Why Criticism: Nichols / Soderbergh

Vague Visages Why Criticism

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

Before the days of DVD commentaries, one of the forerunners of the director’s narration of his or her own work was the landmark series of conversations between the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock and the French critic-turned-director François Truffaut, a film-by-film examination of the former’s career aptly titled Hitchcock/Truffaut, published originally in 1966. Truffaut had gotten his start as a writer working for the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, a publication that did more than any other to advance the discussion around film as a serious art form beginning in the post-World War II era. Like Truffaut, many other writers would begin under the tutelage of critic André Bazin, lionizing the efforts of directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, William Wyler and other Hollywood craftsmen as auteurs, the cinema’s answer to the prized novelist. However, many of these critics did not stop there, and eventually made the transition to filmmaking itself, establishing their own unique authorial voices, just as they had worked so hard to define the voices of the directors they admired. The Cahiers du cinéma critics who became the foundational directors of the French New Wave both typify and challenge the prevailing notion that film criticism and filmmaking exist on opposite sides of an unimpeachable barrier. On the one hand, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and others came to cinema through appreciation and criticism, contributing mightily to the development of a most influential and lasting idea, the privileging of the auteur; however, their eventual transition to filmmaking, stepping behind the camera as highly innovative directors rebelling against the classical tradition in French cinema, fuels the suspicion of many creative people that critics are just frustrated artists who sit on the sidelines, launching broadsides from a secure vantage point, risking nothing. Filmmakers who critique are exceedingly rare, and — in some respects — it is surprising that the New Wave did not inspire more directors to keep a foot in both the artistic and critical camps; for all the subsequent directors who would credit the films of Truffaut, Godard and others as influential over their own work, few cite their critical writings in similarly glowing terms. It’s a shame — directors are often incredibly insightful about the art of filmmaking when they occupy a critical vantage point, as three DVD commentary conversations between Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh — recorded for Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Graduate (1967) and Catch-22 (1970) — reveal. 

One of the major figures of the American New Wave, Nichols was something of a wunderkind when he first began directing in his mid-thirties after already making a name for himself in the newly burgeoning improv comedy scene, especially for his self-generated routines with the whip-smart Elaine May, which they subsequently performed on television. Nichols soon found himself working in the theatre as an actor and then as a director, helping move stage performance away from the American classicism typified by Eugene O’Neill to the comedic stylings of Neil Simon and other contemporary writers. When it was time for Nichols to make his film debut as a director, he reached for a popular novel, The Graduate, written by Charles Webb; delays in finding the right leading man eventually pushed the film back, and Nichols instead began with an adaptation of Edward Albee’s smash play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, casting the volatile husband and wife acting team of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to play the volatile husband and wife academics who spend a drunken evening terrorizing a younger couple and torturing one another verbally, pushing everyone to the breaking point. When he eventually did follow up with The Graduate, his sophomore effort, Nichols showed a rapidly evolving and maturing understanding of the cinematic art form, transcending the stagy limitations of the theatrical source material of his first work, reveling in innovative uses of music and expressionistic montage to capture the sensation of rootlessness felt by his protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). His third film was an adaptation of a landmark satirical war novel written by Joseph Heller, Catch-22, a movie that critics and audiences alike responded to with befuddled confusion and, in some cases, outright hostility thanks to its elliptical structure, impressions softened somewhat by time.  

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Nichols and Soderbergh

The younger Soderbergh, an important figure in American independent film, is one of contemporary cinema’s Renaissance men: he is constantly shifting genres, testing new production and distribution models — an essential ambassador for the art form. He also engages in criticism in his own idiosyncratic way, releasing a comprehensive list of the shows, movies he has watched and the books he has read at the end of every year through his website, Extension 765. Soderbergh also occasionally posts film-school exercises that further blur the lines between filmmaking and film criticism, including asking viewers to pay close attention to cinematic staging in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which he aids by posting the film in black and white and without sound to draw focus to Steven Spielberg’s framing and blocking of the actors; Soderbergh likewise posted a recut version of Michael Cimino’s epic Heaven’s Gate (1980), a masterpiece in its 218-minute form, trimming it to a more Soderberghian 110 minutes. He is also known as something of a director’s commentary provocateur, conducting an interview with himself on The Criterion Collection edition of his gonzo satire Schizopolis (1996) and going to the mattresses against screenwriter Lem Dobbs on the track for The Limey (1999), which Soderbergh notoriously re-edited from a linear narrative into a kaleidoscopic, fragmented meditation on the circularity of vengeance, much to the writer’s openly expressed frustration. In Soderbergh’s conversations with Nichols, he reveals himself as a sharp-eyed viewer with a finely tuned sense of the technical and emotional demands of cinema; he draws Nichols out carefully through pointed questions and invitations to philosophize that demonstrate his skills as a critic.   

