Sunday, February 3, 2013

Life (thankfully) not imitating art

In a recent interview, director Steven Soderbergh suggests that Washington could learn a thing or two from Hollywood:
One thing I do know from making art is that ideology is the enemy of problem-solving. Nobody sits on a film set and says, "No, you can’t use green-screen VFX to solve that because I’m Catholic." There’s no place for that, and that’s why I’ve stopped being embarrassed about being in the entertainment industry, because I’m surrounded by intelligent people who solve problems quickly and efficiently, primarily because issues of ideology don’t enter into the conversation. ... 
I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, "Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of," we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do. A big movie involves clothing, feeding, and moving thousands of people around the world on a tight schedule. Problems are solved creatively and efficiently within a budget, or your ass is out of work. So when I look at what’s going on in the government, the gridlock, I think, Wow, that’s a really inefficient way to run a railroad. The government can’t solve problems because the two parties are so wedded to their opposing ideas that they can’t move. ... That’s how art works. You steal from everything.
There are quite a few ideas packed in here, which I'll try to address one at a time.

First, the problem during Hurricane Katrina was neither partisanship or gridlock. It wasn't like Congress wanted to vote on how to rescue people in New Orleans but someone filibustered. No one made the claim that people should drown to teach them the value of thrift. At least at the time of the crisis, government officials more or less agreed on what needed to be done; they just largely failed to do it. The problem was, to some extent, federalism, but more generally incompetence. In many other situations (the Haitian earthquake, Superstorm Sandy, etc.) the federal government has responded quickly and effectively, providing shelter and saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Maybe a movie studio could have pulled that off, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Now, as for Soderbergh's larger point, I'm sure he's right that filmmakers don't get hung up on the use of particular technological tools, but the reason they don't get hung up on these decisions is because they largely don't matter. If you decide to shoot in 35mm film rather than 16mm, that may be an interesting artistic decision, but no one (with the exception of a 16mm film manufacturer) suffers for it. There are no compelling interests at stake. 

On the other hand, when important ideas or revenue streams are at stake, Hollywood has found itself extremely polarized and occasionally gridlocked. Witness the Screen Actors' Guild strike of 2000, during which many actors refused to appear in commercials. Witness the Writers' Guild strike of 2008, which shut down many television shows and films for over three months. Or remember when the studios refused to hire any actor with alleged ties to the Communist Party? Good times.

The point is that people in the entertainment industry, just like people in government, will have a hard time agreeing when there are compelling interests at stake. It's possible that Washington will resolve its internal disagreements more slowly than Hollywood will, but that's precisely because Washington is democratically run. It resolves differences through roll call votes and through elections, which are inherently slow and messy. If Hollywood is more efficient, that's because its key decisions are usually made by studio executives, producers, or directors -- that is, dictators. We could certainly try that approach in government, but there are probably some down sides.

(via Sullivan)


  1. maybe your blog post could be taken more seriously if you knew how to spell his name

    1. Thanks for the (not very friendly) tip. Correction made.

  2. Soderbergh also misses a core difference between how our political system works and how the film industry works. Why does everyone on a film set do what a director tells them? Because the Director is typically given very broad powers to hire and fire the vast majority of people involved in making a movie and anyone who disagrees with a director and refuses to compromise or do as their told will quickly find themselves out of a job. Imagine a lighting director telling Steven Spielberg, "I don't like how you want to light this scene, and if you don't light it the way I want, I'm going to filibuster and not set up any lights at all and shut down production until I get what I want." Steve would find a new lighting director in about 2 seconds right? But GOP senators are literally doing this right now with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and refusing to allow the agency to even have a director unless they get what they want. In fact Director's are given so much power it can often lead to abuses, Stanley Kubrick infamously reduced the actress who played the wife in "The Shinning" to tears after making her do something like 120 takes of a single scene!

    In fact when you look at films whose production collapse into fiasco a typical reason is a the presences of a star or director who can't be removed for various reasons and the result is the sort of tragic/comedic fiasco you see going on with a movie with Lindsay Lohan that by all accounts is a disaster: Or directors like Hal Ashby who was doing things like showing up drunk and/or high to the set everyday by the end of his career or spending six months editing and reediting a single short montage. In short when difficult and uncompromising people are forced to work on a film project, that project can collapse into conflict and gridlock just like how a President and Congress that don't agree can.