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Soderbergh Mania! A Side Effects (2013) Double Feature

 

Side Effects poster art, with added warning

NOTE: Given that Side Effects might be Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical  feature, two Special Affects contributors, Natalie Ryabchikova and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, thought they’d do a double post for the occasion, which hopefully will set the stage for an open-ended conversation. Indeed, the conversation is yet to happen, as the following pieces were written independently of one another, so that coincidences and differences will surprise the authors as much as the readers. A piece of advice: if you have not seen the film and don’t want too much information about the story, skip to Natalie’s piece. Otherwise, the plot description in the first piece will prepare you in some ways for the second.

The Final Encore? Diagnosing Side Effects

Felipe Pruneda Sentíes

There might be a way to approach Side Effects as the capper to a great career in feature filmmaking (if indeed it is to occupy that position) without having to hold it up to some elusive, prejudiced idea of what a final masterpiece should be like. And yet, that’s the impulse I gave into immediately after watching it, so I’ll get it out of the way first:

It is perhaps fitting that a filmography that first stirred into the world with modest means and flagrant ambition, and that touched, imitated, played with, subverted and shattered a wide variety of cinematic modes (from experiments like Schizopolis, to smashes like Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Series, as our Soderbergh mania entries attest), would end with a film that appears so effortlessly compelling at times that its ultimate payoff, paired with the prediction that it might take the privileged place of “Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical release,” is very likely to underwhelm. After many films that only seem to play it safe, films that take surprising risks, and films that try different concentrations of both, Side Effects feels almost conciliatory, a diplomatic coda that’s both a testament to Soderbergh’s talents and a recognition that they could still expand further. It ends on a comfortable, rather than challenging, note of confirmation of ease, flair, and confidence on his current set of tools.[1]

The trap of expectations set by Soderbergh’s history aside, we must approach the film for what it has to offer outside the fate that ties its future to its director’s. And doing so means spoiling it, since what it offered this viewer was a fun examination of the virtues and flaws of fiction’s ability to tackle large subjects through condensation and displacement. To me, Side Effects was most interesting as a test of the use of plot mechanics to negotiate thematic concerns.

To perform such test, Soderbergh has taken Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay (their third collaboration after The Informant! and Contagion) and made something highly reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock films where Peter Wollen found hybrid plots – namely North by Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie. For Wollen, who bases his arguments partially in Vladimir Propp’s story models, Hitchcock and his collaborators give us two tales: that of the prince who must save a princess from an ogre, and the detective story, where a character must unveil a mystery following a series of clues (“Hybrid Plots in Psycho,” 14). Psycho is in some ways the clearest example, as Marion Crane’s (the princess) flight leads to her encounter with an ogre (Norman/Mother) that her sister Lila must then track down. In Side Effects, Burns and Soderbergh give us an interesting variation on this structure: Emily Taylor, as our first protagonist, is both the princess and the ogre simultaneously, and her flight takes the shape of her voluntary incarceration – her being held captive as a result of the killing of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is part of her plan to take revenge on him, and make money in the process, after his insider trading lands him in prison on the very day of their wedding, when all her dreams of love, wealth and security came true but were instantly destroyed as FBI agents took him into custody.

Strengthening the connection to Psycho, a mid-film, stylishly shot stabbing murder[2] effectively changes the plot and the protagonist. After first pretending to show the effects of depression, then the unexpected consequences of her treatment with prescription drugs, the film shifts its focus from Emily to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the man who prescribed the drugs that, apparently, turned Emily into an unwilling murderess. The second half of the film follows Dr. Banks’s sleuthing and his attempts to prove it was not the drugs he recommended that blossomed into Martin’s death, but that such a story is precisely what Emily wanted everyone to believe so she could get away murder and cash from the legal debacle of her ordeal.

