Soderberghopolis #2: Kafka, Elmore, Oscar, and Ocean

Moisés continues our first experiment in long form retrospectives, taking us from Soderbergh’s third feature, KAFKA, to OCEAN’S ELEVEN a full ten years later.

Due to unexpected delays thanks to wildfire insanity here in Central Texas, the remaining parts of Soderberghopolis have been merged into two posts, the first of which takes us from Kafka and some of Soderbergh’s most-overlooked work through Ocean’s Eleven, a movie I consider superior to the original in every way. I decided to throw in some choice quotes from as many of the films as I caught good lines from, along with other little goodies.

Before I dig into the features, I thought I’d take a second to get some thoughts out there on Winston.

#3) Winston (1987) Revisited

I’ve now seen thanks to a commenter on the last post. It’s just under fifteen minutes long, and has a number of Soderbergh trademark techniques, like intercutting unrelated or semi-related action over dialogue. David Jensen has a meatier role here than in other Soderbergh films (he usually pulls cameo duty) as the main character, a guy with inferiority and insecurity issues. He’s intimidated by the fact his lady seems to fancy a more desirable guy who “speaks three languages”. That line reappears in Ocean’s Eleven. I’m getting ahead of myself.

#5) Kafka (1991)

“It’s about a man who wakes up to find he’s been turned into an insect.”

Soderbergh went from the huge acclaim of sex, lies, and videotape into the film that I would consider one of his two most challenging for audiences.Kafka is a Kafka geek’s Franz Kafka film. It’s meta-meta-referential across his best-known writings, his real life, and I don’t think I’m imagining some direct influence from Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil.

Jeremy Irons plays Franz Kafka, an insurance clerk. He’s also a writer. He’s somewhat mixed up with some anarchists. The movie opens with one of Kafka’s coworkers pursued, attacked, and killed by a wild-eyed drug addict who is accompanied by a mysterious man. Kafka feels compelled to find out the truth. He has to deal with the office stool pidgeon, played by Joel Grey, and the looming presence of the Head Clerk, played by Alec Guinness in one of his last performances. Ian Holm plays the enigmatic Dr. Murnau. Kafka goes after the truth and is shocked by what he finds, to say the least.

The movie shifts wildly in tone throughout, from silly to gravely serious, and I love it for that. Kafka is for a very specific palate: one that is well-versed in Kafka’s life and work. I don’t blame anyone for feeling hopelessly lost in this movie. “Kafkaesque” is meant to mean something is absurd, bewildering, or the like. This movie is a big, bad, concentrated shot in the arm of that. For those who love Soderbergh’s signature style being one of painstaking detail and intent, this is ambrosia. This movie has the most narrow potential audience of any of Soderbergh’s movies, and it’s great that he made this in his twenties instead of sometime last year. It’s nuts that this movie ever got made, but I’m glad that it did, because I’m part of that very narrow audience that digs the shit out of it.

I’m not going to pretend that someone couldn’t obtain the movie by “alternative means”, but without even looking at it, I guarantee you it looks and sounds like utter shit. I watched the Laserdisc (as I did for King of the Hill as well), and it looked like crap compared to what we’re used to now.

It’s unfortunate that there is no way to get it in anything resembling decent quality on home video in its 20th anniversary year. I’d love to see Criterion put it out, since I seriously doubt Universal have any interest whatsoever. It’d be great to see new interviews with Irons, Soderbergh, and others. There’s always the future.

How to Find Kafka on VideoThere was a VHS, as well as a Laserdisc. There is a German DVD that’s hard to get your hands on, but otherwise, you’re out of luck unless you own a Laserdisc player and hit eBay. The Laserdisc, one should note, is not in the original aspect ratio, but 2.1:1 instead.

#6) King of the Hill (1993)

(in reference to a canary) “Here’s a pretty sexy-looking dish.”

