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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Emissary of 'Sh-t': Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire"

“The whole point is to lose yourself.” In Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, a powerful Frenchman, Studer (Matthieu Kassovitz), says this to Mallory Kane (Gina Careno), inviting her into a maze outside of a luxurious mansion in Ireland. The line is ironic because, by golly, we are lost in the convolutions of Haywire’s plot and characters, each of whom is drawn with contradictory motivations in their double lives. Maybe this has something to do with Soderbergh’s idea of casting Careno, a non-actress, in his leading role, while she’s conspicuously surrounded by A-list faces like Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, and Michael Fassbender. Haywire is all about the threat of losing yourself in the simulations of role playing. The cliché about actors is that there isn’t a “there” there. This is why casting an MMA champ as the lead makes some sense: a good way to remind you that there is a “there” there is to have your face pummeled. And when bodies fall in Haywire, in contrast to many other beat’em up movies, they have weight. The fights in Soderbergh’s cubist combat movie are the most coherent scenes of Haywire. Early in the film, Mallory chases a goon, going out of her way to finish him off. “Why did you chase him?” she’s asked. “I don’t like to leave loose ends,” she replies. Beating up a thug is like putting a period at the end of a complete sentence.

The rest of Haywire is also fascinating, but not for its plot so much as how Soderbergh is fiddling around with film grammar. Instead of conventional over-the-shoulder cross-cutting, the rhythm is broken up, reaction-shots being unpredictable. Soderbergh’s canvas over a scene’s matrix is limitless, maddeningly matching the array of motives his characters may or may not possess. Things are color, black and white, God’s-eye-view and surveillance-styled. In the story, people are lovers, traitors, masquerading as a married couple, and then trying to kill each other. Hostages are freed, then sold to someone else who wants them dead. Soderbergh’s last film, the virus thriller Contagion, was also more interested in deconstructing its form than just telling a rip-roaring story. This is important in assessing Soderbergh’s career. Maybe he’s like Mallory Kane, and starting to wonder about the worth of succeeding in his dangerous profession, which, according to him, has become very conservative in recent years, and so more difficult for an idiosyncratic artist to maintain a sense of self in a maze of bullshit and contradictions.

Mallory is the best at what she does: being a privately contracted operations specialist with a knack for proficient ass-whooping if the circumstances call for it (and in b-movies, they usually do). She’s had a romantic relationship with her employer, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), whose name is also the identifier for his company, but they’ve since broken up. After the successful “Barcelona” mission, where Mallory and some other agents, including “Aaron” (Channing Tatum), with whom she has a brief fling, rescue a captive journalist, Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong), Mallory’s going to retire. But Kenneth pleads that she do one more job, an easy final gig requiring her to do nothing more than be a visual distraction. “I’m not eye candy,” she replies, hesitant to commit to the covert role of playing beautiful wife to another operations specialist, "Paul" (Michael Fassbender). Despite her trepidation, Kenneth is persuasive. His client wants his best person, and that’s Mallory.

Playing the good wife to Paul at a fancy dinner party, Mallory unveils the haywire clusterfuck. Though she and Paul are supposed to be working on Studer, French politician, Mallory’s wanderings lead her to Jiang’s dead body, and the distinct possibility that she’s not in good hands. She knows that Paul killed him, but why would he if he’s also working for Kenneth, who ran the operation to free Jiang? Coming back to their hotel, Paul attacks Mallory, but she gets the upper hand. Paul’s phone rings and Mallory picks up. “Paul, is the divorce final?” Kenneth’s voice asks. Mallory doesn’t reply. Kenneth realizes that he may be in some deep doo-doo.

What the hell is happening? Jiang, Studer, Kenneth, Paul, Aaron, a high U.S. government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas), and his associate, Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) - ? What’s the path of motivation, who wants Mallory dead and for what reason? Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs follow a non-linear script structure, as they did in their previous collaboration The Limey. Haywire begins in the middle of things, with the betrayed Mallory hoping to meet up with some help in an upstate New York diner. Instead, Aaron shows up. “Shit,” Mallory says, probably the first word spoken in the film. Kenneth has enlisted Aaron to take Mallory in. Aided by a stranger named Scott (Michael Angarano) she escapes. She drives Scott's new car while he fixes her injured arm, and she tells her story so that he - like the audience - can catch up. Poor Scott is also struggling to remember the names of the players.

