VIDEO ESSAY: Peter Andrews: The Soderbergh Vision

VIDEO ESSAY: Peter Andrews: The Soderbergh Vision

“My policy is to have my name on a movie only once,” says Steven Soderbergh, so quoted by video essayist Nelson Carvajal. “Having your name once increases the impact of that credit because I think every time you put your name up there, you’re actually diluting it.”

That’s why Soderbergh, who isn’t quite a one-man-band auteur but comes close, doesn’t put “Edited by Steven Soderbergh” and “Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh” on his movies, even though most of the time it’s true. The filmmaker employs pseudonyms: respectively, “Mary Ann Bernard” for his editing credit (his mom’s maiden name) and “Peter Andrews” for his cinematography credit (his dad’s first and middle names).

Nelson’s video essay focuses on Peter Andrews, aka Soderbergh the Cinematographer. Soderbergh caused a minor stir back in 1999 when he announced that he was going to serve as director of photography on his drug drama Traffic, an ensemble story with multiple, parallel subplots. Soderbergh was DP on his mockumentary Schizopolis, and he’d had previously served as his own camera operator on other films, even ones that had separate, credited cinematographers, because he likes the intimacy that results when a director personally covers actors’ performances, adjusting framing as he goes and cutting out the middleman, so to speak. Much of the film was shot handheld, with relatively lightweight, 35mm Panavision XL cameras, often from a slight distance, but zoomed in, to give the actors a bit of space and to contribute to a documentary-like aesthetic, intimate yet respectfully distanced. Soderbergh had been moving in this creative direction for years, and arguably perfected the approach in his two previous movies, The Limey and Erin Brockovich (with cinematographer Ed Lachman). Soderbergh shot the film’s three main storylines in three strikingly different visual styles (discussed in some detail here) to help audiences instantly differentiate them. Although he seemed to bite off more than he could realistically chew—half of the first day’s footage proved unusable—he got a handle on things, and the film’s look was widely analyzed at the time and is still imitated. Breaking Bad even cribbed the brown “tobacco filter” used in Traffic’s Mexican sequences for its own south-of-the-border scenes.

“Peter Andrews” became more comfortable and offhandedly ambitious over the years, working both in film and video throughout the aughts; 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven and 2002’s Solaris were shot on 35mm film, lushly so, while the improvised 2002 Hollywood satire Full Frontal, the 2004 HBO series K Street, and the star-free 2005 neorealist crime drama Bubble were shot with rather modest video equipment. Soderbergh has increasingly gravitated toward video as image quality improved and the equipment became increasingly portable. As he explains in this video, he likes to shoot and edit quickly, the better to see the finished product and then move on to the next thing, whatever that turns out to be.

As you can see in Nelson’s compilation, Soderbergh isn’t interested in forcing his media to be something they aren’t naturally inclined to be. When he worked in celluloid, he tended to work with the properties of particular film stocks rather than pushing against them; he didn’t seem to mind graininess or slight under- or over-exposure as long as the story got told, and for the most part he made the capture of performance and the rhythms of cutting more of a priority than visual gloss or compositional perfection. When he started working extensively in video in the early aughts—by which point he was serving as his own pseudonymous director of photography—he didn’t seem to lose a wink of sleep over whether laypersons could tell that something was shot electronically rather than chemically. He wasn’t afraid of blown-out windows (one of the most recognizable tells of shot-on-video movies) and when he shot handheld, he didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was working with very light, at times seemingly weightless cameras. This isn’t to say that he was an aesthetically sloppy cinematographer (the locked-down, meticulously framed images in 2005’s Bubble prove otherwise)—just that, to use a fine arts metaphor, he didn’t pretend that watercolor was oil paint, or that paper was canvas.

