11 February 2010

CAMERA RECURSA


"Fucking movies! Fucking overpaid, fucking unhappy childhood fuckers, fucking movie fucking fuckers."
-Lee Bright (Catherine Keener)
If you share with me a healthy love for a certain kind of artistic indiscipline - a willingness to give a hearty "piss off!" to the money-men and the more lackadaisical bourgeois members of the receiving public, in favor of the artist pursuing to the ends of the earth whatever crazed idea pops into his or hear mind - then maybe you are also like me in taking particular joy in the career of Steven Soderbergh after 2000: the indie-film enfant terrible who celebrated his mainstream crime thriller success Out of Sight by famously launching into a "one for them, one for me" pattern of alternating between big-budget popular hits that make everybody like him and get famous people to love being in his movies, and tiny, small-budget experiments in form and structure so weirdly insular and alienating that sometimes even his most devoted cult followers can't quite make heads or tails of them. Of course, that's too simple a reduction of things: his "one for them" movies tend to have quite a lot of personality and invention to them (of a certainty, Ocean's Eleven and its sequels are not the work of a disengaged hack), without even necessarily being "easier" than his purportedly "artsy" movies - The Good German, a befuddling exploration of 60-year-old filmmaking tropes with three superstars and an Oscar-friendly release date, leaps to mind.

In short, he's a bit of a madman who like to play around with the conceptual building blocks of movies, sometimes sneaking it into the subtext of a big studio project and sometimes putting it right out, front and center, for all the world to see. It's one of these latter, "front and center" movies that I'd like to bring your attention to now: Full Frontal, a film that met with widespread disdain and dismissal upon its release in the summer of 2002, thanks in no small part to an inordinately awful marketing campaign that found the slenderest possible thread (famous people having sex!) to try, idiotically, to drag mainstream audiences into a movie that could not conceivably be any less mainstream. The film has never in the years since been treated to anything like a wide-spread re-evaluation, despite being probably the most dense, fascinating collage of notions and meta-narrative references and formal tinkering in Soderbergh's whole career. Calling it one of the "best" movies of the decade is a bit bold and perhaps misleading; but it is without question one of the most interesting, and when push comes to shove I'd take interesting over good every time.

Plot-wise, Full Frontal is a microscopic look at a half-dozen or so residents of Los Angeles for most of a Friday and the next morning, centered around the birthday party of a movie producer, Gus Delario. Nearly all of these people are in some way connected to the film industry, of course, and in particular a romantic drama called Rendezvous, in the middle of shooting. Our cast of characters includes Francesca Davis (Julia Roberts) and Calvin Cummings (Blair Underwood), the stars of Rendezvous; the film's co-writers, Carl Bright (David Hyde Pierce) and Arthur Dean (Enrico Colantoni), who have since moved on to collaborate on a play about Adolf Hitler titled The Sound and the Fuhrer; the unnamed actor playing Hitler in that production (Nicky Katt); Carl's wife Lee (Catherine Keener), Vice President of Human Resources in some unpleasant cubicle farm; and Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack), a massage therapist.

Soderbergh indicated at the time of the film's release that it was to be taken as a spiritual sequel to his Sundance-anointed debut, sex, lies, and videotape, and this can be defended, certainly: the simplest way to approach Full Frontal (which is still, by no means, a cakewalk) is as a series of character studies based around relationships and the desire to be loved or to fuck or both. It's unusually frank and direct about these matters for an American film, though it is not in the tiniest degree prurient. The film is, after all, assembled not as an arc, nor even as an Altman-style ensemble piece that all builds up to some idea of Society that none of the individual characters may be able to grasp: it is a series of incidents, many of them developed and pursued in improvisation, which Soderbergh forced on his actors as a key element in how the movie was going to be created.

There was a manifesto he allegedly asked every single actor to agree to before signing their contracts (for scale; this was a movie made very much on the cheap, and much of its curious production quirks were designed to facilitate its $2 million budget) and this is a good place to give it in full:
1. All sets are practical locations.
2. You will drive yourself to the set. If you are unable to drive yourself, a driver will pick you up, but you will probably become the subject of ridicule. Either way, you must arrive alone.
3. There will be no craft service, so you should arrive on set "having had". Meals will vary in quality.
4. You will pick, provide, and maintain your own wardrobe.
5. You will create and maintain your own hair and make-up.
6. There will be no trailers. The company will attempt to provide holding areas near a given location, but don't count on it. If you need to be alone a lot, you're pretty much screwed.
7. Improvisation will be encouraged.
8. You will be interviewed about your character. This material may end up in the film.
9. You will be interviewed about the other characters. This material may end up in the finished film.
10. You will have fun whether you want to or not.

If any of these guidelines are problematic for you, stop reading now and send this screenplay back where it came from.
Would any filmmaker but Soderbergh offer such demands to the likes of Julia Roberts? Not likely, and I don't think it only has to do with the success of their effective, increasingly in-jokey collaborations together. For all that it is focused exclusively on the actors, that ten-item list is the key to understanding what the hell is going on with Full Frontal, by far the most aesthetically audacious movie Soderbergh made in the 2000s (maybe ever: Schizopolis is the only real competition). This isn't just a movie about people and their sexual quirks, though it is a good and dryly amusing treatment of those topics; nor is it just a movie about the shallowness of the moviemaking business, though few movies have ever been more intimately concerned with the nature of Los Angeles-based filmmaking. It is a movie about the process of movie construction that reduces the conventions of polite, normal filmmaking to their most basic constituent parts, examines how they function, and then does not bother to put them back together; it is likely the most thorough job of deconstruction in film-criticism history. And yes, it's absolutely a work of film criticism, and a better one than you'll ever see on this blog: it was Godard who said that the best way to critique a movie is to make another movie, and Soderbergh is critiquing not a movie but the whole goddamn movie industry.