Re-watching this chronologically was somewhat jarring at first, only because it is so different from the mind-bending Kafka. Of course, there’s not much like Kafka in the first place. King of the Hill is very similar to other ’90s period films set in the ’30s. It’s difficult to imagine that it was once possible to make a period film for around $8 million. At its core, it’s a very traditional coming-of-age story. It stars a 12 or 13-year-old Jesse Bradford as Aaron, the son of a German immigrant and a woman who is in and out of sanitariums. He has a younger brother who he gets along with really well. The brothers are separated early in the story, as dad keeps stringing them along on promises and dreams that he’ll find work, and mom goes back to the hospital.

Aaron makes the most of what he has to work with, and is really a kid brought up by the neighborhood rather than a traditional parenting figure. The cast is full of names that are as recognizable today as they were then (some more so). The hunky teenage hoodlum down the hall is Adrian Brody, and his across-the-hall neighbor is Spalding Gray (whose appearance is eerie for reasons I won’t go into). Aaron’s two potential love interests are pretty little rich girl Katherine Heigl and a mousy, nervous Amber Benson! Aaron’s teacher is played by Karen Allen, and the gum-smacking elevator attendant is played by a pre-Sister Act 2 Lauryn Hill.

The movie revolves around the theme of it not mattering what happens along the way so long as you end up where you want to be (on top). Watching it as a double feature with Kafka while I had a Laserdisc player to use made it a jarring watch at first, but it grew on me steadily, and I ended up really loving it. The irony that the impenetrable Franz Kafka pseudo-biopic was more immediately accessible than the handsomely-photographed “studio picture” is not lost on me.

The rich development of Aaron not as a character, but as a person, is what is missing from so much modern cinema. I’d say this movie is easily the tragically-hidden gem amongst Soderbergh’s filmography. Aside from Amazon VOD, it’s in the same limbo as Kafka.

Residents of Los Angeles can go see it tomorrow night at the New Beverly, with Soderbergh, Bradford, and Benson in attendance. You lucky bastards, you should all go. Also, I hate you all for your luck in this respect.

How to Find King of the Hill on VideoIt’s available to stream on Amazon for $2.99 (free if you have Amazon Prime), which is the only place to find it other than VHS, Laserdisc, or a German DVD. It deserves DVD extras and a commentary.

#7) The Underneath (1995)

“There’s what you want, and there’s what’s good for you, and they never meet”

Soderbergh shot this post-Noir heist movie in Austin (with a Richard Linklater two-word cameo!), but that’s not the only reason I like this remake of Criss-Cross, pieces of which I feel Soderbergh remade in various elements of future films (more on those later). I’m avoiding any spoilers of any kind, and I’ll thank everyone to stay away from them in the comments. I know that “the movie’s old! What to spoilLOLOMG?”, but I’m assuming most people haven’t seen this since the title doesn’t start with the word Ocean’s.

Peter Gallagher plays Michael, a gambler. He was doing great until he didn’t do so well betting on an LSU-UF football game. He ditched town and his girlfriend Rachel, but now he’s back home in Austin, living at his mother’s house with her and his soon-to-be new stepdad. His brother is a cop who has a massive hate-on for Michael. William Fichtner plays the loose cannon criminal who’s now engaged to Rachel. If you love Fichtner for anything he does and you haven’t seen this movie, get it from Amazon before you’ve finished reading this article, it’s all of five lousy bucks.

Elizabeth Shue plays a bank employee whom Michael meets on a bus ride. The incomparable Joe Don Baker has a bit part as the owner of the security company Michael goes to work for, and he makes great use of the microscopic amount of screen time he’s got. He’s in here for less time than in Reality Bites, another Austin movie.

I said I wasn’t spoiling anything, and I’m not with any of the above, since the movie works with a fractured narrative timeline. Almost everything in that last paragraph happens in the opening minutes of the movie. It’s not merely a clean split with The Past and The Now, but with splinters of both throughout. There aren’t clear signposts of when you’re jumping to where. For me, the shift was a little disconcerting at first, but it kept me on my toes. All information points to Rachel being a seriously neglected girlfriend who deserves a lot better, but thankfully, she isn’t painted as a resourceless, helpless damsel.

