Steven Soderbergh has a new film released this month. ‘Haywire’ is incredibly his 7th feature film in just 5 years, and he has another feature currently in production with Magic Mike, due for release in the summer. Working at such a fast pace Soderbergh jumps from one genre to another, tackling plots as wide as heist comedy capers in Ocean’s Thirteen to large scale historical biopics in the form of Che Part 1 & 2. And although he puts out a lot of releases his films are always interesting, individual and best off all, entertaining! What has got me thinking though, is how although Soderbergh has tackled a wide variety of genres and put his own stamp onto much of his work, he doesn’t really fit comfortable into the Autuer column off film directors.
Whilst many directors create a body of work that reflects their own political and social views and opinions, and also displays a certain style identifiable to the individual director, Soderbergh and a variety of other contemporary directors work between these guidelines, tackling a wide variety of genres but still creating interesting, funny and entertaining films. I am not at all saying that any of the 4 directors (including Soderbergh) that I am about to look at are over looked, but maybe we can create their own column, how does ‘The Genreists’ sound?
For me, Clint Eastwood displays an appreciation of genre that overshadows most over contemporary filmmakers. Maybe it is drawn from his experience as an actor, working with a wide range of film directors, but Clint Eastwood has the ability to successfully work across genre. In ‘Unforgiven’, arguably his best feature, Eastwood manages to mould together the best attributes of directors he has worked with on westerns in the 60’s and 70’s whilst keeping the film firmly ‘Eastwoodian’. We can see Sergio Leone’s touch in the long periods of calmness in ‘Unforgiven’, that are than torn apart by violence. Looking forward to the past decade, Eastwood has tackled historical drama in ‘The Changeling’, taken on the war film in ‘Flags of our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ and even attempted science fiction in ‘Space Cowboys’. Eastwood’s films, due to their adherence to genre, create a form of conformability in his audiences, by providing us the staple pleasures each genre offers.
Ron Howard may has stumbled last year with his comedy ‘The Dilemma’ but over the past 30 years he has shown himself to be a master film maker, working across a wide range of genres. Howard’s body of work presents its audience with a safeness few other film directors provide; sitting down to watch a Howard directed thriller, such as his 1996 film ‘Ransom’, we all know that its star Mel Gibson will save his kidnapped son and win the day. Howard’s filmmaking technique has matured over his career, and when comparing his 2008 drama ‘Frost/Nixon’ to his 1988 fantasy ‘Willow’ it is easy to see a larger emphasis on character. Most of America will instantly recognise Howard as Richie Cunningham, the all American kid from the TV show ‘Happy Days’, an not to far removed from his body of work; safe and American.
Most everyday cinema goers may not instantly recognise the name James Mangold, but maybe they should, since over the past 15 years Mangold has directed some of the most classic Hollywood features released. He follows the guidelines through and through, piecing together his pictures like jigsaw puzzles waiting to be assembled. In ‘Walk The Line’ (for my money, his best picture) Mangold shows us Johnny Cash’s life story in perfect chronological order, with only a wrap around beginning and ending breaking the structure. The romance he sets up between Cash and his wife June Carter is reminiscent of classic Hollywood romances, lightly dusted with Cash’s own vices and insecurities and Carter’s forthrightness. After ‘Walk the Line’ Mangold directed a re-make of the classic Glenn Ford western ‘3:10 to Yuma’. Although Mangold does take his own spin on the story, much of the film is shot using a jittery shoulder level handheld camera, it is still a classic western; glazed in browns and oranges and in awe of its landscape.
Unlike Eastwood and Howard, Mangold does not provide a completely safe bet for his audience (maybe an explanation to the failure of his 2010 dud ‘Knight & Day’) and films such as ‘Copland’ and ‘Girl, Interrupted’ show an edge to his work. None of these directors through show an inventive integrity like Soderbergh does when he plays and flitters with genre, a skill which is only achieved through an appreciation and understanding of genre. In ‘Erin Brokovich’ Soderbergh pieces the film together like Mangold, putting every element in its rightful place. Whilst the plot, average citizen achieving a win against a large faceless conglomerate, could easily come straight from a Howard picture. He shoots the film wide, and keeps the camera as un-intrusive as possible, letting Julia Roberts’ performance rule the screen.
In ‘Erin Brokovich’ Soderbergh uses genre to his advantage, to make what looks like on the surface a pretty straightforward film. In other pictures though, such as his 2002 science fiction film ‘Solaris’ or his 2006 drama ‘The Good German’, Soderbergh subverts genre. ‘Solaris’ has all the potential for a typical Sci-Fi blockbuster; a great mystery/detective plot, well-designed futuristic sets and a big Hollywood star in the driver’s seat. What Soderbergh creates from these elements though is a quiet film, which slowly reveals its meditations on existence and the human condition. Not quite what most audiences were expecting! When making ‘The Good German’, again with Clooney starring, Soderbergh indulged himself in a film making style not seen in Hollywood since the 1940’s. Using wide angled lenses and shooting in deep focus mostly on sound stages, Soderbergh imitated classic films, such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’ (Both the films poster and final scene echo Casablanca). Although Soderbergh faithfully works within the boundaries of the genre from a technical aspect, the plot contains sex and acts of violence that would not have been acceptable in the 1940’s/50’s.
Looking at his body of work, it’s clear to see that Soderbergh’s signature directorial style is almost the ability to make his films different, and appear un-connected from each other. I have only looked at a very small group of film directors here, and there are countless other directors who work faithfully in genre, rather than obtaining a precious Auteur status. Richard Donner and Sidney Lumet are also specifically notable. So spare a thought for these directors, true masters of their craft.
This article was first posted on January 9, 2012