Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich (2000)

2000 was a breakout year for Steven Soderbergh, who cemented his burgeoning digital style with two superb information thrillers – Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Both of these films focused on massively dispersed data fields, but where Traffic resorted to an ensemble cast to do so, Erin Brockovich was arguably more ambitious in attempting to pair this with a character study and a workplace drama. Julia Roberts plays the title character, who became famous for bringing down Pacific Gas & Electric for leaking toxic chromium into the soil around their compressor station in Hinkley, California. While Brockovich loved geology, maps and medicine, she had no skills or professional experience when she turned up at the office of Ed Masry, played here by Albert Finney, and demanded a job. Her rationale (as the film puts it) was that Masry hadn’t adequately represented her in a car crash case, or at least hadn’t prevented the defence from typecasting her as an irresponsible single mother. With no health insurance to fall back on, she reasoned, Masry owed her a job, and he found it hard to refuse.

Right from the outset, Erin Brockovich is like a better version of Pretty Woman. Once again, Roberts plays the working-class stiff, but this time she develops a truly empowering professional identity – and the film is a wonderful portrait of a working relationship. In fact, Erin’s friendship with Ed quickly eclipses her relationship with George, a biker played by Aaron Eckhart, who quickly finds himself relegated back to a more professional distance when her investigation into PG&E gets underway. At first, he looks after Erin’s kids while she’s at work, but as their romance cools, he becomes more of a babysitter. While the film leaves their connection somewhat open, in reality he stuck around only as a paid nanny, leaving Erin free to focus most of her emotional life on her work, which is the way it plays out here as well. Lest that sound too dry, Erin Brockovich is also a masterclass in expository drama, and gets the information part of the information thriller just right, overlaying the interpersonal core of the film with layer after layer of data without ever breaking the immersive ambience of it all.

In the first act of the film, this informational density veers the screenplay in the direction of film noir, or film soleil, thanks to one pervasive trope – Erin heading out to the desert to find a point of origin for the rot at the heart of the city. The light is already parched in Los Angeles, but intensifies severalfold once we hit the baking heat of the desert, where the glare is so pronounced that it’s every bit as occlusive as the shadows of classical noir. Like so many noir characters before her, Erin is tasked with investigating the substance and substrate of the desert outside Los Angeles. Here, that desert converges on sightlines of the PG&E plant, which is visible from virtually every point in town, but so brilliant in the bright light that nobody can look at it directly for too long. Precisely because of its hyper-visibility, then, this factory becomes a blind spot in the narrative, generating noodly guitar riffs, and sitting quizzically on the periphery of Erin’s vision long before she glimpses the full picture of corruption emerging.

To some extent, this setup specifically recalls Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which sees Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes also heading out to the fringes of the city in order to map what’s happening back at its core. Much of Erin Brockovich seems to be continuing this lifeworld. We learn that the chromium deposits date back to 1967, while Ed wins over the townsfolk by invoking a 1978 canal lawsuit that is still dragging on. Similarly, when PG&E seize contaminated property, they use an excuse that feels more suited to the 70s than to the 90s; namely, that they need to clear up space for a local freeway. Like so many 70s thrillers, too, Erin Brockovich is full of the physical collation of data. When Erin starts to figure out what’s going on, she spends months checking out water records for the county, faxing and photocopying documents, hunting down obscure pieces of microfiche, while drawing out and documenting many generations of people who’ve lived in Hinkley. So invested is she in these activities that Ed assumes she’s quit when she doesn’t return to the office after her first week of research.

Yet Erin Brockovich is also, in the same instant, one of the last great films about physically chasing down information. Even as Erin trudges from house to house, the film starts to shift into a more digital register. We see it, initially, in those moments when physical labour starts to transform into affective labour, which turns out to be the most important part of the project. It’s not enough for Erin to just show up in town, or at each house – she has to cultivate and nurture each piece of information, until it bears enough fruit for her to add it to the case file. That takes emotional energy, and time away from her family, suggesting a new horizon of labour that cannot be entirely computed or quantified at Ed’s offices back in Los Angeles.

This affective labour is particularly important when it comes to the women of Hinkley, who have been more affected by the chromium deposits. Since these women spend more time at home than men, they tend to use water more casually, meaning they’ve suffered greater physical consequences. In the most extreme case, a plaintiff tells Erin that she is going to lose her uterus and breasts, and asks her if she will still count as a woman after the surgery. Having to field questions like this is the core of Erin’s emotional labour, and yet she’s peculiarly qualified for it, since she’s been on the other side of a legal system that pathologises mothers, especially working, single or otherwise “irresponsible” mothers. Dealing with the women of Hinkley means discovering how easy it is to profile women, even when she has been profiled herself, and resisting that impulse at every urge, to ensure the data is as authentic as possible.