As interlocutor, Soderbergh knows the right questions to ask; because he is a director himself — one who exercises such control over the filmmaking process, often working as his own director of photography, camera operator and editor — Soderbergh is highly sensitive to drawing Nichols into discussions about his relationships with behind-the-scenes collaborators. During the production phase of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, some shooting decisions were made in conversation with the editor, Sam O’Steen, who worked with Nichols cutting the movie on the weekends, keeping them roughly current with shooting, a practice they would continue for both The Graduate and Catch-22; Nichols viewed this as a kind of safety net that would protect him from missing shots, especially as a young director. In all three commentaries for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate and Catch-22, Soderbergh and Nichols discuss the contributions of legendary production designer Richard Sylbert, who worked carefully with Nichols to build sets and oversee art direction that would codify the films’ themes — just to take one example, The Graduate’s reliance on water imagery that signifies Benjamin’s metaphorical sense of drowning in post-college malaise. In Catch-22, Sylbert’s set is a remarkably detailed fully practical military base complete with tents and stone structures, jeeps and planes lining the airstrip which the production built. Soderbergh and Nichols frequently discuss the decision to eliminate the extras that would ordinarily fill out such a location to achieve authenticity in a more traditional military film; Nichols decided against populating the frame with background performers to enhance the surrealist feeling that the unit of men was entirely isolated, but the effect also draws attention to the sheer magnitude of the technical accomplishments of Nichols and his collaborators. Soderbergh avoids falling into the over-comfortable auteurist trap of assigning credit solely to the director; as a director himself, he refuses to allow himself the shorthand used by many critics — Nichols shoots this way, Nichols uses that technique — and instead consistently aids Nichols in sharing credit with his most important collaborators, whether that be the repeated relationships with O’Steen, Sylbert or co-screenwriter on The Graduate and Catch-22, Buck Henry, or his revolving door of accomplished cinematographers, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Haskell Wexler, The Graduate’s Robert Surtees, and Catch-22’s David Watkin.  

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The Graduate Movie Film

Across the three commentaries, Soderbergh charts the narrative of Nichols’ early directing career with questions about his evolution and maturation as a film artist with increasing confidence both on the set and in the cutting room; the progression of the three films reveals a director extremely interested in stretching the boundaries of the art form. Soderbergh’s first question for Nichols on the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf commentary focuses on the machinations of his debut: what were his expectations? Soderbergh cedes the ground to Nichols for a thoughtful rumination on the intersection between cinema and the theatre, a foundational aspect of Nichols’ career behind the camera. Nichols offers some background on his friendships with stars Burton and Taylor, but ultimately argues that he was suited to the material even though he had never directed a film before because, he told them, “I understand this piece.” Nichols describes an early conversation with Wexler when he discovered that ultimately, he would, as the director, have the final word over what would happen in the frame: “That’s when I first understood that only the director knows what should be happening physically in every shot.” Nichols tells Soderbergh that he learned about the camera through watching films — hundreds and hundreds of them, he says. The act of watching, for the astute viewer and aspiring filmmaker, becomes criticism; as viewer, the director watches actively, studying individual formal decisions in an effort to understand the art of moving the camera. Nichols expresses particular admiration for William Wyler, who was himself admired by a number of Cahiers du cinéma critics (Bazin in particular) for his deft use of deep focus cinema and long takes, strategies that Nichols himself would employ frequently throughout Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to deepen the mostly singular location where the play is set, and that he would continue to adopt in both The Graduate and Catch-22, with increasing degrees of sophistication and play. Sensitive to the ways such a style might tend to box him in, however, Nichols says he “discovered montage in the middle of my working life” and began to move away from such extensive long takes because he feared they would become too “self-regarding.” Soderbergh’s questions invite Nichols to reflect on the ways in which he became a critic of his own work over the breadth of his career.  

