Full Frontal

(USA - 2002)

by James Cobo

Cast: Blair Underwood, Julia Roberts, Catherine Keener, David Hyde Pierce, Mary McCormack, Nicky Katt
Genre: Drama
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Coleman Hough
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Composer: Jacques Davidovici
Runtime: 103 minutes

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The circumstances surrounding Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal constitute the stuff of legends. Not only did Soderbergh assemble a cast which ordinarily would have spent this film's entire budget on craft services in a single week, but he signed them on the condition that they adhere to a set of bohemian guidelines which, in essence, defined the film's aesthetics. It is the rare article of industry flotsam that proves worthy of more than a passing glance, but then again Full Frontal is a staggeringly uncommon film.

1) All sets are practical locations.

Full Frontal is a movie about movies. Soderbergh is - or has become over the last few years, anyway - a Hollywood director, albeit one more circumspect in his medium than anyone since Scorsese fell off, and as with any film artist who aspires to me more than facile, he was due to start taking on his medium rather than simply using it. What sets Full Frontal apart is Soderbergh's characteristic restraint. Whereas Robert Altman exulted in Hollywoodisms in The Player - flaunting the very rules he was breaking - Soderbergh's take is much more low-key. His major innovations here are by-and-large meant to sink in rather than stand out; eventually, the mode-jerks between his film stocks are sublimated, and accepted as the norm.

The intended effect is obvious, of course; Soderbergh wants the audience to feel the world of the film. The film's dramatic mechanism is, in fact, predicated entirely on the premise that the audience is fully in touch with the movie, and if, as most of the other people in the theater apparently felt, the audience isn't willing to buy in, they get nothing in return. But for those willing to play along, the web of the film is engrossing, and the tricks that it plays are the most thrilling since Pulp Fiction.

It all ties back in to the burgeoning myth of Soderbergh. His track record defies logic, as he's the same man who directed the indyer-than-thou Schizopolis and such top-shelf Hollywood product as Ocean's 11. But his most satisfying endeavors have all toed the line between both ends and never fully committed to both. Traffic - as far as I can tell, the best domestic film to come out for the next ten years at least - was equal parts Blade Runner and Zapruder, while The Limey brought Stanley Donen to the slackers. He's a melodrama addict who possesses an innate knack for paring a film down to its core. And Full Frontal may be the best example. The world of the film is unerringly real…yet every so often, a man takes out the trash in a Dracula outfit, or a wax red letter appears. Soderbergh toes the line between dream and truth, and comes up with a middle ground quite unlike anything released in recent times.

2) You will drive yourself to the set. If you are unable to drive yourself, a driver will pick you up, but you will probably become the subject of ridicule. Either way, you must arrive alone.

Part of the problem of being a Hollywood director, of course, is that you are expected to entertain, and in the big picture, Soderbergh fails. But the intent of Full Frontal isn't to entertain so much as it is to reveal. Any film possessing a world so realistic can't help but be expository, and any exposition can't help but challenge the audience. Full Frontal is not a magic act; it doesn't profess trickery, it professes truth.

A great deal of the audience that I saw it with led themselves astray by the film's opening. And they weren't wrong to do so; Full Frontal is a tremendously entertaining movie at times, and it employs all of the most modern versions of the joyously medium-deprecating tricks of the French New Wave judiciously. It occasionally even entertains in such a way that the audience gets to feel hip, be it via Jerry Weintraub's cameos or two SS officers pop-n-locking in the background of a theater.

But these are diversions akin to a Dairy Queen along the course of a hajj. Full Frontal has no qualms about disrupting the audience, jumping back and forth between characters, film stocks, plot lines, even time and space. It's a movie about the dissociation between reality and fiction, after all, and that's heady material, hardly the kind of thing that really should hint at a three-act structure and the hero standing triumphant. The seats of pleasure in Full Frontal are few and far between because the film mirrors life; and yet it never drags due to the astoundingly presumptuous nature of the film itself.

And yet it's that same nature that ultimately delivers so much pleasure to the energetic audience. Full Frontal is a film, first and foremost; hence, it calls attention to itself throughout. The term "documentary realism" applies to the film insofar as much of the footage was shot hand-held and windows appear blown out. Beyond that, everything has a niggling familiarity: the appetites of massage customers, the burgeoning relationship, the contents of brownies - none of these are new stomping grounds for Hollywood. Full Frontal gives us that which years of by-the-numbers film product has ground into passing expectations, and presents it as a window onto the world. It leaves the audience the decision as to where in the sand they would like to draw the line.

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3. There will be no craft service, so you should arrive on set "having had". Meals will vary in quality.

Before I left for the movie theater, I ate dinner while watching a biography of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The last segment I was able to watch went over the details of his murder - how the last words anyone said to him were "You're back, kid" before his assassins pulled up and shot him to death. Few hucksters would be brazen enough to pitch such a corny, done-to-death scenario to even the most desperate Hollywood mogul; yet sometimes life plays out in a funny way.

