SFIFF 56: State of the Cinema by Steven Soderbergh

The prolific and ever-curious Steven Soderbergh has made 28 feature films in his almost 30-year career, most which are critically-acclaimed and/or financially successful films: the Ocean’s trilogy, Traffic, Out of Sight, Contagion, Che, and my favorite, Sex, Lies and Videotape. And yet, in his State of the Cinema address for the 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival, he tells us he still has difficulty getting his films approved by certain studio heads. In his experience, he is in effect treated like a novice – it hasn’t mattered much how much his films have made and how many Oscar nominations he has received. Each work is commodified, a new piece of marketable merchandise. While it seems democratic to finance each piece of work based on the strength of its individual merits, it is impractical. Film is a continuous and changeable work process with many unknown factors in its conception, and, like any work of art, you just don’t know whether it will turn out well. Further, artists with a proven track record (an expression I hate, by the way) should be supported and awarded a certain financial benefit as a sign of trust.

Mr. Soderbergh also suggests that “art is inevitable.” As a species, we are driven not by survival nor genetic propagation, but by narrative. Story telling is our raison d’être; entering another person’s consciousness and being transformed by that exercise is our gift. Already there is a fundamental difference between his faith and the machinations of the contemporary studio system. How do you put a dollar amount to a process which is reliant on the abstract idea of consciousness and on individual subjectivity? He makes a persuasive case for the fact that nothing can predict the success of a film. Further, how do you put a dollar amount to talent, whether new or experienced? Filmmaking needs money so it can be made and distributed, and yet it cannot be subject to the values and rules of a market economy, despite the fact that the studio financial structure is quite a transparent transaction.

Since 9/11, American independent filmmaking has expanded its depth and breadth. We can no longer take any narratives for granted. We are now, more than ever, subject to technological forces which we have yet to comprehend. We may be currently experiencing a “shock of the present” – a distortion of the linearity of time which impacts our daily lives and our movie-making and movie-going experience. This is Mr. Soderbergh’s current state of mind/cinema, and while he paints a distressing picture, he is not exactly gloomy either. While studio films take up a disproportionately large market share from independent films, there are far more independent films being made each year. Mr. Soderbergh and this festival proves that there is a lot of talent out there we can still look forward to supporting.

Mr. Soderbergh’s next film, Behind the Candelabra (above) is in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

State of the Cinema: Jonathan Lethem
State of the Cinema: Christine Vachon