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Traffic is a good film, a very good film, probably one of the best films of the year--but not quite that good. Steven Soderbergh has bitten off a very large morsel with his latest film, which deals with drug dealing in both the United States and Mexico and uses a series of parallel stories involving--among others--a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro), a corrupt Mexican general (Tomas Milian), the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of a wealthy American imprisoned for dealing (Steve Bauer), his sleazy, traitorous associate (Dennis Quaid), a pair of DEA agents (Luis Guzmán and Don Cheadle) guarding an informant (Miguel Ferrer), and last but not least, a prominent judge (Michael Douglas) who has just been appointed drug czar for the country and whose own  teenage daughter--unbeknownst to him--is an addict (Erika Christensen). In an article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar by Sean Mitchell entitled "Protesting Another Misguided War" (1/7/01), Soderbergh is quoted as characterizing the film as a cross between Nashville and The French Connection, but  it often reminded me more of a wigged-out Grand Hotel.

With an act of this kind, it is no small achievement to keep it from crashing to a halt--a fate that almost befell last year's Magnolia, which also juggled a series of interrelated tales. Yet in spite of Traffic's length--147 minutes--Soderbergh does an adroit job of maneuvering back and forth from one section of his criminal panorama to the other, and maintains a crisp pace without forcing it right up to the conclusion. However, he has been aided in no small degree by his cast, who turn in uniformly competent performances, although even in this ensemble Del Toro and Guzmán are especially impressive in their roles.   

Traffic is as ambitious visually  as it is narratively. The director photographed the film himself--the  "Peter Andrews" who receives credit as cinematographer is a pseudonym--using a hand-held camera, and Soderbergh goes even farther in employing a highly mobile, elliptical visual style which does not stop to spell out details any more than he did in Erin Brockovich. But the film's most remarkable innovation is its use of different color tonalities corresponding to different locales: grainy yellow and brownish hues for Mexico, cold blues for Cincinnati and Washington D.C., a bleached  whitish look for the sequences in metropolitan San Diego, but reserving a richer palette for the fancy La Jolla domicile in which the American drug lord and his wife reside. If this device serves partly to identify the different settings, more importantly each of the varying color schemes produces a distinctive emotional atmosphere with its own specific symbolic values. 

No one, I hope, would be so naive as to imagine that the Northeast is colored steely blue owing to its harsh climate and Mexico in shades of yellow simply because the latter country is farther south. If the cold blues with which Soderbergh paints the American cities suggest the impersonal bureaucratic machinery of the centers of power to the north, the seemingly brighter colors of Mexico less evoke a contrasting warmth than an infernal destructive heat like that of a blast oven--a heat in which only scorpions like the Mexican boss who uses the insect as his sign can manage to thrive. Although Soderbergh had already ventured into the use of color to establish a  tone that is not only local but symbolically charged in Erin Brockovich, in Traffic he does more with color than hardly any director has done since Michelangelo Antonioni made The Red Desert in 1964.

Nevertheless, not all of the stories work equally well. The Mexican episodes are a real tour de force and I am astonished that an Anglo could handle this material so successfully. (It is to Soderbergh's credit that he does not insult the intelligence of his audience by following an old movie tradition and offering them characters who speak in peon-accented English but uses Spanish dialogue subtitled into English.) But the sequences which take place on this side of the border are a more mixed bag of tricks. The scenes involving the DEA agents as well as those with the wife of the wealthy dealer awaiting trial are very effective, but I found the story of the judge-drug czar and his daughter far less so. 

It is far from implausible that an incident like this could happen in "real life," but somehow the whole affair smacks too much of poetic justice laid on heavily, a contrived lesson in humility for the overly proud judge, who apparently resigns his government position as a result. The film doesn't really provide an effective motive for the daughter's addiction except adolescent Weltschmerz and the idea that it's cool to do drugs in her crowd. At one point, the script suggests that the relationship between the judge and his wife is less than harmonious but does not bother to pursue those intimations of discord, and the end finds both of them solidly standing by their daughter in a support group. But what about parents--especially ones from a far less affluent background--who throw offspring suffering from addiction out into the street or abandon them to the mercies of the justice system?

