(This is a new version of a piece I was going to post in November, which in turn was an expansion and reedit of a piece I wrote a year and a half ago for the Soderbergh series, which itself was an expansion and reedit of a piece I wrote a few months before. Stay tuned in 2017 when I’ll unveil the completely reworked director’s cut of it!)
When a big tell-all about Steven Soderbergh is written (by someone other than me, for the sake of fairness), the period immediately following sex, lies, and videotape will likely be deemed his “lost years”. After being one of the first directors to launch Miramax’s profile as a studio, he went from the Weinsteins’ darling to a burden when he made Kafka, which is kind of like The Wizard of Oz, except with more filing cabinets, ominous architecture and lighting, and giant eyeballs. Soderbergh himself took it to task recently for being inconsistent tonewise (maybe he’ll fix that with the upcoming director’s cut). When that stiffed with critics and audiences alike, he went to another project he was considering making after sex, lies, a Depression-era coming-of-age story about the childhood of A.E. Hotchner, named King of the Hill. This time, he was working with the subsidiary of a major studio (Gramercy, a branch of Universal designed for smaller films), but this film also disappeared quickly, despite very good reviews, being wonderful, and featuring quite possibly the best performance by any child actor ever. By the time his next Gramercy picture, The Underneath, was made, Soderbergh had completely checked out (his interview on the King of the Hill Criterion release about Underneath is pretty damning of it, undeservedly so). That movie wasn’t received at all, although I think it’s a terrifically underrated little picture that deserves better than what it got. Then he bottomed out, reviving himself with Schizopolis, and the rest is history. But right before he destroyed what he had built, he dabbled in something that would become a larger hobby later in his career; TV.
While he was making King and Underneath, Soderbergh contributed two episodes to a Showtime anthology series called Fallen Angels. Unrelated to the Wong Kar-wai film of the same name, Fallen Angels was a tribute to that most imitable of genres, the film noir. By typing those words, I’ve likely conjured images of dark, smoke-filled rooms, double crosses, and a remarkable overuse of the word “dame”. It’s a genre that’s inspired many filmmakers (including Soderbergh himself, given that Underneath was a remake of an old Burt Lancaster noir named Criss Cross, which I compared to Soderbergh’s version here), so it makes sense some good directors would do this show. Still, looking at the people involved, you still can’t help but be stunned by the level of talent that worked on this show. For chrissakes, two episodes of the show were directed by Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise (in what remains Cruise’s only directorial work to date). And this was in 1993, when they weren’t just big, they were fucking superstars. And even the then-journeymen directors have gone onto big things. Obviously Soderbergh, but this was the first outlet for some Mexican director by the name of Alfonso Cuaron, and some Mexican cinematographer named Emmanuel Lubezki.
Most people tend to ignore Alfonso Cuaron’s career before Y tu mama tambien, and those who don’t probably think that A Little Princess was his first entry into American filmmaking. But that’s not quite true. By the time Cuaron directed his episode of Fallen Angels, he had made a feature film with Emmanuel Lubezki, entitled Solo con tu pareja (a very bad, unfunny sex farce with lovely cinematography), but more germane to the topic at hand, he and Lubezki had dabbled in anthology TV in Mexico, with the horror anthology Hora Marcada, which also launched the career of Guillermo del Toro. Unlike Soderbergh (who hadn’t worked in TV for ten years up to this point, and even then the show he worked on was the sports/variety program Games People Play), they weren’t just paying their dues, they were stepping up in the industry while still following the career path they had set for themselves. So, it should be no surprise that only one of these filmmakers killed it with their season 1 episode.
“The Quiet Room”
This first episode was shot sometime around the time King of the Hill bombed, sending Soderbergh to try to take a “one for them” approach. The Underneath, thankfully, mostly failed as an example of that, becoming something more personal in the process of making it (although this also means you can see the seams where Soderbergh stopped caring), but “The Quiet Room” succeeds, which is ultimately to its detriment. It’s good and all, but behind the style, you can slightly make out the static on the phone call Soderbergh is directing it through.