Burns and Soderbergh play the structural game well, even taking steps like casting Channing Tatum (Soderbergh’s Magic Mike), a rising leading man, as the kind of movie star an audience doesn’t expect to see killed off halfway through the film (not unlike Janet Leigh), and then killing him off.  Soderbergh also essays some subtly disorienting camera angles by constantly shooting from a diagonal slightly lower than the horizontal, so that we are often looking up at characters from an uneasily intimate below, as if our eyes were peering just over the edge of a table – an angle that proves more revelatory of the people in the film than the apparently more advantageous high angle, as a scene shows later in the film, where a view from above is ultimately deceptive. The film’s look shakes and shimmies with a knowing sensitivity to the shift in plot.

In the Hitchcock films, however, the transformation of plot does not feel like a transformation from one kind of movie to another (to the point that perceptive critics like Wollen had to point them out). North by Northwest is every bit the espionage thriller its beginning promises all the way until the end credits; Marnie is largely the perverse, twisted love story that sparks between Tippi Hedren’s title thief and Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland early in the movie; even Psycho, the most radically configured of the three, enters the detective tale/horror movie territory of its second half, in beautifully gradual fashion, well before the shower scene. In Side Effects, the hybridization of the plot feels more seismic because it also hybridizes the film’s attitude towards its thematic setting – that is, the world of the pharmacological treatment of mood disorders.

Throughout its first half, the film poses a question around Emily Taylor’s behavior – why is this woman, whose life seems to have taken a turn for the better as her husband is released from prison, still unhappy? – and from it probes the politics of this particular branch of medicine. The use of prescription drugs is summarily examined. Soon, many characters, both major and incidental, reveal they are on some form medication – a commentary on what David Maris calls “a pill-popping culture.” The medical establishment is presented in an equally intriguing light: the act of prescription itself appears to have a lot in common with gambling – Dr. Banks and her colleague Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discuss prescribing something for Emily with an uncertainty and tentativeness they would never show while speaking to their patients. The financial stakes for pharmaceutical companies of drug-related deaths are also brought to the table. In these instances, almost exclusively limited to the first act, the film makes credible attempts of entering, through its story, the many debates surrounding prescription drugs – debates that seem pertinent given that, according to Maris, 34% of the United States population takes at least one prescription drug, and that even though there are cases to indicate that they work, many other cases force a constant reevaluation of the system that provides them, especially when it comes to mood disorders.

But when the plots change and Dr. Banks’s career and life are on the line, and he begins uncovering the conspiracy against him, the film is less an exploration of this world through fiction than a fast paced entertainment. It is as if the weight of the uncomfortable questions the first half raises has been shed for the delights of double-crosses, startling revelations, and other material that brings out a different kind of enjoyment, one less associated with the potential insights the film, through narrative and visuals, might hold on the topic. It is then that Soderbergh, Burns and the cast ramp up the histrionics and speed up the pace, at times preferring the outburst and the dramatic shortcut to the deliberate layering of the set up.

I’m not suggesting here that the film had to be engaged at all times with its ostensible subject, or that the second half ruins the movie. In fact, the shift makes it more interesting, and since we’re dealing with psychoanalysis, let me use its terms. Pre-stabbing, the film calls for a symptomatic reading – it brings to our attention a personal and societal ill and it is our task to decipher its causes and its implications. Post-stabbing, we don’t get symptoms but sinthoms, which “in contrast to symptom, which is a cipher of some repressed meaning, sinthom has no determinate meaning; it just gives body, in its repetitive pattern, to some elementary matrix of jouissance, of excessive enjoyment” (Žižek, Symptom, 199). That matrix of enjoyment in this case is the well of thriller trappings that the film insists on upholding rather than pursuing the original mystery – that of Emily’s seemingly unjustified depression – to its final consequences. So rather than probing further (or at least more directly) into the realm of prescription drugs, the film submits less interrogative rhythms and story beats as it propels the characters toward the conclusion.

