DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: STEVEN SODERBERGH vs. SPIKE LEE

Wednesday 7 March 2007


Dropping the Gloves Part 1: Steven Soderbergh vs. Spike Lee

This essay is the first of, hopefully, a series of fun hypothetical tête-à-tête matchups of great filmmakers. With each essay I’ll choose two directors of similar quality of films and compare a number of their films. The intent is to stir up some commentary on both filmmakers and encourage readers to revisit their films.

In this corner… Spike Lee, a cultural figurehead in filmmaking from the late 80’s to today. Other than Sidney Poitier, no one has helped further the enhancement of African-American filmmakers than Spike. After series of success short films his auspicious feature film debut 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It”, made for $175,000, instantly established Lee on Hollywood’s radar. His first breakout hit was “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, which stirred up much controversy for its depiction of racial tension in contemporary America. Spike has been outspoken and controversial on all matters of race on film ever since.

In this corner… Steven Soderbergh, a renaissance filmmaker who’s a writer, director, producer, cinematographer and sometimes actor. He has a remarkable output of films, including directing 7 films in 5 years from 1998 to 2002. Steven was the youngest filmmaker to win a Palm D’Or in 1989 for “Sex, Lies & Videotape”. Steven is also famous for his lengthy sophomore slump after “Sex, Lies”, which saw him produce 3 unsuccessful films, before bouncing back with “Out of Sight.” Since then, he’s been a major player as a director and producer. His fruitful producing partnership with George Clooney has resulted in films such as “Good Night and Good Luck”, “Syriana”, “Far From Heaven”, and “A Scanner Darkly.”

Enough preamble, let’s get it on:

Round 1: Do The Right Thing(1989) vs. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
This is an interesting comparison. Both films were the breakout films for Lee’s and Soderbergh’s careers and both competed for the Palme D’Or in 1989 with “Sex, Lies” taking the prize. In hindsight, which film is better? “Do the Right Thing” has become a cultural landmark for black cinema and has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. “Sex, Lies” though not as influential on the cultural radar, established Miramax’s reputation as a major Hollywood distributor. On a creative and filmmaking level, “Do the Right Thing” pushes the boundaries of filmmaking and creates the perfect mix of art and politics. Winner: Lee.

Round 2: Malcolm X(1992) vs. Traffic (2000)
“Malcolm X” is Spike Lee’s epic, a three-hour plus opus about the controversial black muslim leader. “Traffic,” also Soderbergh’s grandest film, is the Oscar-winning saga of drug trafficking in modern America. Spike’s film arrived with much baggage and controversy, but it was hailed by many most critics, including Roger Ebert as “one of the great screen biographies.” Some criticized it as overindulgent and cartoonish especially in the portrayal of its white characters. It’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in “Traffic.” It will likely stand the test of time (7 years) as an engrossing study of the effects of drugs from the politicians finding it to the kids on the street who buy it and use it. “Malcolm X,” though grand and majestic, perhaps suffers most in its nobility. “Traffic” seems to exist naturally and is more provocative. Winner: Soderbergh.

Round 3: Crooklyn (1994) vs. Out of Sight(1998)

Each of these films would represent the “lightest” and most audience friendly of each director’s body of work. “Crooklyn’s” one of Lee’s most personal films inspired by his own childhood in Brooklyn in the 70’s. It’s a refreshing colourful burst of life, about his beloved city most often portrayed for its seediness. It’s brimming with fresh visual ideas and wonderful characters and, sadly, is an underrated and lesser-known film. “Out of Sight”, Soderbergh’s “comeback” film, was based on an Elmore Leonard novel and is also colourful and fun. The affability of George Clooney and the sultriness of JLo make a great pairing, but the film lacks the originality of Lee’s film. It feels like a hodgepodge of “Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty” and other better crime films. Winner: Lee

Round 4: 25th Hour(2002) vs. The Limey(1999)
The “25th Hour” is one of Lee’s better and more recent films. It came out in 2002, to critical acclaim but it failed to excite voters at awards season. As a result it disappeared quickly from the map. It starts off as fun romp of a trio of college buddies on the town. The film changes emotional gears when it’s revealed that one of them is to be sent to prison the next day. “The Limey” is about a man, released from prison who seeks revenge for the murder of his daughter. “25th Hour” works best as a one-nighter-slice-of-life, but when it tries to “say something” it gets bogged down in dogmatic preaching. “The Limey” stays on target as a journey into a crime underworld and into the psyche of a man who will not stop until revenge is exacted. Winner: Soderbergh.

