Happy Birthday Steven Soderbergh

soderberghBorn on January 14, 1963, in Atlanta, Steven Soderbergh found filmmaking in his teens. His Hollywood apprenticeship included work as a cue card holder and a director of concert films.

In 1986, his film Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped launch the surge in indie cinema that entertained so many of us in the 1990s. He’s since brought his distinctive vibe to the mainstream with Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich while consistently feeding his experimental jones with the likes of Bubble.

He also does little-noticed work on other people’s films (Hunger Games, Her) and often assumes producer, editor, and director of photography duties on his own.

“I also do my own driving,” he notes in an interview in Steven Soderbergh, a recent entry in UIP’s Contemporary Film Directors series. Author Aaron Baker delves into all points in the director’s varied filmography. Here he breaks down Soderbergh’s acclaimed crime drama The Limey (1999):

Throughout its exposition, The Limey continues to combine intensified continuity—rapid cutting, singles, and the alternation of long and short focal-length compositions—with art-film realism and character subjectivity communicated through discontinuity editing. After Wilson arrives at his motel, he takes another cab to the home of his daughter’s friend, Eduardo, to find out about her death. This scene mixes singles in close and medium close-ups with long shots, and begins—as does the following violent sequence at a warehouse—with a moving master shot typical of a highly kinetic intensified style without time for a more static view of the larger narrative space.

Yet as such cinematography conveys Wilson’s plans for vindication, following the conventions of the genre by which, as Nicole Rafter puts it, revenge films “spell out the motives of those who take the law into their own hands,” Soderbergh and the cinematographer Ed Lachman also subvert our expectations of vigilante justice through discontinuity editing that encourages critical distance by showing the contradictions between Wilson’s plans and the connectedness he wants to recover from his past. Lachman has explained that the rapid flashbacks and -forwards early in the film are meant to show where Wilson came from and where he is going, specifically his memories of Jenny and the desire for revenge that animate his “interior world.” Lachman, who would go on to use a similar hybrid style as Soderbergh’s cinematographer on Erin Brockovich, was experienced in such visual representation of character subjectivity, having worked previously with Godard, Herzog, Wenders, and Sven Nykvist.

While the first two scenes showing Wilson as he decides upon his plans for violent retribution are made up exclusively of singles, the subsequent scenes, as he begins to pursue his revenge, retain the alternation between long shots and medium close-up or close-up framing but also begin to add compositions that group characters together to offset the protagonist’s individualism. Shots pairing him with Eduardo in a party scene at Valentine’s Hollywood Hills home or with Jenny’s other friend, Elaine, demonstrate that they support Wilson out of loyalty while opposing his criminal violence, as his daughter did when she was alive.

The cinema-verité realism typical of the art film lends an intensity and continuity to Luis Guzman’s and Lesley Ann Warren’s performances in scenes in which their characters attempt to subvert Wilson’s violent plans. By shooting with a scaled-down crew, less equipment, on location, using available light and two handheld cameras within a zone system, the actors were able to move freely without worrying about hitting marks. According to Lachman, this gave them “a feeling of performing in real time and with each other, because the action wasn’t cut up into so many pieces.” Lachman and Soderbergh would use this same economical guerilla style of filming even on the much bigger-budget Erin Brockovich, and Soderbergh would retain this approach to support actors’ performances in Traffic, Full Frontal, Bubble, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience.