Soderbergh: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a manifesto for what might be clunkily called post-postmodernism – a conspicuous departure from the late postmodern aesthetic that characterised so much of 90s American cinema. More specifically, it was Hollywood’s first decisive step away from the 90s version of Las Vegas as an emblem of postmodern ennui and despair. In a string of films that included Leaving Las Vegas, Casino, Indecent Proposal, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Showgirls and Very Bad Things, directors and screenwriters either presented Vegas as a frank dystopia, or as a space that had largely defied traditional cinema. Indeed, films from this era often seemed to be mounting the entire arsenal of analog language against the Strip, and still coming up short, resulting in cold, cavernous and expansive mise-en-scenes – a kind of executive aesthetic – that nevertheless failed to adequately ramify. In Ocean’s Eleven, however, cinema had finally entered its digital apex, and caught up with the language of Las Vegas, permitting Soderbergh to mediate and appreciate it on its own terms.

As a result, Ocean’s Eleven is considerably more than a mere sequel to the 1960 film of the same name – it’s a way of coming full circle with the incipient postmodern swagger that this first incarnation of the Hollywood Rat Pack embodied. Together, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. exemplified a new kind of strut in a world composed of neon signs and free-floating signifiers, rather than the bricks-and-mortar challenges of an earlier kind of heist movie. They were celebrities for an early postmodern jouissance decades away from the decaying Vegas of the 90s, and Soderbergh taps into their energy in the name of a new hypersaturaed Brat Pack. Clad in glorious fluorescence and eye-popping dayglo, George Clooney takes on the role of Danny Ocean, an ex-con who assembles a crew that includes Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison and Qin Shaobo, to targets casino owner Terry Benedict, played by Andy Garcia, who is currently living with Tess, Danny’s ex-girlfriend, played by Julia Roberts.  

Most of Soderbergh’s films from this period have a lurid palette, but tend to restrict themselves to a few hypersaturated hues. By contrast, Ocean’s Eleven is the most colourful film of his career, and is clearly determined to upstage the Techicolor palette of the original. Colour abounds from scene to scene, whether it’s an ingredient in the heist that involves blocking surveillance cameras with brilliant fluorescent balloons, or the pairing of Pitt with an artificially dyed food item in every scene. Against that backdrop, Danny proposes a heist on postmodern space – hitting three of the most iconic casinos on the Strip, all on the 3000 block of Las Vegas Boulevard: the Bellagio, the Mirage, the MGM Grand. Terry owns all three casinos, and takes in his biggest haul of the year on Fight Night, which is when Danny plans to break into the underground vault that collects the combined haul of all three organisations.

So far, this is not a particularly unusual premise for late 90s and early 00s cinema, which often featured characters trying to breach or map postmodern space. The difference, in Ocean’s Eleven, is that there is no corresponding desire to escape or annul postmodern space. If anything, Danny and his team are conducting the heist in order to align themselves even more intimately with the rhythms of Vegas, and the flows of capital that it generates, which for Danny means leaning back into the beats and tics of his relationship with Tess as well. The film brims with affection for classical postmodern Vegas, from the Elvis soundtrack that plays over our first sweeping aerial shot across the Westgate, to the way in which Danny pitches the heist to his most significant financial backer – Reuben Tishkoff, Gould’s character, an elderly casino owner-operator whose prized possession has just been acquired by Terry, who’s planning to blow it up and rebuild it in a month’s time. Between the prospect of this new casino, and the blandly austere architectural firm where the team get the floor plans for the extravagant trio of buildings they’ve targeted, the film seems prescient that even the gariest of postmodern structures will soon seem charismatic and comforting in the face of a new world of downwardly mobile streamlined building projects, a world that Terry embodies.

For all the intricacy of the heist, then, Ocean’s Eleven is not really plot-driven. Rather, it extends the tipsy flow of Vegas to its cast, and the audience, by riding early 00s celebrity allure at its cruisiest. This was a unique time for cinematic celebrity, still indebted to the monoculture of the 90s, but galvanised by a new digital immediacy that hadn’t robbed movie stars of their otherworldliness yet either. The result was perhaps the most breathless period of big-screen charisma since the 1970s – and Ocean’s Eleven perhaps embrace that phenomenon more than any film at the time, as Soderbergh jettisons characters for extended riffs on each actor’s distinct screen persona. The participants in the heist only know each other as ripples in the group, producing an incredible collective momentum that often sees them stop to revel in the sheer spectacle of it all: “That is the sexiest thing I have ever seen.”