After his return home, Michael is imperfectly repentant, and he’s still catching up on making everything right with his life. The question for him is let alone whether he really wants to do what he has to do to make things right. You pick up from the beginning that there’s a heist going on at some point, but the job doesn’t go down until some time into the movie. Lots of Noir tropes are at work, including a twist to the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that Soderbergh steals it for re-use in one of his ’00s crime movies. Part of the fun for me was realizing “holy shit THAT’S where he got X from!”.

Soderbergh is openly unhappy with how the movie turned out. Whether it wasn’t enough days on the schedule, or not enough location time, or difficult talent, I have no idea. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch, but it just oozes style, and feels like an artier, painstaking antecedent to the rougher-edged, less painfully serious Out of Sight. Soderbergh is a lot closer to the metal on this thing than I am, so I think his feeling that it just doesn’t work is completely valid, but I don’t see the complete clusterfuck he seems to. I’ve had personal artistic catastrophes others have seen as successes, so I get it. I just don’t agree that it sucks. Imperfect work from a great director is better than the what hacks can do on their best days with a papal blessing. I’ll concede that it does feel like it could have been directed by anyone, but the cinematographic flourishes and script are pure Soderbergh.

Assorted Trivia
The Underneath marks the first use of “Perennial” as the branding of a company or organization in Soderbergh’s films. Here, it’s Perennial Security, a company run by Joe Don Baker’s character.

The pseudonym that Soderbergh uses as his credit on the screenplay (due to some moronic WGA rules) is Sam Lowry, the main character in Brazil, a bureaucrat enveloped in bureaucratic hell.

How to Find The Underneath on Video
The DVD that you can get on Amazon for five whole dollars has an interlaced transfer, which is disappointing. It is interesting that the Laserdisc extras have all been ported over, including notes from sound guru Larry Blake, Color Bars, and the like. Especially good to see is the quick piece that compares Widescreen framing to Pan and Scan, the greatest threat to proper home theater presentation in the early days of DVD. Does any one remember the last Pan and Scan or chopped up DVD they saw as a new release (other than Star Wars re-releases, that is)?

#8) Schizopolis (1996)

“A White House spokesman said, ‘At least we didn’t sell it to the fucking Chinese’.”

“No more of this mayonnaise, this shit. I’m outta here!”

The original home video release synopsized Schizopolis thusly:  “All attempts at synopsizing the film have resulted in failure and hospitalization.” In keeping with that, I won’t try harder than leaving it here: Soderbergh plays dual roles in his only acting role, his soon to be ex-wife plays dual roles as well, there are no credits, and the movie opens with Soderbergh telling the audience that they are about to watch the most important motion picture in history. There are fundamentally generic scenes where characters greet each other by saying things like:

ACTOR 1: “Generic greeting”

ACTOR 2: “Generic greeting returned”

Schizopolis twists your brain in knots.

[caption id=“attachment_15443” align=“aligncenter” width=“575” caption=“The incomparable Elmo Oxygen”]


It’s completely nuts, illogical, and absurd. It’s the experimental student film he never made as a student, and it’s infinitely more entertaining than any of your friends (or your) student films. Eddie Jemison, whom most people recognize as “the computer guy” from Ocean’s Eleven, has a supporting role as Nameless Numberhead Man. Soderbergh regular (and Casting Director) David Jensen plays Elmo Oxygen, his most substantive role to date. It’s more loopy than a bag of David Lynch movies mixed with Kafka and Phillip K. Dick books. Richard Lester is one of Soderbergh’s biggest influences, to go off what he’s said in various interviews (and the fact he edited together a book of interviews with the director). That influence is more obvious here than anywhere else.

The Criterion Collection released a DVD that includes a commentary wherein Soderbergh interviews himself and has fun with the audience by “answering the phone” and “leaving the room”, and other things that could be found on loads of really lousy commentaries. It’s hilarious. The second commentary includes Jensen, sound mixer Paul Ledford, and actor Mike Malone (who pops up briefly as a prison guard in Out of Sight). I haven’t listened to the second one, and really should get to it, since their insight really intrigues me. Also on the disc is a few minutes of unused footage called “Maximum Busy Muscle!”

