Though Mark Gallagher has indeed set his sights on Steven Soderbergh for his second, solo-authored film studies monograph (the first being 2006’s excellent Action Figures: Men, Action Films, and Contemporary Action Narratives), it’s the book’s subtitle that reveals his true, and more compelling, interests: authorship and contemporary hollywood. In fact, a work like Another Steven Soderbergh Experience could arguably not have been written even just a decade ago (or would have been received with maximal skepticism), given that cinephilia still existed in a pre-Hulu state, not yet having seen the fruits of the Criterion Collection’s labor, where the complete oeuvre of Keisuke Kinoshita can now be seen in essentially the same place as Kristen Wiig’s return to Saturday Night Live. What’s at stake, it seems, is exactly how one discusses cinema (not movies, to use Soderbergh’s recent distinction) in a complex, thoughtful manner that would necessarily take into account both the modes of production and viewership prevalent in the 21st century, and not simply under the banner of a director’s intent or other films.
Skeptics may refuse to alter their methodological means—that being a purely auteurist line of critical inquiry. However, Paul Schrader has recently stated that even he, at 66 years old, has had his brain rewired by digital technology, to the extent that he finds it “harder and harder to sit for two hours straight. Even in a theater,” and goes on to claim that “the concept of movies itself is pretty much becoming a 20th-century concept.” Schrader’s words offer a nice segue into Gallagher’s, who states near the beginning of his book: “Soderbergh’s work illuminates many trends in industry practice, media authorship, technologies of film and television production and distribution, and motion-picture aesthetics.” Soderbergh’s intermediary status here affirms the very struggle of defining how to place a filmmaker-as-author now, especially one as prolific, in both output and medium vacillation. Gallagher’s intent is less to embark upon another attempt at auteur baiting (as the title ironically suggests), than casting Soderbergh as his fishing lure to demonstrate how he “complicates our recognition of authoring figures’ positions within global circulation networks.” Although Gallagher engages textual analysis in brief (more as evidentiary support than an end), the bulk of the book’s focus is in exploring alternative methods for understanding precisely what a screen author does in contemporary Hollywood.
Of course, it’s necessary to use the word “screen,” since “film” implies a form of production and exhibition that Soderbergh consistently defies; provocatively, Gallagher asks: “Is something like Bubble a television text?” Obviously the prevalence of simultaneous VOD and theatrical release strategies prefigure this line of questioning, though its aim is rather astute: What determines the medium-specific nature of a work of art, especially cinema, when the exhibition formats aren’t given in a hierarchical manner? In fact, what happens when a film “premieres” on television before theatrical exhibition? These convergence cultures have been theorized by scholars John Caldwell and Henry Jenkins, yet Gallagher keeps the discussion on an even keel, with no prerequisite reading necessarily required. Although such a statement could seem pejorative, too rigorous an implementation of theory would prevent the multifaceted function Soderbergh serves the book: as exemplar, prodigal son, and martyr all in one. That is, Gallagher challenges the very methods and ways by which we write, discuss, and think about cinema. In holding Soderbergh up as the preeminent figure for this type of study from contemporary Hollywood, he’s also sacrificing the director’s auteur status—a sacrifice which stands in direct contrast to the cinephilic traditions that could yield something like The Limey (1999) or The Good German (2006). To be clear, these efforts also thrillingly problematize that relationship between author and subject, made all the more exhilarating by an interview between the two as the book’s coda, which is the most compelling interview (online or print) I’ve read in 2013.
Besides a rigorously refined approach to critical judgment, Another Steven Soderbergh Experience offers numerous alternative suggestions about the trends of critical reception in film/media culture. For example, the celebration of David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez as rebel filmmakers “because of, not in spite of, their commercial success,” implying a burgeoning connection in film journalism between capital and quality. Such a claim, however, while likely yielding some credence, is more extrapolation without recourse to empirical evidence (one of Gallagher’s foremost criterion for proficient media study), since Fincher’s film career notoriously began with Alien³ (1992), where he eventually walked away because of creative differences—and the film was far from a success. In attempting to explain the narrowing of taxonomies for “rebel-filmmaker” status, Gallagher cynically glosses over nuances in order to make helpful claims for himself.
More convincing are his takedowns of Sundance as “merging underground or outsider discourses with those absolutely central to institutional Hollywood,” along with founder Robert Redford, defined as “embodying middlebrow Hollywood prestige.” Perhaps most scathing of all is Gallagher’s fluid dismissal of Soderbergh’s critical reception in certain circles; the author names J. Hoberman and David Thomson specifically for their “frustration at the inability to locate Soderbergh within convenient auteurist frameworks,” and his comments about the latter critic are too sharp not to replicate in full: “Thomson weighs in on Soderbergh’s critical practice with the critique that ’[w]hat hangs over Soderbergh is the fatal notion that he can do some films for himself and some for the business.’ Thomson claims that two Soderbergh’s exist, one a serious, auteur filmmaker, the other overseeing ’entertaining genre films that have no directorial personality.’ Thomson’s characteristically blunt view locates Soderbergh in familiar, uncomplicated evaluative categories. Soderbergh’s creative practice and his discussions about filmmaking pose fundamental challenges to those categories. The ’fatal notion’ hangs not over Soderbergh but rather the critic Thomson, who in privileging the subjective construct of ’personality’ confirms his profession’s continued reliance on auteurist methodologies.” Gallagher’s only fault in this passage is aligning the entirety of film criticism with Thomson’s hang-ups, but as a whole, he’s provided a thoughtful, troubling case for the one-dimensionality of such critiques.
At the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival just weeks ago, Soderbergh gave the annual “State of Cinema” address and concluded by offering a hypothetical situation in which a young filmmaker is pitching a movie about “genocide or child killers.” Soderbergh’s advice is to stop in the middle of your sentence, have a seeming epiphany, and declare: “You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.” Gallagher’s book echoes the same sort of ironic enthusiasm, complicated by its sometimes contradictory, but always ambitious aims. Though Gallagher is, in essence, attempting to eradicate an entire generation’s approach to film viewership and discussion, he’s offered a tempered, interdisciplinary approach for taking its place.
Mark Gallagher’s Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood was released on April 15 by the University of Texas Press. To purchase it, click here.