Before he balanced a career between epic biopics of revolutionary political figures and wealthy stylish casino thieves, Steven Soderbergh made a handful of films that hardly anyone has seen. The guy behind the huge scale globalism of TRAFFIC and CONTAGION (both about a kind of virus) also explored the terrain of KAFKA’s soul and made a pseudo-autobiographical satire on industry and art in SCHIZOPOLIS (which includes the wonderful line “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.”) It’s fairly typical for commentators to perceive this as a ‘one for the studio/audience, one for me’ pattern, but that’s only if you think audiences are stupid, directors can’t be interested in two kinds of things at once, and that art ceases to have substance once it becomes popular or entertaining. CHE and MAGIC MIKE are both entertaining and have something to say. And so does the just re-released KING OF THE HILL, a warm but honest coming of age story by AE Hotchner, the man who taught Paul Newman how to make salad dressing (and with whom he wrote the magnificently titled memoir ‘Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good’), is finally getting a DVD/BluRay release, and is an elegant surprise.
A St Louis Depression context, a boy protagonist who really is growing up, colorful characters on the sidelines (including a performance of delicacy and, since his death, great pathos from the great Spalding Gray), fusion of comedy and brokenness – it could be written by Mark Twain and shot by Matisse, so welcoming is the light (perhaps too much – Soderbergh himself says that he feels it should have looked bleaker). Beyond that, KING OF THE HILL is a lovely, truthful treatment of the making and breaking and remaking of faith in life. It’s better than pretty much anything available at the multiplex this week.
KING OF THE HILL is released today by Criterion, with the usual full-to-the-brim features, alongside a brilliant addition – an entire bonus feature film, Soderbergh’s follow up THE UNDERNEATH, which he includes here because he doesn’t like it enough to warrant a full release on its own terms. Such humility – at least in public – makes it easier to like KING OF THE HILL even more.