According to Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects will be his last film — for a while, at least. “The tyranny of narrative is starting to frustrate me,” he explained to New York Magazine not long ago about his decision to do other forms of art. “Or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

I want to celebrate that decision. Just because Soderbergh’s so good at his craft doesn’t mean the work is necessarily enjoyable to him year after year. Anyone who’s read the Harry Hole novels by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø can see that you can be eminently skilled at something and yet find that your job is slowly killing you. And so, upon seeing this last Soderbergh film and wrangling for the last 24 hours with its ending … well, I think I’m okay with his taking a break. film-sideeffects-500-3

After seeing the film with superior friend and excellent human being Aldine, we sidled up to a bar to debrief. (The timing of our debriefing was important, as we planned to follow up by stuffing ourselves so full of Ethiopian food as to be incapable of higher thought). The bartender asked if the film was good. What does one say to those questions?

Here’s a provisional answer: there’s a sweet spot in the film, during its second quarter or so, when you have no idea where the story is going. It keeps tipping out of your reach, tempting you with possibilities and then feinting in new directions. Is this going to be a story about a Lazy Psychologist? about the Bad Pharmaceutical Industry? about the Guilt And Responsibility? about the Subconscious Gone Wrong? When I say sweet spot, I mean that I stepped out of myself for the moment and wondered if this was going to be the best thriller ever.

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I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? you see, this is how the tyranny of narrative works; I started telling you about Soderbergh’s last film, and then started telling you about the bartender who wanted to know whether it was good — and all because that’s how it followed in my life (except for the intervening 24 hours, in which Aldine and I had a successful trip to Nieman Marcus and drank more cocktails). I should at least offer up a squib of the film’s plot. A proper film comment always lays out the plot.

How’s this: Emily (Rooney Mara, looking not at all like a girl with a dragon tattoo) brings her husband home from prison after a term for insider trading, but all the while she’s slipping into a terrible depression, a “hopelessness,” she calls it. Not that anyone would doubt it, with her big eyes and little-girl teeth and pale, pale skin. In one particularly grim moment, she gets into her car and drive straight into a brick wall. In another even better moment, she accompanies her husband to an uncomfortable cocktail party on a yacht with some of his former colleagues, only to see herself distorted in a mirror and lose it.0fbdfc7545f4a27773187dd4bbef4389

The psychologist who takes her case, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), earnestly seeks out appropriate pharmaceutical help by ticking through a list of anti-depressants, many of which she has taken and rejected in the past for their debilitating side effects; he even consults with her prior psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing an exaggerated version of “I am a professional”). Eventually they settle on a new one called Ablixa (oh, lordy, how I love that minor plot point alone).

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Ablixa’s awesome. Emily gets her sex drive back, enjoys happy days in the park with her husband, and ceases feeling nauseated. The only side effect is an alarming tendency to sleepwalk. And thus the film hustles us toward that perfect sweet spot of the second 30 minutes or so, as it establishes a dark undertone to the narrative, gives us a horrifying scene of violence, and proceeds to pull us in different directions as the director inspires you with the pleasure of trying to guess where it’s going.

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Now, I’ll tell you what I told the bartender: yes, it’s good. You always know when you walk in to a Soderbergh film that you’re going to be interested, that the cinematography will be unusually evocative, and that he’ll offer up some surprises.

But what I found so odd about Side Effects — and so disappointing — were the specific ways the film ultimately commits to a storyline, and the film’s overall determination to be as crystal clear as possible. And as that narrative emerges in all its clarity, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Not least because it trots out some old chestnuts (I won’t reveal them here, but honestly, Steven?); but most of all because you feel as if Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, decided the whole story needed to be over-explained and wrapped up in an excessively tidy box with a bow, as if it was no longer a thriller about the unknowns of real life but in fact a repackaged Ocean’s Eleven in which we have clear good and bad guys.

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Now, I get it about the tyranny of narrative. Even in the academic business we create narratives, so often adhering to one genre or another. But what I don’t understand is why someone in Soderbergh’s position would feel so tied to tidy, wrap-it-all-up tales given the vast storytelling creativity out there (to wit, this year’s The Master). I consider Soderbergh to be one of the most creatively free directors out there. Why doesn’t he experiment with alternative endings?

I’m complaining, and yet what he does with that early portion of the film — he toys with us in a way that’s so enjoyable to watch that I’m already looking forward to his return to directing.

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One more note: during our drunken debriefing Aldine wanted to know my favorite Soderbergh films, but my phone’s battery had died and we couldn’t remember all of our favorites without internet assistance. So here’s a short list of mine, in rough order:

  • Out of Sight (1998) — totally my favorite Soderbergh ever.
  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
  • Erin Brockovich (2000)
  • The Informant! (2009)
  • The Limey (1999)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Looking forward to seeing you back sometime soon, Steven, once you’ve got your groove back.