Video is more conducive to Soderbergh’s nimble formalist mindset than film, a medium whose images cannot be accurately judged until the movie is completely edited, color timed, and printed. True, it’s possible to check focus and framing of filmed images on set by way of a video “tap,” which shows an approximation of the image on a monitor; but video (especially high-def video from the last decade or so) removes a lot of the guesswork, because when you’re shooting electronically, what you see in the monitor on set is very close to what the movie will look like when it’s done, give or take some exposure tinkering, color correction, CGI, paint-outs and the like. Video is also much more amenable to available light, and Soderbergh has always hated having to light actors and sets; he believes it saps the momentum of performances and kills immediacy, and anyone who’s ever acted for the camera will tell you that he has a point. Prizing available light and emotional momentum over the minute details of light, shade and texture won’t win a filmmaker too many accolades as a stylist. (“He saves time by not going into all that other unnecessary ‘lighting’ stuff DP’s sometimes talk about,” one film buff said in an online forum. “He never seems to let composition, camera movement and, from what I’ve heard, proper exposure dictate story either,” another countered.) But his post-2000 output is striking, albeit in a rough, Ken Loach-like way. And there’s a hell of a lot to nitpick. If “Peter Andrews” had fussed over every frame of a Steven Soderbergh production, Soderbergh would not have directed or co-directed 16 feature films, one cable movie, one cable series, two documentaries and two shorts since 2000.

The last feature film that “Peter Andrews” shot on 35mm film was 2007’s Oceans 13. Every movie after that was shot electronically. After using the high-definition Red video camera  to shoot  2008’s Che—a two-part, four hour biopic of Che Guevara, starring Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic collaborator Benecio del Toro—the director abandoned film and never looked back. “This is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole career,” he said at the time. “Jaw-dropping imagery, recorded on board a camera light enough to hold with one hand… Red is going to change everything.” And it did. Soderbergh shot most of his subsequent projects with versions of the Red camera, including The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! The brand has become one of the workhorse photographic systems for cinema and television; Louis C.K. shoots his series Louie on the Red, and Peter Jackson shot all three parts of The Hobbit with the Red, after having shot the original, Oscar-winning trilogy on Super 35mm film.

“Since I act as my own cinematographer, one thing I’ve had to learn is how to make things look not so good, to be able to go into a space and recognize this is the way this looks, and it’s not always my job to make everything look pretty,” Soderbergh told The Chicago Tribune in an interview about his 2012 hit Magic Mike. “It’s supposed to look real sometimes. I’m weirdly proud of scenes where I’ve let things look the way they look. To me it’s a sign of maturity.”–Matt Zoller Seitz

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.




Steven Soderbergh's recent use of digital photography in Contagion (2011) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) has a painterly quality. With Haywire, he proved that he could effortlessly achieve a nuanced look using the still burgeoning method of video photography. But with Magic Mike, he continues to hone the kind of glassy, flat but simultaneously elaborate aesthetic he's used for his more recent films. The broad beats of Magic Mike's narrative may be contrived, but Soderbergh enriches his usual main theme—of getting what you want by consenting to be exploited—through the film's highly stylized look. Soderbergh’s latest is at its best when its camerawork is most eccentric.

Based loosely on star Channing Tatum's own time as a stripper, Magic Mike is full of sequences designed to subtly disorient or dazzle viewers. Soderbergh constantly calls attention to the artificial nature of his imagery, using lens flares and, in a scene where Tatum raises his voice, unpolished audio to draw attention to his aesthetic and alienate viewers.

Magic Mike's story may not initially seem like it's all about Mike, but that's because it reflects his disillusionment with his job rather than narrating events in his life. At first, Mike thinks he’s an active agent in his life story—but he’s not. He realizes this after recruiting Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naive, unemployed 19 year-old, to work with him at Xquisite, his strip club. Mike gives up his agency long enough to bond with Adam and develop a crush on Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's sister.  But predictably, Mike eventually realizes that stripping is only a stopgap solution, and it has actually made it difficult for him to become financially independent. He grows to realize that he's only valuable to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club Mike dances at, as long as he's doing what Dallas wants him to. 