Soderbergh thus shifts from factual to affective data, evoking an imminent digital world in which physical and emotional labour are difficult to extricate from one another. We next sense this world in two separate but competing temporalities that run throughout the film. On the one hand, Erin covers vast tracts of space, and uses up nearly all of her free time, to research the case. Yet many key events happen with a simultaneity that cuts across the analog technology that she has at her disposal: “The minute Brenda sent that fax, the second she hit the “send” button, P&E’s department was on the phone to me.” It’s here that we start to see a dramatic movement away from the corruption narrative of Chinatown, which focuses on how political grift operates across long swathes of time and space. By contrast, Erin Brockovich is interested in the corporation as the emblem of a new digital flow that compresses time, space, and the affect we once experienced in them, into a new singularity.

This corporate singularity is, in a sense, Erin’s main antagonist, although it’s expressed through the same water system that drove Chinatown. Both films present the water supply as Los Angeles’ most precious commodity, which means it’s the most conducive to corruption. However, Soderbergh uses the water system around Hinkley to conjure up a broader information flow, much as Erin’s investigation gradually condenses to her efforts to trace the passage and impact of water around town, by mapping as many ponds, culverts and wells as she can manage; spaces where the emphatic physicality of parched grass and bleached concrete come up against a new and threatening fluidity. All PG&E’s damage is bound up with this information flow, which generates a distinctive musical motif, part acoustic piano and part electronic treatment, that also positions us as the cusp between analog and digital space.

Erin’s affective labour, which occupies the first act of the film, is a critical step in tracing this information flow. She spends so much time massaging data into existence that, once she starts to lean into its fluidity, she’s able to intuit and follow its sensuality in ways that Ed simply can’t match. The same goes for her poverty before joining Ed’s team, and her determination to scrounge for any and every opportunity, a skill set that, in this new context, is tantamount to a preternatural networking ability. All of a sudden, in the latter part of the film, Erin’s abilities come together, and reveal her as a consummate manipulator of data, most memorably in a scene when she shows that you don’t need a law degree to memorise 1618 plaintiff phone numbers if you build enough connectivity between their various stories.

This pursuit of data flow gradually offsets the parched palette of the film with pockets of deep blue, which corresponds both to the unnatural blue-green soil that the chromium produces, and to Erin’s late night drives between Hinkley and Los Angeles. It’s during these drives that the full gravity of her project really sinks in, both in terms of the corruption within PG&E and the cost to her own personal life. Two of the most resonant of these drives revolve around children; the first after she meets a terminally ill child in Hinkley, the second when George rings to tell her that her own child uttered her first words while she was away. Yet even as these drives make her question the Hinkley project, they also immerse her deeper in the data field that she’s trying to mine. In that sense, they’re a prelude to the all-night infoscapes of Soderbergh’s later films, where deep blues are the dominant palette. These night drives also collapse into the indigo-hued shots of the factory at night, cementing Erin’s mission to prove that PG&E headquartes were apprised of what had been taking place at their Hinkley outpost.

The final step in this process comes in the most brilliant burst of blue light in the film. After her last day of getting records, Erin sits down under an azure neon beer sign for a much-needed drink, only to be approached by a man who has appeared in various guises around the fringes of the action. After initially looking like he might proposition her, he reveals that he attended the main town meeting about the chromium deposits, where he recognised that she was someone he could open up to, even though it was Ed who was chairing this particular meeting. In other words, he recognised her as the motor engine of the class action network, which in turn makes him confident enough to come forward and admit to shredding documents that provide the missing link between Hinkley and BQ&E headquarters. The guardian of the most critical piece of analog information only comes forward because he sees Erin as sufficiently networked, and sufficiently digital, to remediate it into something of value.

No surprise, then, that this collision of analog and digital space ushers in the most drastic glitch in the film, as Erin runs outside to call Ed, only to realise that (for the first and only time in the narrative) she has no cell reception, meaning she has to resort to a frantic pay phone call  to get the message through. It’s only a matter of time now before the company has to settle, and since they were only using the chromium as a cooling device against the stark heat of the desert, it’s as if Erin and Ed have conquered the informational topography of the film itself, above and beyond the specificities of this single class action. Soderbergh’s later releases may suggest this conquest isn’t really possible, but that just makes Erin Brockovich all the more moving and millennial in its optimism about what the digital future might entail for us.  

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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