I have a theory, unconfirmed as of November 2016, that one could study Steven Soderbergh’s filmography alone and understand everything there is to know about making a fantastic movie.
The mastery of his craft is exemplified by a scene of his television program ‘The Knick’ in which Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery has a conversation with a nurse outside the titular hospital. Taken as a short film in and of itself, this short clip is actually a textbook example of brilliant directing.
We begin with the end of another scene, a wide shot of Thackery looking out the window exclaiming, “Just another Tuesday at The Knick…”. The framing is interesting in that it has a fly on the wall aspect to it; about a third of the frame is obscured by what seems to be a door held open. The next shot is a wide of a blue bicycle followed by a medium-wide low-angle shot of Thackery looking at it. What’s interesting to note here is Soderbergh’s penchant for available light and how he pushes his RED cameras to extremes when it comes to exposure. In the shot of Thackery looking at the bike, his face is almost entirely obscured by the underexposure Soderbergh (acting as his own DP) employs.
The following shot is behind the bicycle: Thackery, standing frame left, inspects the contraption like a good scientist, Nurse Elkins walks along the z-axis behind him. Finally, he crosses the center of the frame, walks over to the bike – the frame cutting off his head once he reaches it – and Nurse Elkins settles herself where he was standing earlier. She startles him by speaking and Soderbergh cuts to a low-angle over-the-shoulder medium shot of Thackery from behind Nurse Elkins.
What’s interesting in the following exchange Nurse Elkins and Dr. Thackery share is when Soderbergh chooses to cut to Nurse Elkins. We’re now in the shot of Thcakery where he is startled by Nurse Elkins’ comment. After that, Soderbergh cuts to a medium shot of Elkins saying that she got the bike when she first moved to the city, even before she had a place to stay. Soderbergh will then cut back to Thackery, same shot as before, and hold it there even when Elkins replies until Thackery points out the colour of the bike matching the colour of the nurse’s eyes. We then cut back to her smiling and talking about feeling “free” while riding.
Both of these medium shots are interesting frames in an of themselves. Soderbergh chooses to frame them both below eye-level. Not only that, but Thackery is framed with the brick-lines of the building behind him. It contrasts Elkins’ background which consists of the colourful townhouses and neighbourhood trees.
The flirt some more, cutting back and forth between shots, until Nurse Elkins suggests she can teach Thackery how to ride. Our next shot is the closest we get to an “establishing” shot, though it’s an extreme wide of Thackery attempting to balance on the bike and the Nurse helping him. Here is where Cliff Martinez’s (of Drive fame) score bubbles up from below the surface. The anachronistic combination of turn-of-the-century setting and trance-electro music gives the show an eerie feeling. Soderbergh, in the extreme wide, also employs the use of a soft vignette around the frame, accentuating the 1900’s photographic aesthetic. Although, one would feel like it makes the most sense to have the extreme wide be a stable shot, it seems like Soderbergh has opted to handhold the camera or perhaps he has placed it on an unbalanced tripod head. Maybe he is trying to subtly recreate Thackery’s wobbling atop the bicycle.
As soon as Thackery begins to ride, Soderbergh cuts once again to another wide (but closer this time) that begins with Nurse and Thackery in the same frame, though Thackery rides out of it. Soderbergh chooses to stay on Nurse Elkins looking enchanted by Thackery as the doctor sings a song (out of frame) to stop himself from overthinking while riding. After a while, he crosses the frame from right to left (we only see the bike’s wheels in the foreground), at which point we cut to a wide from behind the Nurse as Thackery rides off into the street in the background.
Then comes another low-angle medium shot of the Nurse watching Thackery – a simple frame that conveys so much about her blossoming attraction for her boss. She smiles like a girl watching him go – the sound of Thackery’s singing becomes louder as Elkins’ face fills the frame – and then we cut to what seems to be a POV shot of Thackery riding into the street. The next shot is a tracking shot along the street of Thackery riding back into the courtyard which gives way to an over-the-shoulder shot of Thackery pulling up to Nurse Elkins. We see him come into the courtyard from over her left shoulder but as Thackery pulls the bike up in front of her, Soderbergh switches shoulders and ends the shot looking above her right one. “You’re a good teacher,” Thackery says. Soderbergh cuts to a medium-wide of Nurse Elkins smiling and responding, “You’re a good student.”
Thackery rides away and Soderbergh cuts back to the shot over Elkins’ right shoulder. He ends the episode with a shot medium shot of Nurse Elkins biting her lip, watching Dr. Thackery go – smitten and perhaps aware of what the consequences will be.
While the scene is of a nurse teaching a surgeon in the hospital they work at how to ride a bicycle, there is an element that seems to be also illustrative of narrative editing skills – Soderbergh laying out a scene as simply and as powerfully as possible. Every cut in the sequence falls along a shift in emotional dynamic, letting each cut serve as the period. Sentence by sentence, Soderbergh builds the complex inception of an affair by letting simple set-ups drive the montage. Nothing in the sequence is overtly flashy though every frame is imbued with style and fresh ideas. However, Soderbergh’s brilliant use of editing gives the whole scene a satisfyingly simple rhythm.
It’s the perfect little scene to exemplify how easily Soderbergh builds complex narratives brimming with subtext out of simple ideas. The fact that he manages to stay that inventive throughout The Knick’s 20 amazing episodes is a testament to his insatiable curiosity and hunger as a visual storyteller.