In Soderbergh’s commentaries with Nichols, he develops a kind of thesis about the director’s work, enthusing over his adaptive approach, which finds the subjectivity in each scene to move the material beyond the limitations of the play and the novels the films are based on. Like any good critic, Soderbergh offers valuable historical context, probing Nichols about the important place of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the history of censorship; it was one of the first major productions made after the dissolution of the Motion Picture Production Code, and the language and sexually suggestive dialogue demonstrates how much things were about to change. On the commentary for The Graduate, Nichols offers the well-worn anecdote about choosing Hoffman to play the part of Benjamin Braddock over the more established Robert Redford, complete with Nichols rejecting Redford because he insisted he couldn’t believe that the actor had “ever struck out with a girl.” Soderbergh calls it “one of the most significant casting choices in American film” because “it ushered in a whole era” for actors who were less conventionally handsome and photogenic. Soderbergh is also attentive to the historical context of the film’s Berkeley sequences, asking Nichols about the changes taking place in the area during the height of the fabled Summer of Love, and asks the filmmaker to contrast his experiences with those of one of Soderbergh’s favorite filmmakers, Richard Lester, while he was shooting his film Petulia (1967).  

Each commentary is replete with Soderbergh’s particularly astute observations about Nichols’ style, which is less signatory than responsive to the subject matter itself. Soderbergh observes that the stylistic evolution from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to The Graduate to Catch-22 is substantial, invoking a kind of auteurist assumption. Nichols offers an explanation that justifies each stylistic approach suiting the material, a lesson that Soderbergh himself often seems to have internalized in his own work, while still remaining strongly tied to a distinct unifying perspective filtered through the camera. Soderbergh’s films are often marked by their distinctive cinematography and non-linear editing, some characteristics of which have led critics to label his films cold and distant, taken from an intellectual, observational vantage point rather than an identification-oriented emotional one. It might be surprising, then, to students of Soderbergh’s work, to hear him so enthusiastically endorse Nichols’ highly expressive approach that nearly always privileges emotional subjectivity in style. Both Soderbergh and Nichols express their fondness for close-ups of actors listening, with Soderbergh in particular decrying the reflex tendency in contemporary cinema to automatically cut to the actor who is speaking a line of dialogue, sometimes to the detriment of the emotional content of the scene. Nichols offers a piece of useful advice that shows he grounds his directing almost entirely in feeling — a director should ask “To whom is this moment happening?” in every possible instance, which will guide decision-making to the correct emotional terrain in framing and cutting. In the commentary on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols justifies his increasingly expressive cinematography as the night wears on and more alcohol flows along these lines. Nichols continually grounds his reflections on the films and answers Soderbergh’s questions about stylistic choices through the lens of subjectivity, emphasizing that many of his decisions were dictated by the necessity of making each moment feel true to the internal emotional experiences of the characters. Soderbergh and Nichols discuss the use of sound during a crucial private moment in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf when George walks away from the conversation taking place in the house’s living room, but the dialogue remains at full volume on the soundtrack, reflecting his easy familiarity with Martha’s cocktail party routines. Soderbergh identifies a number of instances where Nichols relies on visual subjectivity in The Graduate, the camera adopting Benjamin’s point of view as he approaches the front desk at the hotel where he will repeatedly meet Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) for their clandestine trysts. At one point, Soderbergh calls attention to a canted angle of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in their hotel room; Nichols explains that they tilted the camera to accommodate for the actors’ staging, keeping both actors’ heads in the shot simultaneously; though canted angles often suggest an off-kilter world, it is an interesting revelation that the decision was made to satisfy the practicality of actor blocking rather than any significant thematic idea. Nonetheless, Nichols admires the resulting effect’s “surrealism.” The exchange reveals something fascinating about criticism — it is nearly always speculative, built on a series of inferences made by a viewer without the active participation of the filmmakers themselves. This is not to say that such observations, untethered as they may be from authorial intention, have no value. Elsewhere, Nichols is sanguine about viewers finding meaning that he may not have intended, acknowledging the role of the unconscious in shaping material.