Mike has contrived, generic reasons for wanting to divorce himself from his scantily clad livelihood. But they're inconsequential; Soderbergh establishes his character's true motivation in a thoughtful, albeit blunt, way. Bear in mind: sophistication is rarely combined with audiovisual elegance in Soderbergh's films. This is apparent in the way Soderbergh uses so much soft focus; his visual compositions all have uniform, flat look backgrounds. Shapes move behind the main figures, but the shapes are relatively indistinct. Additionally, Soderbergh's characters are constantly being projected on. In a crucial scene, Dallas teaches Adam how to dance at the club, posing in front of a wall-sized mirror. We see Adam learn to dance as it happens in the mirror, not directly; this neatly establishes the film's main concern with symmetry and obstacles. When characters want to really see each other, they appear to be positioned symmetrically. But the more out of sync with each other the characters get, the more visually different Soderbergh’s camerawork makes them appear, and hence the harder it is for audiences to actually see Mike and his friends (Brooke pointedly admonishes Adam by telling him, "I can fucking see you"). 

For example, Mike and Adam immediately form a shaky bond. The camera cuts back and forth between the two men as Mike drives Adam in his car for the first time. The men occupy separate spaces, but there is total symmetry to the shot-reverse shot visual structure of their conversations in the scene. The second time, Mike drives Adam home and, if you look hard enough, you can see that Adam is slightly better lit than Mike, that his head's not as close to the right side of the frame as Mike's is to the left side. The two have imperceptibly begun to drift apart. But in the third drive, Soderbergh shows the full-blown divide between the two men by creating a visibly rippling effect, suggesting that Mike and Adam are an outburst away from literally exploding at each other.

Soderbergh's visual flourishes establish Magic Mike’s concerns better than anything his characters say. In one blunt but effective juxtaposition, Soderbergh first shows a rain-streaked window pane and then transitions to a shot of a bust Dallas has made of himself. Another thoughtful visual cue is when Soderbergh literally shows us the barriers between Brooke and Mike disappearing through a tracking shot. As the shot continues, fewer objects clutter the image's foreground, leaving just Brooke and Mike, alone. Ironically, Magic Mike is probably dullest when most focused on its subject: when Mike and his colleagues strip on-stage, Soderbergh's approach is at its most basic.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.



Films that showcase nightlife as a business have a way of settling into their guilt, reminding us that parties have moral consequences despite being the main attraction (think 54, which uses a whole institution to symbolize nightlife's rise and fall). The first trailer for Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, a male-stripper story loosely based on lead star Channing Tatum's life, doesn't waste much time owning up to this sub-genre cliché. After kicking things off with a policeman striptease straight out of a million bachelorette parties, and some fancy stage work from Tatum's eponymous gyrating hero, the preview quickly veers to the dreamer's yearning for something more, namely a “respectable” profession and a dollop of love on top. In the process, it wags a disciplinary finger at its own conceit, and reductively promises as many plucked heartstrings as flaunted G-strings.

Conversely, the trailer for 2000's Coyote Ugly masks the reverie respite entirely, making no mention of the songwriting goals of its young lead ingenue (Piper Perabo), and instead exhibiting every sweet sin of the titular New York bar. The B-Side to the Magic Mike clip's tips-in-the-pants atonement (“I am not my lifestyle!” Mike promises his sweetheart), the Coyote Ugly preview sells sex to the last shot, emerging as one of cinema's most misleading acts of marketing. By all evidence, the arc of Magic Mike isn't far off from that of its cowgirl predecessor, which also paired a risqué job with wholesome career ambitions. But while the former felt the need to appease its female target audience with bathos, the latter abandoned its demo completely to rope in live, rude boys, who surely left the film with a mind to murder producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

These two previews are as hypocritical in their respective messages as they are revealing about gender in advertising. Magic Mike's trailer, for all its initial oohs, ahhs, and ab-baring, acts as if its drawing factor isn't a man-candy parade (which also features Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and True Blood's Joe Manganiello), but boilerplate romcom developments. It condescends to women or Tatum fans by assuming they need a snuggly love story, and speaks to the unending taboo of showing too much male skin. Coyote Ugly's clip more or less lies to its audience, consisting primarily of girls on bars and bars on fire, which in fact only account for about 30 percent of the film. It exploited the permitting of female exploitation to pull a thorough bait-and-switch. That  the trailer  worked wonders is really beside the point.