The episode opens with an image that will reveal itself to be a not particularly subtle omen of things to come; two eggs boiling. The eggs are being boiled by Joe Mantegna, an officer in the LAPD. He has a teenage daughter (Vinessa Shaw, later of Soderbergh’s Side Effects), whom he loves very much and whom he’s cooking the eggs for, to make breakfast and to teach her the proper way to cook eggs. After she goes to school (and he lingers just a bit to make sure she does), he goes to work, where his job is to follow the information his partner (Bonnie Bedelia)’s receives when she detains prostitutes and roughs them up until they tell her about their johns. He then goes to the johns for a healthy bribe. Amusingly, the first john we see them bust is a sleazy dentist (who I hope is a distant relative of Jeffrey Korchak) played by early Soderbergh player Peter Gallagher. This cycle goes on. Then, one day, Mantegna gets a phone call from Bedelia. Something has gone very wrong in the “quiet room” and she needs him to help clean it up.
This episode is something Soderbergh could cook up in his sleep. It’s all building up to a big twist ending, one that many familiar with Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters could very well be able to figure out, and once that’s out of the way, it quickly dissipates from memory. It’s a fun ride while it lasts, but you’re not going to be thinking tomorrow, “Man, that episode of Fallen Angels was the shit!” Looks very pretty though. This would be the first and only collaboration between Soderbergh and Emmanuel Lubezki (cut to: The Narrator orgasming at the very thought of that pairing), and they make the most of it. Lubezki gets the lighting just right for this kind of story. He keeps the interior of Mantegna’s house idyllic and lush, a happy place in a not very happy story (a shot of Shaw and Mantegna at the breakfast table reminded me of Lubezki’s similarly rich lighting for Reality Bites, where a group of Gen Xers’ apartment is lit as romantically as a candlelight dinner). And, of course, the romantic look carries over to Mantegna and Bedelia’s lovenest. There are certainly still hints of lushness in the other locations, like the police station and moreso in the dentist’s office, but they’re more obscured by shadows, with the titular quiet room seemingly being lit only with a lightbulb one beam of light coming through a small window. The scenes in the quiet room are also very boldly composed by Lubezki and Soderbergh; they make good use of the 1.33:1 frame, positioning, in the first quiet room scene, Bedelia and the prostitute she’s beating information out of so that barely an inch of the frame is left bare, the same going for Mantegna’s confrontation with Peter Gallagher about his night with the prostitute. There’s one wonderful scene where Vinessa Shaw is consistently bathed in blue in the foreground while Mantegna is a well-lit blur in the background, a nice visualization of their relationship, what with Mantegna barely coming home anymore, followed soon after by a scene where Mantegna is lit with the green of Christmas decorations, swallowed by shadows, as he gets the very bad news from Bedelia in the middle of shaking down a john (played by J.E. Freeman, no stranger to great filmmakers doing noir pastiches). Lubezki and Soderbergh both do good work here, but both of their second episodes would end up being the much better ones.
Alfonso Cuaron, being the one newcomer in a field of established stars who had to be fought for by producer Sydney Pollack, was understandably nervous about taking on his episode of Fallen Angels. But whatever jitters Cuaron may have experienced initially (he was apparently a wreck the first day, being helped along by Alan Rickman) are not visible in the finished episode, a much more confident, streamlined production than “The Quiet Room” despite the comparative lack of experience.
