Friday, September 25, 2009
At the core of Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Informant!, is a protagonist without a center. Matt Damon is cast as Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistle blower in an early-90s FBI investigation into price fixing by Archer Daniels Midland, manufacturer of invisible synthetic food ingredients that dot the lists of nutritional information in supermarkets across the world. Layered by uglifying make-up that adds one more mask onto a character who's already tricky enough to pin down, Damon plays Whitacre in two broad registers. In his relationships with other people - his wife, the FBI agents he imagines himself friends with, and the co-workers he's secretly trying to bring down - he projects the constant need to be seen as a moral do-gooder. But in his first-person voice-over, Whitacre is presented as a delusional man given to waxing philosophical over the magical properties of lysine, a manufactured amino acid used in agriculture and the object of ADM's price fixing. Neither of these two levels - which intersect powerfully in the final minutes of the film, when Soderbergh uses the voice-over to anticipate how Whitacre will respond to other characters right before the fiction he has built around himself comes crashing down - draw us inside Whitacre, the man. And, the film seems to be telling us, the impossibility of knowing Whitacre the man apart from the corporate world that serves as his fantastical measure of all things is precisely the point.
For a filmmaker whose approach to narrative frequently eschews emotional attachment in favor of gently icy textures and subtle (and thus not too alienating) distanciation, Whitacre seems a natural subject. Soderbergh's recent films, in many respects collectively forming a return to the opaque approach to character and narrative in his post-sex, lies... and pre-Out of Sight work, use visual style as a means to dig indirectly inside the emotional and psychological states of characters, exploring the surfaces of their situations, ideas, and worlds before guiding us inside their heads. It's a roundabout way to psychology and emotion, in other words, forcing us to do the work of listening carefully and looking closely before we're allowed inside. It's an approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Monte Hellman, and the Richard Lester who made Petulia in its insistence that the best route to character is not necessarily through the most conventional or transparently psychological of means.
Che, The Girlfriend Experience, and The Informant! - each made for a different distributor and with slightly different audiences and commercial expectations - might actually be seen as united, then, despite their disparate subject matter, in their quietly cerebral styles, which maxime Soderbergh's interest in bringing an art cinema ethos to relatively more mainstream films. Each analyzes the kind of world the characters are making for themselves: after all, like Che, The Informant! is a movie about characters who do not merely "reflect" social reality, but are in - or are fighting for - a powerful enough position to actually construct it. The Girlfriend Experience explored a similar idea of social agency, along gendered lines, contrasting the ability of the Chris Santos characters to sell his skills as an exercise instructor with call girl Sasha Grey's inability to sell sex without the positive "reviews," posted on Internet sites, of her male clientele. If The Girlfriend Experience, however, was too of-its-moment to achieve the distanced and more carefully nuanced perspective on America's recent economic calamity that it otherwise aimed for, Che and The Informant! take more carefully measured approaches. (Although The Informant! took only a month to shoot, it feels positively Kubrickian compared to The Girlfriend Experience, which feels like the kind of tossed-off, cynical commodity it's ostensibly critiquing).
That Soderbergh is remaining on the surface of things with The Informant!, refusing to take us directly inside the psychological world of Mark Whitacre's head, has much to do with the world the character is trying to construct for himself, one in which the corporate and the personal are utterly inextricable. (Replace "corporate" with "collective," or "political," and you are, oddly enough, right back to the narrative of Che). One of the central themes of The Informant! is how Whitacre the corporate climber and Whitacre the family man are indivisible - business defines almost every aspect of his life. The kind of society that would create the Blackberry, that professional portal that threatens to turn every moment of lived existence into alienated work, seems personified in Whitacre, about a decade before the fact. After all, we learn early in the movie that he has a business line installed in his home. This is something that initially struck me as very odd, yet that response is odd enough itself, given that nearly everyone has "business lines" now, in various portable forms. Every conversation with his wife and son, too, have something to do with his corporate life at ADM or the product his company sells. This leads Soderbergh to show how every single relationship Whitacre has with other people is in some way related to his need to climb the corporate ladder.
Given Soderbergh's roundabout approach to character, it's to be expected that this idea shines through first on a purely formal level. In one edit in the first act of the film, which connects two images of Whitacre and his wife as they talk on the phone, we see a graphic match, visually rhyming the shape of Whitacre's office furniture with a grocery bag that obscures our view of his wife's face and nearly everything else in the frame. It's a quietly audacious edit - the kind of pure play with image that is so rarely seen in Hollywood cinema, and that makes every Soderbergh experiment valuable on some level. Suggesting that Whitacre's corporate "identity" is invading every aspect of his existence, these visual rhymes help us see how his relationships with others are mere surfaces that, in turn, obscure the viewer's sense of who these people are.