Technically speaking, the Coyote Ugly clip is better by a mile, promising a fun and enticing setting and zipping along with ultra-cool construction, right down to the rough-and-tumble font. Magic Mike's preview has its moments, but only truly hits a groove when Rihanna's “We Found Love” sparks a tonal transition. It's a pity neither of these  trailers could find a pleasant medium, for no one wants a movie merely about flesh on display, but they don’t want such an angle to be shoved under the rug, either. The hot rush of naughty nightlife has a massive, vast appeal—it should neither be used as a ruse nor as a cause for a deceptive wrist slap.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.

PAUL ROWLANDS: Will the real Steven Soderbergh please stand up?

PAUL ROWLANDS: Will the real Steven Soderbergh please stand up?


Whenever friends ask for my opinion on Steven Soderbergh, I reply, "Which Soderbergh?'" Are they referring to the man who directs super-stylish, cool, intelligent entertainments such as the Ocean's trilogy, Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, or the man who directed such idiosyncratic experimental features as Schizopolis, Full Frontal and Bubble)?  On the surface, his career choices seem among the most perverse and erratic of any modern filmmaker. There aren't any other contemporary directors who are able or willing to switch from one genre and style of filmmaking to another and exhibit such different sensibilities. It is entirely possible to love one side of the man's professional identity, the entertainer — a side currently represented by his bruising action picture Haywire (2012) – whilst remaining ambivalent about his other, equally important and equally characteristic side, the experimenter.

Soderbergh gained mainstream ecognition for such mainstream films as Traffic (2000) and Erin Brockovich, both released in 2000 and representing his popular peak: both were nominated for Best Picture; Julia Roberts won Best Actress for the latter, and Soderbergh Best Director for the former. And yet Soderbergh sees himself as a filmmaker to whom this work is all of a piece. Where other directors might have reeled after having their vision for a film (Moneyball, 2011) rejected mere days before the scheduled start of production, he took it in his stride, and it seems likely that his chameleon temperament helped him move on. Whether directing big-budget, star-driven, Hollywood movies or micro-budgeted, freeform, experimental works, to him it's the same process, just a different canvas. Soderbergh told The Rumpus, 'That's a delineation only somebody who doesn't make movies would make. They're all for me."

nullThis attitude frustrates some critics and fans and has been a source of some personal difficulty for the director. Soderbergh's commercial films have made money, earned critical respect and won awards. I always compare his Hollywood features, or at least the best of them, to the amazing work done by John Schlesinger on Midnight Cowboy (1969). Like Schlesinger, Soderbergh is no hack. The man is a brilliant director of Hollywood films, bringing experimental style and techniques to his movies that add richness, class, emotion and taste. His intrinsic understanding of what Ocean's Eleven could be is what turned it into the crowd-pleaser that it became; he talked of Jaws (1975) and Ghostbuster (1984) being the models for that 2001 hit, and he brought out the best in his large cast. His decision to film the separate storylines in Traffic using different filters and film stock led some critics to call the movie schematic, but it made a potentially confusing story easy to follow and compelling. (Compare Traffic to the similarly plotted but very confusing 2005 film Syriana, which was directed by Oscar-winning Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, but had an unvarying visual style.) A career built exclusively on the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's films would satisfy most directors.

But over the decades Soderbergh has built a parallel career of small-scale, experimental films which, whilst always interesting, are always flawed and rarely, to be honest, accomplished. They all have the air of needing to be made to satisfy some personal quirk or to test new technology. In a word, they are 'experimental'. And Hollywood doesn't understand 'experimental'. It's a results-based town.

Such distinctions frustrate Soderbergh because he doesn't see himself as an art house director who compromises himself every time he makes a commercial feature, nor as a mainstream Hollywood director who makes a bit of art on the side. He's a total filmmaker who writes or cowrites, directs and produces his movies and often shoots and edits them as well (under pseudonyms). He wants a cinema that can be both experimental and commercial. And if he does continue to make movies (in 2010, he talked about plans to quit film for painting), his challenge will be to find ideas that interest both him and a large audience – a lesson that he learned during the first decade of his career.