Still, I would have to admit these are relatively trivial shortcomings in an otherwise impressive movie. A very different kind of question is presented by Soderbergh's approach to his material. It is not difficult to detect the stylistic evidence of Jean-Luc Godard's influence on Soderbergh's previous work--particularly The Limey--as well as on Traffic, but  Godard in his films made in the 1960s was using an unconventional technique of storytelling applied to unconventional stories where Soderbergh in his most recent movie employs unconventional means--those of narrative fragmentation and uncommon narrative economy--to tell a very traditional kind of story. The use of parallel plot lines--which violating the laws of Euclidean geometry may well intersect--goes back to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and often cropped up in older studio movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  In addition, the multiple narrative lines typically converge towards a strong dénouement--a locus classicus here would be the conclusion of Francis Coppola's Godfather I

But such a convergence no more occurs in Traffic than it does in the older Godard pictures. That is by no means to say that Traffic lacks a resolution. In fact, it would be legitimate to reply that the film cannot have a traditional resolution as long as the drug problem itself remains unresolved. Nonetheless, the pieces of the puzzle do not come together in the way a viewer might anticipate,  remaining in a state of suspension as it were--the Mexican cop gets his ballpark, but the future of the other surviving characters remains uncertain. A point to consider here might be whether Soderbergh's kind of loose structuring works with a story like Traffic's, or, for that matter, with any broad canvas of events and characters. 

Godard's most well-known films like Breathless or A Married Woman or Pierrot le Fou or even La Chinoise are existential dramas that focus upon a few characters at the most--as did The Limey and Erin Brockovich. In contrast to the main figures in Traffic, those in a typical Godard production are contemporary belles âmes who suffer from living in a  world out of joint they cannot not flee from no matter how they try, their dissatisfaction constantly worsened by the nostalgic memory of a  vanished integral world of traditional European culture--whose absence Godard repeatedly points up by musical and artistic allusions. (Gilles Deleuze brilliantly explored this whole issue in Cinema II, in which he discussed a new type of character who begins to appear in European art films made after World War II .) If there is no resolution at the end of the films mentioned above just as there is none at the end of Contempt or Masculine Feminine, the answer is that the characters are constrained to live in a world which intrinsically precludes resolutions, especially reassuring ones.

Soderbergh's characters in Traffic, on the other hand, live in a world that is less out of joint existentially  than socially damaged--damaged by the drug epidemic and implicitly by the difference in wealth which draws drugs from poor countries like Mexico to paying consumers with hard cash in the United States, wreaking political havoc in the process. And problems of this kind may well have solutions, even if they are not obvious or simple ones. Soderbergh evidently thinks so and even makes the point quite overtly at one point when the preppy stooge who has led astray the daughter of the judge delivers--somewhat improbably--a stinging tirade to the latter about what would happen if drug peddling moved out of the urban ghetto and became common in well-to-do white neighborhoods. 

Nonetheless, at the same time he wants to demonstrate his concern about the drug question, Soderbergh by temperament resists turning his subject into a message picture and  hesitates between treating drug use as metaphor and as social problem. Unfortunately, when he decides to choose the latter option--for example, in the support group scenes or when the film stops to spend time at a Federal drug-fighting installation in El Paso--Traffic begins to resemble a high-minded Twentieth Century-Fox social drama from the late 1940s like The Snake Pit or Boomerang. In the context of the film as a whole, these excursions into official seriousness stray from the main action, and only exacerbate the narrative problems discussed above without contributing anything in return.

But Traffic is less important for what it has to say about the state of American society than for what it says about the state of Steven Soderbergh's career. There are good directors as well as bad ones working in the movie industry these days, but a good director is not necessarily an auteur, in spite of the inflation the term has been subjected to. James Cameron, to take a salient example, is a highly talented director of action movies when he keeps his mind on the task at hand and doesn't drift off into pseudo-romantic woolgathering, but I would think twice before calling Cameron an auteur. Yet no one, I hope, after Traffic would doubt Soderbergh's claim to the appellation. If it were only by  working as his own director of photography, he has boldly inscribed his signature on this films as few directors ever have been able to do in the history of the American cinema. 

Of more immediate importance--and perhaps more  surprisingly--Soderbergh has done with Traffic what many directors have dreamed of but few have succeeded in doing: he has made a highly personal, highly intelligent and demanding motion picture which is also a big box office hit. He has the ball--now it will be interesting to see where he goes with it.


E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net