To begin with, there are two movies to deal with: Full Frontal and Rendezvous, and Soderbergh gets us started in the most confusing way possible, by opening Full Frontal with the credit sequence for Rendezvous (actually, it opens with a series of static cards describing the characters, as the actors speak underneath, but this reads enough like a pre-title sequence that it's not germane to my point); the credits to Full Frontal don't appear until the very end, save for the requisite Miramax logo at the beginning. The division between these two is achieved in the most barbaric way it could be: Rendezvous is shot on glossy 35mm film, while Full Frontal was shot on a professional-grade MiniDV camcorder, Soderbergh's first whole-hearted exploration of the possibilities of video a mere two years after using Traffic as an argument in favor of the unique capabilities of celluloid film. The traditional theory is that video reads as more "real" than film, owing to its widespread use in documentaries, and to a certain degree this is indeed what Soderbergh is doing in Full Frontal, although that doesn't really cover it all. The video=realism argument takes us a certain way, but it's simply not possible to argue that in the main, this film is trying to convince us of its own verity. There is simply too much emphasis on the movie star presence of the most famous people in the cast, particularly Roberts - in a cascading chain of inter-textuality, there are references to Pretty Woman and The Pelican Brief within the diegesis of Rendezvous, meaning that a character being played by a character being played by Julia Roberts is the subject of a Julia Roberts in-joke, a pretty hefty level of abstraction - and, when we finally see the mysterious Gus, he's played by David Duchovny, then at the height of whatever sex-idol charms he ever possessed.

In a freak fit of serendipity that Soderbergh presumably did not plan for, Duchovny was the first billed of the seven actors to appear prominently in the poster, and the pre-release buzz was rather alive with the rumor that, ZOMG, you actually get to see Duchovny's penis in the movie! This turns out to be false - it was a double, and the scene is grainy and somewhat out of focus - and Duchovny is in the film for all of a single scene. But the emphasis on his appearance in the marketing (I told you, it was an idiotically mis-marketed film), stressing his movie-star appeal to the audience, folds back in on the the film itself: we are so colossally aware that we're watching Duchovny play a role that the mere fact of his on-screen presence means that the film can't help but ask questions of, What is stardom? and What is acting?

And, by the way, the video footage in Full Frontal looks like absolute shit, far worse than it has any right to; which is certainly deliberate, and I think, part of the joke. Soderbergh was no lover of digital cinematography, not in those days, and the video/film dichotomy goes beyond just a simple realism/slick artifice divide. The film also, tacitly, divides two kinds of artistic pretension: the polished airlessness of studio Oscarbait (though Rendezvous appears much too trashy for that), and the self-conscious artlessness of DIY indie filmmaking. If the director generally preferences the latter, it's not because he can't do the former quite successfully - Erin Brockovich gallops to mind - but only because he's specifically calling attention to the fact that, yes, Full Frontal is a movie made on a low budget with cheap technology and slumming actors. Every moment of the film from those opening title cards seems calibrated in some way to remind us of that fact. The screenplay, credited to Coleman Hough, although who knows how much of what we hear was improv, may make gestures towards creating characters with life-like problems, but we can never really believe that Carl and Lee and everybody are real people. They are constructs in a constructed environment.

Which isn't to say that the screenplay doesn't work, for what it is: in fact, it's a rather airtight piece of work, that since we know it's a fiction plays a sort of game with the audience. It's a devilishly complex, self-echoing work, with lines that appear to mean nothing referenced several scenes later in a fascinating new way, with isolated moments rebounding off one another to create potential meanings that can only be revealed to the viewer, and never, ever the characters; and it's positively obsessed with contriving coincidences. It would never be acceptable for a legitimate drama to be thus veined with the unlikeliest crossings of two characters into the same space in just such a way: if he had remembered to put away the pot brownies and she hadn't started drinking that early and her sister hadn't given a massage to exactly that guy earlier in the day, their marriage would have ended tonight. Things like that, things that would get a first-year screenwriting student a failing grade. But since Full Frontal's theme is its own creation, and its own artificiality, these contrivances are simply signs of the writer's twisty cleverness, calling attention to themselves for the sake of it.

At the very end, Soderbergh makes his final gesture towards calling out the lie of his movie & all movies: it's arguably a reference to films as disparate as Taste of Cherry and Duck Amuck, but I think that it's an obvious enough ending for this particular film that no other possibility was ever even considered. Still, it tears apart the last building blocks left stuck together, showing us Full Frontal's own crew, echoing, contrasting, and complementing an earlier moment when Soderbergh appears onscreen with a black bar covering his face. The last of the building blacks are toppled, the magician bows to the audience on a blank stage, and we walk out, the lies and videotape having finally come to an end, maybe realising as the credits roll that we never did see that last camera. There always have to be some illusions.

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