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The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh

R. Palmer

Publication Year: 2010

Widely regarded as a turning point in American independent cinema, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989) launched the career of its twenty-six-year-old director, whose debut film was nominated for an Academy Award and went on to win the Cannes Film Festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or. The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh breaks new ground by investigating salient philosophical themes through the unique story lines and innovative approaches to filmmaking that distinguish this celebrated artist. Editors R. Barton Palmer and Steven M. Sanders have brought together leading scholars in philosophy and film studies for the first systematic analysis of Soderbergh’s entire body of work, offering the first in-depth exploration of the philosophical ideas that form the basis of the work of one of the most commercially successful and consistently inventive filmmakers of our time.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Front cover

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Copyright page

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pp. iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

This volume of original essays on the philosophy and films of Steven Soderbergh is the first systematic treatment of a gifted and acclaimed artist. We want to thank our contributors who have written so well on a body of work that defies easy categorization even as it reflects enduring preoccupations and themes. We are grateful to Anne Dean Watkins, acquisitions editor for the...

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pp. 1-9

Orson Welles was twenty-six when, having given himself a crash course in filmmaking, he directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941). If its peculiar artistry and penetrating dissection of American culture went underappreciated at the time, the film has long since been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the national cinema. Steven Soderbergh was the same age...

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1. Knowledge, Truth, and Thought Experiments in Schizopolis and sex, lies, and videotape

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pp. 13-27

In sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and Schizopolis (1996), the main characters are put in situations where they are deprived of crucial information or simply deceived by others, and they need to find out the truth about their circumstances in order to take control of their lives. Despite the main characters’ sharing the same need for knowledge, there are striking contrasts in the way...

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2. Love, Truth, and the Medium in sex, lies, and videotape

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pp. 29-49

Arguably the most important scene in sex, lies, and videotape (1989) takes place approximately ten minutes before the end of the film, when Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell) grabs Graham Dalton’s (James Spader) video camera, points it toward him, and challenges him to talk about himself. Prior to that moment in the narrative, the only person behind the camera...

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3. Amplified Discourse and Desire in sex, lies, and videotape

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pp. 51-66

When a speaker speaking is visible to us, we can have the opportunity to carefully observe two aspects of her enunciation at once, the productive animation of interpretable sound—which involves breathing, glottal articulation, shared language, expressive intonation, linguistically meaningful interruptions and pauses, and so on—and self-regard. When the speaker regards herself speaking, she makes a tiny display of her sense of what it means to be...

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4. Alain Resnais Meets Film Noir in The Underneath and The Limey

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pp. 69-90

Questioned during a postproduction interview about the “very complex chronological structure in The Limey [1999],” Steven Soderbergh’s somewhat oblique answer was to call attention to the models he followed: “My whole line while we were making it was, ‘if we do our job right this is Get Carter as made by Alain Resnais.’” Such a film would “spell big box office,” ...

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5. Consciousness, Temporality, and the Crime-Revenge Genre in The Limey

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pp. 91-105

Steven Soderbergh has described The Limey (1999) as “Get Carter as made by Alain Resnais,” a conjuncture of revenge movie genre and art cinema conventions that gives a good impression of where the film lies in the wider cinematic spectrum.1 The structure and editing regimes of The Limey are manifestations of Soderbergh’s most explicit attempt to render what he terms...

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6. Intertextuality, Broken Mirrors, and The Good German

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pp. 107-119

In an interview a few years before beginning production on The Good German (2006), director Steven Soderbergh related his formal and stylistic promiscuity to his desire to make an innovative “leap” within the medium of film. Soderbergh is searching for “another level,” and one idea he has is to tell a story spanning the entire twentieth century and then “cut it up into ten ten-minute sections. You pick a year from each of those decades. In...

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7. Remade by Steven Soderbergh

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pp. 121-142

From the perspective of aesthetic philosophy, Noël Carroll points out that early in the history of film questions arose about its ability to qualify as art. Film’s use of photography to show objective reality was regarded as preventing its function as an expressive medium.1 The early prominence of what Tom Gunning has called the cinema of attractions (films such the Lumière...

