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What’s So Great About Steven Soderbergh?

Steven Soderbergh has had one hell of a year, having achieved some much-deserved exposure for his mainstream breakthroughs, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. More impressive is that he hasn’t backed down from his experimental, irreverent approach to filmmaking.

Independent single mom battles evil corporation and wins. DEA operatives and government appointed drug czars wage war on drugs. These are movies that have already been made. A Civil Action walks pretty much the same line as Erin Brockovich. Traffic is just twelve episodes of Miami Vice strung into a three hour epic. (In this episode, we bust some drug dealers. In the next episode, we’ll bust some more.) What makes Steven Soderbergh’s films distinctive among the herd of generic mainstream mediocrity is the quality he brings to every film he touches, a startling sense of immediacy.

Think about it — when the opening reel unfolded, it felt like you were already in the middle of a story. The characters had lives before the traditional three-act structure, just as there will remain loose ends still after they have completed the tasks at hand.

It’s not just the shaky handheld camerawork Soderbergh seems to favor (even shooting Traffic himself under a pseudonym, with a small mobile crew), it’s the details he chooses to pick up on. The camera moves within the scene like a news team, placing the audience in the interesting role of detective. It works beautifully in scenes like the chaotic FBI ambush early in Traffic which captures the chaos and rush of energy as guns are drawn, waving in every direction. No one knows who’s who. A quick insert shot has an agent frantically pulling his badge round his neck so he doesn’t get blown away.

It’s not always so fast. The stagnant scenes of a husband and wife discussing their daughter on drugs is handled in a boring, unwavering, head-on wide shot. Michael Douglas is often filmed in this manner throughout Traffic, causing a subtle discomfort in the viewer.

There’s also the occasional burst of chaos to keep us on our toes. George Clooney rips off his tie in freeze frame in the opening scene of Out of Sight. Remember that long take in Erin Brockovich where Julia Roberts drives out into traffic for a stretch in a seemingly mundane shot? Soderbergh lets it linger until the other vehicle comes wheeling in for an unsuspected CRASH.

He favors obscure angles, most memorably peering in over the hood from a high diagonal at Terence Stamp in The Limey. Most of the opening dialogue in the opening stakeout of Traffic is filmed from behind the actor’s heads.

Then there’s that Steven Soderbergh editing technique, also favored by Lars von Trier, which compresses time through jump-cuts and abrupt transitions. Again, think of yourself (the viewer) as detective or jury. Soderbergh has edited down his tape to the bare essentials of information you need, so he trims away all those details that bog down traditional action thrillers. He cuts straight to the meat.

Interesting, no? He keeps the scenes rolling fast but lingers on small, almost miniscule details of character: Don Cheadle discussing the cigarette patch his cousin wore; Benicio Del Toro chewing gum and smoking; Michael Douglas and his three glasses of scotch a night.

These are all items in a cinematic bag of tricks. Now, Soderbergh needs to find the scripts to marry that style to. He’s been sticking to films which, in any other hands, would be routine and run-of-the-mill.

The plots of Traffic, The Limey, Erin Brockovich were the least interesting (if serviceable) part of those experiences. If Soderbergh has revealed himself to be the freshest, most intelligent, ballsiest filmmaker of his era, it’s time he found screenwriters who match his playful experimentation tit-for-tat.

Once he gets locked and loaded with the right project, Soderbergh will earn his place alongside such American masters as Altman and Kubrick. I don’t think it’s a crime to mention him in the same breath.

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