“Shit” is an interesting utterance. An expression that indicates an unpredicted inconvenience, "shit" is the word that begins and ends Haywire. Aaron shows up as Haywire’s first emissary of “shit,” following Kenneth’s company line and demanding Mallory follow orders and come with him. “You got something to say, say it,” Aaron tells her. She can voice her frustrations like an unsatisfied customer complaining to a customer service rep: we’ll take a note of that, ma’am, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. But we can’t help you. Now come with me and die. Aaron is a good worker - and ass-kicker - but he’s uncurious about his company's motives. What are the ends of work? He doesn't know and doesn't ask, something applicable to a description of most working people.

I suspect that this is what Haywire is about, and why it's something personal for Steven Soderbergh, himself a prodigious worker who’s been able to work for big studios and bide time on mini-productions, remaining an independent voice throughout the years, underground and in the mainstream. In the mid-1990s, following the failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath, Soderbergh grew frustrated and felt stifled by movie production. He regrouped with Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy, bouncing back in the studio system with Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s 11, while also doing smaller films like The Limey and Full Frontal. Whatever one’s opinions about the films, Soderbergh was successful in how he kept himself busy and maintained an independent voice in an industry that discourages personality. It’s startling to think how a director could use tens of millions of dollars for highly divisive and formally challenging films like Solaris, The Good German, and Che, and still get away with it.

And then there was Moneyball. As Mallory Kane says after realizing that things are not going to be easy, “Shit.”

Columbia Pictures fired Soderbergh days before his conception of Moneyball would begin shooting. He had been laboring on the Brad Pitt-starrer for some time, hoping to marry his passion for movies to a childhood dream of playing professional baseball. Was he betrayed, like Mallory Kane by her employer and former lover? Was he similarly an important worker who was summarily disposed of? That’s probably a melodramatic way of putting it, but Soderbergh’s firing reinforced a belief growing about the industry, that it was becoming more conservative and less conducive to eccentric talent. The Informant!, released in the fall of 2009, might have been indicative to studios of how they should be wary of Soderbergh. In the story about a delusional and dopey whistleblower (Matt Damon), had the filmmaker made a corporate drama? A farcical comedy? As its title indicates, The Informant! was a formal exercise about punctuation: a straight drama formally put together with the grammar of film comedy, the style thus informing a valid point: real life corporate dynamics, which culminated in the collapse of September 2008, were the stuff of farce. As Tom Lehrer noted, when Henry Kissinger wins a Nobel Peace Prize, satire is impossible. And when Sarah Palin is a hair’s breath away from the presidency….

But Soderbergh’s interest in grammar, whether in The Informant! or the marvelous and protean Che, is distracting for audiences who aren’t exactly interested in a “dialectical” movie experience. Studios know that. And given how adventurous he was probably planning to be with an expensive docudrama like Moneyball, maybe having Soderbergh as director would be a risk for a long-struggling studio. Gone were the days when he made things as palatable as Erin Brockovich and Traffic.

Conventional film grammar, catering to audiences and allowing them to relax, began to annoy Soderbergh, and when his “retirement” was announced I remember hearing him complain that setting up one more over-the-shoulder cross-cut would drive him nuts. Even when he was hired to direct a large “blockbuster” movie, Contagion, the subtext of cameras, technology, perspective, the cultural role of images, etc, was integral to appreciating the whole experience. Movies are exercises of escapism, but Contagion was a virus thriller about the inability for people to accept something detrimental happening right now, from which there is no escape. Cynical critics and audiences laughed at a movie star like Gwyneth Paltrow (a celebrity people love to hate) having a seizure, dying, and having her skull-cap removed in the first 20 minutes. But the all-star quality of Contagion is a commentary of how easy it is for us to lay back and be safely removed in an auditorium’s twilight zone of nowhere. Why does Matt Damon not react “appropriately” when he’s told his wife (Paltrow) is dead? Is his reaction wrong, or have our expectations been constructed by our familiarity with movie-death conventions? The paradox in Contagion is how the technology within an artform, or a corporation (movies being the most corporate of art-forms), may carry our deepest sentiments, like an iPod playing U2, or a camera’s still pictures of a loved one, while also disconnecting us from “reality” and each other.

