High Flying Bird ★★★½

[7]

Although Soderbergh's latest opened in a few theaters (NY and LA, I think), this is a Netflix production. So in one respect, it's a film without film, a piece of cinema that exists in a still-evolving netherworld that is being negotiated and legislated, by audiences and critics and even the Academy. Making sure that form follows function, Soderbergh has not only made the film on an iPhone, insuring that the images are produced by a device as small as the one on which many people will actually receive the film. He has also made a film about basketball without basketball -- set during a labor lockout, premised on the idea of bypassing the official channels and bringing street-ball directly to the public.

It's hard not to see this as a metaphor for Netflix's own press about itself, a self-serving narrative about championing access and fighting the entrenched studio system. As we see in High Flying Bird, this direct-access model is not only the furthest thing from populist. It is also largely a scam, perpetrated to make sure that everyone involved -- the players, the owners, and above all the managers -- get as much money out of the deal as possible. Yes, there is negotiation, yes, everyone has to give a little something. But at the end of the day, the status quo is firmly reestablished.

Soderbergh has long been a director who can make the most out of the neoliberal playing field on which he finds himself. He subverts assignment after assignment, like a 1940s backlot genius. High Flying Bird is almost Cézannean in its treatment of space. The iPhone, combined with the high-end lenses "Peter Andrews" has attached to it, produces an elongated, elastic space that is radically flat even as we are able to "read" a 3D cityscape onto it. It is late-capitalist realism, everything forged with a high glossy sheen that evokes the flimsy decadence of millionaire dreams. These are hotelier images, spaces we can temporarily reside in but cannot make into a permanent home.

Likewise, André Holland's performance as uber-agent Ray is beautifully out-of-step with the rest of the cast. He always feels just half a beat too slow, as though he is putting some distance between himself and the character. Or perhaps, Ray is equal parts player and spectator, fully capable of navigating a world that, in some way, he knows he can never really belong to. Or at least, not yet. The presence of sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards is, as they say, more than suggestive.