Steven Soderbergh in 3-D
Has there ever (well, at least since the days of Orson Welles) been a commercial Hollywood filmmaker more bizarrely idiosyncratic than Steven Soderbergh? Just when you thought he couldn't possibly dream up anything stranger than his upcoming "Liberace" drama -- with no less than Michael Douglas as Liberace -- comes the news from Variety that Soderbergh is out pitching a 3-D live-action rock musical about. . .Cleopatra! But before he launches into that historical tale, the filmmaker has already been at work directing (apparently in a breakneck 14-day shoot) "The Girlfriend Experience," in which porn star Sasha Grey plays a $10,000-a-night call girl.
And yet, there's something strangely appealing about the idea that Soderbergh has become the quintessential filmmaker as pinball wizard, bouncing around from tidy commercial projects (like Warners' ongoing "Oceans" series) to grand illusions like "Che" to low-budget toss-'em-out quickies like "Bubble," which was released in theaters and DVD simultaneously, as "The Girlfriend Experience" will be.
The good news is that Soderbergh never repeats himself -- he's always eager to be up on the high wire, working without a net. I cringe whenever I hear Jeffrey Katzenberg noisily beating the drums again for the 3-D revolution, dreading the notion of having to someday sit through a 3-D version of "Madagascar," knowing it will be a retread of old ideas (people who've seen the new sequel were amazed at many scenes that seemed to be directly lifted from "The Lion King"). But a Soderbergh 3-D musical -- that's something I wouldn't miss, whether it turns out to be an enchanting lark or a train wreck.
In an era where too many directors either wait years for the right material to come along or waste too much free time on the party circuit, Soderbergh is an artiste with the work ethic of a mercenary -- he's always looking for a new war to fight. His critics say he's so compulsive that he finds it hard to keep his focus on one project at a time. Even though he's now in the midst of post-production on the Matt Damon-starring "The Informant," he suddenly disappeared for two weeks to shoot "The Girlfriend Experience," not at all concerned that his starlet's credits are limited to such fare as "2 Big 2 Be True 4" and "Grand Theft Anal 11." (Apparently Sasha Grey does more sequels than Steve Guttenberg.)
On the other hand, Soderbergh is no slouch -- he demands even more from himself than from his actors or crew. He's famous for self-criticism, always showing early cuts of his films to friends, eager for brutally honest advice and counsel. At a recent early test screening of "The Informant," he brought along his own personal focus group -- David Fincher and Spike Jonze. Soderbergh arrived two hours beforehand, taking the time to personally tape off the seats in the far corners and front row of the theater, so audience members would see the film from the best seats possible.
Of course, the films themselves still have to be good. I'm eager to see all four-plus hours of "Che," but the early reviews have been very mixed, with charges of self-indulgence being one of the most voiced complaints. As much as you cherish the idea of a filmmaker refusing to bend to the cautious careerism of today's Hollywood, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Soderbergh's antic pace has resulted in a series of well-crafted projects, notably "The Good German" and "Solaris," that have had little emotional connection with audiences.
It's been nearly a decade since Soderbergh made back-to-back masterworks with "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." I'm eager to see this new batch of films, but I worry that, for all his brainpower and brilliant notions, Soderbergh's career is at a perilous crossroads. It was Welles who succumbed to horrific obesity, but it's Soderbergh who's in danger of being capsized by his own creative appetites.
Photo of Steven Soderbergh by Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters.