyer re­mains a ci­pher through­out), we’re con­stantly be­ing re­minded that we’re watch­ing a gim­mick. A ven­ture un­der­taken sim­ply to see if it could be achieved. Al­ready vexed by his strug­gles with the in­dus­try, Soder­bergh’s en­thu­si­asm for film­mak­ing seemed to dwin­dle fur­ther after he com­pleted the two-part, Span­ish-lan­guage biopic Che in 2008. That film’s shoot was by all ac­counts an ar­du­ous one, and some­thing in the strug­gle ap­pears to have wounded its maker, dis­in­clin­ing him from any­thing that might de­mand so much. When he emerged from “re­tire­ment” with Lo­gan Lucky – a work so em­phat­i­cally mi­nor it seemed specif­i­cally tai­lored to smother ex­pec­ta­tions – he an­nounced that, hence­forth, he was ded­i­cat­ing him­self solely to pleas­ing him­self. And what mat­tered most to him, now, was en­ter­tain­ment. Hav­ing fun. (“I would not have come out of re­tire­ment to do some­thing ‘se­ri­ous’ or ‘im­por­tant’,” he de­clared. “No way.”) I hap­pen to think Soder­bergh’s Out of Sight (1998) is one of the great Amer­i­can movies of the past few decades – and that didn’t ex­actly an­nounce it­self as a Grave Artis­tic State­ment. It would be thrilling to see him work at that level again, to at­tain the same fine bal­ance of play­ful­ness, sub­ver­sion and craft. But that would re­quire a deeper com­mit­ment than he’s will­ing, these days, to in­vest. Tak­ing more time, per­haps even al­low­ing oth­ers into the process. (It’s worth not­ing that Out of Sight was cut by Anne V. Coates, one of the great­est ed­i­tors in film his­tory.) Soder­bergh has tech­nique to burn, and a bristling, rest­less in­tel­lect. But in churn­ing out one un­de­mand­ing tri­fle after another, he risks be­com­ing an Amer­i­can ver­sion of Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, whose films might have been twice as good if he’d made half as many. You only get to have it both ways for so long. Most of what au­di­ence there was for Lo­gan Lucky (and it wasn’t a lot) went on the strength of its maker’s rep­u­ta­tion. They weren’t in­ter­ested in NASCAR, or in a bunch of hill­bil­lies pulling off a heist – they just wanted to see the new Steven Soder­bergh movie. One could say the same of Un­sane, which would be a straight-tovideo flick were it signed by any lesser di­rec­tor. But after these two films – not bad, but not great ei­ther – the value of that name may be di­min­ish­ing. It’s good that he’s back. Now he just needs to make some­thing wor­thy of his own ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent.

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