Let’s work backwards. In a few weeks Steven Soderbergh will release his newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, in the U.S. This digitally produced quickie starring adult film performer Sasha Grey clocks in at just under 80 minutes, and will debut simultaneously in theatres and on VOD. The film is about the economic exchanges of a high-ticket sex worker whose specialty is providing, as the title implies, a kind of simulated companionship in excess of the usual perfunctory body-bump. L.A. Weekly critic Scott Foundas made a rather startling comparison, writing, «The Girlfriend Experience continues Soderbergh’s ongoing series of structuralist metaphors for the filmmaking process, here trading Che’s guerilla warfare for the world of high-class prostitution.»
Aside from his suddenly prodding me to consider for the first time whether such film-specific jargon as «four-walling» and «threading the projector» might contain heretofore unacknowledged double entendre, Foundas’s assessment forced me to reconsider my engagement with Soderbergh’s Che, a four-hour conundrum that has been bothering me ever since I underwent it last September. Giving it a second look (a distinct luxury in the States, since its distributor here has also made it available as a VOD selection), I’m realizing that Soderbergh himself is a problem. I don’t mean «problem» in the strictly pejorative sense. «Problems» in mathematics demand our effort to solve them, and to do so rather dispassionately at that. «Problems» in history, meanwhile, represent knots of anomalous epiphenomena that may point to some new shift in our way of understanding things. Steven Soderbergh is an excellent director and cinematographer. But I’m not sure he’s a «great filmmaker», and the Soderbergh «problem» might illuminate not only what tends to count as great film art, but also what counts as successful art cinema within the interstices of the American system.
To return briefly to Girlfriend Experience for a second. This Sasha Grey character is an odd one. In interviews, the 21-year-old porn star has called herself an «existentialist», and her MySpace page is already the stuff of legend. Among her interests, she lists Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Lars Von Trier, Godard, Bertolucci, and «my butthole and gash». Grey is the girlfriend experience for a certain kind of nerd, but she’s also indicative of a strange energy that runs much deeper throughout the Soderberghian corpus. After all, a hypothetical MySpace page for «Peter Andrews» (Soderbergh’s cinematography alias which, let’s face it, does sound like a porn name) would include such interests as Franz Kafka, Tarkovsky, neo-Surrealism, Spaulding Gray, Latin American politics, British kitchen-sink realism, the Riviera, the Nouvelle Vague, the culture of the Washington elite, 1940s Hollywood, Scientology, the limitations of psychoanalysis, and the chiseled curvature of George Clooney. So, okay. Who is this guy?
Soderbergh’s cinephilia has made him a critics’ favorite, seemingly «one of the good guys», and I guess I agree. I’ve liked as many of his films as I’ve disliked. But that’s probably because from one film to the next, Soderbergh’s priorities, whatever they may be, have taken a quark-like dodge in some indeterminate direction. During press conferences surrounding Che, Soderbergh frequently noted that he had no personal history with or connection to the actions or teachings of Ernesto «Che» Guevara (played quite ably by Benicio Del Toro in the film), and that the making of the film was basically an opportunity to learn about the man and his campaigns. Soderbergh stopped well short of some confession that (as critic Mike D’Angelo jokingly speculated) the director pulled the topic «Che» out of a grab bag. But there is something uniquely odd about a filmmaker tackling this particular historical subject from a position so devoid of prior interest, let alone passion. Now, make no mistake. This is in no way to imply that fervent devotion to Guevara’s cause is a prerequisite for making a successful film about the man. In fact, when one considers the hagiographic hazards inherent in the biopic format, a degree of distance could be just what the dialectical materialist ordered. Let’s not forget what Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies: «A little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.» But the Soderbergh «problem», it seems to me, has to do with the director’s specific manner of formalism, one that Che throws into great relief.
Here are some basic, formal things one can say about Che. It is divided into two feature-length halves. The first, subtitled The Argentine, dramatizes (if one can use that word in this context) Guevara’s participation in the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro (veteran Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The second part, subtitled Guerrilla, begins with the announcement of Che’s resignation from the Cuban government and the start of his failed campaign in Bolivia, which results in his capture and execution. Much has been made of the fact that The Argentine is shot in Cinemascope whereas Guerrilla observes the much tighter 1:85 aspect ratio. Arguments about this mid-film shift have varied somewhat. Some restrict themselves to purely intra-film formalism, noting that as life and possibility close down (or close in) for Guevara, the cinematic space around him shrinks accordingly. Others (critic / programmer Shelly Kraicer, for one) have gone further, placing The Argentine alongside the radical film culture that was ushered in alongside the political promise Guevara seemed to represent at the time of the Cuban revolution – the Nouvelle Vague, the Czech New Wave, Antonioni and Fellini, an expansive universe of modernist possibility. Guerrilla, likewise, represents the loss of that film culture, and the narrow confines of television.
