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Extreme Infatuation

By Ray Pride

MAY 8, 2000:  A decade into an adventurous and diverse career as a feature director, Steven Soderbergh was, last week, able to celebrate his first $100-million grossing-film, "Erin Brockovich." While the self-effacing filmmaker has begun shooting the moral thriller "Traffic" (a revision of the PBS-shown series of a few years back) and a follow-up, a comic remake of "Ocean's Eleven," he's got a book on the market. Published last year in the UK and arriving here now, "Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, Also Starring Richard Lester as the Man Who Knew More Than He Was Asked" (Faber, $27) is a meeting of the minds between Soderbergh and "Hard Day's Night" and "Petulia" director Lester.

As interviewer, he does battle with the Faber house style of director Q&A volumes, showing himself to be less than totally prepared even when he's fascinated by Lester's anecdotes. Soderbergh also sends up the diary format, which filmmakers like Spike Lee have pounded into the ground, and which he himself helped foment with the success of his own "sex, lies and videotape" diary (1990).

Here's one self-effacing, recurrent tic: instead of a question, the 37-year-old director breaks up conversations with Lester with "SS: Right." He does constant battle with his tendency to take on more work than he can handle. Of a fresh deadline he's promised on a script for a director, he notes that it is "less of a lie but still a bit of a fantasy."

More hilarious is his footnoting of his personal evasions. In interviews, Soderbergh takes diligent pains to be direct and honest, but halfway through "Getting Away With It," he notes that he hasn't mentioned his relationship. "At this point, you might wonder: 'So what's going on with women in his life? Surely he isn't a monk.' That's a good question and one well wroth asking." Typical of the style he's chosen, he footnotes: "Again, a serious attempt at emotional engagement with the reader is deflected with sarcasm. As far as Farber and Faber has been able to determine, the author's 'relationships' follow this pattern," which has seven points, including, "Extreme infatuation with a person the author has no current relationship with or, better yet, used to have a relationship with; 2. Relentless pursuit of object of infatuation, using an ever-changing combination of cliched and improvised behavior... " There's a relentless dry, wry Chris Ware-style facetiousness to his self-portrait. ("World's Smartest Boy," meets "The Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw.")

Soderbergh has a fear of making "pretentious garbage," yet Lester and Soderbergh both seem to admire Bunuel. In Lester's formulation, "those last films, they are so Bunuelian, you can't imagine other people making them. What I feel is that you always like to feel that you are the most qualified persona to deal with that subject."

While Soderbergh's giddy experimental narrative "Schizopolis" took extreme liberties with expectations, I'm still looking forward to an idea he mentioned in an interview we had a couple years ago: "I just think a lot of movies I see from all over the place, people seem to have forgotten subtext or aren't interested in it or just haven't heard of it. I'm trying desperately to work toward a movie in which people never say anything to each other. If I could possibly construct a movie in which body language gave you everything you needed to know, that would be great." And also a bracing rebuke to the scads of enjoyable gab in his latest book.

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