Director Steven Soderbergh's much-discussed retirement from directing feature films notwithstanding, there is quite possibly no better filmmaker to assess the current status of the filmmaking arts, as Soderbergh will do this Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival's State of the Cinema address.
A restless innovator and a lifelong student of the movies, Soderbergh's eclectic filmography demonstrates the kind of searching, experimental creative energy that is difficult to imagine petering out. Despite swearing off features, Soderbergh's desire to create has in no way flagged; he has discussed focusing on painting, on directing plays and musicals, on a 12-hour miniseries adaptation of John Barth's enormous satirical novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, and on an extensive revision of his own 1991 film, Kafka.
I think it's safe to say that Soderbergh isn't retiring at all -- but he is, apparently, leaving behind a medium that is undergoing vast changes, after spending 25 years (and 25 features) immersed in it.
Who better to judge the "State of the Cinema" than a man who has lived the film-to-digital transition, who has embraced new film-making technology and techniques with every new project, and whose understanding of narrative cinema extends as deeply into the past history of the art form as it does into the foreseeable future?
Soderbergh has lent his thoughts to some of the best commentary tracks available on DVD and Blu-ray -- and several of those are for films directed by others, with The Third Man, Catch-22, Point Blank, and The Graduate among them. Rarely do you see this level of commitment from a contemporary filmmaker to the work of his forebears and peers.
His career in film has been marked by experimentation with form, content, scale, distribution patterns, and equipment. Soderbergh shot his 2008 epic, Che, using the Red One camera, one of the earliest features to utilize this versatile digital camera known to operate well in low-light conditions while producing a film-like image. With Full Frontal, Bubble, and The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh remained true to his light, cheap, and fast independent roots; each was completed for under $2 million, and Bubble was one of the first films to receive a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and on-demand release.
On the other hand, Soderbergh has made big, gorgeously mounted, studio-backed productions such as the Ocean's series, Out of Sight, Traffic, Solaris, and Contagion -- all of which were well-received. Not all of his films have been successful: Solaris was a box-office flop; Full Frontal and The Good German were panned; Ocean's Twelve was an indulgent mess.
But nobody's record is perfect. One is hard-pressed to come up with the name of a living filmmaker whose technical competence and storytelling efficiency is matched by his persistence in setting ever-evolving challenges for himself -- although, in the case of Soderbergh, it is worth noting that his ability to mingle regular box-office success with experimentation has allowed him to execute some of the more ambitious of those challenges (Che, Bubble, Kafka). Given his intriguing career and always-articulate insights into the craft and business of filmmaking, we are curious to hear how he summarizes that career and the status of the filmmaking milieu that he now purportedly leaves behind.