These are incredibly persuasive arguments, and by no means beyond Soderbergh’s intellectual ken. He is nothing if not a neo-movie-brat. But again, to examine Che formally, The Argentine in particular is one of the most radically decentered biopics imaginable. The majority of its organization consists of moving bands of thirty to forty people around variably hospitable patches of space, with Guevara and Castro isolated only in select moments of strategy. The physical activity of revolutionary activity is emphasized above any «romance», eschewing either biopic or war-epic tendencies. Guerrilla, by contrast, tends to isolate Guevara a bit more, implicitly placing considerable blame for the Bolivian failure on the man’s shoulders while also acknowledging that sometimes the conditions simply are not there. All of this de-emphasis comes to the great delight of Che’s greatest champions, who feel they’ve discovered an almost Bressonian war film, a pure procedural that accords equal weight to all events and participants so as to overcome revolutionary fetishism.
And this is true, to an extent. The only way you could get a less emphatic film on the subject would be to discover a lost Warhol two-reeler that shot four hours of a Che poster hanging on a dorm room wall. But Soderbergh so flattens out the material that everything in Che, from its mapping of Cuban and Bolivian rural space to its examination of guerrilla tactics to its debunking / rebunking of the cult of personality, all feels inward and uncommunicative, like a project filtered through an unengaged, uncurious worldview. Elsewhere I’ve called Che «autistic», and now I think that’s wrong, because autistics tend to have their obsessions, whereas I still cannot fathom what it is that obsesses Steven Soderbergh. Maybe digital cameras and wide-angle lenses. Che did not require a true-believing «red diaper baby», but it did require some sense that its form was dictated by the historical and dramatic demands of the topic. Virtually anything could have been organized and filmed with the same calculated dispassion and recessive impersonality that Soderbergh brought to Che – Lindbergh, Adenauer, Pelé, whatever.
To call Soderbergh a formalist (or even a structuralist, like Foundas does) strikes me as highly misleading, since it confounds our most useful ideas about cinematic form. Formalism isn’t the same as a fixation of the nuts-and-bolts of technique. Certainly cinema has its poets and its technicians, and Soderbergh situates himself among the latter, albeit with frequent dollops of flippant humor (Full Frontal, Schizopolis). There are directors who project an icy, remote impersonality throughout their work. Kubrick famously compared the director to an«“idea and taste machine». But in Kubrick’s work, even if we never learn about «Stanley Kubrick» (the way we undoubtedly learn about, for example, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Von Trier, Brakhage), his films never failed to evince the great pleasure Kubrick clearly took in being chilly. Similarly, Michael Haneke never lets you forget that he considers himself to be your intellectual and moral superior, even though we learn little about his own hopes and fears from the work itself. Soderbergh, meanwhile, seems to move from project to project with an impersonality that one might almost associate with an itinerant laborer. How do you express yourself, picking lettuce one month, working construction the next?
Of course, it’s fundamentally incorrect to compare Soderbergh, a very successful cultural worker, with that less fortunate fellow scratching out a living beneath the radar. But really, both tend to exemplify the unrootedness and lack of connection that the massive post-industrial shift in global economics has generated, in everyday life and all facets of culture. Money moves faster than people, bonds are tremulously temporary, and all partnerships are limited. We have to be willing to shift gears at a moment’s notice. And so, in a way, the Soderbergh «problem» I alluded to above might be precisely this: he is the paradigmatic auteur of economic neo-liberalism. And so with Che, the Soderbergh (im)personality expresses itself neither as sly leftism infiltrating the Hollywood machine, nor as that selfsame machine co-opting anything and everything, even the ultimate Communist insurgent. Neo-liberalism’s job is to sublate those old opposites. The thing is sold, it moves, and it is essentially a blank. We can project transgressive tendencies, or conservative capitulation, onto that blank screen, because the important thing is that the commodity was assembled, shipped out, and consumed. And now, his next film will «take on» agribusiness. Sure. Why the hell not?