In other words, the film gives in to the pleasures of genre storytelling – or at least, those divorced from the significance announced at the outset. Certainly those are their own set of symptoms, but they try hard not to announce themselves as such. For Saul Bellow, “a story must be… inexplicably absorbing. There can be no other justification for a piece of fiction.” At the very least, the second half of the film shakes off the possibility that dealing with the world of prescription drugs would be its raison d’être, and instead asks us to look at Jude Law squirrel out of a jam by outsmarting his increasingly hysterical enemies, territory ripe for the joys of camp and theatricality. For how else could we take pleasure in Zeta-Jones’s over-the-top performance, or how to truly take to heart the obliteration of Emily’s dream wedding, complete with a Maserati as a gift, shot in nostalgic, sumptuous slow-motion during a climactic flashback for maximum effect? Soderbergh and Burns call for an abandonment of the diagnostic/critical impulse that the first half inaugurates, preferring the straightforward answers of the detective story to the more complicated reflections of social commentary through fiction, and while it is possible to have a detective story comment on a larger canvas, this one is more about its own, expected mechanics than about finding ways in which the movie might say something. It almost whispers: what do movies and moviemakers know?

It is a move that puts me in mind of another recent treatment of medication usage and mood disorders: the story goes that Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell, the leads and director of Silver Linings Playbook, were invited by Joe Biden to the White House to speak about mental health. Lawrence, who won an Oscar for playing a woman on anti-depressants, declined, arguing “What am I gonna say to the vice president?” Commentators deemed Lawrence’s reaction appropriately modest and sensible. Yet I feel Burns and Soderbergh might be taking it one step further. Side Effects asks: do we really want to come to the theater to learn about a difficult subject, when we can use it to craft a twisty suspense movie?

In that light, the strategy is clearly ethically questionable. The screenwriter and director definitely wish to use our assumptions about mood disorders against us – the association of clinical depression with a kind of scam is a notion too potentially offensive to entertain. We are left in a position where we might not want to suggest that Emily was pretending to be depressed all along, since we might be inclined, like Dr. Banks in the film, to believe in the reality of her problem and thus let the film’s turns catch us off guard – even if we might in fact entertain the notion anyway, and figure out that the story’s outcome well in advance. In that sense the generic satisfactions win out, for the story ultimately becomes predictable. The attempt of using its very timely setting to conceal and prepare its surprises ultimately fails, instead letting us wonder to what extent a story about Emily might have been more illuminating about something that cries for illumination, which, I do believe, fiction can provide.

There is a more sustained feeling of the presence of that belief in other Soderbergh-directed films like Traffic (2000) and Che (2008), or some he has executive produced, like Syriana (2005) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). In Side Effects, there is just an inkling of that presence, which coexists with other facets of the restlessly productive filmmaker. Perhaps we can once again say Side Effects is a fitting final work for the big screen, since it doesn’t give us one side of Soderbergh, but many.

 


[1] But the challenge may lie elsewhere, for Soderbergh tried his hand at all aspects of filmmaking, most notably, perhaps, as his own director of photography, a function he also performed in Side Effects. Look at what he says in this interview about how the RED Epic camera he used to shoot the feature made it much easier to accomplish certain shots, like the one from behind the accelerator pedal when our initial protagonist, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) floors it to crash her car against a wall with her in it. It is a case of placing the camera in an unexpected location to create a startling effect – specifically, to show Mara stomping on our vision as violently as the wall will meet the front of her Jetta a few seconds later – but doing so with a minimum of logistical hardship. Soderbergh admires the designers of the Epic for producing a camera that he can simply set behind the pedal, instead of having to cut a hole in the floor of the car to capture Mara stepping on the gas from that viewpoint. I mention this example because Soderbergh is undeniably invested in encouraging the advancement of equipment that would make it possible to put the camera anywhere – in other words, he is challenging technology – but after a single viewing, I suspect the innovation on display did not entirely translate into a visionary film where the camera had that kind of omnipotence – instead, the technology operates in the service of a sensually appealing thriller that is also pleasantly familiar.

