To understand why Soderbergh's taking up painting, it's worth looking back at his last creative crisis, in 1995, and the movie that cracked it: Schizopolis. "I was tired of making 'normal' movies," he writes in Getting Away With It, and, inspired by Help! director Richard Lester (whom he interviews throughout the book), he set off to make something truly not normal with a crew of five and some leftover spools of film.
Schizopolis is nothing like the four "normal" movies he'd made up to that point. Soderbergh plays a number of the roles himself, and surely this is the only film made by an Academy Award-winning director to feature multiple shots of the filmmaker furiously jerking off. He also cast his ex-wife as his wife, and his daughter as his daughter, and a whole lot of friends as subsidiary characters. The movie itself is a series of blackout sketches revolving around issues of language and romance; its characters speak in boilerplate, clichés, dubbed foreign languages, and nonsensical phrases. It's as if the Monty Python gang filmed a Caryl Churchill play. At times, it's borderline unwatchable; other moments and shots are among the funniest in Soderbergh's filmography. (This throwaway joke might be my favorite.)
The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias wrote a very smart consideration of the film recently, and he's right to note that Schizopolis serves as the dividing line between Soderbergh the frustrated indie director and Soderbergh the master of the studio system. Before Schizopolis, the director was in, he says, "the arthouse ghetto"; Out of Sight, the movie he released immediately after Schizopolis, proved "you could fuse the independent world with the studio world, and come up with something that was fun to watch." That's been Soderbergh's defining aesthetic ever since.
But now, once again, directing is wearing thin. In a way, Soderbergh is a victim of his own virtuosity; when your filmmaking is as smooth and self-assured as his, it's not hard to imagine that it might be getting difficult for him to find a project that really feels like a challenge. Every couple of years, he takes a break from the studio world entirely to shoot something small and unmarketable, like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience, but perhaps even those movies are starting to feel familiar to Soderbergh: same game, different playing field.
It may be that Soderbergh's next four films will be his last. I think it's more likely, though, that after an interlude with canvas and brush Soderbergh will return behind the camera, reinvigorated, ready to make something surprising and great and fresh. It happened last time; his first two post-Schizopolis films are, I think, his best. If I'm right, I'm awfully excited to see what he makes next. So give the man some space! Give him a couple of years behind locked doors to do what he needs to do. Paint, read, watch Jaws for, presumably, the 50th time. When he comes back, he'll be refreshed and ready.
For what? Maybe he'll finally make a true children's movie. ( King of the Hill is wonderful, but it'll be a while before I show my daughters a harrowing tale of Depression-era deprivation and abandonment.) I could even see Soderbergh experimenting with animation as a way of telling stories he's never told before. Sadly, his relationship with the animator Henry Selick ( Coraline) was damaged when Soderbergh never quite cracked an assignment to rewrite a story called Toots and the Upside-Down House. (His struggles with, and procrastination on, that screenplay make up much of the action, such as it is, of Getting Away With It.) But if I were Pixar's John Lasseter, I'd be on the phone with Soderbergh tomorrow, offering him the chance to paint surrounded by some of the best pop artists in the world—and if he happened to have any movie ideas, of course, it never hurts to talk them out!
In its own way, getting into painting isn't that different a response to artistic malaise from shooting Schizopolis. It's image-making, after all, and like that film, painting on a canvas isn't beholden to any of the many masters—corporate, financial, and narrative—that weigh on the films of even as respected a director as Soderbergh. It's completely self-indulgent, yet harms no one. It's like masturbation—it clears out the pipes. (The man knows from masturbation; indeed, he's a devoted connoisseur of pay-per-view hotel porn.)
At times in his career, Soderbergh's tried replicating some of the self-indulgences of Schizopolis, with Bubble and Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience and The Good German. But those movies still had actors and crew and screenings and distributors and audiences; they were never just about him. Steven Soderbergh's spent most of the past 13 years pleasing everyone else. Isn't it time he pleased himself?
Also in Slate: See a ranking of all Soderbergh's films and a consideration of Soderbergh's obscure, non-movie works.