“When I say this is the most important motion picture you’ll ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain, but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price, not some bargain matinee cut-rate deal. In the event that you find certain sequences or events confusing, please bear in mind this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” —Steven Soderbergh, Schizopolis
The quote above comes from the introduction to Steven Soderbergh’s experimental comedy Schizopolis, which opens with the director himself playing ironic carnival barker before an empty theater. It’s the closest thing the film gets to a commercial gesture; Soderbergh added the intro (and conclusion) after its chilly reception at Cannes as a way to help ease audiences into what ultimately amounts to a silly, eccentric, self-deprecating lark. But though Schizopolis will not be “the most important motion picture you’ll ever attend,” it’s possibly the most important motion picture of Soderbergh’s career, because he might not have continued to have one without it. He’s referred to the film as his “artistic wake-up call,” and it’s not an insult to say it’s the very definition of “self-indulgent,” a clearing of the creative cobwebs that needed to happen whether an audience existed for it or not. (It didn’t.)
Seven years after his sex, lies, and videotape completely changed the landscape for American independent cinema, Soderbergh was floundering, still looking for an encore that would bring him even a fraction of the attention and praise that greeted his debut feature. His immediate follow-up, 1991’s Kafka, was dismissed (to some degree unfairly) as the paradigmatic sophomore slump, and his subsequent features, the superb 1993 Depression-era memory-piece King Of The Hill and the 1995 neo-noir The Underneath, brought him, if not an absence of acclaim, then an absence of professional satisfaction. (Soderbergh routinely disparages The Underneath, but its nifty innovations with colors and chronology are the building blocks that made more successful films like Out Of Sight and Traffic possible.) Yet it’s important to emphasize that Schizopolis is about Soderbergh rediscovering his artistic identity, and not about him restoring the next-big-thing reputation that had slowly evaporated in the years following sex, lies, and videotape. The film wasn’t made with a commercial audience in mind (though it’s often hugely entertaining), and it wasn’t made to win favor from critics, who would be right to consider it a lumpy, not entirely successful affair, even on its own terms. Schizopolis is simply Soderbergh monkeying around. With a purpose.
On second thought, maybe “monkeying around” isn’t the right phrase, because Soderbergh isn’t given to freewheeling experimentation; his style of experimentation is more rigorously conceived, like a mathematician working out a byzantine equation. Schizopolis has a clear three-act structure, recurring and evolving bits that fiddle with language and communication, and at least two characters, both played by Soderbergh himself, that reflect its creator’s anxieties as an artist and as a human being. While the film is heavily improvised and littered with blackout sketches that celebrate silliness for its own sake, its devil-may-care recklessness is more perceived than actual. It’s been thought through as completely as any other Soderbergh production; any and all spontaneity emerges from his typically wonkish sense of order.
The first of the three segments follows Soderbergh as Fletcher Munson, an office drone for the “Eventualists,” a Scientology-like lifestyle cult led by the messianic T. Azimuth Schwitters. When the Eventualists’ main speechwriter—named Lester Richards, a reference to Soderbergh’s filmmaking hero, Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia)—turns up dead, the bosses turn to poor Fletcher to toss the vague spiritual word salad that constitutes Schwitters’ speeches. The task fills him with dread and self-doubt, exacerbated by paranoid rumors of a possible mole within the office—and also perhaps a spy to keep tabs on the mole. When he comes home, Fletcher’s relationship to his wife (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s real ex-wife) has become so lifeless and rote that the film reduces their dialogue to its core function.
The second third follows Soderbergh again, this time as a bespectacled dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchek. (The goofy names in Schizopolis pleasantly recall old Groucho Marx and early Woody Allen characters, like my favorite, Bananas’ Fielding Mellish.) He could be considered Fletcher’s richer, more assured alter ego if the two didn’t, in fact, share the same filmic universe; it turns out that Korchek is having an affair with Fletcher’s wife and wants her to move in with him. And if that weren’t confusing enough, Korchek then meets “Attractive Woman Number 2,” also played by Brantley, and propositions her through a letter so graphic that she responds to it through her lawyer. (Sample line: “I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants.”) The third and final segment goes back through the previous intrigue through Fletcher’s wife’s perspective, but with much of the language having changed (to French, Japanese, and Italian, none of it subtitled) and the events seeming even more nonsensical.
The other major element of Schizopolis—and its only big misstep—is a character named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), a local exterminator who uses his bizarre seductive powers to bed bored, sexy housewives. Elmo and his conquests speak the language of love—which is to say, the sort of colorful gibberish that sounds like a parody of Robert Pollard lyrics. (“Nose army.” “Beef diaper.” “Throbbing dust generation.” “Fragment chief butter.” “Precision galley sponge.” And so on.) Here, Soderbergh the academic is carrying on a linguistic exercise: The more we hear Elmo spouting nonsense phrases, the more those nonsense phrases start to make sense. For example, “nose army” means “hello,” “smell sign” means “goodbye,” and whenever “jigsaw” comes up, Elmo is about to get lucky. Soderbergh adds on some intrigue when a couple enlists Elmo to perform in his own show, which mostly involves him acting as an agent of chaos, but it feels like a single joke stretched perilously thin.
The Elmo material looks especially feeble because Soderbergh deals with the communication theme with more depth and wit in other places. The scenes between Fletcher and his wife provide amusing-enough commentary on the grinding routine (and secret deceptions) of a lifeless marriage, and the fact that Fletcher’s wife sleeps around with another character played by Soderbergh is a cruel, self-deprecating joke. But they’re also an avant-garde rehash of themes and situations present in sex, lies, and videotape; in fact, Korchek’s house is the same one used in the earlier film, so the echoes are unmistakable. With Schizopolis, Soderbergh deconstructed what it means to be Soderbergh, and the film feels like a therapy session for a director who needed to figure out what motivated him to make films in the first place. (And perhaps serve as a clearinghouse for whatever eccentric, unworkable ideas he’d accumulated at the time.)
Strange as it seems, Soderbergh’s adventures with Schizopolis opened the gates for a dazzling succession of critical and/or commercial hits: Out Of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven, all within a four-year period. From a production standpoint, the key difference for Soderbergh was serving as his own cinematographer from Traffic on, which gained him in flexibility and control whatever he lost by not having pros like Elliot Davis or Ed Lachman behind the camera. But the film’s true legacy is harder to define—Soderbergh’s subsequent work just seems looser, more playful, and more self-assured; if it can be likened to a therapy session, the patient came out of the experience looking a lot healthier. And ready to take your questions:
July 7: May
July 28: Zodiac
August 18: Inside (L’Interieur)