How to Find Schizopolis on Video
Either wait for Criterion’s semi-annual Barnes & Noble sale so that the DVD costs $20, or get it from Amazon for $30.

#9) Gray’s Anatomy (1996)

In this, one of a few Spalding Gray monologue movies (including Swimming to Cambodia and others), Soderbergh records one of Gray’s engrossing talks here by combining some rear projection, silhouette, and an as-always riveting performance by Gray. If you’ve seen video of him performing, you have. If you haven’t, you’re missing out.

My favorite thread in this one is about how Gray went to The Phillipines to seek medical treatment for his eyes. He just so happened to seeking this treatment form a “rock star doctor” who did surgical operations with his hands instead of traditional implements. He performed procedures in rapid succession and in front of an audience, as if it were the lightning round of a game show or something. Gray is an amazing storyteller, and Soderbergh gave him a true partner by finding a way to make Gray’s exciting and engrossing lectures yet more interesting.

Soderbergh made a second Gray film 14 years later with And Everything is Going Fine. It just so happens to conclude this little project in the next installment.

How to Find Gray’s Anatomy on Video
Sadly, the 1999 Fox Lorber DVD of this one is out of print, but it isn’t too hard to come by used. At a Q&A I attended back in 2010, the producers of And Everything is Going Fine said that a box set including this was in the works. There’s been no news since then.

Producing Interlude 1: Pleasantville (1998)

I’m not going to cover every single movie he produced himself or in partnerships, but there are some important landmarks that bear mentioning for context.

Before jumping into Out of Sight, Soderbergh produced friend and collaborator Gary Ross’ Pleasantville. I rewatched it on WB’s recently released (and very pretty lookin’) Blu-ray, and it still holds up. I’m glad it got made. Where else can you find a movie where Reese Witherspoon fucking unravels the delicate fabric of existence? It’s crazy to think that the color grading tech they used to do the black and white to color effects is something a kid can do on a laptop these days. For me, Soderbergh’s legacy as a producer is in work like this, where he helped push truly creative and visionary projects into existence that honestly wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

#10) Out of Sight (1998)

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take any more of your shit!”

After the personal and box office failure of The Underneath, Soderbergh dipped back into the indie world with his last two movies and in re-calibrating, realized that he was fully capable of making polished-looking studio movies like friends and contemporaries were. So he did, and it’s one of his best (if not my absolute personal favorite). He comes back to the world of the heist, which he’s done well in a number of ways since then.

It says something when you make a movie that becomes known for a sequence where two people are locked in a trunk on top of everything else it has going for it. Jennifer Lopez acts and it isn’t too earnest (see Anaconda) and George Clooney gets to pile on the charm as the dashing bad boy thief character that has become one of his signature types. Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, and Don Cheadle tear it up respectively, and sakes alive, the great Nancy Allen cameos toward the end, on top of another cameo that I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it! I love that Michael Keaton reprises Ray Nicolette, the role he played in Jackie Brown. Clooney breaks out of prison, a heist job comes up later on, and plenty of Soderbergh trademarks recur, from flashbacks to intentionally rough-edged, handheld shots.

The movie is not nearly as drearily serious as The Underneath, and the characters are more relatable and (some) are more likable. I’m rather confident in saying that if you hate Out of Sight, you might not be a human being who enjoys anything. It’s so good that people forget that it was actually a box office disappointment.

Best Translated Title
A tie between Brazil (Irresistable Passion) and Perú (A Dangerous Romance)

How to Find Out of Sight on Video
The recently-released Blu-ray is $15 or less most of the time, which is relatively cheap as Blu-rays go. The picture quality upgrade from the five-year-old DVD is substantial, as is the audio upgrade. It includes a Soderbergh-Scott Frank commentary on top of the pre-existing extras (deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes doc).

#11) The Limey (1999)

“Wouldn’t you watch a show called Big Fat Guy? I’d watch that fuckin’ show.”

I find myself regularly calling The Limey my favorite film by Soderbergh (though that opinion changes almost daily), on top of being one of my favorite revenge movies (alongside Vigilante, Vengeance is Mine, and others). Terence Stamp is alternately captivating, hilarious, and terrifying as Wilson. The plot is deceptively simple, but the joy of the film is in the nuance of motivations at play. You keep thinking it’s more complex than it is.

