Tag Archives: Nonsense

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”



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)


  • 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 Continue reading 216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)


QUESTIONER: What are the most common comparisons to other films that you hear?

CORY MCABEE: There’ve been a few. Because it’s in black and white people sometimes say Eraserhead, but other than the fact that it’s in black and white I don’t really see much… [laughter]. I get a lot of “cross-betweens,” like “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.” [laughter]. That’s a very large area to cross between…

–Cory McAbee at an American Astronaut Q&A session


FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT: Astronaut Samuel Curtis arrives on the asteroid Ceres, where he meets his old friend the Blueberry Pirate, enters a dance contest, and trades a cat for a Real Live Girl (who consists of cloned cells in a box). His commission requires him to go to Jupiter where he will swap the Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whom he will then take to the all-female planet Venus to exchange for the remains of an expired stud. Along his journey he is pursued by maniacal “birthday boy” (and film narrator) Professor Hess, a man who can only kill if he has no reason to do so.

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)


  • Writer/director Cory McAbee is the songwriter and lead singer of the band The Billy Nayer Show; the then-current lineup of the band (minus McAbee) appears in the movie in the Ceres dance contest sequence.
  • McAbee was working on a script entitled Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest when he got the idea for American Astronaut and decided it was the more interesting project. He completed the script for Werewolf Hunters in 2002, but negotiations with financiers fell through. Pre-production resumed in 2011, but the actor cast as the lead died, and the project is again on hold.
  • The American Astronaut got its limited theatrical release September 21, 2001, only a little more than a week after the 9/11 tragedy.
  • After our first viewing we declined to place The American Astronaut on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately (read our shortsighted initial review), but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast dressed as the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco helmet and thick black eyeliner, raising the roughnecks of Jupiter’s morale by performing a song and dance number in a spotlight on a stage in a cavernous warehouse.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The fact that it’s an absurdist musical comedy space western, for one thing. The American Astronaut is an incredibly personal affair—Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred, composed the songs, helped paint the backdrops, and probably sold the popcorn on opening night. McAbee brings a particular and peculiar set of personal preoccupations to the project: space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, , the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism, among others. It’s a galaxy of influences with competing gravities, and whether they appear as a meaningful constellation or just a meaningless mass of lights may depend on where the viewer is standing. The movie probably makes the most sense when seen from Mars.

Original trailer for The American Astronaut

COMMENTS: Since it’s such a spaced-out movie, it’s appropriate that The American Continue reading 123. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)


Schizopolis has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Comments on this post are closed. Please visit Schizopolis official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Mike Malone

PLOT: A series of absurdist sketches and nonsense dialogues linked together by a thin plot

Still from Shcizopolis (1996)

about an office worker struggling with an assignment to write a major speech for a cultlike motivational speaker obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hilarious witticism characterizing film’s oddness. Cautious disclaimer suggesting uneven satire undermines enjoyability, but granting nobility of purpose and peculiar appeal. Self-aggrandizing non sequitur.

COMMENTS: After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on a stage 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. A third of the way through the movie he meets (and sort of becomes) his exact double, an amorous dentist named Korchek who happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife, but Korchek (or is it Munson inhabiting Korchek’s body?) 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? Sorerbergh, who started his career with Sex, Lies and Videotape, the movie that launched the indie filmmaking revolution, made Schziopolis as a palette-cleanser after his big budget flop Underneath left a bad taste in his mouth (a fan cleverly described this as Soderbergh’s “second first film“). Working with his friends on a budget of only $250,000, it’s a loose, breezy, seemingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)


“What is this, a freak out?”–Violet Beauregarde

Must See


FEATURING: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole

PLOT:  Charlie is a poor boy supporting his mother and four bedridden grandparents with the earnings from his paper route.  When eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka announces he will be awarding a lifetime supply of chocolate and a tour of his mysterious candy factory to the finders of five golden tickets, Charlie wants to win more than anything.  When he, along with four bratty companions, finally meets the exceedingly odd Mr. Wonka,  Charlie finds the factory, and its owner, far stranger and more magical than anything he could have imagined.

