Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Film Scholar Ponders Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra

In this week’s post, Mark Gallagher, author of Another Steven Soderbergh Experience (UT Press, March 2013), ponders the renowned filmmaker’s rumored retirement and discusses recent projects, including the new, much-talked-about film Behind the Candelabra

'Gallagher on Soderbergh'
by Mark Gallagher

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is retiring. Or maybe he isn’t. His most recent work, Behind the Candelabra (2013), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21 and debuted on HBO television five days later. Those who follow news and discourse around American independent cinema, around festivals such as Cannes, or around Hollywood and entertainment industries generally may have heard about Soderbergh’s plans in any number of venues since actor Matt Damon mentioned that imminent retirement in a late-2010 interview. The artist-author-filmmaker--“director” is hardly a sufficient description--has not, as one might have imagined, retreated quietly into the shadows. Aside from both fending off and confirming the reports (with caveats), Soderbergh has been dizzyingly active in the ensuing period. He directed a play in Australia, and made a film with the cast (a film that has an IMDB listing and even earns ratings from its users, but which Soderbergh has claimed was never intended for release). He has taken up serious painting and photography. He opened a Twitter account and has composed (or perhaps is still composing) a serial novel called Glue there. He recently gave a widely discussed address at the San Francisco International Film Festival excoriating Hollywood’s present economic logic, which in his view has made films without blockbuster aspirations largely unviable for studios. And to fill up any remaining spare time or perhaps to clean out his attic, he has launched a website, Extension765, selling an eclectic mix of memorabilia, esoteric t-shirts and--why not?--imported Bolivian liquor.

And lest we forget, since his impending retirement was announced, he made somewhere between four and six features (the number varies depending how we define those works). The pandemic thriller Contagion (2011) did solid business for Warner Bros., though the minimalist action film and independent Haywire (2011) did not ignite on its winter 2012 release. Summer 2012 was far kinder to Soderbergh’s career, with the modestly budgeted male stripper drama Magic Mike (2012) delivering huge returns. (The $7 million film was #26 at the U.S. box office in 2012, edging out The Bourne Legacy, which cost in the neighborhood of the $125 million.) This past winter saw the release of another topical thriller from Soderbergh, the pharmaceutical whodunit Side Effects (2013). Side Effects did lukewarm business, but Soderbergh had been part of another major success the previous summer, the megahit (and de facto independent release) The Hunger Games (2012), on which he served, remarkably if to quite limited fanfare, as second-unit director, handling background scenes while director (and longtime friend) Gary Ross worked with the principals on the logistically complex production.

Side Effects may stand as Soderbergh’s last studio release, at least for the foreseeable future. But it was certainly not his last motion picture. As mentioned, his most recent outing as director, the Liberace biopic and troubled romance Behind the Candelabra, debuted at Cannes on May 21. Is this his last film? A better question might be, is it a film at all? In the U.S. it premiered (and continues to play) on cable channel HBO, with no theatrical release planned. IMDB still classifies it as “film” rather than “television,” though, and it will earn a big-screen release in various European countries, Australia, and more in the weeks to come. (In Britain, where I live, it opens on June 7, distributed by the independent Entertainment One.)

Behind the Candelabra makes a wonderful capstone to Soderbergh’s screen work to date. In its subject and aesthetics, it extends many of the interests on view in his previous film and television output. And as a hard-to-categorize work, it demonstrates further Soderbergh’s remarkable ability to bypass conventional exhibition categories altogether. (In the bygone era of 2006, some will recall, Soderbergh’s micro-budget feature Bubble riled exhibitors thanks to its simultaneous multiplatform release in theaters, on DVD, on video-on-demand, and on the HDNet Movies subscription TV channel; this once controversial experiment continued with the two-part Che (2008) and with The Girlfriend Experience [2009]).
As a text, Behind the Candelabra works in compelling ways as both film and television. Its generic status as a period biopic (spanning the late 1970s to the mid-1980s) helps it sit comfortably alongside other made-for-television productions, as does its limited scale, with Las Vegas and Los Angeles its only settings (though it was partly filmed in Louisiana). On the other hand, its glitzy production design and ensemble of actors, particularly longtime A-listers Michael Douglas (as Liberace) and Matt Damon (as the pianist’s young lover, employee, and eventual adversary Scott Thorson), position it well as cinema. Its interest in the showbiz-and-spectacle milieu of Las Vegas, and Vegas’ close kinship with Los Angeles, make it legible too as a cousin of the successful Ocean’s films (2001–2007).

Behind the Candelabra also gives Soderbergh a platform for dialogues with other forms of cinema and entertainment, including stage performance (Soderbergh’s other future plans include more stage drama, this time directing a play in the U.S.), traces of intertexts such as 1941’s Citizen Kane (with Damon’s Thorson, confined in an older lover’s palatial home, echoing the bored Susan Kane), and even classical Hollywood musicals (with the concluding scene featuring a musical number that recalls 1930s and 1940s Busby Berkeley films, or perhaps the lavish song-and-dance set pieces that Broadway and other producers have staged in the ensuing decades). Its presentation on HBO even allows Soderbergh once again to play with disused company logos. The televised Behind the Candelabra opens with a version of HBO’s 1970s channel ident, just as last year’s Magic Mike had recycled the Warner Bros. studio ident of the 1970s.

Film academics, cinephiles and fans invested in filmmakers may overstate the significance, or at least the visibility, of particular creative agents. In advance of Behind the Candelabra’s debut, HBO circulated a short making-of featurette that mentioned Soderbergh exactly once, late in the segment and not even naming his creative role. Eagle-eyed viewers can see him glide by repeatedly in the segment, operating a camera but never identified, let alone interviewed. Behind the Candelabra’s promotion and publicity has focused chiefly on its subject, the flamboyant gay (but officially closeted) entertainer Liberace, and on the performances of co-stars Douglas and Damon. Beyond its possible legibility as a Soderbergh work, we may consider Behind the Candelabra as a gay movie for heterosexuals. Even as studios avowedly dismissed the project as “too gay,” it showcases a romance between two men who have resolutely heterosexual offscreen personas (and onscreen ones too, with neither Douglas nor Damon having played explicitly gay roles before). But even this camouflage is arguably characteristic of Soderbergh. Magic Mike, a heterosexual movie for gay men (and straight women), put stars Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey into G-strings (or less). And Behind the Candelabra is remarkable too for Soderbergh’s ability to draw complementary performances from his leads. Douglas plays another in a series of high-idling professionals (as in the iconic Wall Street [1987], Falling Down [1993], and Soderbergh’s own Traffic [2000]), and Damon delivers a variation on his buff everyman physicality. With numerous (if fleeting) episodes of anal sex and plenty of hot-tub pillow-talking, the pair’s relationship goes well beyond the male bonding of the Ocean’s series or Soderbergh’s other films, but it continues in the vein of stylization and casual realism that has been a hallmark of his work for the past decade or more.

Retired or not, Soderbergh still ranks highly on industry power indexes. His career--concluded, on hiatus, or speeding along--also has much to tell us about the flexibility and boundaries of screen industries and artforms. Anyone interested in multi-hyphenate chameleon-provocateur-opinionator-artists can only hope that Soderbergh remains in circulation for many years to come. 

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