Wilson is a thief recently out from prison. Wilson’s daughter Jenny is dead, he wants to know why. She was shacked up with a sleazebag hippie named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), and Wilson knows there’s more to it than the simple auto accident it was chalked up to be. In the production notes on the disc, Fonda is quoted saying “He’s this great, smarmy character, a real son of a bitch” about his character, and it couldn’t be more true. Supporting turns from Luis Guzman, Lesley Ann Warren, and Nicky Katt are all note-perfect. Bill Duke pops up ever so briefly as a straight-talking DEA agent.

We see momentary fantasy sequence flashes similar to those in Schizopolis. The whole movie is lean, mean, and burns smooth like a fine single malt whisky.

Soderbergh bought the distribution rights to Ken Loach’s first film (Poor Cow), which features one of Stamp’s earliest film roles. He did this so that he could re-use footage of the young Stamp, who also plays a thief named Wilson in Cow. That’s right, Soderbergh leveraged his resources to make a pseudo-sequel to a movie he really liked that starred one of his favorite actors. That, to me, would be absolutely brilliant on its own, even if the movie weren’t excellent (which it is and then some). Limey runs a taut 89 minutes, and even includes a cameo from Clooney (I’m stretching the definition if you’ve seen it). The Cockney rhyming slang found here is referenced later through a really terrible attempt at a Cockney accent by Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven.

Best Translated Title
Estonia, where it is called London Avenger

How to Find The Limey on Video
The ten-year-old DVD runs just under eight bucks on Amazon, which is probably around what it’d be sold for used at this point. There’s no Blu-ray in any country that I’m aware of, which is far overdue if you ask me. You can, however, buy it in a four-pack with War, Black Mask, and Mean Guns. I believe Lionsgate now owns the rights to Artisan titles like this one. The DVD once again features technical notes from Larry Blake, who has become something of a personal hero for me at this point.

#12) Traffic (2000)

Soderbergh was nominated for Best Director twice in the same year for this movie and Erin Brockovich, and I’m glad he won for Traffic. I’m more glad that he gave the acceptance speech that he did:

It’s a rare instance of real poetic justice at the Oscars. That isn’t to say the other one isn’t good and all that, but Traffic is the towering achievement.

A multi-threaded narrative, an inventive visual style that is still being aped by less inventive people, and a compelling story that is just as relevant today as it was then all culminate in a film that deserves to be called epic more than most that are casually assigned that moniker. That last series of adjectives and nouns doesn’t usually mean that the movie in question is something you can throw on the DVD player and order a pizza with pals and watch while you text each other from within the same room. This is definitely true of Traffic. It isn’t “fun”, but it’s great.

If you ask me, it’s a good thing when the director cites The Battle of Algiers and William Friedkin’s The French Connection and Sorcerer as direct influences that he regularly re-watched during production.

Assorted Trivia
Soderbergh sure knows how to pick talent out of a crowd. John Slattery, better known now for Mad Men, has a short appearance here as a District Attorney. Over five years ago, Soderbergh called him out on the DVD commentary as being an amazing presence who’s able to do so much with so little. I guess that’s how Slattery got on K Street. More on it in the next installment.

How to Find Traffic on Video
There’s a recently-released Universal Blu-ray that has some positives and negatives. It’s hard to compare to the five year old Criterion DVD. There’s no question that the Criterion disc has the Universal Blu beat in the extras department by a longshot (3 commentaries, tons of deleted scenes and featurettes covering production techniques). Traffic has such stylized visuals and precise color palette that I can’t lie to you and pretend that I remember what it looked like when last I saw it projected off of film eleven years ago. That’s why it’s hard for me to say good or ill of the Universal transfer found on the Blu-ray. Even though I can go off of the track record Universal has on lousy picture quality Blu-ray upgrades like Spartacus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and (especially so) Dazed and Confused among others.

