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The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh

The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh

R. Barton Palmer
Steven M. Sanders
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh
    Book Description:

    Widely regarded as a turning point in American independent cinema, Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (1989) launched the career of its twenty-six-year-old director, whose debut film was nominated for an Academy Award and went on to win the Cannes Film Festival's top award, the Palme d'Or. The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh breaks new ground by investigating salient philosophical themes through the unique story lines and innovative approaches to filmmaking that distinguish this celebrated artist.

    Editors R. Barton Palmer and Steven M. Sanders have brought together leading scholars in philosophy and film studies for the first systematic analysis of Soderbergh's entire body of work, offering the first in-depth exploration of the philosophical ideas that form the basis of the work of one of the most commercially successful and consistently inventive filmmakers of our time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2663-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)
    R. Barton Palmer and Steven M. Sanders

    Orson Welles was twenty-six when, having given himself a crash course in filmmaking, he directed and starred inCitizen Kane(1941). If its peculiar artistry and penetrating dissection of American culture went underappreciated at the time, the film has long since been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the national cinema. Steven Soderbergh was the same age when his initial directorial effort,sex, lies, and videotape(1989), for which he also wrote the script, received, among other accolades, the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Even at twenty years remove, Soderbergh’s first film arguably remains the most...

  5. Part 1. Knowledge, Truth, Sexuality

    • Knowledge, Truth, and Thought Experiments in Schizopolis and sex, lies, and videotape
      (pp. 13-28)
      David Rodríguez-Ruiz

      Insex, lies, and videotape(1989) andSchizopolis(1996), the main characters are put in situations where they are deprived of crucial information or simply deceived by others, and they need to find out the truth about their circumstances in order to take control of their lives. Despite the main characters’ sharing the same need for knowledge, there are striking contrasts in the way they get access to the information they need to know: for some characters knowledge is difficult to obtain, for others knowledge seems impossible, and for still others knowledge comes too easy. InslvAnn Bishop Mullany...

    • Love, Truth, and the Medium in sex, lies, and videotape
      (pp. 29-50)
      Yannis Tzioumakis

      Arguably the most important scene insex, lies, and videotape(1989) takes place approximately ten minutes before the end of the film, when Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell) grabs Graham Dalton’s (James Spader) video camera, points it toward him, and challenges him to talk about himself. Prior to that moment in the narrative, the only person behind the camera had been the current object of its gaze. Graham has been using the camera as a tool for sexual gratification as over the years he lost his ability to get an erection through human contact. Instead, he has videotaped a number...

    • Amplified Discourse and Desire in sex, lies, and videotape
      (pp. 51-66)
      Murray Pomerance

      When a speaker speaking is visible to us, we can have the opportunity to carefully observe two aspects of her enunciation at once, the productive animation of interpretable sound—which involves breathing, glottal articulation, shared language, expressive intonation, linguistically meaningful interruptions and pauses, and so on—and self-regard. When the speaker regards herself speaking, she makes a tiny display of her sense of what it means to be a speaker in a certain context, what it means to have a certain attitude toward one’s listener(s), what it means to be creating or at least emitting a speech, and what it...

  6. Part 2. Temporality, Intertextuality, Genre

    • Alain Resnais Meets Film Noir in The Underneath and The Limey
      (pp. 69-90)
      R. Barton Palmer

      Questioned during a postproduction interview about the “very complex chronological structure inThe Limey[1999],” Steven Soderbergh’s somewhat oblique answer was to call attention to the models he followed: “My whole line while we were making it was, ‘if we do our job right this isGet Carteras made by Alain Resnais.’” Such a film would “spell big box office,” the director went on to predict, because its “certain amount of abstraction” (an important element of which was the film’s unconventional treatment of story time) would be complemented by a “backbone” that was otherwise “so straight.”¹ Soderbergh was not...

    • Consciousness, Temporality, and the Crime-Revenge Genre in The Limey
      (pp. 91-106)
      Geoff King

      Steven Soderbergh has describedThe Limey(1999) as “Get Carteras made by Alain Resnais,” a conjuncture of revenge movie genre and art cinema conventions that gives a good impression of where the film lies in the wider cinematic spectrum.¹ The structure and editing regimes ofThe Limeyare manifestations of Soderbergh’s most explicit attempt to render what he terms the nonlinear nature of human thought processes, a dimension addressed more fleetingly in narrative and formal devices employed elsewhere in his work. This chapter offers an analysis of the manner in which this is achieved inThe Limey, in combination...

    • Intertextuality, Broken Mirrors, and The Good German
      (pp. 107-120)
      Andrew deWaard

      In an interview a few years before beginning production onThe Good German(2006), director Steven Soderbergh related his formal and stylistic promiscuity to his desire to make an innovative “leap” within the medium of film. Soderbergh is searching for “another level,” and one idea he has is to tell a story spanning the entire twentieth century and then “cut it up into ten ten-minute sections. You pick a year from each of those decades. In each year, let’s say the 1903 decade, you shoot in the aesthetic ofThe Great Train Robbery. In the teens, you shoot in the...

    • Remade by Steven Soderbergh
      (pp. 121-142)
      Aaron Baker

      From the perspective of aesthetic philosophy, Noël Carroll points out that early in the history of film questions arose about its ability to qualify as art. Film’s use of photography to show objective reality was regarded as preventing its function as an expressive medium.¹ The early prominence of what Tom Gunning has called the cinema of attractions (films such the Lumière brothers’ popularactualités) confirmed for critics of cinema’s aesthetic capability its tendency to reflect rather than create. Even a critically praised film such asThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(Robert Wiene, 1920) was valued for the expressive creativity of...

