Steven Soderbergh, one of our most consistently interesting and thought-provoking directors, recently announced his retirement—or at least sabbatical—from filmmaking at age 50. While most people would love to be able to retire at 50, Soderbergh’s departure feels premature. But after last week’s San Francisco International Film Festival address on the state of cinema (which is as much about the state of our present culture), it also feels understandable.
In a relatively brief but illustrious career, Soderbergh shifted from micro-budget independent fare (some even cheaper than his game-changing debut, sex, lies, and videotape) to big studio features (Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen); from television (K Street) to documentaries (And Everything is Going Fine) to performance pieces (Gray’s Anatomy), the latter two of which focused on the late writer, monologist and sometimes-actor Spalding Gray. He made a handful of legitimately great films, even more very good ones, and a few intriguing misfires.
But Soderbergh is not just one of his generation’s eminent filmmakers, he is also a knowledgeable, passionate, supportive fan of cinema. As a producer, he helped ensure that many noteworthy films that were otherwise hard sells, including the underloved Keane, at least had a chance to find an audience; his screenplay book for sex, lies, and videotape includes a making-of account that is essential reading for budding filmmakers and cinephiles, and he also gave great commentary (his insightful and occasionally contentious back-and-forth with writer Lem Dobbs on The Limey is nearly as enjoyable as the film itself).
I also believe Soderbergh to be a pretty good guy who appreciates others who love movies. While I was in film school, a friend met Soderbergh at a conference in Las Vegas; having listened to me ramble on about Soderbergh’s genius, my friend mentioned my completely non-stalker obsession with his films. They had a brief conversation, then Soderbergh asked my friend to wait; moments later, Soderbergh returned with the autographed picture shown above.
All of which is to say that his presence in movie theaters will be missed (but hopefully not permanent). At the very least, he leaves us the fine speech linked to above; like many of his films, it is fragmented, funny, biting, sad, angry and hopeful.
And Soderbergh is not creatively retired. In fact, one gets the sense from his address that he feels in some ways liberated from the schizopolis that is Hollywood. Among other projects, he is currently releasing a novella on his Twitter stream, Bitchuation.