Saturday, February 9, 2013

Directors who take their ball and go home

Much has been made about Steven Soderbergh threatening to quit directing. Since his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is set to appear on HBO, Side Effects, releasing today, could be his last theatrical release, if you are to take him at his word.

Then again, his word has also been modified from this rather absolutist stance. Maybe the specter of a future devoted entirely to painting seemed a bit daunting, so he has lately decided to re-dub this break from filmmaking a "hiatus."

Either way, I find there to be something a little petulant about people who state that they'll quit doing the thing they're doing. Especially when they do it as well and as frequently as Soderbergh does it.

It's the frequency part that really smacks of something that could almost be described as hypocrisy in the case of Soderbergh. How do you go cold turkey after spending several years on a pace of releasing a movie every seven months?

Sure, burnout is a possible factor. But if you are starting to burn out on something you love, can't you usually see the warning signs and forge for yourself a less intense schedule? Most directors are comfortable making one movie every two years, and some less frequently than that.

Which is why I always get the feeling in these situations that the person is really saying "I'm not getting the creative respect that I want/deserve. So I'm taking my ball and going home."

It's nothing overt the person is saying, but rather, a reading into the situation. Usually, a person quits doing something because they have become disillusioned with the process of doing it. And usually that's the result of this thing not bringing that person the rewards he/she believes it should bring. According to wikipedia, Soderbergh said that "when you reach the point where you're saying, '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 who's still excited about getting in the van, get in the van." Couldn't you extrapolate from this comment that he's saying "If I have to get in a van to do another scout and I'm not winning an Oscar on the other end, I don't want to do it anymore"?

Okay, that's reading a lot into it. And Soderbergh strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn't care that much about Oscars (I could probably find a quote from him that said as much if I googled it). But I don't think it's totally off base either. If Soderbergh found "getting in that van" to be so odious, why did he do it so often? In fact, so often that it looked like he was trying to set a record for the most films shot during the least amount of time?

My second example of a possibly petulantly quitting director is perhaps a clearer example. Kevin Smith has also told people that he will be wrapping up his directing career after he makes the hockey movie Hit Somebody, which was then expanded into two movies before ultimately becoming envisioned as a six-part TV miniseries. Clearly wanting to go out with some kind of feature rather than just fading away, Smith changed those plans to directing a third Clerks movie pending some other details falling into place.

Like Soderbergh with his painting, Smith also has other time-consuming passions that could easily replace the time he spends making films, as he has a knack for instantly expanding into any new form of social media. His podcasts are really popular too.

But here it seems a bit more like he was dissatisfied with the way he had started being received, and is quitting as some kind of "I'll show you" act. The announcements about his future coincided with his release of Red State, which he had to distribute himself and which was not greeted with universal acclaim (though I felt it should have been). At that point he started saying things about how he was "running out of stories to tell" and talking about how Harvey Weinstein had built him up as a celebrity auteur because his films couldn't stand on their own. Sounds pretty bitter to me.

The reason I feel more confident in accusing Smith of these petulant motivations is that I doubt he would have said or done any of this if Red State had been greeted as the masterpiece that I believe it is. If he'd gotten more love from critics and audiences on this movie, don't tell me it wouldn't have given him renewed encouragement about his own capabilities. It would have easily inspired him to continue these initial strides as a serious filmmaker, who thinks about how he composes his shots and writes stories that don't provoke merely with potty humor.

If you're detecting a little petulance in me, well, that may just be because I don't want to see either of these guys disappear. I alternate liking and not really liking Soderbergh's movies, but the ones I like (Magic Mike), I like a whole lot. And I would argue that Smith is currently making the best movies he's ever made. Both Red State and another movie he listed as one source of his low cinematic morale -- Zack and Miri Make Porno -- are comfortably in my top five Smith movies.

I was even looking forward to the hockey movie. So here's hoping neither Soderbergh nor Smith takes his puck and goes home.


Nick Prigge said...

Soderbergh just did a really long, really cool interview with Vulture where he got more revealing about why he wanted to "retire". And I use quotation marks because the way he made it sound was like he will come back if he finds "a new grammar" to use his words.

But I understand your suspicions of these retirement declarations. It always seems like a cheap way to drum up interest in yourself or your project. I'd be more inclined to believe that about Kevin Smith. Soderbergh seems like his own kind of guy. I definitely think he'll be back, sooner than even he realizes.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, Smith has developed a reputation as a guy who places a lot of stock in what people think of him. Any little criticism of his work or his methods seems to tick him off. In fact, I heard that Smith sees almost everything written about him on the internet, because he either has a team who constantly tracks these things or does it himself. By that logic, he's reading this right now.

If you are reading this, Kevin, keep in mind that while I am taking a few jabs at you, I think you are making terrific movies right now and I just don't want to see it stop.

Travis McClain said...

I've been a fan of Garth Brooks for 20+ years. I had much the same reaction to his "retirement" announcement as you've had to these two directors. A guy who spends that much time touring and recording is just going to go home and try to find a hobby? I don't buy it.

I do, however, buy that sense that there's nowhere obvious to go creatively for either of them right now. Storytellers need to feel engaged in their stories but also they need to feel there's an audience for their stories. It seems Soderbergh doesn't feel engaged in stories right now and Smith is uncertain about whether anyone even cares whether he tells stories at all.

Also, just because it's typical for two or three years to pass between the releases of a given director's films doesn't mean they lay low for two or three years. As you know, even just getting a green light can take years on a project. Then there's the actual film-making process.

I mention this seemingly obvious side of the business because I can also appreciate how either of them may feel that if they get off the merry-go-round now, they may not get a chance to get back on it later. These are two guys who don't want to "fake it" until they get back into the groove, and that means stepping away from a business where stepping away often means losing your membership.

We just assume there'll always be a place in Hollywood for guys like Soderbergh and Smith and maybe there is, but that place changes with the times. The same backers that have supported them so far may very well dismiss them as "irrelevant" in two or three years if they haven't been actively trying to get something made in that time. If they're not going to be working on something in that time, why not "quit" before you're "fired"?

Besides, creative people don't really want to retire. They just need to go through their 8 1/2 catharsis before finding their direction again.

(Side note: A local theater is playing Chasing Amy tonight at midnight. I'm already supposed to go out with friends so I don't think I can make it.)