“Murder, Obliquely” opens with a more plot-appropriate image than “Quiet Room”; a close-up of a pearl necklace, scattered on the floor along with earrings. By the time the narrator (Laura Dern) is talking about her “last love”, in the sense of it being her final love, the viewer is led to believe they know where the episode is going. Just you wait. Dern plays Annie, a young woman who’s brought to the house of Dwight Billings (Alan Rickman), a millionaire who seems unusually depressed when they meet. Soon, we find out the reason why; it’s his current lover, Bernette Stone (Diane Lane), who’s gotten married under his nose. After Dwight refuses to give Bernette her coat until she calls up a divorce attorney, she makes a scene by undressing in front of him and Annie. On her return visit, Annie thinks she has Dwight locked up, except she smells Bernette’s cheap perfume and knows that she’s back in the picture. Except maybe she’s not. Bernette claims that she’s going to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which Dwight believes until Annie informs him that it was cancelled due to rain, at which point Bernette comes back and raves about it to Dwight. Sensing an opening, Annie comes back later that night, Dwight not with Bernette. Or so he claims. After a failed seduction attempt, Annie finds Bernette’s coat on a chair and her earrings on the floor. Later, she hears that Bernette has gone missing, and there rumblings that a certain someone murdered her…
What separates this from “The Quiet Room”, more than its story (which is much more cumulative than the all-build-up “Quiet Room”), is how Cuaron and Lubezki see fit to handle the story. Soderbergh sees his episode as a way of biding time (just as that episode feels like it’s biding time until the big reveal, compared to the immaculate slow-burn of “Obliquely”), whereas Cuaron looks at it like any master craftsman from the old days or from now would; like he wants to tell a good story very well. For this reason, the direction of this episode is less flashy than that of “Quiet Room”, but ultimately that proves to be one of its biggest assets. Cuaron stages the episode mostly in close-ups, closing in on the characters as their options grow fewer and fewer. There may not be many “standout” shots here, but each shot helps to tell the story in the best way possible, which is all of the battle. Similarly, Lubezki’s work here is pretty straightforward in terms of lighting (not a complaint, it looks goddamn amazing), mostly avoiding shadows, making every location appear lush and gorgeous, and making the faces of the actors (especially Dern) look inhumanly beautiful, which adds immensely to the episode’s less mysterious, more romantic tone. Cuaron is also remarkably assured with his actors, never allowing them (not even Lane, whose role seems to call for scenery-chewing) to go over-the-top in a way that might disrupt the episode’s careful balance (the same goes for Dern’s voice-over; it’s never self-consciously breathy like one could imagine it being). As a first American assignment, “Murder, Obliquely” spelled nothing but good things for Cuaron’s future, whereas “Quiet Room” may have suggested that Soderbergh was running out of fuel. But before Fallen Angels was brought to close, he’d get one hell of a refill.
Cuaron and Lubezki only contributed to the first season of Fallen Angels, but Soderbergh returned for the second season, which had less big, big, big talent involved (the actor-director spots in S2 was filled by Kiefer Sutherland and Keith Gordon, after all), but arguably a better slate of directors. I mean, you got Peter Bogdanovich, Soderbergh again, Agnieszka Holland, Michael Lehmann, and John Dahl (whose Red Rock West and The Last Seduction essentially crowned him the king of neo-noir). Following this pattern, while Soderbergh’s first episode was fun but disposable, his second is something of a masterpiece.
Brendan Fraser feels like he should have had a comeback by now. He’s an actor who Hollywood never really figured out how to use properly. He’s got a mixture of Old Hollywood charm and goofy charisma, where he can convincingly play a romantic lead (Blast From the Past, Gods and Monsters to a degree), an adventurer (the Mummy movies), and a cartoon character (Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Monkeybone, the latter I haven’t seen, although it’s been recommended to me by a few apparently sane internet acquaintances). Alas, the things that used him well mostly flopped, and he was frequently used poorly, whether he was told to mug while animals fucked his shit up or whether he went down with the (agonizingly simplistic) ship in Crash. It’s come to the point that his clapping spell at the 2012 Golden Globes was his best performance in nearly 10 years. Before you ask what the point of this was, no, I’m not doing a Brendan Fraser retrospective series (I’ll leave that for Miller to do), but Fraser does play the lead in Soderbergh’s second Fallen Angels episode, “Professional Man”. The professional man of the title is a hitman, and yes, Brendan Fraser plays a hitman in this and please don’t run away.