Unlike those, I can’t point to a particular scene and say “it looks like they hit the ‘easy’ button on the telecine machine and then ran the whole thing through a digital noise reduction filter that made it look like everyone got Botox treatment.” I can’t say that because there’s a shitload of grain in the image. The colors feel better than the DVD edition. Even though that’s the most unscientific thing I’ve said in I don’t know how long, that is how it…feels. It’d be great to see Criterion do a Blu-ray upgrade of their own, thereby eliminating the need for further hemming and hawing. $35 is a tough sell for any DVD (even a 2-disc Criterion set) when it’s only $15 for a Blu-ray. That stands even when the Blu has such a disgusting floating head collage on the cover as this one does.

#13) Erin Brockovich (2000)

I get why people hate on this movie. By people, I men dude friends of mine. There are no guys being awesome badasses in it. It is good, and I’m convinced it’s more interesting with Soderbergh at the helm than it would in the hands of another director. Julia Roberts is good, and so is Aaron Eckhart. Albert Finney is great, and I’d forgotten just how great he always is in the last ten years.

I just haven’t felt compelled to re-watch it except for those instances when I find myself writing a career retrospective on Steven Soderbergh (for those counting, that would be once). I never expect to find myself saying “hey honey, let’s throw on fuckin’ Erin Brockovich! I love that movie! It reminds me of when we had cable and would flip past TNT! Remember TNT, the one that knows Drama?”.

Best Translated Title
In Turkey, it’s called Fresh Trouble

How to Find Erin Brockovich on Video
More like how do you not find it on DVD, am I right? Anybody? Nobody? Ok.

It’s on DVD for eight bucks at Amazon, but I saw it at Target on the $5 endcap of sadness. That may be a better solution for those nights when you realize you’ve just gotta have fuckin’ Erin Brockovich, because the cable is out and you know, you love that movie!

#14) Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Sweet lord, this movie is ten years old this year.

Most mainstream audiences know Soderbergh for this movie and that’s it, which is a shame. That isn’t to say Ocean’s Eleven isn’t a really good and well-made movie in addition to being a hell of a lot of fun. I always wish more people knew about the cool off-the-radar movies that directors like Soderbergh have made. I don’t mean that everyone out there should see Kafka or Schizopolis, far from it. I feel like people should know King of the Hill or The Limey just as well as this one. Yeah, I know there’s no justice in Hollywood other than as portrayed on their TV shows.

Let me say this first: I’m not a proponent of remakes more often than not. With that out of the way, I’ve gotta say the original Ocean’s 11 is the worst kind of movie, and by that I mean superhumanly boring. It’s iconic, don’t get me wrong, and I dig all the people in the movie, especially Angie Dickinson, but it’s a pile of talking not leading to much of anything.

In this version, everyone’s having a ton of fun, cast and audience included. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, right?

This version of Ocean’s Eleven is more on the snap-crackle-pop wavelength, on top of being much more self-aware as compared to the up-its-own-ass original. The big Hollywood stars get that they’re all in a movie together and that they don’t have to be stone-faced as if going for the little gold man. Topher Grace gets to show off how fucking funny he can be when given the chance to be, albeit briefly. The movie is loose, but not laid back or lazy. Soderbergh had to be completely on his toes to sneak in an almost undetectable reference to Winston, the short he made fourteen years before. The main character of that movie is intimidated by a romantic rival speaking three languages. In Ocean’s, Terry Benedict speaks three languages plus he’s learning Japanese, and it doesn’t so much as faze Danny Ocean.

If there’s one thing I love most about this movie is that it’s not too hard to figure out before the twists come, and it paves the way to trick the audience into watching the sequel, which is better and more brilliant than almost everyone gives it credit for. More in it in the next installment.

Best Translated Title
In Portugal, it’s called Eleven Men and a Secret

Assorted Trivia
I guess Don Cheadle went uncredited to save Soderbergh some budget money or something. That’d mean he did the movie completely for free. In Hollywood, folks, that is true friendship.

In the Next Installment of Soderberghopolis

We go from Full Frontal all the way through And Everything Is Going Fine, Soderbergh’s most recent work before this weekend’s Contagion, which I haven’t seen yet.