Still from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)


  • A note for those who believe product placement and corporate tie-ins are a recent phenomenon in movies: although this film was based on Roald Dahl’s bestelling children’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it was retitled to incorporate the Wonka name in order to promote the release of real-life Wonka candy bars (which were still made up until 2010) by Quaker Oats, who financed the production.
  • Dahl himself wrote the original script, but it was extensively rewritten by an uncredited David (The Hellstrom Chronicles) Seltzer, reportedly to Dahl’s displeasure.  (It’s worth noting that Dahl, like most authors, pretty much hated every adaptation of his work).
  • This was the only movie Peter Ostrum (Charlie) ever acted in.
  • The movie just broke even at the box office, but became a cult sensation thanks to television screenings and home video.  In 2003, Entertainment Weekly ranked Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the 25th biggest cult movie of all time.
  • The score was nominated for a “Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score” Oscar but lost to Fiddler on the Roof.
  • Despite the fact that he was rejected for the role of the candy shop owner in the film, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 rendition of the film’s first musical number, “The Candy Man,” became a #1 hit and a staple of his live shows.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton‘s 2005 adaptation of the same material with as Wonka, is somewhat closer to Dahl’s original novel.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wonka’s face, bathed in flashing red and green lights, as he shrieks incoherently at the end of his terrifying trip down a psychedelic tunnel of horrors.  It’s the capping image of a horrifying scene that’s been scarring unsuspecting children for 40 years now.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Is it Gene Wilder’s ultra-eccentric performance as the charming but vaguely demonic candyman in a purple velvet jacket and burgundy top hat who suavely arranges for wicked children to hang themselves with the licorice ropes of their own vice? Or the chorus of orange-faced, green haired, dwarf laborers who sing moralizing “Oompah Loompah” tunes after each victim ironically offs him or herself? No, we all know it’s the bad trip boat ride, where Wonka recites Edgar Allan Poe inspired verse (“By the fires of Hell a’ glowing/Is the grisly reaper mowing?”) as the craft careens down a tunnel of horrors while colored strobe lights flash and avant-garde footage plays on the walls that tips this celebration of imagination into the weird column.

Original trailer for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

COMMENTS: When I was a kid, they used to play Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on Continue reading 104. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)


NOTE: By popular demand, The American Astronaut has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.


FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT:  A space pilot trades a cat for a “real live girl” whom he can exchange for the “Boy Who

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” whom he intends to swap in turn for the remains of a dead Venusian stud in order to collect a reward.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Genrewise, The American Astronaut could be described as many things—space western, garage band musical, nonsense comedy—but the one thing it indisputably is is a cult movie.  That is to say, it’s a specialized and peculiar little flick that has a devoted group of followers, and a larger contingent of outsiders who are nonplussed by its popularity.  I have to admit that in this case I lean slightly towards the second group.  American Astronaut is very weird (it has a character named “the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” for goodness sake), but some of it is tedious, like ninety minutes spent watching a clan of hipsters swapping in-jokes you aren’t let in on.  I can sense the magic other people get from the pic without being able to directly experience it myself.  This is a movie on the cusp of being certified as one of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, but it will require some reader acclaim to sway my opinion towards adding it to the List.  So get to promoting the movie in the comments, Astronaut fans.

COMMENTS:  How many movies can boast a line like “Gentlemen, the Boy Who Saw a Woman’s Breast has left our planet” or a musical number like “The Girl with a Vagina Made of Glass”?  How about a villain who is incapable of killing unless he has no possible grudge against his victim and a “real live girl” who (in this early stage of her development) is just a suitcase that plays a rock tune when you lift a slat on the casing?  The American Astronaut creates a unique, absurd, but consistent universe through a dry, deadpan DIY approach.  It’s set in a boy’s cosmos, where women are strange creatures who live on one planet while the men live on another.  The movie’s nonsense proclivities are a narrative film incarnation of the free-associative lyrics of writer/director Cory McAbee’s mildly punkish band, the Billy Nayer Show.  One song Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)



DIRECTOR: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske


FEATURING: Voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson

PLOT: A young girl named Alice follows a talking white hare down his rabbit hole and into a world of talking animals, smoking insects, walking playing cards, and other nonsense creatures.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material.  Disney animator Eric Goldberg explains Alice‘s appeal: “I think the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is popular because it’s completely absurd… The book, in its kind of weirdness, persists because people like weird.”  The question becomes, does Disneyfication destroy the story’s weirdness?