Soderbergh's approach yields results, at least in its central conception of its main character. But the supporting performances and characters in this movie are fuzzy, which is ultimately why the world of this film, although so clearly delineated in terms of Whitacre's warped perspective, feels rather thinly realized otherwise. There's nothing else to throw Whitacre's bipolar view of the world into relief - the disbelieving reaction shots (and there are many in this film) of other characters responding to him tend to turn The Informant! into a dispiriting echo chamber. The relationship between Whitacre and the FBI agent, Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), to whom he spills the beans about his company's crimes, would at first seem to promise insights into each character. We learn in a voice-over, for example, that Whitacre imagines Shepard as a friend, and later Shepard reveals that he keeps a photograph of Whitacre and his family in his briefcase in order to remind himself of the heroism of his collaborator. Yet it's impossible to know if Soderbergh intends for us to laugh at or identify with his characters at these moments, leaving the human dimension to this relationship (arguably the most important in the film), like the graphic match mentioned earlier, an abstraction, and in turn leaving his audience floating on the surface of events and characters. The uneasy comedy in The Informant!, as a result, does not organically develop from situation and character, nor does it lead us to revelations about their relationships: it feels instead like a queasy lacquer spread over the intentionally unappealing yellowish-orangish digital cinematography. Most of the time, then, we're just left with supporting characters gawking in disbelief at Whitacre, the kinds of images that have allowed Warners to market this as a guffaw-a-minute comedy but that, in the narrative itself, feel less than revealing.
And, of course, Soderbergh seems very aware of this: perhaps there is no "inside" to Whitacre, or to any of the other figures who populate his world. It may be the thesis of Soderbergh's film that there is no Whitacre "the man. " "Thesis" seems like the perfect word, since like The Girlfriend Experience and, more successfully, Che (a more rigorous movie about a man who, equally rigorously, molded himself into an idea), this feels like a movie patterned by ideas rather than emotions, despite the fact that it's supposed to be a comedy. As captured by Damon's one-note performance and Soderbergh's exacting, but also frequently suffocating, textures, Whitacre amounts to an existential blank slate that only indoor swimming pools and matching ties with inverted colors - the kinds of objects and phenomena that fascinate him, so his voice-over tells us - have managed to affect. His motivations, his actions - which are meant to reflect, in part, a criminal corporate culture that has led to America's recent sour economic turn - are ultimately inscrutable, and the few clues we're given, more often than not, lead us not to inner depths but right back to the surface of the screen. He knows the name for "pen" in German (commenting wryly on how such a diminutive English word, and object, would be bestowed with such a verbose honorific in another language), and he's fascinated by the "mysterious" steam that he sees in indoor swimming pools; these become more concrete aspects of his personality than, say, his relationship with his wife, or children, co-workers, or the FBI agents he lets into his life, all of whom seem guileless co-stars in a drama of his own making. The real problem is that all of these characters, in turn, are treated more or less as morons, dupes, disbelieving observers, enigmas, or some combination of all three by Soderbergh, who is content to work in Coen Brothers mode, although he feels like a less committed misanthrope than they.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Soderbergh's approach, of course - after all, as I've already suggested, his play with surface is invigorating in Che and moments of The Informant! suggest a better film lying in wait. But perhaps the problem is that in Che these surfaces dealt with difficult and challenging ideas and relationships that few audiences could feel superior to, whereas The Informant! makes it easy to feel morally superior to corporate greed. It's worth noting that abuse of power was once a phenomenon that American movies could explore in complex ways. The very first images of The Informant! remind us of this tradition, in fact: the camera glides over tapes and recording devices, evoke 1970s American paranoia cinema, in particular The Conversation. But that film, along with others in the same tradition (particularly Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View and All the President's Men, which saw government as just another form of corporate control), grapple with serious moral and epistemological questions that in turn provoke us to think through how media can both reveal and occlude social meaning. Like Soderbergh, they do it in part through surface - especially in the Coppola film, which innovatively uses aural textures to suggest the relationship between its main character's profession (a professional snoop) and his moral breakdown. Soderbergh, ultimately, remains content in The Informer! to use his surfaces to mostly point and laugh, a disappointing choice for a filmmaker who has managed to level social and/or existential inquiry with a clear-headed aesthetic vision in films like Solaris, The Limey, Che, and Traffic, for example (his best films, and all even more enamored of their own visual textures and abstract graphic matches).
This doesn't mean that humor is impossible to use as a vehicle for social critique or justified moral rage. But Soderbergh's dry jokes and visual puns can't break through to show us what the sheen of corporate, upper-middle class delusion he painstakingly designs ultimately means. He just leaves us stuck in it. Even the musical score (by Marvin Hamlisch), rather than generating patterns and ideas not already contained on the visual track, is used merely, and redundantly, to echo Whitacre's already delusional first-person narration. At one moment Whitacre imagines a series of chain stores on the otherwise barren landscape in front of his home - a vision of Wal Marts that, seventeen years after the events in the diegesis are over, has largely come true - complete with "Oriental restaurants." On cue, the score rewrites its muzak in a vaguely Asian register, as if to suggest that the screwball tunes we hear throughout the movie are in fact emanating from Whitacre's own loopy head.
What The Informant! seems to be missing, then, is some sense that our laughing at these characters leads us not just to reassurance that we're standing in the right moral position, but rather to an insight about the world they've made for themselves. Part of the logic and value behind the screwball comedy, which The Informant! resembles in some ways, is that we see its characters as human beings first, and screwballs second: the laughter, some of it admittedly at the characters rather than with them, nevertheless had a dramatic purpose and human center in the best screwball films. The Informant! inverts that formula, even using cameos by the Smothers Brothers, of late-60s Laugh In fame, in its final scenes to indicate that its view of human relationships is essentially one in which absurd non-sequiters and opaque motivations reign. There's plenty that's interesting in The Informant!, but ultimately I can't judge Soderbergh's approach apart from the fact that I did not leave the movie knowing anything more about the phenomenon of corporate greed in America than I did when I walked in, which is as damning as the fact that I didn't laugh much, either.