Contagion’s key “American household” couple with whom the audience identifies, the Emhoffs (Damon and Paltrow – the name Emhoff deliberately similar to Madoff), is an ironic center, considering how wealthy they are, and how it is the corporation for which Paltrow works that is responsible for Contagion’s terrifying pandemic. Movie-goers, workers, consumers - we are all struggling to cope and are hypnotized daily by the repetitions of immanent toils, which prevent the ignition to change. Contagion points out our disconnection. Maybe disconnectedness has always been one of Soderbergh’s main themes, being something he deeply felt after The Underneath, and which he even more deeply feels now, after the internet’s imperial conquest of reality (Soderbergh has joked, in reference to his fight against film piracy, “Some days I wish that Al Gore never invented the internet.”) Sex, Lies, and Videotape is about a sexual dysfunction, where the videoscopic Graham (James Spader) is impotent, only able to get off while viewing tape-recorded confessions by the women he meets. Graham might have a fear of groundlessness, living out of his car with “one key,” wondering if having more than one will only lead to entropy. Unless you keep it simple, you’ll lose yourself.

Beyond Graham, Soderbergh’s characters are workers disconnected from the ends of their professions, the subject of Haywire. They perform duties without a longview perspective. Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) in Kafka, a clerk in 1919 Prague, gradually comes to see the burgeoning totalitarian dispatches and monstrous zombies created in the city’s ominous castle. And Schizopolis, a project born out of Soderbergh's frustrations and fears of being a cog in the movie industrial complex, is primarily focused on fledging cubical-ridden office worker Fletcher Munson (played exceptionally well by Soderbergh himself), whose job is to write a speech for a New Age charlatan, T. Azimuth Schwitters. To remain unethical, the corrupt corporate entity in Erin Brockovich relies on the passivity of ordinary citizens. In Traffic, we see the unrecognized interconnections of the drug trade, from the rich kids who use, the street dealers who sell, the politicians who legislate, the agents who investigate, the wealthy kingpins who administrate, and the Central American police and military personnel who ensure that it happens. The flow of profits relies on everyone working while remaining ignorant. We see this with the astronauts in Solaris, the factory workers in Bubble, the casinos of the Ocean trilogy, and the escort setting up her business around economic collapse in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh’s great heroes – Kafka, Erin Brockovich, Benicio Del Toro’s cop in Traffic, Danny Ocean, most certainly Che Guevara, and now Mallory Kane – are revolutionary infiltrators who work to dismantle the impersonal structures of control. It’s easy to see why Moneyball would have appealed to Soderbergh, as Billy Beane struggles to introduce a new system for small teams to topple the invincibility of the wealthy New York Yankees. But as Kenneth says in Haywire, “Everything’s about money.”

Is it? Even in Hollywood, where personal and moving stories are being told, it’s a zero-sum game circling around not only profits, but huge profits. Where is the worker, the artisan, the personality in this capital flux? Before she’s betrayed in Haywire, Mallory receives a gift in the mail. It’s a new book by her father, John Kane (Bill Paxton), who is something of a Tom Clancy-style military novelist. He’s inscribed a dedication to Mallory on the title page, and therefore obviously has something in his commercial art that he wants to convey to her. The combat novel is an emissary of his human feelings, even if the story is focused on snipers and desert tanks. Soderbergh himself has a daughter in her late teens, and in addition to Haywire’s tender father/daughter relationship, we observe something similar in Contagion between Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Herron, and also in Moneyball between Billy Beane and his daughter, where the bond is captured on a music disc (something that Soderbergh probably brought during his time developing the project with Steven Zaillian).

In the terrain of zero-sum economics, where “everything's about money,” tender relationships are muted or duplicitous. Along with the warmth between a father and daughter in Soderbergh’s recent ventures, there’s also infidelity. The Girlfriend Experience reduces conjugal bonding to a capital exchange, a simulation afforded to those who can afford it; Contagion begins with Paltrow having some words with her lover (humorously voiced by Soderbergh), moments before she's to board a plane back home to Matt Damon; on the other side of the economic ladder, the factory workers in Bubble create baby dolls, manufacturing simulated family dynamics. The interesting contrast deals with people who are wealthy enough to avoid real relationships and consequences, and people who are too poor to escape the blankness of a dead-end existence, and are unable to afford society’s indoctrinated portrait of a “real” family. Does Mallory Kane want to get out of the business so that she can finally be real? As no one is trustworthy in her line of work, there’s no way to maintain stability unless you’re out of the game. Meanwhile, one of the most corrupt of figures at the top, Rodrigo, plants schemes so that he can have a new wife and “perfect” domestic existence.