No surprise, then, that the heist itself plays out as a sublime act of synchronicity and simultaneity of the kind that Soderbergh does so well. Since casinos occupy a peculiarly postmodern nexus between real and virtual space, a simple physical heist is not enough. In a comic flashback sequence, we learn that the only three heist attempts on these casinos took place at a purely physical level. In all three, the criminal simply tried to run out of the casino – the first didn’t make it beyond the slot machines, the second made it to the door, and the third made it to the driveway. By contrast, Danny’s team shift the entire information hub of the casino from the gambling floor to their base of operations in a hotel room twenty stories up. There, they establish the ultimate eyre, in an effort to outscope Terry, who styles himself as a panoptic manager, a human camera. The battle for surveillance plays out in continuous rapid pans from object to object, and from monitor to monitor, as Danny realises the only way to make the heist work is to luxuriate in the collapse of image and reality, lean into the intoxicating flow of simulacra. In one of the most beautiful scenes, Terry explodes an older casino, but this decline of classical postmodern Vegas is quickly displaced by the film’s own postmodern image economy, as Danny turns away from the spectacle right as it occurs. We then cut to Basher Tarr, Cheadle’s character, watching it unfold on a widescreen television, apparently unaware that the “real” explosion is right behind him, outside his hotel window.

Even as classical Vegas collapses, then, Soderbergh reiterates its tipsy simulations in his own filmic style. Between this collapse of physical structures and resurgence of virtual space, an incredible flow emerges – a data flow, dancing along David Holmes’ bubbling score, which splits the difference between 60s jazz and 90s acid jazz. The heist doesn’t unfold as a discrete act so much as a continuous displacement of physical and digital thresholds, as when the team hack into the casino surveillance system to plant an image of an empty elevator, producing a comic ripple in physical space when Danny bursts out of the roof of the elevator in real time. The panoptic and paranoid surveillance of the postmodern 90s becomes a more ambient and malleable digital sphere, epitomised by the collective spectacle of the Fight Night, which most of Danny’s team watch remotely at some point on one of the many screens dotting the casino on the night of the heist. Cushioned and enabled by these screens, they become participant-spectators, purveyors of what Axel Bruns would come to call produsage, before taunting Danny with a choice between real and virtual capital – either he can lose 80 million dollars privately, or lose 160 million dollars, and his managerial reputation, publically.

By the time the team make this ultimatum, their encounter with Vegas has taken on cosmic proportions, and resituated the Strip not just in physical space, but in outer space. In Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour drew an implicit connection between the rise of postmodern space and the space race. Speaking of the strip, they noted that “the graphic sign in space has become the architecture of this landscape,” “a current phase in the evolution of vast space since Versailles” that means “you are no longer in the bounded piazza but the twinkling lights of the city at night.” Ocean’s Eleven also leans into this Cold War dimension of classical postmodernism, but with a more reparative bent, as the team realises that they can only thwart the mainframe of Terry’s casinos, whose security system “rivals most missile sites,” with a device called a “Pincher.” The Pincher is basically a modified atomic bomb, and has to be stolen from the California Insitute of Advanced Science (a mini-heist in itself), but any nuclear dread is offset by its cheery dayglow lime coating, which immediately aligns it with the rehabilitative colour palette of the film. Sure, it might turn off all the lights in Vegas for a couple of seconds, in a moment of fleeting apocalyptic dread, but the neon hues look even more beautiful through Soderbergh’s lens when they come on again.

This aesthetic neutralisation of atomic crisis feels like a defining filmic moment in 2001, at the end of the 1989-2001 détente between the anxieties of the Cold War and those of the post-911 era. Yet Soderbergh’s rehabilitative play of reality and representation also generates a new sincerity, a fresh authenticity, that would percolate across the rest of the decade. Here, that capacity to wrest earnestness from simulacra revolves around Tess the “real” at the heart of this Vegas mirage. In the end, the heist is a way of connecting with Tess, both remotely and intimately, culminating with Danny making contact through a surveillance camera, but hooked in to a bespoke personal channel on her hotel room television. It’s a spiritual sequel to the reunion that takes place between Roberts and Hugh Grant at the end of Notting Hill, and a slightly later iteration of the 90s celebrity allure that this closing scene encapsulated. There, intimacy could only take place performatively, in public; here, intimacy has become both more private and more public, thanks to the rise of a more malleable digital economy. The biggest wound to Terry’s pride isn’t the loss of his money, but the realisation that his older mode of static surveillance has been replaced by this new sousveillance, as Tess recognises: “You of all people should know – in your hotel there’s always someone watching.”

Tess and Danny might reunite in the epilogue, paving the way for future sequels, but the final note of Ocean’s Eleven is a lyrical time-lapse sequence that takes place in front of the Fountains of Bellagio. The manic pans slow down now, moving slowly back and forth across the heist members as they bask in the beauty of the fountains, and of Vegas. One by one, they drift away, as Holmes’ score leans into the string-drenched style of the 60s, until only the fountains remain, which themselves gather into one final burst of water, a propulsion into a newly sincere 00s. And so they close one of Soderbergh’s most beautiful films, while opening up what might be described as the second half of his career, a period that would last until his semi-retirement in the 10s brought on the Renaissance of his third and latest period.

About Billy Stevenson (936 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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