There’s something about large filmographies that forces filmmakers to become cover bands. The rush to provide new material once (or twice) a year forces the director to continually make their version of a ‘type’ of film. Writers become less and less important. Directors like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott used to have identifiable movies; their fingerprints smothered the work they built up from the ground. Now, whilst masters of the form, their work moves further into solid genre exercises. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that little ‘magic’ that used to make them spectacular has gone. No one else could have made Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); anyone could have made Bridge of Spies (2015).
Both Spielberg and Scott reached points in their careers where they deliberately and significantly increased the rate of their output (this occurred in 1981 for the former and 2000 for the latter). It’s almost as if they realised that their body of work would be of a Kubrickian magnitude unless they increased their workload. Nowadays, their professionalism and efficiency mark them as extraordinary blockbuster directors; a remarkable feat given their ages.
Steven Soderbergh came to a similar realisation at one point in his career, though some of his reasoning differed. Soderbergh became enraptured with the idea of inventiveness – that the trap of every new feature being an exercise in form, genre and storytelling becoming a deliberate strength, rather than necessity. He also had fallen out with the idea of being a writer; his kind-of-diary book ‘Getting Away with It: Or – Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard you Ever Saw’ details his immense frustration with writing and creating. After the palate-cleanser of Schizopolis (1996), Soderbergh never wrote a script again.
(Interestingly, he developed his exploration of editing as true authorship of a movie instead; not only in his own work – under the pseudonymous Mary Ann Bernard – but also in his cuts of other people’s movies. See his released edit of Keane (2004 – Lodge Kerrigan) and his bootleg cut ‘Psychos’ (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock/1998 – Gus Van Sant), ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut’ (1980 – Michael Cimino) and the speechless, black and white edit of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981 – Steven Spielberg))
After this period, his work superficially moves closer to the cover versions. For example:
- Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is his classical, beautiful big-budget entertainment
- The Good German (2006) is his post war film noir
- Side Effects (2013) is his Adrian Lyne style erotic thriller
And Solaris is his sci-fi thriller and Haywire, his James Bond action flick. There’s no denigration in calling these genre exercises; they are the work of an artist desperate to stimulate himself. There’s an easy tendency to praise the body of work as a whole over the worth of individual pictures, but dig into the filmography and there’s so much pleasure to be found.
There’s a profound difference between the two movies in the use of their lead actors. Solaris is a film clearly sold on the premise that George Clooney is more appealing to watch than any CGI space station. The film is in love with his face. It stares out into the audience as we project upon it our desires and hopes. Haywire treats its star as far more disposable… in all likelihood because Gina Carano is no star. But curiously, and given the sleaze (particularly against women) that promulgates spy films, Carano’s body is rarely objectified, instead it is crushed and splintered and smothered in greasepaint. Whereas Clooney’s arse is repeatedly shown on screen. For Carano’s character, sex is an unintimate act; it is professional and necessary and completely impersonal. Contrastingly, Clooney is explicitly dripping with desire, and the narrative depends on his lust for a creature who both is and isn’t his wife. In a sense, it doesn’t matter to him, such is his desire to taste his forgotten spouse.
As he extended his career, Soderbergh became more and more concerned with the representation of memory on screen. He is obsessed with depicting how the art of editing is the closest thing we have to describing the enormous complexity of our minds. Heavily influenced by the work of Nic Roeg, and in particular Don’t Look Now (1973), his films became more and more non-linear; at times this was playful, at other necessary and at others yet, superfluous. He employed dislocated sounds and images that contrasted with each other, extended flashbacks and highly colour-co-ordinated scenes to demonstrate the muddle of moments that can pop up within our heads. One of the more powerful moments in Solaris comes from the lingering looks Clooney and McElhone give each other in a lift; it underlines how we are all capable of transposing entire hopes onto the microgestures of others, and how we replay these moments again and again in our minds.
Both films depict intrusions into space. In Haywire this is the violence that breaks out in nominally safe places (such as houses and hotel rooms) and explosions that end the foreplay of whispered conversations in coffee shops. There is a sense of restlessness, where movement is necessary in order to survive. Solaris is more static, but delves deeper into the disruption that communities experience once an outsider violates their established sanctuary. The professionals upon the space station have built a functioning coterie, regardless of the strangeness of their experiences. Clooney brings on board chaos; he is the smoking gun, the smashed window. He is the trauma that the other characters will never recover from.
Despite their wildly varying settings of location and time period, both films are economical in their establishment of a sense of space. Haywire depends upon a refined use of real-life locations, all corner-shops and decaying factories. With its futuristic setting, the expectancy would be that Solaris has a more manufactured arena in which it operates, which is of course true for the atmospheric space station scenes, but the essential moments on Earth use the Alphaville (1965 – Jean-Luc Godard) method of depicting the future by reframing and repurposing it through the present. Cinematic visions of the future too often feature overwhelming production design, whereby entire settings are built in a single time period. The reality of existence, as any wander through a metropolis reveals, is that the past sits right up aside the present, and Solaris accurately and vividly represents this. Similarly, Haywire moves from the backstreets of Barcelona and Dublin to an ultra-modernist home in New Mexico, once she can no longer evade the full force of government and institution.
There is a tension in the air in both films; the seduction of violence in Haywire is sticky and sweet. What would ordinarily be meet/cutes become scenes wet with anticipation, end in the eruption of physical damage. Whilst the violence in less obvious in Solaris, it is just a present. Death is inflicted upon the simulacra, in a way that totally is at odds with the willingness to seduce it. It is easy to both fuck and murder someone if you don’t value them in any way. As a result, both Clooney and Carano suffer from extreme myopia, whereby they view the others around them as things, and largely obstacles in their way. Her dominance of others is evident in her strangling of men using her crotch; the female genitalia, usually hidden and abused, becomes supreme. It is undeniable. As such, we see her prove herself again and again, and maintain a dignity that directly contrasts against the insufferable sliminess of the men in her film.
Both films depict the fragility of loyalty. Soderbergh was always concerned with political expediency, but this only became pronounced after his experience of Che (2008), where his experience of art and political discipline was met with indifference. His latter period feature individuals who have a determined moral code operating in the face of utter shallow callousness. A lesser man would refer to these as avatars. Haywire is particularly pronounced in its depiction of an individual who is better than everyone around her, but has nowhere to go. It’s as if that mastery of direction, cinematography and editing led nowhere. It’s as if pioneering the new medium of digital cinema turned out to be dismissed by many around you. As if the working across all those genres proved futile.