When Soderbergh, at the age of 26, won the Palme d`Or at Cannes (the youngest to ever do so) for Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), he joked, "It's all downhill from here." And commercially at least, until Out of Sight almost a decade later, it was. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a phenomenon – it revitalised the independent filmmaking community and briefly made it seem as though "indie" films could crossover to the mainstream with ease. While other independent filmmakers flourished in his wake, Soderbergh stood his ground and went his own way, making films that unfortunately didn't interest many critics and failed to cross over. As Soderbergh told The Telegraph about his commercial and critical disappointments, '…they failed because the ideas were too narrow. Not enough people were interested in the ideas."

In retrospect his choices were commendable and speak volumes about what kind of filmmaker he is: Soderbergh decided to follow his interests and instincts and damn the consequences, and all the films were at least interesting. Kafka (1991) is a mystery thriller that blended fact with fictional elements from Franz Kafka's novels. It was barely released and isn't readily available even now, being a much sought-after import DVD (Soderbergh has talked of puting together a director's cut of the movie). King of the Hill (1993) was similarly little-seen, but the likeable Depression-era drama was acclaimed by certain critics and won Soderbergh his second Best Directing nomination at Cannes. Perhaps hoping to increase his commercial chances, he next made The Underneath (1995), a modern updating of the Noir classic, Criss Cross (1949). The result was a film that even Soderbergh was disappointed with at the time. (He has described all three films as failures.) He followed that up with his least commercial venture up to that point, the 80-minute Spalding Gray monologue, Gray's Anatomy (1996).

Schizopolis (1996) was the film ended the first chapter of his career. It was also the first evidence of his rebellious, mischievous, quirky side, and his surreal sense of humour. Soderbergh told The Believer that when he finished directing himself in Schizopolis, "I honestly thought…that I was really onto something that was going to be very, very popular. I thought that movie was going to be a hit. I thought people would go, 'This is a new thing'. I thought it was going to be bigger than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. You have to believe that while you're making it. Once I started showing it, I didn't believe it anymore.'

Schizopolis (1996) has a non-linear narrative and tells the same story from three different perspectives. Wholly improvised and shot for $400,000, the film is a surreal satire, but it's (deliberately) unclear of what. Identity? Scientology? The lack of communication in modern life? Our attempts to extract meaning from art? Soderbergh plays the hero Lester Richards, a nod to his filmmaking hero Richard Lester, whose spirit pervades the movie; he also directed, wrote, co-produced, photographed, co-composed and co-edited. It is one of his most personal films, and at the time (or even now to casual fans), it forces one to reassess what one thought one knew about the filmmaker. It's tempting to see it as an act of artistic liberation, a cleansing of the soul, and a questioning of his identity as a filmmaker, husband, father and human being. His marriage to actress Betsy Brantley (his estranged wife in the movie) had ended in 1994,; the couple have a daughter together. Soderbergh had gone his own artistic path, but it had paid no dividends apart from his own personal satisfaction. He had tried to make a more commercial film but failed. Soderbergh would eventually describe Schizopolis as being "about the breakdown of a marriage. It's very simple, in a way. It's about two people who can't communicate. It's all in the service of expressing this emotional detachment and frustration. As crazy as it gets, it's not actually an obscure movie to me." Schizopolis wasn't hated, it just wasn't widely seen, and for the most part critics weren't interested in it. It's a film I didn't like on first viewing, but I now appreciate the artistic bravery, the apparent wish to break free of constraints and simply have fun and not worry about narrative, structure and the profit margin. Its sense of humour is slyly amusing rather than hilarious. A similar thumbing-of-the-nose sense of humour is apparent in Soderbergh's later, more tightly structured and linear The Informant! (2009), a funny and entertaining film.

nullSchizopolis has since become a cult film and was included in The Criterion Collection, but it did nothing for Soderbergh's career, and its US gross was only $10,500. The offer to direct George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight must have seemed a strange prospect to him, but it set him on the road to commercial and critical recovery and gave him a new agenda: to make mainstream films, but to bend their structure, play with their style, and tinker with their tone; in short, to make films that both he wanted to make and that audiences would appreciate. Out of Sight's nonlinear narrative is probably what held it back from being more than a modest hit. But it may also be what made it seem so fresh at the time (attracting the attention of Hollywood producers previously disinterested in him), and is surely one of the reasons it holds up so well.

