Wednesday, July 22, 2009

#5 Film of the Decade- Traffic

5. Traffic- Steven Soderbergh (2000)

Most successful filmmakers have a through-line, a theme--an obsession even--that appears again and again in their work. Woody Allen is obsessed with New York obviously. Werner Herzog is preoccupied with nature. Off the top of my head, I can name ten Steven Spielberg films featuring divorced parents. That's just what artists do. They have interests and attractions that inform and underline their experiments. That theme for Steven Soderbergh--pretty much the only thing linking his films--is experimentation itself. He seems addicted to taking risks, and Traffic was no exception.

After he, you know, pretty much created the '90s independent film movement with sex, lies, and videotape at twenty-six, Soderbergh could have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars for any studio movie he wanted. Instead he eschewed studios altogether for a black-and-white movie about Franz Kafka. And after a few more indies, he could have stayed that course as the guy who never messed up his big shot by never taking it. Instead he branched out Orson Welles-style with a one-for-me, one-for-them track: Schizopolis for me, Out of Sight for them, The Limey for me, Erin Brockovich for them. This brings us to Traffic in 2000, which is his signature film because it combines all of these outlooks. Everyone wins.

The movie was a hit but, looking back on it, it's a bit of a tough sell. Under the murky, no-easy-answers umbrella of the war on drugs, the film covers three plot-lines and perspectives that take place in nine cities, each story with its own visual palette. There are one hundred thirty-five speaking parts. It's sprawling and complex, but it's always in control. I know I'm only talking about Soderbergh when writer Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for his screenplay, but the fact is: one guy has replicated this greatness, and one has not.

Not Jesus, despite the way I'm talking about him.

Likewise, directors usually get too much credit for the film's visual style, but Soderbergh acted, for the first of many times, as his own director of photography here under his psuedonym Peter Andrews. He even operated the camera. He was solely responsible for the look of the film, the grain and exposure of which would be copied or built upon for the remainder of the decade. (By the way, he also used non-professional actors, handheld camera, and digital video before anyone else and better than anyone else this decade too.) To hear him tell it:

"The issue of how to distinguish the three stories visually arose about and I decided for the East Coast stuff, tungsten film with no filter on it so that we get that really cold, monochrome blue feel. For San Diego, diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposure for a warmer, blossomy feel. And for Mexico, tobacco filters, 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to give it a strobelike sharp feel. Hopefully those distinctions would be enough to bring you back into each story line after you cut to somewhere else and come back. Then we took the entire film through an Ektachrome step, which increases the contrast and the grain enormously. I'm going through a phase where I'm in love with degraded grainy contrasty imagery, stuff that I think you'd have difficulty talking some cameraman into doing. When the film reaches its release print stage, it will have gone through seven generations."

What he doesn't mention is that Ektachrome is a still photography development treatment that, especially at the time, was unpredictable. He took $48 million worth of footage and took a pass through chemicals that could have completely ruined everything he shot. Again, risks.

Still, none of this sumptuous visual language would matter if this wasn't a completely gripping film, which it is. This is probably the quickest two-and-a-half hour film you'll ever see. As thoughtful and uncompromising as it is, it's also damned entertaining. Years after the fact, that's what you forget. And while most films of its type--multiple plots that weave in and out of each other--sometimes have a weak or inconsistent thread, this does not. The viewer is never disappointed to cut back to the Ohio story or away to the Mexico story. They're all engrossing.

Just as each cut serves a purpose, each tiny performance in Traffic contributes to the whole. People like Salma Hayek and Albert Finney seem happy with glorified cameos, and Soderbergh coaxes powerful work from people who had never proven themselves before or since (Erika Christensen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Topher Grace). But Benicio Del Toro is still the most affecting. He plays against type as a paunchy, monosyllabic cop who is caught in the middle of everyone else's agenda. Most of his dialogue is in Spanish, and it adds to the transformative aspect of his performance. It's as if he's a different actor than the one we're familiar with. He's more tender, more wounded. The movie proves that there are no quick answers to drug abuse and the resultant violence of it, and by the end of the film, Del Toro's character is the one who understands that the most. He is the squinty eyes through which we see everything.

In both approach and execution, Traffic never takes the easy way out. We've already felt the ripple effects of what it achieved. But more important than how influential it became is how enjoyable it was.

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