It’s exactly because Matt Zoller Seitz is such a generous critic that his censure can be a wholly devastating blow–far more devastating than that of his more glib counterparts. That generosity, combined with his intelligence and taste, make his work among the most compelling criticism being written about any art form right now. Reading Seitz’s
review of Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, posted at The House Next Door yesterday, it’s tempting to call it something along the lines of a drubbing or a takedown, but the piece is really too fine an instrument, and animated by too much good will, to merit such blunt epithets. Seitz goes out of his way to try to understand Soderbergh’s choices and aims. When he calls the movie “painful,” it’s not with a smirk but with something like genuine sorrow for a talent gone missing. Which is not to suggest that the piece doesn’t have any bite to it. But even the sharp bits have a place in the greater attempt to understand what went wrong here:
With its glancing interest in individual vs. collective guilt and its contrast of faux-Old Hollywood gloss and ’70s movie degradation, The Good German seems to want to say, “The language of old Hollywood movies was an outgrowth of bourgeois American morality and the profit motive-ergo, old movie style conceals mundane and unpleasant human truths while protecting the powerful and reproducing their ideology.” But what comes out is more like, “Old Hollywood movies are full of shit. Now watch this crane shot!”
Actually, the latter sounds closer than the former to a movie I’d like to see, but never mind. Seitz goes on from here to make a great point that far transcends the subjects of The Good German the fall of Steven Soderbergh, calling attention to a whole
subcategory of critics’ darling that’s proliferated like toadstools in the past decade, comprised of movies that foreground their influences rather than digesting them and creating something fresh. The short list includes Boogie Nights, the Psycho remake, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, Road to Perdition, Roman Coppola’s superb and rarely-seen CQ, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Schindler’s List and pretty much any Soderbergh film that’s either set in the past (Kafka) or derived from an older film or films (The Underneath, Ocean’s 11 and 12, Solaris). If you’re up on the director’s references, these sorts of films tend to be superficially interesting even if they fail to engage your emotions (or don’t try to). But through the years I’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer enough for a movie to amuse me with its academic density and self-awareness; I also want to be moved, or at least enthralled, and the likelihood of that happening decreases in proportion to a director’s tendency to quote other films rather than fully transform them.
He cites The Limey as an example of a Soberbergh movie that’s “both fun and deep.” Notably, The Limey was heavily influenced by John Boorman’s hallucinatory, spellbinding Point Blank–enough so to be considered an homage, really, but it certainly fully digested its major influence and wrought something new. I jumped off the Soderbergh bandwagon about an hour into Ocean’s Eleven myself–a movie I came to as a true believer, convinced its director could do no wrong whether he was delivering something as emotionally potent and fresh-looking as The Limey or simply stylish genre fun. Fun might be the last thing I’d call Ocean’s Eleven, and I still haven’t quite gotten over the letdown.