Schizopolis (1996; Dir.: Steven Soderbergh)
By Daniel Barnes
Although nearly forgotten in the Soderbergh oeuvre, the playfully piercing absurdist comedy Schizopolis is his most personal and original work. Intensely aware of and yet utterly freed from cinematic conventions of storytelling and style, Schizopolis is like the product of Luis Bunuel and Richard Lester collaborating on a Tex Avery cartoon adapted from a Franz Kafka novel.
It instantly became my favorite Soderbergh, in part because the cerebral prankster spirit of Schizopolis is in direct opposition to the antiseptic emptiness of so much of Soderbergh’s latter-day works. Films like Contagion and Haywire and Side Effects strip away the trappings of genre to their barest spines, but Soderbergh rarely attempts to refill that void. Made on a shoestring, Schizopolis has more lusty invention, droll self-analysis, and outlandish humor than his entire 21st century output stacked end to end.
Barely released in 1996, Schizopolis is intensely aware of itself from the first moment, when Soderbergh calls action and then steps in front of the camera to declare this film “the most important motion picture” ever made. Soderbergh also stars as Fletcher Munson, an office drone tabbed as an official speechwriter for the prophet of Eventualism, a Scientology-esque cult whose leader also looks a lot like Soderbergh.
These early scenes are spry and nonsensical, and Soderbergh the director drops in cartoon sound effects, sly cinematic in-jokes (the camera struggles to find the right passing automobile; characters speak in stage direction), and silly, self-indulgent asides. Diegesis is chucked out the window – the film’s title appears on the shirt of an otherwise naked man; a tree bears the sign “Idea Missing”; functional supporting characters are given names like Attractive Woman #2 and Nameless Numberhead Man. There is a manic, anything-goes energy to Schizopolis, but the film is never ashamed of its own intelligence, and as such it has the feel of early Woody Allen.
Schizopolis is above all about craziness, both in form and content – it’s about the insanity of relationships, of comingling art and commerce, and especially of filmmaking. Soderbergh made this movie at one of the bleakest moments in his life and career, and Schizopolis offers only two possible outcomes for artistic ambition – masturbating by yourself in a bathroom stall (the indie world), and literally rejecting your own sense of self-identity (making Ocean’s 13). In their similar urges to deny their ambitions in order to achieve success, there are a lot of similarities between Fletcher Munson and the Sandro character played by Gabriele Ferzetti in L’Avventura.
And there is so much more – a profound examination of sexual dissatisfaction and psychotic perception; a series of second-half twists involving entering other consciousnesses that predates Being John Malkovich by several years; and a deranged and surprisingly poignant take on the fallacy of language, culminating in characters replaying cheeky earlier scenes in a diversity of foreign tongues, and finally making sense.
Lest I give the impression that Schizopolis is not only insane but insanely funny, I should mention that it also offers one of the greatest farewell speeches in film history. It is delivered as a tender farewell to an ex-lover: “There was a time when I felt like an old rag with a stain you couldn’t get out, and you… you were like a piece of rotting fruit on a window sill. And it was great.”
That sums up this unique, shaggy dog masterpiece perfectly – Schizopolis is a lot like a piece of rotting fruit, and it’s absolutely great.
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