Full Frontal is supremely aware of it. So much of the drama is based around the emergent symbiotic relationship between the public and movies, how movies need to tap into the public consciousness, but that consciousness has in effect become a product of the movies. Life frequently makes us think of the movies, and hopefully vice versa. At its best, Full Frontal is able to walk the line between life and the movies, and demonstrate the elasticity of both.
Yet it will occasionally fail. The film's world becomes incrementally unrealistic and, on occasion, erupts in stylization to such a degree that it throws off the balance. Actually, it's less an eruption than a tectonic shift in the presentation - the film jumps back and forth between so many different episodes so frequently that any drawn-out scene tends to come off as overgenerous. For the most part, it feels like simply fleshing out the characters, but there are certain specific scenes where character seems to be taking a back seat to nuance. And given how much pleasure such nuance has when it's kept sublimated, foregrounding it just seems…bush-league.

4. You will pick, provide, and maintain your own wardrobe.
5. You will create and maintain your own hair and make-up.
6. There will be no trailers. The company will attempt to provide holding areas near a given location, but don't count on it. If you need to be alone a lot, you're pretty much screwed.

The film is an ensemble cast, of course; I think Soderbergh is coming to terms with his hit-and-miss tendencies with star vehicles. And yet, in a movie where Blair Underwood, Catherine Keener, and Nicky Katt are delivering the performance that careers are made of right up front, my mind continually turns back to Julia Roberts.

From the outset, I want to be perfectly forthright - I can't stand Julia Roberts. She seems to be very much of the Warren Beatty School of acting, by which I mean that everything she does on screen seems like a chill-out remix of "Look, Ma, I'm acting!" But somehow Steven Soderbergh warps that to his benefit and molds her performance into one which could serve quite aptly as an epitaph for the entire movie.

Soderbergh is a master of working with movie stars, as evidenced simply by the presence of this cast working for a movie with a total budget of two million dollars. Stars like Soderbergh because he's one of the few Hollywood directors out there with a vision that extends beyond the film, and Soderbergh likes stars because he was raised on the star system. What elevates him above the level of journeymen is his consciousness of the public's perception of stars; he seems to be the only director working for a major studio today conscious of the fact that people rarely go to the movies to see a movie star act, and that the modern moviegoing experience is simply that - going to the movies just to see what's up.

Thus, he supplants the star system with something much hipper - the star-acknowledgement system. He puts movie stars out front banking that their demigod stature cloys the audience and empowers him to strip the bark off of the plot. And better yet, he's intimately capable of modulating the level of plot so that when a star doesn't have the weight to distract the audience, Soderbergh can turn up the plot and make someone's career. What he did for Terence Stamp in The Limey and Benicio Del Toro in Traffic, he does here for Nicky Katt - make the entire audience walk away asking "Who was that?"

But the audience knows exactly who Julia Roberts is, which is what makes her so perfect for the film. In the eyes of many, she's the queen of both sturm und drang and the happy ending, as judging by the public mood whenever she gets divorced or remarried - or on her films. There is, as far as I can tell, no discernable difference between her on-screen roles and her real-life one, except that she tends to sublimate her ego to bolster the drama of her role.
She is, in other words, the conundrum of Full Frontal brought to life. She is the uber-movie star being presented in a movie as an ordinary person. Soderbergh blessedly doesn't force her to act - he simply uses her as a damp sponge to blur the line between reality and entertainment. It's not dissimilar to Wong Kar-Wai's use of Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung in Happy Together - not simply casting against type, but casting against all commonly upheld principles of filmmaking. And while I'm certainly not advocating a rise in the use of an actor based on presence alone (I'd like to think that the film industry isn't entirely artificial, after all), I can certainly say this - used correctly, it forces the audience to question the nature and purpose of film. Full Frontal assuredly uses it correctly.

7. Improvisation will be encouraged.

Part of the danger of skipping over space and time is the danger of dead spaces; I've seen a lot of student films which used jump cuts as a poor substitute for plot advancement. At times, Full Frontal does fall into the pit; there are moments when the dialogue doesn't snap as much as Soderbergh might have hoped for, or when the film lurches precipitously between cuts.

These instances, however, are few and far between, and far less interesting than what drives the movie - its underlying anarchic energy. Soderbergh loads every shot with something - typically bracing dialogue or capably nervous camera movements sprinkled with a few instances of brazen showmanship, like the aforementioned dancing SS officers. It carries the film through the jump-cuts which would otherwise eviscerate the dialogue, and it holds the audience's attention when Soderbergh is being intentionally murky.

