Posted by: playingthedevil | September 10, 2011

the soderbergh experiments – full frontal + the girlfrend experience

i honestly don’t know what comes to people’s mind when you mention the name steven soderbergh. the ocean’s movies are his most popular. then there are the equally popular + awards movies like erin brockovich, traffic, and this week’s no. 1 movie contagion. older folks like me may remember him as the indie pioneer with sex, lies and videotape. but mostly i am impressed with the back-to-back kick-ass-ery one two punch of out of sight and the limey. he kind of follows the “one for them, one for me” mantra, making small, low budget indie “experiments,” like full frontal and the girlfriend experience in between the more commercial, popcorn fares. or maybe those big budget hollywood commercial movies allow him to do the smaller experimental ones.

coming, so to speak, after his biggest hit, ocean’s eleven, and traffic + erin brockovich, for which he was nominated twice in the same year as best director, full frontal was supposed to be a return to his indie root. at one point it was even claimed to be a follow up to his debut sex, lies and videotapes. the only thing they have in common though, is the provocative (by studio standard) title and lots of talking.

full frontal is one of those a day in the life type movie involving a bunch of hollywood people. the most impressive thing about it is the cast: julia roberts plays a journalist/actress, blair underwood (tv’s l.a. law, tv’s in treatment, set it off, gattaca, deep impact) plays a movie star, catherine keener plays a studio executive, david hyde pierce (tv’s frasier’s brother) plays her husband. there’s also mary mccormack (soderbergh’s tv’s k street, tv’s west wing, tv’s in plain sight, deep impact, 1408) as keener’s sister who’s a masseur, david duchovny as a pervy hollywood producer, enrico colantoni (tv’s just shoot me, tv’s veronica mars) as a playwright who wrote a play with hitler as the main character and nicky katt (richard linklater’s subUrbia, the limey, boiler room, the way of the gun, tv’s boston public) as the method actor playing hitler. the most perfect casting though is jeff garlin from curb your enthusiasm as a studio head named harvey. yes, full frontal is released by miramax, headed by harvey and bob weinstein.

what we have here is more or less a robert altman situation, except with bigger names. soderbergh also throws in quite a few dogme techniques, shooting handheld and alternating between 35mm and digital. neither of them look very good. the different cameras used here is supposed to show the lives of these characters and the film-within-a-film footages. a lot of the scenes seem improvised.

filmed in late 2001 and released in 2002, full frontal (it was originally titled how to survive a hotel room fire, and then the art of negotiating a turn, both fit for dogme but not post 9/11) plays with the concept of reality vs. film, a bit that he uses again later in ocean’s twelve (that bruce willis stuff). it was meta before meta was known as meta. though some of the elements work, such as having david fincher and brad pitt, and eventually soderbergh himself showing up in the movie; there’s a re-creation of a scene from the limey with a cameo from terence stamp (though i have no clue what his second appearance is supposed to mean), and a rather brilliant scene with blair underwood in a limo rapping/def jammin’ to julia roberts about how black movie stars don’t get no loving in movies, as in the pelican brief (or the bodyguard), starring roberts and danzel washington.

I suppose we’ve come a ways…
since Sambo, Mr. Bojangles.
“Step and fetch it, boy.”
“What? Man, call me Mr. Tibbs…”
we’ve heard Poitier say.
It’s a new day, some say.
Because every now and then, black men are even in.
Motion picture heroes. It’s the American way, Wesley.
Be cute and still save the world.
Yes, we will, Will.
Go from Boy in the Hood to Man of Honor.
Show ’em the money now, Cuba.
Give ’em funnies like Chris Rock or Tucker,
Or just cool it, be anybody, like Denzel,
But wait, He ain’t even really getting no loving,
like Sidney before him and whoever after him,
Romancin’ and dancin’ with amore’s passion,
ain’t in the script’s equation,
But can even Mr, Washington,
briefly be seen kissing a Pretty Woman,
underneath a Pelican Moon?
Can even he be a romantic lead?
Check it, From Sambo to Sidney to Denzel to me,
Brothers ain’t getting nor giving no love now,
I don’t want to complain, but my doctor says I’m suffering,
from underloved syndrome,
Maybe it is a conspiracy, But do folks still fear,
the black man’s sexuality like that?
A fear that could be wiped out just by seeing us love,
not by race, but by heart,
And can’t a brother get some love?

but none of these things are enough to support a feature length movie. none of the characters are likable enough. it may have been a return to low budget for soderbergh but unlike sex, lies and videotape, you don’t really care about any of the characters, and there doesn’t seem to be a story dying to be told. and sex, lies and videotape didn’t need any technical tricks.

it also doens’t help that by 2002, robert altman had already made the player, spike jonze already went meta with being john malkovich, and neil labute had already made two great movies about unsympathetic characters (in the company of men & your friends and neighbors, and later, the shape of things). catherine keener (who’s in your friends and neighbors and being john malkovich)’s character is more or less a slight reversal of aaron eckhart (who’s in soderbergh’s erin brockovich)’s in in the company of men. at 101 minutes, full frontal feels more like an in-joke between the cast and crew, definitely more fun for them than for the audience.

i actually watched the girlfriend experience before full frontal. after watching full frontal, i actually went back and raised my rating for the girlfriend experience. not so much because full frontal was that bad but because the girlfriend experience is one of those movies where thinking about it and trying to piece it together afterward is more fun than the viewing experience.