  7. Part 3. Self-Reflexivity, Self-Centeredness, Autobiography

    • Philosophical Reflections on Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
      (pp. 145-158)
      Ivo Ritzer

      The films of Steven Soderbergh form a cinema of disparity. His consistency appears in his inconsistency, with the themes in his various works quite divergent. His first two films,sex, lies, and videotape(1989) andKafka(1991), are especially distinct from one another, as from a restrained intimate melodrama Soderbergh moves to an extremely stylized art-thriller. The disparity in Soderbergh’s oeuvre is a double one. It has to be conceived horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally, as appears from across a series of projects, and vertically, paying attention to the heterogeneity withinany onemovie. This aesthetic strategy makes his...

    • Responsibility and Self-Centered Narration in Erin Brockovich
      (pp. 159-172)
      Andrew Patrick Nelson

      In response to my initial query about contributing to this collection of essays on director Steven Soderbergh, one of the editors provided me with the names of movies already spoken for, and of those titles still available. I noticed that one film was on neither list:Erin Brockovich(2000). I took this to be an honest oversight, and still do. But that innocent omission was to be the first of many I encountered while preparing this chapter. When speaking to others about the movie, the common response was “Soderberghdirected that?” It became an almost comic refrain, heard from even...

    • Schizopolis as Philosophical Autobiography
      (pp. 173-194)
      Drew Morton

      Upon his acceptance of the Palme d’Or forsex, lies, and videotape(1989) at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh facetiously quipped, “It’s all downhill from here.”¹ Ironically, he had no idea how true this self-deprecating comment would be. Following the success ofslvSoderbergh went on to direct screenwriter Lem Dobbs’sKafka(1991). The film was a critical and commercial failure. After all, the hotshot director, newly assimilated into the Hollywood system, took an $11 million budget and shot a black-and-white art film. Moreover, the film was not a biography of famed author Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) but a fictional narrative constructed...

  8. Part 4. Politics, Morals, Methodology

    • Mr. Soderbergh Goes to Washington
      (pp. 197-212)
      Steven M. Sanders

      No text in Steven Soderbergh’s still expanding body of work has been more neglected than his bold television experiment, the ten-episode HBO seriesK Street(2003). If a cursory search turns up a fair number of scholarly writings on Soderbergh’s film work,K Streethas yet to receive the attention it deserves.¹ The following interpretive commentary is aimed at filling this gap in Soderbergh criticism.

      As a drama of moral complexity,K Streetwill be remembered for its use of political events as “backgrounds for fictive narratives.”² The show is a meditation on power and paranoia in the capital city...

    • Schizoanalyzing the Informant
      (pp. 213-230)
      David Sterritt

      The protagonist ofThe Informant!(2009) would be a tough nut for a psychoanalyst to crack. Psychoanalysis explores the past, probing memories, dreams, and parapraxes for clues to the character, attributes, and modus operandi of a person’s mind. But as portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s fact-based dramatic comedy, corporate wheeler-dealer Mark Whitacre is a person without a past. More precisely, he is a person who has endeavored to erase his past—his childhood, adolescence, and family history—by lying about it to others and refraining from thinking about it himself, as we gather from samples of his everyday thoughts, heard as...

    • Competing Modes of Capital in Ocean’s Eleven
      (pp. 231-246)
      R. Colin Tait

      In the first moments ofOcean’s Eleven(2001), disheveled protagonist Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is released from prison after doing four years of hard time. He stands as a man out of sorts: an unshaven ex-con in a tuxedo, hoping to reassert his male utility in the face of overwhelming odds. This image echoes Ocean’s earlier conversation with his parole board, when he announces that he allowed himself to be caught after his wife left him, as part of his admitted “self-destructive phase.” The juxtaposition of Ocean in his tuxedo, set against the backdrop of the prison, presents him as...

    • An Ethical Analysis of Traffic
      (pp. 247-264)
      Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin

      In his filmTraffic(2000), director Steven Soderbergh tells the intertwined stories of four main characters. First is Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a well-to-do California housewife whose happy family life is abruptly disrupted when her husband, a powerful drug distributor for a major Mexican drug cartel, is arrested. One of the arresting officers is Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), a DEA agent who struggles with the recent death of his partner, killed during a botched assassination attempt. A few miles south of the border is Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican police officer who uncovers a drug trafficking conspiracy in...

  9. Part 5. Simulacra, Space, Solaris

    • The Philosophy of Space and Memory in Solaris
      (pp. 267-280)
      Douglas McFarland

      In an essay written some twenty years after the publication of his novelSolaris, Stanislaw Lem offers examples of the three narrative typologies of science fiction writing, ranking them in order of increasing complexity. In the first, an imagined device for preventing earthquakes leads to the elimination of a natural catastrophe. Stories of this type require that the reader “re-evaluate or reorient … cultural norms” since it is a given that prevention of earthquakes is a “worthwhile goal.”¹ Lem’s second example asks more of readers. The author creates a certain fantastic hypothesis and places human figures within that imagined context....

    • Solaris, Cinema, and Simulacra
      (pp. 281-304)
      Michael Valdez Moses

      Though not a graduate of one of America’s leading film schools, Steven Soderbergh is as much a student of the history of cinema as any of his celebrated peers who learned their craft at university.¹ One of the key figures behind the 1990s “independent” film movement, Soderbergh has distinguished himself by a self-conscious style of filmmaking that conspicuously imitates and reworks earlier cinematic forms and genres and by an unusually self-reflexive body of works, beginning with his 1989 feature-length debut,sex, lies, and videotape. In a filmmaking career that currently spans two decades, Soderbergh has directed three remakes of earlier...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 305-308)
  11. Index
    (pp. 309-318)