Home Video Hovel- Traffic
Revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic after a number of years, one thing became almost immediately clear to me. It isn’t as good as I remembered. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this. Filmmaking (as well as film watching) sophistication has advanced in the more than a decade since the movie saw its release. On a more personal level, I was only eighteen years old when it hit theaters and eighteen year olds are, by and large, pretty stupid. Most interestingly, though, Traffic bears the ravages of time chiefly because most of its aesthetic marvels have become commonplace in cinema generally and in Soderbergh’s work particularly.
The regrettable result of no longer being able to marvel at the director’s stylistic choices is that the underlying story elements reveal themselves to be far less nuanced than they may have once seemed. Erika Christensen’s privileged teen gone bad is the stuff of Lifetime original movies aimed at terrifying suburban moms. The characters played by Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman (despite winning performances from both) are boilerplate buddy/cop material. Michael Douglas’ newly appointed drug czar comes up against governmental roadblocks so on-the-nose, he may as well be in some bureaucratic version of The Twilight Zone. And Catherine Zeta-Jones’ trophy wife turned drug lord is simply laughable.
However, like I said, I didn’t notice all this stuff the multiple times I saw Traffic in the theater or the times I watched it at home in the years immediately prior. Soderbergh’s manner of storytelling provides an immediacy that allows the viewer to overlook the less imaginative aspects. Particularly effective is the fractured nature of the presentation. No one element of narrative is allowed to run unbroken long enough for the clichés to sink in. The scope and the busy nature of this approach lend the film the air of serious reportage and have, as a result, been copied in many films since (though often unsuccessfully – see Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana and Paul Haggis’ Crash).
Another flourish that has been extensively copied – by no one more so than Soderbergh himself – is the variety of distinctly different color palettes used to demarcate the multitudinous locales. Even though we’ve seen it twice from the director in the last year (in both Contagion and Haywire), this tactic still feels exciting and fresh. This is only the second film (after 1996’s Schizopolis) wherein Soderbergh served as his own director of photography. He has remained in that role ever since and has become one of his own greatest assets.
These stylistic choices, though heavily influential, are not the only reason Traffic remains an important film despite its many flaws. It was and, to some extent, remains rare in our culture to get a complicated discussion on the subject of drugs in a mainstream arena. This film explores the many ways in which the “war on drugs,” as it’s being fought, is futile. It even manages to question whether we should be fighting it at all.
Traffic is far from a perfect film but its influence and its frankness have earned it a place in the Criterion Collection.
Traffic is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion with multiple audio commentaries, no less than 25 deleted scenes and demonstrations on film processing, dialog editing and an essential one on film editing with Stephen Mirrione. The booklet also contains an essay by Manohla Dargis.