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August 9, 2002

Full Frontal: No, it's not what you think

Full Frontal

Stephen Soderbergh

Miramax

The connection between the movies and reality preoccupies Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal. Questions about the topic abound: What constitutes a movie? What happens to the real-life elements of directors, actors, and screenwriters that seep into their work? How do we make sense of the difference between an actor's personality and those of the characters he plays? Most importantly, can a movie ever present its audience with a genuinely honest moment, a moment untainted by the tricks of writers, the interpretations of actors, the techniques of directors, and the demands of producers? Soderbergh's deep engagement with these questions prevents him from offering a direct answer to any of them, but he seems to answer the first implicitly by saying that a movie can be honest, so long as it knows that it's only a movie—that perhaps the only true connection between a movie and reality is a winking acknowledgement to the audience that everything they have just experienced in the previous two hours is a fake, the result of months of excruciating work. A movie's only form of sincerity, he seems to be saying, comes when it pulls back the curtain to show us its machinations.

I have a question of my own to ask at this point: interesting though some of these questions may be, does anything about them necessitate a movie and not, say, an article in a scholarly journal? I'm as pre-occupied with deconstruction as the next university poseur, but something must justify my spending $8.75 to watch Steven Soderbergh's movie about the movies, which he sloppily (and consciously) produced on a budget of less than $2 million. Frankly, deconstruction isn't it. The yes-but-why-am-I-watching-it question is as old as the experimental motion picture, and there are really only two possible answers. Either it has something original to say, or it doesn't have anything original to say but it's especially funny, or sad, or otherwise engaging along the way. Unfortunately, it's hard to have something insightful to say about the process of making movies these days, when even the Austin Powers franchise shrugs off its utter indefensibility by showing at every turn that we are, indeed, only watching a movie. Full Frontal had better be awfully entertaining, then.

There are indeed some very funny moments in Full Frontal, courtesy mainly of a succession of celebrity cameos that Soderbergh, with his reputation in Hollywood, can summon at will. (As an aside, though, I wonder whether a dissection of the movie industry is even necessary when Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein's appearance counts as a celebrity cameo.) Coleman Hough's screenplay, however, is more of a placid meditation on the movie industry than a parody of its audience-wrenching aspects. Screen time is divided between a movie-within-a-movie (shot on film to help us keep track) in which Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood play, respectively, an entertainment reporter and an up-and-coming actor who fall in love during the course of an interview on a transcontinental flight. The other half of the movie (shot on digital video) follows during a single day the people who made the movie-within-a-movie. One of the writers, played by David Hyde Pierce, loses his magazine job and watches his marriage to a personnel executive played by Catherine Keener suddenly dissolve. The other writer, played by Enrico Colantoni, is busy directing the pair's next project, a play about Hitler called "The Sound and the Fuhrer" in which the lead actor, played by Nicky Katt, prepares himself by refusing to memorize his lines or take direction of any kind. The movie's producer, played by David Duchovny, is throwing himself a birthday party—to which all the characters are invited—and bargains for a "happy ending" with his masseuse.

What happens to the characters is of much less significance than what they think, feel, and say, however. That's a usual crutch for movies about creative people; Ed Harris' Pollock, to take one example, struggled mightily to show that internal moment of inspiration that drives artists. The emphasis on thought processes is bizarre in this particular movie, however, since its real point is that movies are not so much a creative endeavor as a ruthless business. Hence the obsession with the bottom line, constantly brought up by producers and studio executives, and hence the frustration of actors and writers who dream of making fierce, challenging movies.

For all of its emphasis on the creative process, the message of Full Frontal is that it doesn't really matter what a director or writer or actor thinks. What ends up on the screen is not anyone's vision, but instead a weird amalgamation of studio rewrites and focus-group editing that may or may not contain some of what the creators wanted. Soderbergh made Full Frontal in 18 days, insisting that his actors drive themselves to the set, maintain their own hair and make-up, work without a trailer, and work for seriously diminished salaries. Perhaps he saw this as his own way of bucking the studio system he's criticizing. Perhaps he just wanted to return to his days of making movies like Schizopolis that cineastes adored and nobody else watched. Either way, the rules seem inappropriate: Full Frontal is so obviously an insider's exercise in self-loathing that it's hard to take its guerrilla intentions seriously. And unfortunately, it doesn't bring me any closer to understanding why he made the movie in the first place.