Johnny Lamb is the best elevator man one could ask for. He gets you to whatever floor you need to get to whether there’s 2 people or 20 people in the elevator with you. He does so with a minimum of chit-chat too. Johnny is a man who is, above all, professional (hey, that’s the name of the episode!). He is also a hollowed out specimen of a human being. Whatever soul Johnny once possessed has long rotted away. There’s no feeling behind Johnny’s eyes, no warmth. He is nothing but an image at this point, an image of a friendly elevator man. But there is another image to Johnny. You see, he has another job. When he’s not tending the elevators, he’s bumping off people his Boss finds inconvenient. He’s good at that job too. But there’s one more image of Johnny. It’s of the caring lover. Johnny has a longtime boyfriend, named Paul. But even in a scene where they’re being passionate with each other, Johnny is obviously playing a role. As much as Johnny loves Paul, there is no compassion left in him. And Paul will eventually be the undoing of both of them. The Boss doesn’t like Paul. The Boss may even want Johnny for himself. And Johnny knows what to do when the Boss doesn’t like somebody.
Along with The Underneath, this episode directly precedes Soderbergh’s “exile” in Baton Rouge to make Schizopolis, his masterpiece and shut up. If there’s a problem with Underneath, it’s that it’s probably a bit too sleepy for its own good (the plot is probably the least interesting part of the movie). That’s not a problem with this, which is 30 minutes of momentum building to a gutpunch. With each scene, the screws tighten. But this episode may actually share more in common with his second attempt at a feature-length noir, The Good German. That movie revelled in replicating the technical features of noir (right down to the mics used to record the dialogue), but the rest of the film makes no attempt to act like it could have been made in the Code days. Not many noirs feature Spider-Man (or his 40s equivalent) fucking a prostitute from behind in the first ten minutes, or an ending which implies that our “hero” (basically a worthless fuck-up for the rest of the movie) was also inadvertently responsible for the murder of numerous Jews during the Holocaust. Here, Soderbergh takes a fatalistic noir plot and gives it contemporary trimmings, which don’t distract but instead enhance. Like the color. There’s the deep red of Johnny’s elevator outfit. In one particularly gorgeous scene, we see Johnny perform a hit for the first time. After Johnny stabs his target to death, we cut to a god’s-eye-view shot, looking down on the two. One portion of the alley where the job was done (and where the body remains) is lit by yellow lights, while the portion where Johnny exits through is lit by blue lights. And also the gay text. What could have been a cheap shock effect instead registers as a meaningful and necessary part of Johnny’s character. Johnny is already keeping himself at bay almost all day, hiding his murderous self from the elevator patrons, adding an extra layer of sexual repression and shame on top of that is enough to break any man, and it adds another layer of dirt on top of Johnny’s inevitable grave. Apparently (gathered from the top IMDb review of the episode), this is a departure from David Goodis’ short story which this is based on, but it’s a very smart one. Soderbergh has an understanding that to make a good neo-noir, you can’t follow the restrictions set at the time. You get the limitations right, good for you, you basically copied off someone else’s paper. But you get the feel right, and that’s everything.
But all this wouldn’t work nearly as well if Brendan Fraser wasn’t good in the lead role. I had previously thought Fraser was a good actor caught in a bad system, but this episode convinced me that his mistreatment by Hollywood was downright criminal. He is a revelation here, so perfectly stepping into a role that requires him to go almost completely blank. Fraser is an actor I would normally describe as, if nothing, alive. There’s always something going on inside him in all his roles (okay, maybe not Crash), whether it’s compassion, or awe, or terror, or wackiness. Here, you can sense nothing behind his joyless stare (the only time we see him smile is when he performs his first hit, and even then, his eyes are concealed by sunglasses) and his constant routines. When we start Johnny is already dead, but he gets himself buried over the course of the episode, and Fraser sells the fuck out of that. It might seem scary to an actor to go completely blank, but Fraser does so with revelatory abandon. This is his show, and I honestly wish there was more of it, just to see more of Fraser doing this kind of role (which he’s never replicated before or since).
Soderbergh has obviously gone back to TV since this, while both Cuaron and Lubezki have mostly left it behind (Cuaron did direct the pilot of Believe, which is sort of like Children of Men, if it was hit on the head). But these three episodes do so much more than just represent different career paths; they show the seeds of genius living, dying, and growing anew