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26 Oct 13
In Search of Independence: Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater

For two decades Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater have succeeded in producing a body of work that is intelligent and entertaining. Both filmmakers entered the fray around the same time. If Soderbergh's entry with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which picked up the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was given a higher profile, Slacker (1991) gained Linklater a cult following and set the foundation for a kind of film that came to represent what the American independent filmmaking scene could achieve. (It wasn't Linklater's first film. It's Impossible to Learn to Plough by Reading Books received a limited release in 1988, but has rarely been screened since.) Both films display an intelligence, willingness to play with narrative conventions and interest in how time – or more specifically duration – is employed within a dramatic structure. Challenging form, with varying degrees of effectiveness, has remained a constant throughout their careers.

With the success of his first film, Soderbergh used his influence to produce two impressive, albeit ill-fated, features. Kafka (1991) is a bold attempt to find an intersection between the life of the Czech writer and his fictional work. He followed it with King of the Hill (1993), a beautifully realised drama about a young boy growing up during the Great Depression. Both films, expensive productions, failed spectacularly at the box office. Soderbergh then released the excellent noirish thriller The Underneath (1995), whose use of coloured filters presages the approach he employed in differentiating the three narrative strands of Traffic (2000). Again, the film faltered and Soderbergh retreated to his home in New Orleans.

Linklater followed Slacker with Dazed and Confused (1993) and then began the first of an ongoing project with Before Sunrise (1995), only to return to more familiar terrain with the entertaining, if slight, SuBurbia (1996). In 1998 he made The Newton Boys,an expensive take on the western that performed badly at the box office. In a similar move to Soderbergh's, his commercial failure in Hollywood saw Linklater withdrew from the mainstream filmmaking fray. 

What both directors then did was to produce their most extreme work, which re-ignited their passion for film. Schizopolis (1996) and Waking Life (1998) are radical experiments in form and narrative. Soderbergh's is a Pythonesque example of absurdist humour that touches on the surreal. A series of knockabout sketches, Schizopolis freed Soderbergh from the shackles of convention, allowing him total creative freedom to pursue any avenue he chose. This return to his creative roots has been a constant ever since. Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) all come out of this little-to-no-budget style of filmmaking. 

Waking Life was filmed on video and then animated using the rotoscope technique, which Linklater would later employ to stunning effect with his Philip K. dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006). It mirrors the freewheeling, non-linear style of Slacker, which was comprised of a series of encounters with a succession of different characters. However, the technique allowed Linklater to push the film's dream-like qualities, at one point having a character fly over his neighbourhood. There is also an encounter with Jesse and Celine, the two characters from Before Sunrise, which suggested there may be more to these characters' lives than we saw in that one film. Ethan Hawke, who plays Jesse, also appeared in Linklater's taught chamber piece Tape (2002) opposite Uma Thurman and his Dead Poet's Society alumni Robert Sean Leonard.

The work of both directors since has been a mix of intelligent and entertaining mainstream fare, smaller independent projects and the odd experiment. Soderbergh's Out of Sight made a star out of George Clooney, with whom he formed a production company, Section Eight, and would work with him again on Solaris (2002) and The Good German (2008), as well as the three Ocean films, of which Ocean's Eleven was an enormous blockbuster hit. (Sadly the two sequels failed to pass muster, but considering the quality of Soderbergh's output before and since, criticising them too much would be like complaining about Bob Dylan not making excellent albums all the time. Well, almost.) Together, these films display Soderbergh's perfect balancing act of entertaining narratives that also required at least a little grey matter. Traffic, for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Erin Brockovich (2000), the Che diptych (2008), The Informant! (2009), Contagion (2011) and Side Effects (2013) followed suit, whilst Haywire (2011) and Magic Mike (2012) are two of the most straightforward entertaining American films of the last few years.

The School of Rock (2003) and Bad New Bears (2005) also showed that Linklater could outpace most of Hollywood in terms of intelligent entertainment, while Fast Food Nation (2006), the wonderful Me and Orson Welles (2008) and Bernie (2011) were more atypical, but no less rewarding, dramas. Like Soderbergh, Linklater's standing is such that his work constantly attracts starry names, who often give their best performances. Jack Black has never been better than when he worked with the director on The School of Rock and Bernie. However, the two actors most closely associated with Linklater are Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The three features they have all made together – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) stand as one of the finest achievements in recent American cinema. From a simple encounter on a European train, the story of Jesse and Celine has captured the imagination of audiences across the span of 18 years. (Linklater refuses to confirm whether there will be another instalment.) An experiment in narrative and time that feels anything but, the three films present an often frank account of relationships, growing up and the rewards and disappointments that accompany the ageing process. The final day of the festival allows audiences to see all three films back-to-back. It is an enviable experience for anyone who has not seen them. 

For those who have seen those films there is no less an attractive offering with the closing film –  Soderbergh's 'final' film. The director has intimated for some time that he may leave filmmaking behind him and has gone on record as saying that he has made his final feature. Interestingly, Behind the Candelabra isn't it. Soderbergh's last official feature – a film made for cinema – was Side Effects, an excellent Hitchcockian thriller about prescriptive drugs. Behind the Candelabra was actually made for television. It tells the story of Liberace, the outrageous and extravagant pianist performer who graced the stage at Las Vegas and around the world from the 1960s to the 1980s. It focuses on one period late in his life, when he entered into a relationship with Scott Thorson. The film stars Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson. With such pedigree, it wouldn't be wrong to assume that a number of studios were fighting over the chance to make it. Sadly, no one wanted to touch the project, so HBO stepped in with funding. The film premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has been universally praised. Sadly, it won't feature at the Oscars, where Douglas at least would have been a shoo in for the Best Actor prize because the film first aired on TV in the US. It is, however, a perfect closing film. Intelligently directed, with faultless performances, if Behind the Candelabra is Soderbergh's last film – and let's hope it isn't – it is, at the very least, a reminder of why he has been one of the best filmmakers working in Hollywood.

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