Thursday, 4 March 2010
3. Schizopolis (1996)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
"In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything."
So begins Steven Soderbergh's 'Schizopolis', one of the strangest and most daring films ever made by an American director who would go on to become a huge mainstream success. Soderbergh burst onto the scene in 1989 with his smash hit indie picture 'Sex, Lies and Videotape', after which he spent several years struggling to live up to the constrictive hype that was heaped upon that film. Just as it seemed Soderbergh's initially promising career was fading, he made the switch to more commercially viable films like the slick 'Out of Sight' (1998), the Oscar-winning 'Erin Brokovich' (2000) and the hugely popular 'Oceans...' series of films. Despite mainstream success, however, Soderbergh has always remained true to his indie roots as well, occasionally slipping in a low-key efforts like 'Full Frontal' (2002) or 'Bubble' (2005) (the first film to be simultaneously released in cinemas, on DVD and on Cable), and acting as producer on such great independently spirited films as 'The Daytrippers' (1996), 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005), 'Keane' (2004) and 'Far From Heaven (2002).
Despite having had his fingers in many different pies, 'Schizopolis' is quite unlike anything Soderbergh has been involved in before or since. The plot, such as it is, is extremely difficult to summarise but any attempt to do so should give the reader some idea of just what they're up against, a warning they really should be issued with before sitting down to watch this film. So here goes:
Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh himself) is a low level drone working for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the leader of a self-help/religion called Eventualism (a satire on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology). Suddenly finding himself promoted when his colleague dies, Munson must write a speech for Schwitters that summarises the impossible to grasp nature of Eventualism. As he struggles to do so, he must also contend with an exaggeratedly furious boss; a failing marriage that has degraded into a predictable routine; an annoying colleague known only as Nameless Numberhead Man, who insists on ordering pornographic videos of morbidly obese women through Munson's home adddress; his paranoid fears about his own health; and the very real possibility that his wife might just be having an affair with a Conservative dentist called Jeffrey Korchek who also happens to be Munson's exact double.
As the latter concern becomes more apparent, the film switches to the second of the three numbered segments into which it is divided. Part two presents things from the viewpoint of Korchek (Soderbergh again), who is indeed sleeping with Munson's wife (played by Betsy Brantley). While Munson's wife seems completely happy and determined to leave Munson for Korchek, Korchek is instead determined to start an affair with one of his patients, who happens to bear a strong resemblance to Munson's wife (and is also played by Brantley). His pursuit of this lands him with a sexual harassment lawsuit to deal with, which is not even to mention his missing brother and the violent, monosyllabic psychopath who is hunting this brother down.
Part three switches to the viewpoint of Munson's wife and introduces Soderbergh in yet another role, as a mysterious, French speaking stranger with badly dubbed dialogue. Alongside all three of these chapters runs a parallel story in which a local bug exterminator named Elmo Oxygen goes from house to house sleeping with a series of bored housewives while a couple in an SUV observe him, finally stating their intention to poach him from the film and cast him as an action hero in their own movie.
Sounds exhausting doesn't it?! Thankfully, although attempts to decode the plot do contribute to making 'Schizopolis' extremely rewatchable, the perplexing storyline is secondary to the many hilarious comedy routines which hang upon it. 'Schizopolis' is primarily a film about language and the various ways in which we mangle our mother tongue. Munson's boss sets out his objectives for writing the speech in meaningless management blather which sounds good without really telling Munson anything he needs to know. Munson himself communicates with his own wife in a symbolic set of signifiers which merely indicate the thrust of their cliched conversations. This extract of dialogue from when Munson first arrives home perfectly illustrates the point:
Munson: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Munson: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Munson: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!
Munson is far more candid with his neighbour, openly stating "Is your wife coming over over tonight? Because her big ass always leaves me satisfied". Meanwhile, exterminator Elmo Oxygen communicates with the numerous housewives he seduces, in a surreal nonsense language which replaces real words with others in an astonishing oral jigsaw. For instance, Elmo greets people with the phrase "Nose army", says goodbye to them with the words "Smell sign" and propositions them with the word "Landmine" (to which the excitedly affirmative reply is, of course, "Ambassador jumpsuit landmine"). The charmless dentist Korchek addresses his patients with dental-care cliches delivered like an oral-hygiene obsessed action hero ("You don't have to floss all your teeth... just the ones you want to keep"). When he attempts to get poetic in order to seduce the object of his lust, the result is a comedic masterpiece of a letter which is the highlight of the whole movie and ends with the 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".
It is this relentless barrage of comedy genius that stops 'Schizopolis' becoming a bore for those who have no patience with such surreal offerings. Even if you have no idea what is going on, there are plenty of moments to laugh at. Soderbergh, clearly multi-talented behind the camera, emerges as a brilliant comic performer and manages to give three different identities to the three characters he plays through the subtlest of variations. Not everything is subtlety though. Soderbergh is also a deft physical performer. As Korchek, he performs one of the most brilliantly exaggerated double-takes in movie history. As Munson, he has the audience in hysterics just by pulling a series of strange faces in the mirror, a particularly memorable sequence which demonstrates just how phenomenally expressive a human face can be. Sometimes 'Schizopolis' throws in a random non-sequitur just because it amuses Soderbergh: a tree with a sign stuck to it that reads 'IDEA MISSING' or an almost subliminal caption which states "No fish were harmed during the making of this film".
By this point in my review you'll probably fit neatly into one of two categories: One being people who are thoroughly intrigued at the prospect of such a strange sounding film, the other being people who have made a mental note never to touch this film with a ten foot pole. 'Schizopolis' is certainly not for everybody and there are those who will find it maddeningly incomprehensible. To me, however, that's all part of the fun. There are so many ideas stuffed into 'Schizopolis' that it still reveals something new to me every time I see it and, against all odds, I truly believe that I understand it a little bit better every time I see it too. I first saw it after I randomly fished it out of a supermarket bargain bin during my late teens and bought it out of curiosity. Initially I enjoyed it for its surreal comedic flourishes but over the years I've come to appreciate its enormous satirical power and extraordinarily intelligent deconstruction of our uncomfortable relationship with our own language. I have also enjoyed it in a new light ever since I discovered that it was made in the midst of Soderbergh's divorce from his leading lady, Betsy Brantley. Clearly the breakdown of communication was a very relevant subject and the fact that the failing marriage on screen reflects the real-life failing marriage of the very actors portraying it sets the whole movie in a different, bittersweet context.
'Schizopolis' is the epitome of a hidden gem. Deemed too challenging for a mainstream audience, this inspired oddity pretty much sank without trace upon its very limited release. This is part of its appeal and has assured 'Schizopolis' has attracted a cult following, though not as large a following as you might expect. Nevertheless, it's a film I will adore for the rest of my life, though not one I would recommend to just anyone. If this review has piqued your interest, you may well love 'Schizopolis' as much as I do. If you feel completely baffled just from having read my inadequate attempt at a synopsis, however, approach 'Schizopolis' with caution. But do approach it if you get the chance, you may just be surprised at how much you enjoy it.