Tag Archives: Steven Soderbergh

CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, , Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Brian Glover

PLOT: Franz Kafka is a mid-level functionary at an accident insurance firm whose minor involvement with a group of revolutionaries leads to an unsettling discovery.

Still from Kafka (1991)

COMMENTS: Franz Kafka doesn’t deal in protagonists, technically. The term “Kafkaesque” suggests a main character who moves the action forward. Kafka’s oeuvre is populated almost solely by entities—from men to cockroaches—who shuffle through their environments without adequate comprehension, and without any ability to alter their fate. Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” wiggles back and forth literally on his bed at the start of the tale, then squirms metaphorically as he tries to maneuver through his new circumstances; Josef K. in The Trial (the better translation is “The Process) proceeds from start to finish never learning anything substantial about the nature of his charges. Franz Kafka in Kafka starts out as a mid-level insurance functionary and finishes one pay-grade above where he began. The intervening narrative never quite rises above an elaborate shaggy dog story.1

In this way, Sorederbergh’s Kafka is like its literary inspiration. Beautiful Prague, in beautiful black and white, is a maze of courtyards and corridors. Kafka himself (deftly played by Jeremy Irons) is merely a face in the crowd, albeit striking in his bland way. Kafka’s work chum, Edward, goes missing, is found dead—suicide, suggests an incongruously-accented police detective, one of the film’s only smiling characters—and Kafka makes the acquaintance of some revolutionaries. Ominous rumors abound concerning “the Castle,” seemingly the seat of government, at the very least the seat of bureaucracy. The ostensible doings of the mysterious administrators situated there vex this gaggle of bomb-crafting anarchists.

Kafka succeeds in capturing omnipresent but ill-defined menace, while simultaneously eliciting a shrug both on the part of the audience and the main character. Soderbergh does his best, though, and the whole semi-nightmare feels stylish and important as it briskly shuffles along as if carrying a very important missive for middle-management.

The film’s climax is strange, but it is more thought-provoking than anything else. Kafka travels to “the Castle” by way of a passageway in a false-bottomed tomb, and the film switches from black and white to color. This suggests at least three intriguing interpretative possibilities. Is Kafka (the character) seeing the world as it truly is for the first time? Or is the whole (comparatively) dazzling sequence merely a fantastic dream on the part of the hero?

My preferred view is the most abstract. At the end of the graveyard entrance is a file storage room. The hero emerges from one of its drawers. Is he—and by extension, the viewer—merely an archived history of a failed experiment?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly borrowing from the bravado visual style of Orson Welles’ breath-taking version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), Kafka is a less intense, more entertaining affair than the former film. Kafka‘s surreal yet strangely familiar fictional worlds have been given a dash of Frankenstein by [screenwriter] Dobbs, which makes for a more immediately enjoyable experience but somewhat diminishes the power of the calculated atmosphere expertly borrowed by Soderbergh from Kafka’s prose.”–Niall McCallum, Eye for Film

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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 Continue reading 216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

LIST CANDIDATE: SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

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)