Round 5: Inside Man(2006) vs. Erin Brockovich(2000)

Wow, it’s tied. Let’s throw down two of their most popular and successful films. “Inside Man,” which made $88 million in the box office last year, and Spike’s most successful film – an unabashed heist film without an agenda. “Erin Brockovich” has a very clear agenda – the triumph of one insignificant single mother against big business in favour of the environment. “Brockovich” made $125 million at the box office and garnered 5 Oscar nominations, including Julia Roberts win for best actress. Despite the Oscar “Brockovich” exists soley as the Julia Roberts vehicle. “Inside Man” is succinct and compelling from start to finish. Winner: Spike

Steven Soderbergh 2 - Spike Lee 3

Perhaps a surprising winner, but Spike Lee deserves full acclaim. He’s also a talent waiting to burst out with a critical comeback and reestablish himself. His controversial remarks often make him out to be a bitter filmmaker, but filmmaking skills should be separated from his politics. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is often overpraised. Though slick and gorgeous, often his films lack the personal edge that separates Spike from the pack. Soderbergh is a technical filmmaker who more often than not seems to imitate rather than originate. A challenge to Mr. Soderbergh: I want to see your personal film, without the nostalgic wink to the audience.


Anonymous said...

Wondering what Soderbergh's 'Bubble', specifically the simultaneous DVD, theatrical, and broadcast release might play in this matchup?

Is Soderbergh docked points for the seeming failure of it all, or awarded points for attempting to embrace new strategies to fight the decline in theatrical attendance?

Alan Bacchus said...

Soderbergh's attempt with Bubble is admirable. But if you want to see a better film on the same subject matter watch "SIX FIGURES" by David Christensen. A terrifc cerebral art film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460566/

Anonymous said...

interesting comparison, but I'm missing one of the most discussed films of Soderbergh, indeed also with Clooney but very diverse reactions on the critics side: Solaris. Sadly there is no SciFi or metaphysical movie by Lee.

Anyway, great blog. Greetings from Germany,

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks Philipp. I've love to see a Spike Lee Sci-fi film. That would be awesome

Big Mike Mendez said...

I think Spike should get points also for the consistent quality and quantity of his work compared to Soderbergh, particularly his documentary work on Four Little Girls and When the Levees Broke.

Alan Bacchus said...

Hey Mike,
Thanks for your comment. You're right, both those film, and When The Levee Breaks in particular is phenomenal

Please Don't Come Back From The Moon said...

I disagree about Malcom X. I think its insistence on itself fairly reflects the urgency of the subject himself. Although I do agree that Spike always has to yield to his own self-absorption (see the scene where Spike, as Shorty, and Malcolm during the 'Red' years, kept shooting at each other in the park to represent the damage each is doing to the other), but they are far and few in between. With Malcolm X, it's funny one complains about Lee's dogmatic preaching, yet he keeps himself out of this film more than any of his others.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you chose Spike Lee over Soderbergh, though it shouldn't be nearly as close. Traffic is a watered down cliche of a movie, if not only for the 'hit you over the head' contrast between the Mexican scenes and the D.C. scenes (gritty, overly yellow tones! now cool blue tones for Washington, get it!?!), but the stale performances and reductive script.

And Malcolm X is one of the most beautiful, poignant films I've ever seen, with remarkable personal restraint on the part of Lee, who still manages to argue his point of view, albeit subtly.

The one thing that Soderbergh has over Lee is the fact that he shoots his own films, which is decidedly pretty badass, especially considering how nice they often look (Traffic notwithstanding: if you couldn't tell, I hated that movie. yes, I am a little biased.)

Soderbergh is still pretty lite fare in my opinion, which is just fine when executed well, but it will never hold a candle to the type of distinctively voiced and styled craftsmanship that Lee executes consistently.