216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen

PLOT: Fletcher Munson, a corporate functionary, is tapped to write a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder of a pseudo-religious self-help movement called Eventualism. One day, still struggling to come up with a draft, he notices his exact physical double in a parking lot—a dentist who, it turns out, just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Meanwhile, we occasionally peek at the life of nonsense-speaking exterminator and Lothario Elmo Oxygen, whose connection to Munson’s storyline will not become entirely clear until the final act.

Still from Schizopolis (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Steven Soderberg served as writer, director, and lead actor. This was his first appearance on film and to date is his only leading role.
  • Soderberg made Schizopolis for about $250,000, shooting in Louisiana with his old LSU film school buddies, in between shooting the big-budget Hollywood movies The Underneath (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
  • Soderberg did not have a shooting script but wrote new parts each day, and incorporated improvisations from the cast.
  • Actress Betsy Brantley, who plays Steven Sorderberg’s wife in the film, was Soderberg’s real-life ex-wife.
  • Soderberg’s opening narration was added after Schizopolis‘ negative reception at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shot with handheld video cameras in a bland suburbia, often in a vérité style, Schizopolis is very much a work of words and ideas, not images. Therefore, the most representative image is actually a picture of a word: a sign reading “idea missing.” The meta-joke is that Schizopolis is aware it is built out of ideas, and is confident enough to joke about its own dependence on concepts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pantsless titles; nose army; dentist doppelgänger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Schizopolis translates as “divided city” or, informally but more appropriately in this case, “city of schizos.” When the film opens with the director standing on an empty stage, backed by carnival music with periodic changes of focal length as if you were watching the intro through an optometrical device, warning that the upcoming movie may confuse you and you should prepare yourself to see it multiple times,  you should be fairly warned that your mind is about to be toyed with, and toyed hard.


Original trailer for Schizopolis

COMMENTS:  After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on a stage in front of a blank screen and introduced the film. “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours,” he advised. “You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” We are then thrown into the story of Fletcher Munson, a chronic office masturbator suffering from writer’s block, as he attempts to pen a speech for “Eventualism” founder T. Azimuth Switters. Halfway through the movie he meets (and briefly becomes) his exact physical double, an amorous and amoral dentist named Korchek who just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Korchek, however, soon falls in love with Munson’s wife’s doppelgänger, Attractive Woman #2. Then, in the movies final act we see the same scenes replayed from the perspective of Mrs. Munson. Interspersed with all of this are bits involving a pantsless old man running away from a pair of orderlies, news reports suggesting Rhode Island has been sold to a consortium of investors who want to turn it into a shopping mall, and a shot of a sign posted on a tree reading “idea missing.” Oh, and there’s also an exterminator who speaks gibberish and seduces local housewives. What’s there to possibly be confused about?

Confusion is Soderberg’s strategy here. The plot actually fits together, in an absurd magical realist way, but the constant digressions–fantasy sequences, one-off jokes like Munson’s musical trashcan, cutaways to talking heads who seem to be lecturing on our protagonist’s character flaws—obscure this fact. What makes it work as a great weird movie is that tension between continuity and chaos, the seesaw sensation that Schizopolos is just about to make sense and reveal its secret agenda, when it’s actually flying off the rails in a wild new direction. Schizophrenic on an epic scale, the movie is simultaneously a satire of Scientology, a black comedy about a failing marriage, a portrait of an existential crisis, and a sketch comedy revue from an experimental theater troupe. It also features straight-faced recurring news reports that prefigure parody style of the Onion (” a New Mexico woman was named final arbiter of taste and justice today… [she] will have final say on every known subject, including who should be put to death, what clothes everyone should wear, what movies suck and whether bald men who grow ponytails should still get laid.”) The movie’s invention and humor rarely flags, and it is so dense that it improves with subsequent viewings.

If Schizopolis has one overarching preoccupation, it’s with the banality and malleability of language. The main running joke revolves around communication breakdowns between men and women: a husband and wife’s rote pleasantries are rendered in absurd abstractions (“generic greeting,” “generic greeting returned!”) Begoggled exterminator Elmo Oxygen seduces housewives via nonsensical double entendres (“nose army… beef diaper?”) A eulogy is delivered with impossible candor (“let’s forget the blah-blah and go have a drink”), and characters misconstrue simple phrases (“yesterday you said ‘appearances’—I thought you said ‘a fear is this.'”). Later in the film, male characters’ lines are dubbed into untranslated Japanese, Italian and French. Although we can’t understand the literal meanings of all these exchanges, we’re able to deduce what’s going on from context and non-verbal queues: we understand that Fletcher’s marriage is stuck into a mire of routine, and that the exact content of Elmo’s pick-up lines is a meaningless, sleazy formality for both parties. (“Language does not always require speech,” Oxygen says later, abandoning nonsense for obscurity). The movie’s games with language’s surfaces contribute to the teasing sense of some subtextual meaning straining to burst forth. But Schizopolis refuses to grant us the easy and crass release of explanations. If you have to explain a joke, it wasn’t funny to begin with.

