I sometimes feel hopelessly ill-equipped to be able to talk about storytelling like some here. Many of my favorite films are proudly unrestricted by traditional narrative, and I’m often more swayed by aesthetics than plot mechanics. As a way of dipping my toes into that kind of analysis, I decided to a small comparison between two of my favorite filmmakers working, both of whom happen to have movies starring Meryl Streep out this awards season. I swear, I thought this was going to actually be a small piece when I started it.
For all their differences, Soderbergh and Gerwig start from one common worldview; the world is tough, and we’re all in it together. Soderbergh’s version of this is tinged with a little more of a “we’re fucked” attitude, especially now that this movies are getting more and more fed up with capitalism, while Gerwig is a bit more wistful, not sentimental but at least understanding of how even the worst circumstances can lead you down exciting paths. Lady Bird is a movie about how the sum total of one person’s experiences and encounters, good and bad, are crucial to who that person ends up being. And that’s an idea that someone as invested in the heist genre as Soderbergh can also return to; everybody pulls their weight and leaves their mark in a heist, even those who didn’t intend to do so (one of the more effectively sentimental moments in Soderbergh’s oeuvre is the montage of everybody, even the unwitting marks, getting their fair share of the heist at the end of Logan Lucky). And in his non-heist movies, Soderbergh believes strongly in the power of having friends or coworkers beside you who can help guide you to a goal or realization. There may be a more violent personal reckoning in store for Wilson in The Limey than there is for Brooke in Mistress America, but Luis Guzman, Lesley Ann Warren, and Lola Kirke are there for the similar role of guidance.
Where they diverge is in how they construct the movies around this message. Gerwig has said that the idea of Lady Bird was borne from a single line of dialogue (“Why won’t you call me Lady Bird like you said you would?”) that led her to try to figure out the life of the person who said it. This is telling of her general approach to writing, which is to build from the characters out, trying to figure out how these people would live their lives before building the narrative around them. The characters Gerwig has created are almost all inflicted with tunnel vision, blindly stumbling into situations and trying to flail their way back out, and her process that she’s right there with them, trying to figure this whole thing out. One doesn’t watch a Gerwig film and believe that she’s in any way above her characters, because she’s working in a way that allows her to empathize with even their most out-there actions. Perhaps it comes from her background as an actor, where you always want to come from a place of understanding the person whose life you’re inhabiting, lest you seem to be mocking your own character. Now that she can do this with all the characters instead of just one, she’s crafting films where everybody on-screen is readable as a human being outside of their function in the plot. The mean girl in the school is not just the mean girl, the shitty boyfriend of the protagonist’s best friend is actually thoughtful, and the rich ex of the main character is a lot weirder than he’s talked about being.
Soderbergh, quite simply, is not a character-first filmmaker. Even just beyond him not writing his own scripts like Gerwig, he sees his movies as big ideas that happen to house characters. His films since Che have become a checklist of societal ills that he’ll cover one-by-one; public health crises, corporate malfeasance, the American health care system, the NBA’s treatment of its players, prescription drug companies keeping therapists in their pockets, and so on. He envisions scenarios that come out of these ideas, and from there, he lets his writers create characters who are made deliberately small in comparison to these grand evils; this is where he’s often accused by detractors of viewing humanity with a chilly eye. This is not quite on the mark, as Soderbergh believes in his characters’ ability to succeed. His movies are often framed as David vs. Goliath stories, and David wins more often than not. But Soderbergh is still fascinated by how the Goliath works even as he loathes them; he extends so much time on the nuts and bolts of these monuments to capitalist evil that it could almost be mistaken as him favoring them over his protagonists. And even the protagonists that Soderbergh latches onto tend to be of the specific archetype of professionals who get shit done quickly and quietly, in contrast to Gerwig’s multifaceted collections of lost souls. Gerwig’s characters work together as a means of trying to better each other (they just want each other to be the very best versions of themselves), while Soderbergh’s characters work together with one goal in mind. Soderbergh likely sees as much of himself in his characters as Gerwig does in hers, his outlook is just so much more technical than hers that it comes off like he’s cold towards humanity.
But all of that is about Soderbergh the director, not his past as a writer/director. In those early films, you can sort of see the potential for him becoming a Gerwig of his time. He’s admitted that all four central characters in sex, lies, and videotape reflect some of his own experiences, and that kind of inherent empathy and understanding of these flawed people is crucial to developing the knotty dynamics without coming across as pedantic or fussy. Even the boo-hiss villain of the piece, Peter Gallagher’s yuppie, gets to be the audience identification point during the big climax; the audience doesn’t watch him watching the tape at the end, it fully assumes his perspective as he watches it. His final feature script, Solaris, is similarly a chamber piece of flawed, broken people making decisions that seem right to them at the time. Soderbergh understands Kelvin clinging onto the idea of his wife rather than moving on with his life, and he understands Gordon, the rationalist who is going to work her way out of being paralyzed by grief, and he understands why they’d be at each other’s throats. The ending of that film, with Gordon successfully escaping Solaris’s grasp and Kelvin giving into it, might be the best explanation for why Soderbergh has gone so far away from this approach; he knows that too much time spent spilling his experiences onto paper is going to destroy him in the end.
By far the most Gerwigian movie he’s yet made is King of the Hill, which would make an excellent pairing with Lady Bird. Both tell the story of adolescents whose ways with words are about a lot more than just clever dialogue; Lady Bird’s screwball patter and Aaron Kurlander’s elaborate lies both serve the function of hiding their insecurities about themselves and their financial states to their bougie classmates and teachers (Aaron would absolutely say that he was from the wrong side of the tracks). But more than that, Soderbergh fully commits to the Gerwig method of never leaving Aaron’s perspective throughout the entire film. Just as Iraq War coverage passes through Lady Bird’s life without much notice, the grimmer parts of the Great Depression exist in the background until they rudely intrude into Aaron’s life. Soderbergh later regretted the buttery, sweet-looking aesthetic of King of the Hill, but it’s a perfect representation (along with Cliff Martinez’s atypically twinkly score) of how Aaron views the world around him; he tries to have a great time even when substituting food with cut-out photos of food, and Soderbergh isn’t going to give any visual cues telling the viewer that it’s actually a bad time for him. Only when Aaron’s hunger gets too much to bear does the pristine aesthetic break down, with shaky, abstracted images of past events in the film being ported from Aaron’s feverish mind. But even then he’s a trooper, and once he gets even one positive development, the world is back to seeming like a wondrous place. That blend of horrific tragedy viewed by the characters in the context of often comic adventures is also the backbone of Gerwig’s next project, Little Women, which, like King of the Hill, is Gerwig’s first major-studio project. Maybe it’ll fail and send Gerwig down the path of not so overtly aligning herself with her characters, or making movies as expensive camera demos, but for now, I just like knowing that they’re both out there doing their own take on similar ideas. I have room in my heart for both the emotional and the technical, and they remain the best at being both of those.