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8. Philosophical Reflections on Steven Soderbergh's Kafka

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pp. 145-158

The films of Steven Soderbergh form a cinema of disparity. His consistency appears in his inconsistency, with the themes in his various works quite divergent. His first two films, sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and Kafka (1991), are especially distinct from one another, as from a restrained intimate melodrama Soderbergh moves to an extremely stylized art-thriller. The disparity in Soderbergh’s oeuvre is a double one. It has to be conceive...

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9. Responsibility and Self-Centered Narration in Erin Brockovich

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pp. 159-172

In response to my initial query about contributing to this collection of essays on director Steven Soderbergh, one of the editors provided me with the names of movies already spoken for, and of those titles still available. I noticed that one film was on neither list: Erin Brockovich (2000). I took this to be an honest oversight, and still do. But that innocent omission was to be the first of many I encountered while preparing this chapter. When speaking...

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10. Schizopolis as Philosophical Autobiography

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pp. 173-193

Upon his acceptance of the Palme d’Or for sex, lies, and videotape (1989) at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh facetiously quipped, “It’s all downhill from here.”1 Ironically, he had no idea how true this self-deprecating comment would be. Following the success of slv Soderbergh went on to direct screenwriter Lem Dobbs’s Kafka (1991). The film was a critical and commercial failure. After all, the hotshot director, newly assimilated into the Hollywood system, took...

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11. Mr. Soderbergh Goes to Washington

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pp. 197-211

No text in Steven Soderbergh’s still expanding body of work has been more neglected than his bold television experiment, the ten-episode HBO series K Street (2003). If a cursory search turns up a fair number of scholarly writings on Soderbergh’s film work, K Street has yet to receive the attention it deserves.1 The following interpretive commentary is aimed at filling this gap in Soderbergh criticism. ...

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12. Schizoanalyzing the Informant

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pp. 213-230

The protagonist of The Informant! (2009) would be a tough nut for a psychoanalyst to crack. Psychoanalysis explores the past, probing memories, dreams, and parapraxes for clues to the character, attributes, and modus operandi of a person’s mind. But as portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s factbased dramatic comedy, corporate wheeler-dealer Mark Whitacre is a person without a past. More precisely, he is a person who has endeavored to erase...

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13. Competing Modes of Capital in Ocean's Eleven

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pp. 231-245

In the first moments of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), disheveled protagonist Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is released from prison after doing four years of hard time. He stands as a man out of sorts: an unshaven ex-con in a tuxedo, hoping to reassert his male utility in the face of overwhelming odds. This image echoes Ocean’s earlier conversation with his parole board, when he announces that he allowed himself to be caught after his wife left him, as...

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14. An Ethical Analysis of Traffic

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pp. 247-264

In his film (2000), director Steven Soderbergh tells the intertwined stories of four main characters. First is Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a well-to-do California housewife whose happy family life is abruptly disrupted when her husband, a powerful drug distributor for a major Mexican drug cartel, is arrested. One of the arresting officers is Montel Gordon (Don...

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15. The Philosophy of Space and Memory in Solaris

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pp. 267-279

In an essay written some twenty years after the publication of his novel Solaris, Stanislaw Lem offers examples of the three narrative typologies of science fiction writing, ranking them in order of increasing complexity. In the first, an imagined device for preventing earthquakes leads to the elimination of a natural catastrophe. Stories of this type require that the reader...

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16. Solaris, Cinema, and Simulacra

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pp. 281-303

Though not a graduate of one of America’s leading film schools, Steven Soderbergh is as much a student of the history of cinema as any of his celebrated peers who learned their craft at university.1 One of the key figures behind the 1990s “independent” film movement, Soderbergh has distinguished himself by a self-conscious style of filmmaking that conspicuously imitates and reworks earlier cinematic forms and genres and by an unusually self-reflexive body of works, beginning with his...


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pp. 305-308


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pp. 309-318

E-ISBN-13: 9780813126630
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813126623

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: The Philosophy of Popular Culture