But it's hardly undercoating, existing only to bridge scenes and give critics something to applaud. The energy in Full Frontal lends more life to the film than in any other recent release simply because it's modulated so well. In the hands of a lesser director, this film could easily have been turned into a farce - with elements ranging from the minute (i.e. much of the conversation) to the brazen (the Hitler play), the movie is rife with the potential to be over-the-top - but then its implicit movie-ness would have been more foregrounded and the whole endeavor would have been a wash. Soderbergh wisely downplays the farcical elements, electing to use them as the carrot on the stick to infuse the audience with purpose when the film slows down.

The key to its effect, however, is the energy's elasticity. Perfectly good directors have made careers out of putting characters with monomaniacal purposes in the same room, and while Soderbergh doesn't avoid this trend entirely, he certainly isn't afraid to buck it vociferously. Oftentimes he shifts the scene's timbre multiple times, such as during Carl's firing. What keeps him grounded is the rock-solid characterizations; David Hyde Pierce plays Carl as such a well-sculpted nebbish that the scene's pathos and humor aren't unconnected, even outside of the scene. One almost has to question Soderbergh's editing, as the performances are so strong that it almost asks whether he's cheating the audience out of performances.

8. You will be interviewed about your character. This material may end up in the film.
9. You will be interviewed about the other characters. This material may end up in the finished film.

Full Frontal opens with a series of profiles introducing the characters to the audience as they deliver monologues. It's classic Soderbergh; one of his trademarks is giving the barest details to make the characters believable and build dramatic tension from the story out to the characters, rather than from the characters out to the story. Certainly that's a rubric that can be applied to Full Frontal; the arcs are either small and fairly rudimentary (the relationship between Gus and the masseuse, for instance, or between Carl and Lee and their connubial struggles), or so far out in left field that any attempt on the audience's part of quantifying them is pointless. The tension is rooted in the way the characters reveal themselves. Lee's breakdown from the confident executive into a howling, pained creature only holds importance for someone who's invested in the character from the beginning and who views the actual plot advancement as decoration. (This may be another reason why Full Frontal is so audience-unfriendly; audiences today have essentially been conditioned to expect the exact opposite.) Like so much else in the film, this is hardly revolutionary, but given the mediocrity of "good" plot-driven movies, Full Frontal feels like a breath of fresh air simply for doing what it does so well. One also cannot discount the presence of the Soderbergh Touch - essentially a retread of the Lubitsch Touch, only infused with dread rather than with whimsy.

What happens with the film, of course, is that the characters run perpendicular to the intent. Accepting that the movie exists to force the audience into questioning where the line between fantasy and reality is drawn today invalidates every second of character-building. So the question must be asked - why put so much effort into a self-defeating movie?

Partly, I think that simply asking the question is enough. Too many movies come out these days that pose Big Questions and then regrettably get it in their minds that it's up to them to provide an answer. Full Frontal never indicates that it ever agreed to provide an answer, only to pose the question as articulately as possible.

But that's something of a cop-out, although it's where the truth might be located. The question posed by Full Frontal - where do you differentiate between entertainment and life? - is an entirely personal one predicated on the audience's receptiveness to be questioned. It is obviously for that reason that Full Frontal is doomed to obscurity (although with a two million dollar budget it will undoubtedly recoup its expenses many times over), yet at the same time, it's the reason why its defenders will be so ardent. Full Frontal is a movie that speaks to individuals released during a time when the prestige movies are being mass-marketed to as many demographics as humanly possible, and given the climate into which it was released, that's reason enough to praise it.

10. You will have fun whether you want to or not.
If any of these guidelines are problematic for you, stop reading now and send this screenplay back where it came from.

The one question remains: why ask the question at all?

People who don't buy into this movie react to it with virulent anger. After the credits rolled, I was reading a review of the film from Time posted by the door when a man emphatically said "Don't waste your time with that movie. I just got out of it, and it's garbage." I can certainly see why he'd react as he did; the aesthetics alone guarantee that a large audience will be turned off, and the energy required will surely do wonders to eliminate most of those who are left. This is hardly a movie for everyone, which is probably precisely the reason it barely got a budget, which is precisely what made it work in the first place.

And therein lies an answer - not the answer, of course, but an answer. The standards for contemporary movies have been sliding so precipitously recently that today overburdened messes like Minority Report are hailed by most people as one of the best films of the year, and outside of 2000's Traffic, no film has been released which could stand up against the cream of pretty much any year in the 1990s. I like going to movies to put forth an effort; it only makes sense that when a movie comes along and rewards people who put forth an effort with as close to an apology as Hollywood is likely to ever put out.

But that's a view skewed by someone who's biased against contemporary movies; the truth is that Full Frontal had me rethinking Breathless even more than Death to Smoochy. And that right there is probably as close to the answer as I'm likely to get - the effect of asking the question is much more important than the answer itself. After all, in essence, it's asking what the meaning of existence is. Given the personal nature of a question like that, I'm not going to assign my view to anyone else. But I will say this - simply being asked the question is likely to be the biggest thrill that I get from Hollywood for a long, long time.


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