Steven Soderbergh fascinates me.
Here’s this indie darling/Oscar winning/blockbuster directing filmmaker who serves as his own cinematographer and who seems resolutely uninterested in playing the game according to anyone else’s rules. I look at his filmography, and it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. He launched his career and, to a great extent, the modern indie explosion with his first trip to Sundance back in 1989 with “sex, lies & videotape.” And now, with “The Girlfriend Experience,” he’s brought things full-circle in some very personal ways.
And the only way to see it so far was at a not-so-secret screening at the Eccles on Tuesday, January 20th, at Sundance.
Almost as soon as I arrived in Park City, I started hearing the rumor. “Soderbergh’s showing his porn star movie at Tuesday’s TBA.” Devin Faraci was the one who told me first, and he seems positive even one day into the festival. And even when people confronted him about it directly, Soderbergh denied it outright, claiming he was only planning to host an onstage conversation with clips from his career. He maintained that ruse all the way through to 6:15, when he took his seat onstage next to Geoff Gilmore, talking about the rumor.
[More after the break.]
“I know how rumors like this spread… mainly, the internet… but I really don’t know how they get started.” He paused, enjoying the palpable anxiety in the air. “Maybe because I really am going to show the movie.” Wiseass.
I’m just amazed he has the film in shape to be shown already. What we saw wasn’t final (“You were never here,” Soderbergh admonished us at the very end of the evening. “This never happened.”), it already feels polished, considered. And that blows my mind. After all, he’s been busy selling “Che” since May of last year, and he also shot another movie, “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon. That’s a big studio movie, and it’ll be out at some point this year. “The Girlfriend Experience” is much, much smaller. It didn’t even shoot until October of last year, and it will serve as a pre-election time capsule if nothing else. It’s very much anchored to a specific moment in a specific place, and shooting with the Red camera makes Soderbergh very nimble. There’s one sequence where several events are cross-cut to this driving percussive music cue, and it’s not until the very end of the scene that you realize the score is some street musician who Soderbergh just happened to shoot on the fly one day. Locations all look like real locations, not like sets. The lighting by “Peter Andrews,” Soderbergh’s alter-ego, captures that particular grey-and-white light quality to New York in the same way “Collateral” nailed the look of Los Angeles at night better than almost any other film I can name. That’s where high-def offers real innovation to filmmakers, this absolutely faithful reproduction of the tactile reality of our world.
If Soderbergh, along with co-writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien (best known for “Rounders”) didn’t have anything to say, then I’d still wax on about the technical prowess the film demonstrates. Soderbergh employs his same Billy Pilgrim-style sense of chronology, and if anyone’s really made it a signature, he has. “The Limey” is beautifully structured, and his love scene in “Out Of Sight” is so sophisticated and erotically charged, all because of how he plays with time, that it rivals “Don’t Look Back,” long held as the gold standard. And there really is something here, something urgent about the material which was written as a scenario, then improvised on set in terms of dialogue and performance. I get the feeling this film was like an itch that Soderbergh had to scratch. On the surface, you can read this as an indie-flavored answer to Billie Piper’s “Diary of a Call Girl,” or even “Klute,” a matter-of-fact portrait of a tough-cookie working in the sex trade. The casting of Sasha Grey, a sensation in the porn world thanks to her sleepy eyes and her almost frightening zeal for the extreme, pays off in unusual ways. There’s the tension it creates in any audience who has seen her porn work, because they’ll be waiting for explicit work that never materializes. Her one nude scene is backlit so you really don’t see anything, and other than that, she’s fully clothed for the rest of the film. There’s the curiosity it will create in audiences who read about her but who are too uptight to have ever seen her porn work, and I hope they’re able to get past the “she’s a real porn star!” thing and watch what it is she’s doing. And, of course, there’s the authenticity she brings to the role as someone who sees sex as commodity, something totally separate from love or even intimacy.
Underneath that surface level, though, Soderbergh lashes out at Hollywood with a venom I haven’t seen displayed since “The Player.” And like Altman, Soderbergh’s come by it fair and square, having worked on the sort of movies where he has total control as well as the sort where he’s just one piece of the larger machine. The “Oceans” films may have bought him the freedom to make a film like this, but that’s an uneasy trade for many filmmakers, and Soderbergh seems to bristle about it. The guys who do well in the system are the ones who make their peace with the notion of “one for them, one for me,” and Soderbergh equates that system with what Grey’s character does for a living. She lives with her boyfriend, played by Chris Santos, and he knows full well what she does for a living. But as long as she follows the rules (“sex for them, love for me”), he can rationalize it.
When she breaks the rules and wants to go away for the weekend with a client because she “felt something,” it threatens to destroy the tenuous bond she shares with Chris. The entire film is about the way people pick at you in your life. There’s a reporter, played by real-life investigative journalist Mark Jacobsen, who seems determined to bully his way past the facade that Grey uses to protect herself. Even worse, there’s a disgusting “critic” who runs a website called “The Erotic Connoisseur” that “reviews” escorts. He wants Grey to throw him a free fuck so, hopefully, she’ll be able to earn more money. And just as Soderbergh uses a real investigative reporter, he casts Glenn Kenny, veteran critic for Premiere magazine back when it (A) still existed and (B) still mattered. Kenny plays this escort critic as a grotesquerie, this amoral Jabba-The-Hutt whose propositions are blunt to the point of emotional violence. It’s a brief role, but what it says about the way Soderbergh sees the media and its relationship with artists is sort of breathtaking. Especially coupled with the casually caustic comments he made before and after the film and the way he called out Karina Longworth at an event earlier in the week.
And yet most audiences won’t read any of that subtext. And the film works as simple character study for them, I think. To see Soderbergh continue to work his time-fractured aesthetic and to see him wrestling with the same human concerns about sex, lies, and even videotape that he did when he began his career 20 years ago is to believe in the constancy not only of Soderbergh as an artist, but indie cinema itself. This may not have been my favorite film at the festival, but it may well be the event that best summed up what Sundance was and is for me.