Technically speaking, Steven Soderbergh shouldn't still be making movies.
In 2013, the Oscar-winning filmmaker delivered a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival in which, with his distinctive combination of self-deprecatory wit and stinging insight, he diagnosed the economic, cultural and corporate forces that were turning Hollywood into a monoculture of escapist spectacles and bombastic action flicks. Differentiating between movies ("something you see") and cinema ("something that's made"), Soderbergh bemoaned how "cinema, as I define it and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience."
It was around the same time that Soderbergh announced his retirement from directing. Although he did retreat from feature films, he produced and directed several episodes of the Cinemax series "The Knick," only to surprise and delight his fans in 2017 by reemerging with the left-handed caper comedy "Logan Lucky," followed by the psychological thriller "Unsane," which he filmed on an iPhone.
Although Soderbergh's reports of his own retirement turned out to be premature, he believes that the trends he identified have only taken hold more strongly in the ensuing years. (Certainly the debates he ignited have only gotten hotter. Martin Scorsese just delivered his own version of Soderbergh's movies-vs.-cinema thesis when he suggested that Marvel films are more akin to theme parks than "the cinema of human beings," provoking "Avengers" avengers to assemble far and wide.)
During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Soderbergh was no more optimistic than he was in 2013. "The speech I gave in San Francisco six years ago still holds, in terms of what's working and what's not working," he said flatly.
One thing that has changed is that streaming sites have largely stepped into the breach created by the studios' blockbusters-only business model, lavishing Soderbergh, Scorsese and their fellow auteurs with profligate amounts of money to make their passion projects. Earlier this year, Soderbergh released another iPhone film, "High Flying Bird," on Netflix, which is also releasing his new film "The Laundromat," a darkly comic anthology film based on the corrupt tax-avoidance schemes revealed in the 2016 release of the Panama Papers.
" 'The Laundromat' is the perfect example of something that I think doesn't get made (anymore) at a studio," Soderbergh said. "This is a midrange-budgeted film for grown-ups (that's) just not something the studios are seeing as a viable business."
While bricks-and-mortar exhibitors go to war with streamers over how many days movies must play in theaters before being made available on television and while fanboys and cineastes fight over what counts as a movie, Soderbergh has been surfing the economic and technological disruptions like a Zen master. For the most part, he has stuck with the same nimble, format-and-platform-neutral course he's followed for a career that's been markedly protean, starting with his breakout film "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," through such classical genre exercises as "Out of Sight" and the Ocean's Eleven franchise and Oscar winners such as "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," up to and including such straight-to-video experiments as "Bubble" and the old-school black-and-white World War II drama "The Good German."
Part of what has made Soderbergh so distinctive is his lack of preciousness, both in terms of how he captures his images and how they're seen. He's not a celluloid purist and is an eager adopter of nascent technology. "Early on in my career, even if I was shooting on film in the '80s, I was transferring to video and cutting on video," he observes. "I was constantly on the hunt for the new wave of iterating."
"The Laundromat" - which stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas - is yet another example of the spontaneity that Soderbergh prizes. It's constructed of various chapters - which Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns constantly shuffled before production started - illustrating the arcane financial dealings that allow criminals and the superwealthy to protect their assets in offshore accounts while remaining unaccountable to the millions of people who are victimized by the shady practices of anonymous shell companies and unethical lawyers. Because the issues it examines are so complex, Soderbergh found himself showing the film to friends and family throughout the editing process, cutting out massive amounts of material if he caught them zoning out. "It was just information overload," he recalls. "People just got tapped out."
In November, Soderbergh will release "The Report," a film he produced for Burns to write and direct. Linear where "The Laundromat" is kaleidoscopic, methodical where "The Laundromat" is interpretive, sober-minded where "The Laundromat" is irreverent and wry, "The Report" stars Adam Driver as Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who wrote the 2012 intelligence committee report about the CIA's detention and interrogation program during the war on terror. Both "The Laundromat" and "The Report" continue a theme that has animated Soderbergh's work throughout his career, in which he deconstructs multilayered, largely invisible systems that condition contemporary life, whether in the form of the drug trade in "Traffic"; corporate malfeasance in "Erin Brockovich," "The Informant!" and "Side Effects"; or globalization in "Contagion" (the last three of which Burns also wrote).
"Everybody is subject to these forces," Soderbergh explained. "We're all living in the middle of some system, some political system, some system at work. You can't escape it. So I guess I'm interested in how you navigate that, especially when you're dealing with a system that's corrupt or dehumanizing. How does that sustain itself and what happens when you go up against it?"
Nearly two decades after "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" were released, movies seem to occupy a shrinking cultural space, not only in terms of artistic importance, but in their ability to forge social consensus around themes and issues. Back in 2013, Soderbergh maintained that audiences gravitated toward escapism in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, as a form of coping with trauma they had never fully processed. He stands by what he calls that "crackpot theory," and is less optimistic than ever that we're capable of engaging with substantive - and maybe unpleasant - ideas.
"In a world that feels like it's getting more complicated, a lot of people revert back to a sort of reptile-brain position, just because it's quick and easy," he said, adding that "we have this very Western secular idea that most people want certain freedoms and they want certain choices, when in fact a lot of people on this planet actually want freedom from choice. They actually want to be told what to do and what to think. ... And that's an interesting thing to confront. Someone who doesn't really want to look at the situation holistically and say, 'What's the best version of this for the (greatest number) of people?' That's strange. As the son of a teacher, that's not how I was raised."
How Soderbergh was raised, to judge by "The Laundromat," was to dissect, analyze, diagnose but, finally - and maybe surprisingly - to care. Although the film hews to a sardonically jaundiced tone for most of its running time, its ambushes filmgoers in its final scene, when structures and identities we took as a given fall away to reveal a deeply personal message that, coming from a filmmaker known for his steady-eyed dispassion, feels jarringly sincere.
"I felt like it had to be," Soderbergh explained. "To play fair, a little bit. At a certain point you have to sort of blow away the ironic stance ... and declare yourself.
"If you're lucky enough to work in a business that's about telling stories - it sounds stupid, it's not legislating - but I do feel you have a responsibility. Whether it's something as hyper-stylized as 'The Laundromat' or something as hyper-real as 'The Report,' it should make sense. Even on its own terms, you should be able to defend it and go, 'Well, the math works.' "