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About a week before Ocean’s Eleven (2001) came out, I saw the original with Frank Sinatra et als (1960). It was terrible. All the more reason to love the Steven Soderbergh version. He took the bare bones of the original but did some pretty serious rewriting and major character development to give us style, humor, better actors, and a better ending.

Just think what you could do with a film like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which is already pretty good. It’s just too long and has some other issues as I’ll detail below. As I occasionally like to offer up my own brilliant plot ideas for an eager reading audience, here’s my advice to Hollywood: tweak this story and you’ve got box office gold!

The original story centers on Ku (Shih Jun), a mild-mannered, unambitious scholar in a small village who refuses to follow his mother’s advice and apply for a better-paid job in the magistrate’s office. One day he encounters two strangers: first, he’s commissioned to paint a portrait of a sinister-looking man named Ouyang (Tien Peng); and second, that night he hears strange noises coming from the abandoned and reputedly haunted house across the way. When he investigates, he’s spooked by a strange and ghostly figure who later proves to be Miss Yang (Hsu Feng, above), a laconic, unsmiling, beautiful woman on the run from a corrupt official who wants to execute her and has hired Ouyang to do it. Ku teams up with her to help (as much as a clumsy scholar can), and the remainder of the film traces their attempts to escape. It culminates with a terrific battle scene in a bamboo forest with some kickass Buddhist monks, which shows this film’s influences on later wuxia greats like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

The dvd copy I got, a simple VHS-to-DVD transfer, shows the film’s abundant wear & tear — all those night scenes are almost too muddy to see, and you often see scratches or grit on the film itself. At just over 3 hours it’s long and seems to end 3 different times. Still, this tale has great characters, terrific fight scenes (including one in a bamboo forest that has huge potential for re-imagining, and not just in a Crouching Tiger imitation way), and — best of all — a ghost-story subtheme.

Nor does it need to be set during the typical wuxia never-never land of an unspecified past of swordsmen and secretive martial arts sects. In fact, I can imagine a great modern version taking place amongst Chinese Americans of a 1940s San Francisco or perhaps one of its agricultural regions nearby, like Watsonville or Gilroy, during the same era that saw the internment of Japanese Americans. Can’t you just imagine the final fight scene taking place in a redwood forest or a eucalyptus grove, or perhaps on the oceanside cliffs south of Monterey? (Hollywood: call me and we’ll talk. My screenwriting and/or consulting rates are shockingly affordable.)

No matter the setting, the first order of business is to switch up the protagonist. In the original, our hero(?) is Ku, the bumbling scholar — but although we need to start with him, once we meet Miss Yang she needs to supplant him as protagonist. (I mean, even us bumbling scholars don’t really like to see ourselves as protagonists.) Ku pales in comparison. He reminds me of that creepy dude in my college dorm, the one who always seemed to leer at you from his doorway. Miss Yang could also use more of a back story, as well as clearer motivations to explain, for one, why in the world she has sex with Ku, with his creepy toothiness and weird makeup. (The Feminéma rewrite might have to find a more Chow Yun Fat-style sexual partner for Yang. Mmmmm.)

Second: don’t drop the creepy haunted-house subtheme midway through the film. The film’s first half takes place on the best set ever: a lonely, run-down village, at the center of which is a hauntingly memorable abandoned home and compound that used to belong to a military general. What a set it makes. The white plumes of the tall, ghostlike pampas grass constantly block your view of what’s going on. Spiderwebs everywhere — fabulous! It provides the setting for one of the film’s best big fight scenes, during which our heroes scare the bad guys by making them think real ghosts are attacking them on all sides. Afterward, however, we leave the haunted house and don’t return.

I say you can bring it back in with the Super-Dooper mystical Buddhist monks, who make a couple of handy appearances in the film’s second half. No matter how this story gets rewritten, the monks stay in.

Best of all, just imagine the possibilities if our sword-carrying heroine and her monk friends are not just battling corruption (Californians trying to grab Chinese-American land and business as well as those belonging to Japanese Americans, possibly?) but also World War II, nativism, and 1940s sexism. It could be a cross between blaxploitation and wuxia — with just enough historical and place-specific context to make it interesting.

Hollywood, remember how much money Crouching Tiger made? It ranked as the 19th most profitable film worldwide of 2000 and raked 44 film prizes from 14 different awards-granting institutions.

Now, finally: a title. A Touch of Zen might sound a bit too tame for the action I foresee.

  • Zen and the Art of Surviving a War?
  • Zenifornia
  • Mod Zen Explosion?