[2] The robotic body language Rooney Mara adopts while thrusting a kitchen knife into Channing Tatum reminded me not so much of Psycho, but of the murder of Scott Bakula in Richard Rush’s infamous Color of Night (1994), in which a hooded and masked figure with shining blades coming out of its hands breaks into his home at night and stabs him to death, its sharpened limbs bending and stretching in jerky, machine-like motions, particularly when the stabbing is shot in silhouette through a glass door. The Side Effects scene elicited some chuckles at the screening I attended, and I can see how it can look goofy, but in Color of Night at least, that quality of movement in a stabbing does have an unsettling effect. I looked for the video of the scene online, but I could not find it – the best I could do was this amusing music video someone made with footage from the film. Snippets of the murder do appear, but sadly, these are not the ones I would’ve chosen to illustrate what I mean. But they’ll give you an idea, as well as quench your thirst for Scott Bakula.

Side Effects: Art and Responsibility

Natalie Ryabchikova

Right about at the middle of Side Effects, you could almost physically feel the attention of the local art cinema audience start waning, as if being suppressed by the growing incomprehensibility of the plot. What started as an “intellectual” chick-flick (the brilliant decision to cast Channing Tatum in the role of the depression-plagued, teary-eyed, sleep-walking heroine’s husband!) was suddenly turned on its head.

The collective gasp that accompanied this violent reversal became the dividing point. The genre folded onto itself: melodrama, that ultimate female genre, became the ultimate male genre—detective. The irrational was rationalized; sentiment was devalued and scorned; the victim became the villain. That gentle suffering girl, played by Rooney Mara, who was trying to cope with her husband’s return from prison and was seeking the help of the over-worked British-born psychoanalyst (Jude Law) and the American pharmaceutical industry, was exposed by the doctor as the cold-blooded murderess, trying to cash in on the self-staged scandal involving different brands of anti-depressants. Having failed to explain and treat his patient’s problem in a clinical sense, the doctor now explained the action of the first part through the workings of economic forces instead of psychic ones.

Yet, the source of the audience’s discontent, and the source of the film’s fascination for me, is the surplus that is carried over from the first part of the film into the second. As the doctor’s personal investigation progressed, the explanation became more and more convoluted (and less and less convincing):  what exactly was that scheme that “the good wife” and her accomplice tried to pull off? How exactly were they going to profit from it? Who profited from it in the end? Could the doctor’s reputation, shaken by the scandal, ever be restored?

A male friend asked me, “But why couldn’t she just use her husband’s possibly shady connections to get a lot of money – why did the scheme have to involve killing him?” And it seemed so obvious to me, so perfectly well explained! The “illogical” hatred of Mara’s character for the husband remains the ultimate irrational explanation in the face of the utter rationality of her scheme, in which the second part of the film tries so hard to convince us,

The threat of insanity, or rather the threat of being deemed insane by society suddenly shines through the ever-optimistic discourse of pharmaceutics and psychoanalysis. The take-a-pill-and-feel-better attitude, which the first part sets out to criticize, suddenly turns into a universe of torture chambers and images of shock therapy worthy of Dickens and Charcot. The freedom— and the ultimate unfreedom—of not being held responsible for one’s actions, apart from the connection to the tired psychoanalysis of the viewing pleasure, reflects on the nature of the medium and the role of the director in harnessing it.

My co-viewers and I had a fascinating, if short, discussion on the way from the theater about the various fictional and non-fictional names of anti-depressants used in the film. Can we somehow reconcile the film’s criticism of the pharmaceutical business profiting from people’s desire to be happy with obvious product placement? Might the film be reenacting the same strategy from which its heroine tried to pull off? (I know, I know, a movie can’t kill you – but then it’s always a placebo at best). Might cinema as an industrial enterprise be inherently corrupt (and, consequently, unyielding and untrustworthy as a medium) just like those radical theorists of the past said it was? The film’s ambiguity on this account seems to be a symptom of Soderbergh’s failure to overcome the limitations of the cinematic apparatus – and a convincing reason to stop making films in general.