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Nichols and Soderbergh

The overriding sense that comes through during the discussion of Catch-22 is the sheer technical marvel; the number of planes, the scale of the film, the period setting, the epic nature of the storytelling — in just three films, Nichols had come a long way from a mostly stage-bound adaptation of an Edward Albee play that, for all its rocky emotional terrain, mostly stayed in one location. Soderbergh highly praises Catch-22, repeatedly in awe of the magnitude of some of the images on screen, and argues that the film’s distinct look — cinematographer David Watkin’s choice to backlight much of the film — makes it revolutionary, especially for a comedic film. Nichols agrees, suggesting it contributes to the film’s theme of “depersonalization.” It was Henry’s suggestion to Nichols that they repeat some of the montage structure of The Graduate in Catch-22, emphasizing a circularity that reflected the irreconcilable logic problem at the heart of the film’s title. Nichols repeatedly expresses regrets over some of his structural decisions in the movie, which critics found confusing at the time; however, he doesn’t apologize for making the choice to fragment the narrative, and seems to believe that the problem lies not with the device itself, but with his execution of it at the margins. The commentary for Catch-22 offers an interesting examination of a film that many considered to be an artistic failure; the scope of its ambition, both in technical achievement and in structure, seem to marvel the admiring Soderbergh; Nichols himself defends the film’s complex editorial construction, but acknowledges that there are some things he might have made clearer or done differently with the benefit of hindsight. However, Nichols in no way disowns the film, of which he is clearly quite proud, and — at Soderbergh’s urging — he is definitely willing to stand by many of the choices he made. A key theme of their conversations on all three commentary tracks is the magic of film directing, an ethereal, almost undefinable process that sometimes coheres into a whole and sometimes does not. Soderbergh expresses that he thinks “the die is cast on a movie very early, much earlier than you think,” and Nichols wholeheartedly agrees. Elsewhere, Nichols admits that there is much that remains beyond the filmmaker’s control, especially in the way viewers will react to a film once they see it: “You can’t explain it. Either you buy it or you don’t.” For critics who seek to define, describe and discuss, such uncertainty might seem uncomfortable. Filmmakers like Soderbergh and Nichols learn to live in the agonizing unknown. When they reach a point of critical distance, as they do in their shared commentaries, they work together to theorize, but not completely articulate, a sense that trusting the uncertainty is essential to film artistry. 

Nichols is often reflective. He thinks back on himself as a young director impossible to please, with ridiculously high standards: complaining that a reel of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was projected too darkly at its premiere; the water in the pool wasn’t clear enough to see Benjamin in his wetsuit in The Graduate; he refused to shoot the final scene in Catch-22 for two days because he wasn’t satisfied with the traditional staging he had planned. In Nichols’ telling, he was “nuts,” a highly exacting filmmaker who wanted everything to be just right. His goal, at all times, seems to be to create images that feel “alive,” a term he uses throughout the three commentaries to describe the performances given by Burton and Taylor, the montages of the affair between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinso and the specific choreography of planes and soldiers. He wants a living cinema where the images teem with ideas — he says, “When something is very alive, it just pulls everything in.” One of the most poetic sections of the commentary on Catch-22 comes when Soderbergh asks Nichols about the presence of Orson Welles, who plays a key supporting role in the film as a pompous, bloviating General who comes to inspect the base. A commentary like this demonstrates how much film history is alive through the chain of cinema passed down through generations of filmmakers who admire one another. Nichols’ casting of Welles pays tribute to his legendary contributions to the art form, and Soderbergh’s discussion with Nichols on the commentary track carries the baton forward. Soderbergh’s own films bear the influence of Nichols’ work; for instance, the highly demonstrative editing patterns and elliptical style of Catch-22 can be seen in some of the most creative sequences of Soderbergh’s career, including several in Out of Sight (1997). Soderbergh’s insightful dialogues with Nichols reveal that filmmaking itself can be an act of criticism; any time a highly referential director like Soderbergh quotes a shot from another director’s landmark film — as he does in rear-mounting the camera on a car in Ocean’s 11 (2001) matching a similar shot of Benjamin in The Graduate — it can be a kind of stylistic citation. Soderbergh tells Nichols directly that he admires the “car stuff” throughout the film; those familiar with Soderbergh’s filmography and his many sly citations of Nichols’s car photography in The Graduate understand that he expresses his admiration both verbally in the commentary and visually in his own work, merging an act of criticism into art itself. 

In their conversations, Soderbergh and Nichols work together to dismantle the artificial dividing line between art and criticism, neatly moving between the two; Soderbergh brings his highly attentive critical gaze to the work of a filmmaker he admires, and successfully invites Nichols to reflect on his own films with similarly critical distance. They circle one another in joyfully rendered discussions about the art form that means so much to them, and in which both have made their artistic reputations. They demonstrate that the role of the artist and the role of the critic are not fundamentally oppositional in nature, but positions that can be occupied and abandoned at will; they reveal that no art can function uncritically, and that criticism is itself an art form. At one point late in their discussion of Catch-22, Soderbergh comments on the staging of a particular character in the corner of a room at a fraught moment in the narrative. Nichols, tapping into his own knowledge of film history, asks: “You remember that thing that Truffaut said about circles and corners?” Soderbergh, unaware of the reference, says: “No.” Nichols, gleefully able to pass on a piece of wisdom to his younger friend, replies: “He said happiness is circular. It’s people rolling over and over down a grass hill. Unhappiness is corners. It’s what he did in Jules and Jim when the bad times came, everyone’s in corners.” As filmmakers engaging in the act of criticism together, Nichols and Soderbergh step out of disparate corners and into a much more harmonious circle, their ideas passed in free exchange.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.