The poster claims that the film is inspired by “rumors, bald-faced lies, and half-remembered dreams,” which is probably true enough (especially that last item). It was also clearly inspired by British traditions of wordplay and absurd wit. ‘s anarchic comedies are an obvious source, one Soderberg acknowledges by naming a minor character “Lester Richards.” Its rambling, stream-of-consciousness sketch comedy structure makes it often feel like an American spin on a “‘s Flying Circus” episode. (The Pythons were also more than happy to make up nonsense words, too, and the “generic greeting” segment could have been stolen from one of ‘s notebooks). Unfortunately for us, Soderberg, who turns out to be a surprisingly competent comic actor, treats this material as a postmodern lark, an artistic palate cleansing. It’s a curious frolic by a director who quickly returned to more conventional material. If anyone has picked up the mantle of arch, surreal meta-comedy that Soderberg dropped here, it’s , whose jokes about serial killer tires and audiences in the desert forced to watch movies share a “no reason” meta-sensibility with Schizopolis.

Soderberg was right to put a disclaimer on front of the movie; it prepares us for confusion, rather than thrusting us right into it with no foreplay. He bookends Schizopolis with another “unusual procedure,” an epilogue where the director again stands stiffly onstage in front of a blank screen. This time, he takes questions from an unseen audience; we only hear the answers. “Not specifically, I actually find all of them rather weird,” he says in response to one unheard query. We are left to imagine what, exactly, the ghost interrogator asked; and yet, without knowing the wording of the question, we find ourselves agreeing. They were all rather weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a real head-scratcher that so insistently keeps jumping all over the place that it becomes impossible to pinpoint its intent.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

“‘Schizopolis’ is Steven Soderbergh’s berserk and uneven attempt to mimic Bunuel’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’; he wants to provoke reaction but he’s not quite sure how to go about it.”–Shlomo Schwartzberg, Box Office Magazine (contemporaneous)

“No kidding, this is one weird movie.”–Jack Garner, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

IMDB LINK: Schizopolis (1996)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Schizopolis (1996) – The Criterion Collection – Includes the trailer and Dennis Lim’s essay on the film

Schizopolis: The New Cult Canon – Scott Tobias inducts Schizopolis into his “new cult canon”

Cliff Martinez | ComposerSchizopolis‘ soundtrack was never released separately, but avant-garde composer offers it for download on his personal site

LIST CANDIDATE – SCHIZOPOLIS – This site’s original review of Schizopolis

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw – Soderberg’s 2000 memoir consists of his interviews with his idol, , and his reflections on making the movies Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy

DVD INFO: Schizopolis was a surprise 2003 acquisition for the Criterion Collection (buy), who did an amazing job, as always. The disc includes the trailer and a selection of outtakes edited into a new short film titled “Maximum Baby Muscle” (most amusingly, it includes the story of how young Fletcher Munson met his wife at college). Even better, the release contains two separate audio commentaries. The first is a conversation between four cast and crew members (the producer, two actors and the sound guy), which is informative, but standard. The other commentary is a very cool treat. On it, Sorderbergh interviews himself, pretending to be a pretentious auteur with a God complex while simultaneously taking the role of an increasingly exasperated interviewer. In the course of the conversation the fake Sorderbergh divulges his second career writing novels under the pseudonym “Stephen King,” explains how he thinks it will be more interesting for people to hear him talking about his artistic process rather than focusing solely on his influence on other filmmakers, and reveals how he strives to create a comfortable atmosphere on set where people will not be too intimidated to compliment him. He also takes calls on his cell phone while recording the commentary. At one point, he says, “I’m all for free speech and all that s**t, but I don’t think there should be critics. I just don’t think it’s right for people to be able to publish their responses to art, especially great art.” Sorderbergh’s self-parody here is  brave and brilliant, and I can honestly say this is the first comedy I’ve seen where I laughed harder at the DVD commentary than at the movie itself.

Also, be sure to pull the poster out of the plastic liner and read the notes inside. Repeat as necessary.

(This movie was nominated for review by John, who described it as “strangely… funny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)”

  1. When I read your first review of this movie three years ago, I was a bit disappointed, because I felt that somehow it didn’t have as much an impact on you as it could have. I’m really glad to see that since it has got closer to you (or at least that’s what I suppose, hence the ‘RECOMMENDED’ tag and this more enthusiastic review). I am a really big fan of this movie, although I can totally understand one’s difficulties in understanding it; you (and Soderbergh) are absolutely right that it has to be seen many times to fully understand and appreciate. On the surface, it can easily be seen as a unique, witty, but mostly jumbled and self-indulgent cinematic exercise, but in my opinion it is much more than that. I see it as a brilliant and very keen social commentary of the post-modern world, with a really complex deeper structure and hilarious humor. The intelligence of the screenplay is on equal level with the likes of Tom Stoppard and Charlie Kaufman. For me, it is definitely one of Soderbergh’s best; too bad he never made anything like this again.

    1. I was surprised by how much better I liked it the second time around. I do think it is arguably Soderberg’s best, although few people out there in the “normal” world will agree with us. I love when talented mainstream directors throw in one or two really weird ones among the rest of their output (Louis Malle has a similar resume).

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