Andrew Sullivan thought the right excerpt from this charming interview with retiring film director Steven Soderbergh was his view that Hollywood would run the government better than our current political system does:
I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, “Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of,” we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do.
Which sent Kevin Drum into orbit:
Hollywood! The place that brought you Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar! The place where a cartoon director was handed $200 million to direct John Carter, no questions asked, because hey, how different can live action be? The place where studio chiefs practically quiver in fear over green lighting a movie that’s not a comic book or a sequel. The place with executives so easy to parody that it hardly even seems worth the bother anymore. The place that spent years trying to ban VCRs. The place that’s spent the past two decades trying to figure out the internet without any notable success.
How is it that smart people can be so dumb about government? Does Soderbergh seriously think that Hollywood is a poster child for the efficient use of budget dollars? Does he really believe that Hollywood is ideology free? Is he aware, for example, that our copyright law is the shambles it is largely because of Hollywood lobbying? Does he realize that governments deal with problems just a wee more important and less tractable than which green-screen technology works best? Does he have the slightest idea how the real world works? Apparently not.
Look: Soderbergh is actually making an extraordinarily familiar critique. Hollywood, notwithstanding the massive flops that happen every so often, is a hugely successful business. They sell a lot of product, and they make a lot of money – and they do a pretty decent job of spreading that wealth around (thanks to the combination of heavy unionization and the high average skill level of employees). And successful businessmen, who have run large organizations very effectively according to management principles that don’t seem to be applied very effectively in government, almost always think they could run things better than the clowns in Congress.
And they are right! The American government is not designed to run things well – it is designed to prevent civil war or violent revolution by mediating irreconcilable differences between regional and other large interests. Effectiveness is an important secondary consideration. On that score, it has an okay record – better than France since their 1789 revolution, not as good as Britain since their 1688 revolution.
Drum makes fun of Soderbergh for saying that our government would run better if the President had more power for a shorter span of time. But if you drop the notion that the head of government should be a separately-elected President, then Soderbergh is basically uttering poli-sci conventional wisdom: that a Parliamentary system where the government has very broad powers but clear accountability is more effective at making and implementing policy than a system with checks and balances.
We hear this critique all the time. From the right, it is usually phrased as a longing to have government run “as a business” – or by a businessman. From the left, it is usually phrased as a longing to have a more “professional” government – with less interference by ignorant elected officials. Both longings are entirely reasonable: we really could design a more effective government. If we wanted to – if we were sure we would be satisfied being governed by an effective government that would periodically be controlled by our ideological enemies.
What I liked about the interview much more than this fairly conventional complaint about the inefficiency of government is what I like so much about Soderbergh as a figure: that he exercises masterful control while being very unobtrusive. Soderbergh isn’t an “auteur” in the way that, say, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee is. You don’t go to a “Soderbergh film” expecting to see his fingerprints all over the thing. Quite the opposite. And yet he’s not a hack in any way – everything he does, successful or not, is distinctive. That’s because he views his job as being a facilitator – he is putting his skills at the service of the work, which requires letting himself see what the work essentially is, so that the work can excite him, rather than imposing himself on it and trying to make it his. And the same goes for how he treats those who work for him, particularly actors. His discussion of how he has approached his work recalled to my mind the discussion Alan Jacobs and I had a while back about self expression versus craft in the creation of art.
That skill at facilitating rather than commanding, and at seeing what the work is rather than setting out to put one’s own stamp on the work, is also vital in political leadership. But that’s not very often what you hear from critics of our government’s effectiveness – whether from the left or right. When we imagine businessmen “fixing” the government, we imagine commanding Randian heroes mercilessly scything through bloat. When we imagine a more professional government, we imagine diligent researchers writing theoretically optimal regulations based on science. We don’t imagine somebody like Soderbergh who, from the evidence of the way he talks about his work and from the body of his work himself, has a keen awareness of how much more effective he is when he starts not with an idea, or with his own desire to “make a difference,” but with the thing itself, as it is, in all its complexity, and puts himself at that thing’s service. That approach is as applicable to reforming the health-care system as it is to making a tent-pole movie.
As for movies, Soderbergh’s probably right that they don’t matter as much as they once did, but as I said before, that’s okay.