Though Soderbergh and Dobbs may have implanted allusions to several other movies in Haywire, the one that most struck me is to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a great film about duplicity and masks in relationships. We could see the hotel room combat between Mallory and Paul as being a slightly funny moment, where sex becomes analogous to aggression, but moments before the fight, Soderbergh tracks backward with the masquerading husband and wife walking forward, Paul leaning towards Mallory as if to straighten out something on her dress. The movement and composition was eerily similar to how Kubrick shoots the Harfords (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) on their way to a rich man’s Christmas party. Eyes Wide Shut works as allusion on two levels. Firstly, as a story where no one can fully truly know another person, particularly in the closest and most symbolic of alliances (Studer’s invitation for Mallory to “lose herself” in the mansion’s maze is also very much like how the rich Hungarian in Eyes Wide Shut tries to lure Alice Harford upstairs to see Victor Ziegler’s art collection). Paul’s murder of Mallory is coded by Kenneth as “the divorce.”

Secondly, Eyes Wide Shut, or Kubrick generally, relates to Soderbergh’s anxieties of the artist successfully working within the machine of impersonal mass production. On the DVD commentary for Bubble, Soderbergh mentions how a friend visited the Eyes Wide Shut set and was stunned by how small Kubrick’s crew was, of “16 people max.” Kubrick was able to balance out a shooting schedule that went on for more than a year, keeping two of Hollywood’s most successful faces out of other projects. Kubrick had final cut on a project that would be divisive and difficult for a mainstream audience. The productions were more focused, less impersonal, and more lean and meaningful. Kubrick was the hard-working independent contractor who was uncompromising and fulfilled in his creative and commercial circumstances. Kubrick, whom Soderbergh also emulates as a cinematographer, is what a filmmaker like Soderbergh would aspire to be in the film industry. The artist and the studio, the employee and the employer, are in their own marriage of exchange. But instead of an open dialogue between partners, which was most successful during the Movie Brat generation of the 1970s Hollywood (and to which Soderbergh and Dobbs paid tribute in The Limey), it’s reduced to a one-sided conversation. The corporation is the person nowadays, as "Kenneth" refers not only to Ewan McGregor's character, but to the whole company. Mallory fights back, and so does Soderbergh, deconstructing his January B-movie release and resolutely refusing to be taken in. At least until a deer crashes through a runaway vehicle’s rear window.

In preparing her revenge and disappearance, Mallory Kane’s future is as foggy as Soderbergh’s. She seems to make a tentative deal with Coblenz, who is upfront about his multi-faceted and so untrustworthy nature, but it’s hardly finalized. She walks away without giving him a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to his proposal for a professional relationship. After working through Kenneth to find the root of her inconveniences, she breaks up a “happy” marriage. Rodrigo is the figure who’s manufactured the whole conspiracy, for reasons that are still a little unclear to me. Jiang was a journalist onto some of Studer’s bad political dealings, and had to be dealt with in a way which would cover Studer’s tracks; Rodrigo apparently devises the strategy to kill Jiang and pin the blame on Mallory; he would be rewarded with a good retirement and a beautiful new model wife. After lighting a cigar, the trophy wife disappears to answer the doorbell. She’s pulled out of the frame and Rodrigo investigates. He turns around and sees Mallory.

Like Eyes Wide Shut, Haywire ends with an expletive. Just when Rodrigo thought he had figured out his own path to fulfillment and happiness, Mallory becomes the new emissary of ‘Shit,’ foiling plans from the bottom up in a righteous workers’ revolt. Haywire becomes a movie appropriate to the Occupy movement. Sure, the message (i.e. plot) may be unclear, but the point is to understand how hard it is for struggling workers to keep their heads above water in shady times when governing power structures lack a humanistic compass. In the meantime, let’s cause a ruckus and make the 1% shit their pants.

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