COMMENTS: Though it doesn’t reach the level of the classic-era Disney animated masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940), Alice in Wonderland is certainly in the next tier—notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t fare well on its initial release.  The animation, obviously, is glowing and superlative, and the anything-can-happen-here surrealism of the story gave the Disney artists the license to let their imaginations run wild without being fettered even by cartoon realism.  As might be expected, the result is worlds away from the staid, quaintly absurd black and white line drawings of Sir John Tenniel (the standard vision of Alice and Wonderland up until that time).  The rabbit hole, with its grandfather clocks and rocking chairs floating at different rates, doesn’t follow the rules of gravity; the flexibility of the playing card royal guards allows the animators to arrange them into pickets or to spontaneously form roller coasters to take Alice for a ride.  Scarcity of spectacle is not an issue in Wonderland.  As an adaptation, this Alice is surprisingly smooth.  Episodes from the book have been shuffled around and mixed with characters and events from “Through the Looking Glass,” an example that future Alices would follow (since no one wants to leave out Tweedledee and Tweedledum).  Even digressions like the “The Walrus and the Carpenter” interlude, which plays like a self-standing Looney Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)


DIRECTED BY: Simon Fellows

FEATURING: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer

PLOT:  American Alice gets amnesia after being hit by a taxicab while fleeing unknown

Still from Malice in Wonderland (2009)

pursuers; she tries to figure out her identity while traveling through a hallucinatory Wonderland of London gangsters.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a diverting weird movie and a must for Alice-adaptation completists, but it’s neither weird nor good enough to be on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Malice in Wonderland may not be the ultimate trip to Wonderland, but you have to give scripter Jayson Rothwell major props for one thing: unlike other “Alice in Wonderland” updates (*cough*, Burton, *cough*), he doesn’t shy away from wordplay and nonsense.  A riddle (delivered by a talking billboard) serves as a major plot point, although the answer is a bit bungled at the end.  Puns are scattered throughout the movie (check out the way Alice steals the tarts), and some characters speak only in rhyming couplets.  Whitey addresses Alice as “Britney,” and when the amnesiac objects that that’s not her name, he shoots back with the Humpty Dumpty-esque rejoinder, “You don’t know who you are, so you don’t know who you aren’t.”  There’s a cleverness to this script and a love of nonsense that goes beyond just re-imagining the beloved characters in a novel setting.  That part’s admirable, but the script also falls into one of the more annoying rabbit holes that plague Alice adaptations; giving Alice a romantic interest (or a platonic boyfriend to serve the same purpose, like Johnny Depp‘s Mad Hatter in the latest Disney version).  Ideally, Alice should wander through Wonderland meeting bizarre entities who help and hinder her in equal parts, with no way of predicting which will come next.  The romantic anchor, always ready to lend Alice his aid and rescue her when things get tough, is an unnecessary safety net and an unwelcome intrusion of Hollywood reality.  In Malice‘s case, the misstep is aggravated by the fact that there’s no real chemistry between leads Maggie Grace and Danny Dyer, and no motivation for them to get together; in fact, their dalliance only distracts from Alice’s quest to rediscover her identity.  Grace’s performance (or her direction) can also be faulted for not being beleaguered and bewildered enough; she’s suddenly thrown into a world of grimy, loony London lowlifes, and accepts the insanity too easily, never seeming the slightest bit endangered or even very concerned.  True, that world seems only a tad bit more off and dangerous than a typical Guy Ritchie movie—the gangsters’ extreme quirkiness defangs them—but a little more fear and urgency would have helped involve the viewer in her plight.  One last criticism: when the movie reverts to reality to wrap up the psychological loose ends, the transition from the psychedelic London underground of hoodlums to the physical London Underground of mass transit is awkward and arbitrary.  Malice may not go very deep, but it’s entertaining, clever, colorful, and zips along at a nice clip.  And what lover of light absurdity won’t respond to a smoky midnight ride with a rapping Rastafarian and a hooker, a mobile brothel in the bed of a sixteen wheeler, continuous trippy flashbacks, and a competition among thugs and con-men to deliver an impressive gift to the gangland kingpin who has everything?

Malice in Wonderland received shockingly low marks from the critics (only a 10% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes?)  A quick analysis of that data reveals the negative reviews coming from the United Kingdom, and they seem to be largely related to some sort of national Danny Dyer fatigue.  Dyer wasn’t spectacular (which may be as much the fault of his part being underwritten as his talent), but I had no objection to the bloke other than his sometimes incomprehensible Cockney accent.  Looking at his résumé, it appears he may be a bit overexposed at the moment, and if he’s repeating basically the same shtick in every BBC role as he does in this movie, I can see how he might grow tiresome.


“Despite its faults, for fleeting moments the movie is both visually striking and enjoyably bizarre, although all too often positioning the camera at a jaunty angle is mistaken for a surreal perspective leading you to spend much of Malice In Wonderland’s 90 minute duration wondering whether a broken tripod is responsible for your skewed view of proceedings.”–Daniel Bettridge, Film 4 (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “alexis.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)