Soderbergh's next assignment was the intriguing revenge thriller The Limey (1999). Despite its status as a flop, the film is brilliant, and a key entry in the man's ouevre because it was an even more artistically successful melding of experimentalism and commercialism than Out of Sight. The plot – Cockney career criminal Terence Stamp comes to L.A. to avenge the death of his daughter at the hands of music promoter Peter Fonda – is secondary to the innovations beneath the text. Soderbergh skilfully uses flashbacks and flashforwards to reveal the hero's sadness, disappointment and regret of a life ill-spent and his neglect of his daughter, and the anger and will for revenge that such bittersweet memories elicit in him. The approach doesn't come across as arty or self-indulgent but unexpectedly poignant, and it subverts the genre. The plot is little more than a remake of Get Carter (1971), but Soderbergh also pays homage to films from the '60s and early '70s.  Stamp's film Poor Cow (1967) supplies the flashbacks and his character's name and occupation: Wilson, thief. (He also played a supergrass apprehended by his ex-cohorts in 1984's The Hit.) Peter Fonda comes across as if his character from Easy Rider (1969) had decided to go mainstream but, despite his cyncism, still had his head in the pot-haze of 1966 to early '67. Andy Warhol repertory company member Joe Dallesandro has a small part as a hot-tempered thug. Barry Newman, who starred in the 1971 chase film Vanishing Point as a disaffected ex-cop angry at The Man, plays Fonda's henchman, and has trouble controlling his car.

nullThe Limey was followed by three critically acclaimed, commercially successful movies in a row: Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven. He followed this run of movies with Full Frontal (2002), his first fully-fledged experimental piece since Schizopolis and likewise a movie that confounded critics and barely made a dent at the box-office. I didn't enjoy it at the time, finding it tedious, self-indulgent and pretentious. But my second time was a different experience. It's not a serious film, but a lark in the spirit of some of Godard's work, all about the artificiality of the Hollywood or L.A. life, and its sense of humour is subtle but playful. Like Schizopolis, it's an opportunity to flex the muscles and act on the impulses that commercial filmmaking doesn't require, and to refocus and replenish energy. As great as his previous three films were, Soderbergh had had to work hard to make them his own – proving his worth as a filmmaker able to tackle any project – and Full Frontal was a film just for himself: a freewheeling, French New Wave-inspired comedy docudrama, shot in a month on digital video for only $2m. I feel embarassed that I sat on my first viewing attempting to compare it with his previous three films. it's not aimed at same audience. One shouldn't look for the qualities found in his commercial work in his experimental work because they are not there. His commercial films have star performances and feel professionally and stylishly made. His experimental films tend to be shot on digital formats, feature non-professional actors, and have a lo-fi, off-the-cuff feel.

Soderbergh would argue that his 'eclectic' upbringing, in which he saw many styles and genres of films, made it natural for him to go "from one genre to the next, with the same satisfaction", but the timing of Full Frontal is interesting. Was Soderbergh worried about becoming typecast as a craftsman, a Hollywood director-for-hire with famous friends who would appear in his films (at reduced fees) at the drop of a hat? Probably not. The film was likely a reaction to the wearying realities of Hollywood filmmaking – the politics, the deal-making, the endless rewriting, the star trailers, the long shoots, etc. Full Frontal was as Un-Hollywood as one could get, and gave him a chance to see who he was as a filmmaker after being embraced by Hollywood.

Full Frontal would be followed by the big-budget remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (2002). It was a worthy remake, more emotional than the original but no less haunting. Its unfortunate failure at the box-office would push the possibility of Soderbergh's experimental instincts and commercial expectations co-existing in a popular film even further into the distance.

