Steven Soderbergh, the brash, rule-breaking upstart whose early films crackled with the audacity of a non-conforming outsider, entered 2002 as the ultimate Hollywood insider. He was on an epic hot streak, having released Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven in a 21-month frenzy that netted him two Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations (and one Best Director win), plus the sort of cultural capital, social ubiquity and financial and artistic freedom every filmmaker presumably dreams of.

Soderbergh’s follow-up to his impossible run of success was a return to his roots as the cheeky interloper. Both of his 2002 films, Full Frontal and Solaris, recall the decidedly anti-Hollywood cinema of the Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky. In this sense, Full Frontal is a whole-scale departure from the sleek and sexy mainstream films Soderbergh had been making since Out of Sight.

In fact, Full Frontal is a rigorous meditation on cinematic form and narrative structure. At its core, it is a day-in-the-life portrayal of seven barely connected people, following them all over Los Angeles (mostly) until their individual stories inevitably overlap. Within this rather trite plot structure, Soderbergh explores ideas about artifice, performance and surveillance, mostly by intertwining his characters’ lives within a web of different dramatic media: two are involved in a debuting play, two are starring in a romance film, two have collaborated to write that film, one is a pop culture writer who covers film, two are sisters who regularly pretend to be people they are not, six of them will converge at a film producer’s birthday party and, if you can add, then you know that some of the seven are playing multiple roles.

Full Frontal is Soderbergh’s first movie shot on digital video and this is the central metafictional conceit of the work. The intimacy allowed by a low-resolution video camera permits an uncomfortably close examination of each of the seven characters; throughout the film, the digital cinematography peers slowly around corners, moves through closed doors and even eavesdrops on the set of a make-believe film-within-a-film-within-a-film directed by David Fincher. In this same vein, Full Frontal’s soundtrack is replete with shockingly honest voiceover testimony from the characters. Clearly, a major theme of the work is the inherent artifice of film and the concomitant deprivatization of daily life afforded by the portability of video. In many ways, Soderbergh has presciently prefigured our 2016 reality of ever-present mass surveillance and video recording technology that allows a film like Tangerine to be made with a device that everyone has in her pocket.

But it would be a disservice to the aesthetic daring of Full Frontal to reduce it to a claxon warning viewers of the impending digital/surveillance society. Notably, the film-within-a-film entitled Rendezvous, several scenes of which are included within Full Frontal, is shot on physical film, whereas the “real” world of the seven characters is in blurred handheld video. This establishes a stark visual contrast: the gloss of filmic unreality and the nitty-gritty messiness of the actual world. This is also a theme of the scenes featuring the stage play—entitled the “The Sound and the Führer”—where no one at the theater can decide whether the method-actor star portraying Hitler is really an asshole or just getting into his role as history’s most indisputable asshole. Eventually, even this duel between reality and unreality is too easy of a binary, one which Soderbergh ultimately deconstructs in Full Frontal’s final scene.

Soderbergh is just too playful to pin Full Frontal down as a “Statement” on any given social or philosophical topic. The gags in the film are far too numerous to exhaustively list (it takes someone with Soderbergh’s enviably encyclopedic knowledge of screen culture to even notice them all), but they make the work a romp for any viewer inclined towards easter-egg hunting. For example, Soderbergh cast Jeff Garlin as the character “Harvey, probably” and had him unflatteringly portray Harvey Weinstein in the film-within-the-film Rendezvous. Soderbergh also re-shot a key scene from his own The Limey from a new angle, had Julia Roberts (playing a non-movie-star) metacinematically refer to Julia Roberts the movie star (something he would do again much more annoyingly in Ocean’s Twelve) and put himself on camera as the director of Rendezvous but with the ridiculously imperious stage name of “Constantine Alexander” and a censor bar blacking out his face. Brad Pitt, playing himself, makes multiple appearances, each designed as a brash violation of filmmaking conventions. David Fincher makes a cameo simply to make fun of his own tendency to shoot each scene 75 times when six would probably suffice.

Full Frontal, then, is a master text with several well-developed narrative, aesthetic and philosophical strands all inter-mingling to form a ponderous rabbit hole worthy of a deep dive and multiple re-viewings. One notable strand consists of homages to the challenging, avant-garde oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky, too, crafted a metafictional deconstruction of the filmmaking process in his inscrutable The Mirror, which features the same narrative elisions, multiple visual media and self-referential sight gags as Full Frontal and similarly came after an unprecedented run of success.

Where Soderbergh is most overt in gesturing to Tarkovsky, however, is in the crucial final scene. Full Frontal seems to resolve when two of the seven characters, who have met online and both pretended to be people they are not and whose alternate identities require them to fly to Tucson, happen to sit next to one another on the flight to Arizona and meet in person as their real selves instead. Through a final voiceover sequence, it is revealed that they have a promising romantic relationship in Los Angeles—a prototypical Hollywood resolution to a film making fun of Hollywood. But, in one last metafictional gag, Soderbergh reverse-zooms the camera to reveal that the “plane” the characters are sitting in is in fact itself a film set. As Full Frontal cuts to credits, the viewer is left questioning whether or not the seven characters followed around documentary-style were “real” people or also just actors in yet one more movie. This backwards mega-reveal challenging the very reality of the supposedly-real diegetic realm is a borrowed ending, one originally utilized with equally unsettling effect by Tarkovsky to conclude his seminal Nostalgia.

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