Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dear Ocean's Eleven,

Posted By on 03.07.12 at 05:05 PM

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I’ve heard that the French critic Serge Daney would write letters to movies he liked, and that seems appropriate in this case, as I’ve enjoyed your company as if you were a friend. Like some of your most distinguished relatives—Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), Donen’s Charade (1963), Edwards’s The Party (1968)—you’ve cheered me up when I’ve been depressed, and you’ve often helped me fall asleep at night. You’ve spent a lot of time in my apartment, but tomorrow I’ll get to visit you in a movie theater (at DOC Films at 7 PM), your rightful home. I’ll try to bring a group, as I know you thrive in social situations.

I have trouble believing you’re ten years old: one of your most charming qualities is how discreet you are about your age. You make virtually no reference to popular culture circa 2001 (the year of your birth), and a lot of your manner suggests Hollywood movies of the 50s and 60s. The way you glamorize movie stars, for instance—making no attempt to present George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or Julia Roberts as real people or even characters—reminds me of the way movies presented Cary Grant or Marlene Dietrich after they reached a certain age. And the fluidity of your camera movements, which carries over into the playful editing between multiple subplots, evokes the period when Hollywood studios made filmmaking seem like a giant toy.

Truth be told, I always took you for a much older film, even though your director, Steven Soderbergh, continues to make you seem young by referencing you in his other projects. As I’m sure you know, Soderbergh is an odd fellow: he tries to disguise himself behind different modes of filmmaking as if he had no personality of his own, even though he’s been working the same intellectual concerns for 20-some years. With the complicated heist at the center of your story, he demonstrated a fascination with work as process that would carry over into Che (2008). Also, his depiction of Las Vegas as a capitalist playground weirdly anticipates The Girlfriend Experience (2009).

But the greatest source of your vitality, I think, is in your actors. To paraphrase Sly Stone, everybody is a star in Ocean’s Eleven, even lesser performers like Eddie Jemison and Scott Caan (who does a great Mutt-and-Jeff routine with Casey Affleck) or actors esteemed for their character work, such as Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner. This revival of classic Hollywood performance style—in which actors developed lasting relationships with audiences by building upon sets of recognizable traits—has stayed with Soderbergh, and largely for the better. The Good German (2006), The Informant! (2009), and Contagion (2011) are rich with these old-school star turns, and even the nonprofessional actors of Bubble (2005) seem directed to exude starlike qualities. This aspect of Soderbergh’s filmmaking creates the feeling that he doesn’t make modern movies, he simply makes movies.

This might explain why I’ve returned to you so often. You offer the same reassuring escapism I get from Preston Sturges, Fred Astaire, and Michael Hui, and you generate it in an environment I recognize (not that I’ve ever been to Las Vegas, but its hypercommercialism informs so much American television, which has been our nation’s de facto shared landscape for some time). You don’t even need to show anyone firing a gun, as way too much Hollywood escapism does, to create a healthy sense of suspense. You ingratiated yourself through personality, style, and humor—and what a fine way that was to begin a relationship.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

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