He tried something similar in Ocean's Twelve (2004). Whilst a huge hit, the film confounded audience members who didn't want such a complex plot and a twist ending that fooled them. They likely wanted a repeat of the original. Matt Damon remarked that the only reason he returned for Ocean's Thirteen (2007) was to make up for the second film.

nullTwelve was followed by a third experimental venture: Bubble (2005). It was again low-budget ($1.6m), filmed without a script (just an outline by his Full Frontal collaborator Coleman Hough) and with Soderbergh working in various capacities (director, producer, cinematographer, editor). The film was shot on HD video, and was controversially simultaneously released in cinemas and on cable/ satellite network HDNet Movies. The DVD  followed a few days later. Only 73 minutes in length, the thriller tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged  factory worker whose infatuation with a much younger co-worker has deadly consequences. The actors in the film were not professional actors but simply people Soderbergh had chosen from areas of West Virginia and Ohio. If anything, with his experimental features he was getting further and further away from the films that had made his reputation, and many saw him as being deliberately obscure and self-indulgent.

Ocean's Thirteen (2007) and the big-budget, two-part (and commercially unsuccessful but well-reviewed) Che (2008) were followed by a kind of companion piece to Bubble titled The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Inspired by Godard and Bergman and shot for $1.3m with a RedOne digital camera, it details a few days (leading up to the 2008 Presidential election) in the life of a high-class Manhattan call girl (real-life porn star Sasha Grey). The movie drew the usual mixed reviews accorded Soderbergh's experimental films, and the New York Post went so far as to call it 'half-assed'. (Roger Ebert, however, loved it.)

Soderbergh told The Believer: "A lot of people who write about art don't understand the importance of failure, the importance of process. Woody Allen can't leap from Annie Hall to Manhattan. He has to make Interiors in between to get to Manhattan. You've got to let him do that."

Perhaps the truth is that we the audience need to be more open-minded and supportive of his artistic choices. His experimental films have to be treated as what they are, "experiments". They are attempts to test the ground and make small steps forward that can advance his art, and the art of film in general. He has learned from his "failures" and is on a quest to make his films clearer. He wants to connect, but his way, telling The Rumpus "…the hardest thing in the world is to be good and clear when creating anything. It's the hardest thing in the world. It's really easy to be obscure and elliptical and so fucking hard to be good and clear. It breaks people. Because you don't often get encouragement to do that, to be good and clear." Soderbergh believes there is a thread that unites all his work, telling the same website: "There's probably a commonality in protagonists who feel that through sheer will they can make things turn out the way they want them to turn out.'

nullSoderbergh's latest releases, Contagion and Haywire, prove he's a remarkably versatile, resourceful filmmaker who is still trying to fuse the two strands of his cinematic personality into a coherent whole. Haywire is a low-budget action thriller that has found critical acclaim and proves that the aesthetics, practices and lessons learned from his experimental films can be applied to a popular genre with strong results. Soderbergh's medical thriller/ disaster movie Contagion (2011), released only four months earlier, was a mainstream blockbuster with a similarly restless sensibility, and is a culmination of lessons learned and skills honed. It's globetrotting, and has many inter-connected storylines and a lot of information and allusions to impart, but like Haywire star Gina Carano, it's lean, direct, and packs a hell of a punch. It's an experimental in its digital, raw, docu-style, but the approach fits the essence of its reality-based story, and helps the audience accept mega-stars (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow) as real people.

He is a uniquely interesting and challenging filmmaker who time and again subverts our expectations. I may not always like the films he makes, but I understand his need to make them. We have to look at the bigger picture and see that whilst Godard had two careers with a clear chronological split in the middle, Soderbergh has two careers running parallel, but they are coming from the same adventurous spirit, and both are essential to understanding his artistic sensibility. If he does indeed retire to take up painting, it will be our loss.

Paul Rowlands writes about film on his website, Money into Light. He lives in Japan, where he also teaches English. Originally from the UK, he has lived in Japan since 1999. His writing has also appeared in the James Bond journal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. On his site he covers films he believes to be misunderstood, underrated or brilliant, and interviews actors and filmmakers associated with such films.