unfortunately most of the press seem to focus on the fact that soderbergh, an award-winning director, has chosen a porn actress to star in his movie.

yes, porn star sasha grey plays a high class hooker call girl in the girlfriend experience, which is rated r for sexual content, nudity and language. you may miss the nudity if you blink during the movie. i’m not saying it is needed but it’s just not something that i was disappointed in or would accuse the movie of for the lack of nudity/sex scenes. and i don’t think anyone should, in this web 2.0 age that i keep hearing about, everything is online.

you remember how in out of sight and the limey we get those out of sequence/non-chronological scenes with the male and female leads? the girlfriend experience is kind of like those scenes cut together in random order, except without the rest of the movie. it’s also kind of like a wong kar-wai movie where you have to watch it more than once to appreciate it, except without the emotional resonance.

the story takes place right before the 2008 presidential election and the economic collapse, so we get a lot of sequences of the call girl in conversations with rich white clients about the economy and the election. the title means that instead of sex, her clients are more interested in paying someone to be their girlfriends and listen to them talk and commiserate. other scenes involve grey’s character trying to get a better website and start other business so she doesn’t have to be a call girl anymore. we are also supposed to care about her relationship problem, a boyfriend who’s a gym trainer and a potential soul mate who’s a married screenwriter.

grey is actually fine as the call girl, she’s cold, detached, and passionless just like the movie she’s in. the two guys she’s torn between are so bland that i was having problem telling them apart. i had to look for facial hair.

much like full frontal, it was just as hard for me to care about the characters. i don’t know if it was because i had worked in a book store, but the moment astrology books become a factor in her relationship, all sympathy went out the windows. have you seen these fuckers? trust me, these are not the people that you want to know or associate with socially.

(though i’ve read that the astrological stuff is supposed to signal her illusion of stability, it seems more like a theory than intentional.)

i don’t think i’m reading into things in thinking that soderbergh kind of identifies with the grey call girl character. the highlight of the movie for me is when grey’s call girl meeting with an escort webmaster who promises her good reviews (and therefore more popular) if she gives him a freebie, as in doing what he asks. it can’t be a coincidence that this pimpy character is played by a film critic. cheer up buddy, the oceans movies were popular, but more importantly they were entertaining. there’s nothing to feel whore-ish about.

i don’t know if it’s because red one is a better camera than the canon x1 but the girlfriend experience does look way better than full frontal. i also can’t help but be fond of a movie that contains shots of the bustling nyc. unlike full frontal, the look and style stay with me long after the movie is over.

though neither full frontal nor the girlfriend experience are entirely successful, they are what the category “interesting failure” is created for. like woody allen, a failed soderbergh experiment is still more interesting than most mediocre/bad studio movies out there. i just wish he doesn’t feel so bad about his popular movies that he feels the need to comment on them.

interestingly, mike figgis made superior movies with digitally shot hollywood experiment in time code and a prostitute movie with leaving las vegas. unlike soderbergh though, his popcorn movies are nowhere near as enjoyable as soderbergh’s.

still looking forward to haywire.



full frontal – 2/4
the girlfriend experience – 2.5/5

full frontal is available through my vhs collection. the girlfriend experience is available on netflix instant.

submitted to Pussy Goes Grrr’s juxtaposition blogathon


  1. I didn’t care much for either of these but both have their moments. Brad Pitt was pretty awesome in Full Frontal and he was probably the only real standout there. With the GFE, I thought the IDEA of the movie was better than the execution; which was basically set the camera down and let people yammer on and on.

    I think Soderbergh is a better director when trying to incorporate his indy sensibilities to mainstream entertainment. Whenever they cut him loose and let him do his own thing; the results are hit and miss (as both these films show).

    Great reviews for both films.

  2. I’ll say this for him. Like Arronofsky, he manages to work, which is an accomplishment in itself. And his movies are always interesting, even when they’re bad. The only rely clunker was his miscalculated live dvd “9012Live,” where he focused on technique at the expense of the music

  3. one thing that i forgot to mention was that even though they were shot on digital, i really like how most of the time he just sets the camera down and let the scenes play. i don’t know what it is but most lower budget, indie, direct to video movies can’t seem to do that. just because a camera is easy to move, doesn’t mean you have to move it at all times.

    i’m kind of mixed on both movies but i think if someone wants to watch them and ask me if i want to, i wouldn’t object to it.

    if i didn’t have movies planned already, i would watch schizopolis next.

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  5. totally down with the girlfriend experience in a really weird way. it is a subtle film and putting aside the call girl aspect, it deals with a relationship and how to be in a relationship. i also really liked the use of the drummer in the film for some reason. it added to the sense loneliness i felt when watching the film.

    also, really excited about haywire. soderbergh adds that “slice of lime” to his films, even if, as you say, they end up sometimes being “interesting failures.”

  6. i do like it a bit more the next day after i watch the girlfriend experience. though full frontal remains more or less the same the following day.

    i logically understand what he’s trying to do in tge. the scene where the gym trainer trying to get the guy to sign up for a more long term sessions parallels the call girl profession. and everyone and every relationship is cold and detached on purpose, to make the whole thing more business like. but at the same time, they never really seem like a solid couple.

    i think may wong kar-wai could have pull that off, that aspects of relationships. i feel more fondly about tge in retrospective than full frontal.

    i also like his early ocean’s trial run the underneath. i am kind of surprised that i didn’t love it.

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