Tuesday, February 21, 2012

10 Great Moments from Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis


I had never seen Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis, a film that some people have murmured about being really spectacular, but which most either hate or haven't seen. In 1997 it made just a smidgen over $10,000 and it was widely panned at the Cannes Film Festival, so when I happened upon it at my local library I grabbed it. The Criterion DVD cover states it is "inspired by rumors, bald-faced lies, and half-remembered dreams!" That certainly sounds about right, but it's bizarre experiment into surrealism is so wildly inventive and entertaining that I find it quite easy to rank this alongside Erin Brockovich and sex, lies, and videotape as Soderbergh's finest work. Appearing as if like an oasis, Schizopolis feels miraculously ahead of its time and says more about the modern man's existence than many straight-forward dramas. It's unique brand of comedy, filled with non-sequitur sidebars, roundabout running gags and over-lapping, non-linear plot strands that double back on themselves to reveal altogether new and twisted meanings, feels like a precursor to the brand of humour made popular out of television series such as Arrested Development, Scrubs and Community.

So, as a way of not taking up 2000 words describing why it's so great, I thought I'd do a list. In chronological order, here are my ten favourite bits about Schizopolis. I could make a list of so many, many more but I have to draw the line somewhere. I hope that if any of these things tickle your fancy in the written form then you should run to a copy of the DVD - the Criterion edition, which is the only one out there as far as I am aware, has extra gags on the insert of the DVD sleeve and apparently a truly bonkers Soderbergh interviewing Soderbergh audio commentary that I unfortunately ran out of time to listen to - and see it for themselves. It's all so magically insane and the actors are incredible and give the dialogue a free-flowing quality that acts as a natural grounding to the absurd proceedings.

1. The Introduction
The film's writer, director, producer, cinematographer and, yes, star, Steven Soderbergh, introduces his film to audiences in a prologue that was included after the film's negative reaction at Cannes. Never one to kowtow to distributor pressure, Soderbergh then made the prologue as kooky as the rest of the film as the camera frequently spins out of orbit in between Soderbergh extolling such boastful dialogue as "this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend ... 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, cut-rate matinee deal."

"In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bare in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again and again until you understand everything."

2. The mole, the spy and the right-hand man
This entire scene appears to be little more than a reason for Soderbergh to assemble some of his wonderfully off-beat cast (including Eddie Jemison who is one those "that guy!"s that routinely pops up in everything under the sun) to stand around reeling off delightfully convoluted dialogue that is constantly being repeated, corrected and upended. This entire scene had me chuckling from beginning to end the sheer simplistic lunacy of it all.

"This guy tells me the right-hand man has a mole."
"A spy and a mole?"
"No, I didn't say that, I said - "
"You said there's a guy leaking information... that's a spy."
"Then you said the right-hand man got himself a mole. I would assume to check on the spy."
"That's two people."
"Okay, there's a spy and a mole."
"Well that's twice as many as a minute ago."
"I say the guy who told you is the mole."
"You're the mole."
"No, no, no, no, he's the spy."
"No he's the spy!"
"If I were the spy would I be standing here saying there a spy?"
"Or a mole."

3. "Generic greeting"
Perhaps my favourite scene in Soderbergh's entire bonkers affair are the stretches of dialogue in "segment 1" wherein Soderbergh's Fletcher Munson and his wife exchange empty words with fake inflections and exaggerated facial expressions. Deliciously inspired, it's probably one of the keenest observations on a failing marriage I've seen in quite some time.

"Generic greeting."
"Generic greeting returned."
"Imminent sustenance."
"Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal."
"Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!"

4. sex, lies, and videotape
The sly references to his Oscar-nominated, Palme d'Or-winning classic, sex, lies, and videotape, appear throughout as a peculiar exterminator man who enters peoples houses and has sex with the stay-at-home wives them while filming and taking photos on their person cameras. Why not, I guess?

5. "Proofing!"

6. The news reports
As far as I can these these little inserts have literally nothing to do with the rest of the film, which is why their randomness is so amusing. Perhaps another example of Soderbergh's sign of Soderbergh's sign o' the times ideology as we criticises the laziness of films to simply have a news reporter reel off a bunch of exposition before moving on to yet another scene of bare-brained action. "At least we didn't sell it to the fucking Japanese", was another priceless one from later in the movie.

"We interrupt this program to bring you a news bulletin. Scientists at NASA have confirmed that the comet Havarti is on course for Earth. The odds of the comet colliding directly with our planet are being calculated at this very moment. In a related story, the price of capturing, restraining and institutionalising a naked man in a tee-shirt remains stable at around $367.50."

7. Muzak
For whatever reason, I just love that the second of Steven Soderbergh's self-acted characters listens to mall muzak in his car. Didn't Arrested Development use muzak, or just had music inspired by it? I seem to recall that being a thing. Gosh, I need to rewatch Arrested Development! So very good. Is that movie ever happening? If it does I hope it's as polarising as, say, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was.

8. Golf
Don't even bother trying to get me to explain this.

"And then another funny thing happened followed by two things that were pretty amusing and the whole thing ended with something that was just hysterical."

9. Foreign languages
In a twist on the "generic greeting" sequences from earlier, the first third of the film is now replayed through the eyes of Soderbergh's wife (literally, she's played by Soderbergh's ex-wife) with all of his dialogue spoken in Japanese, French and Italian. Just go with it, okay?

10. Q&A
Soderbergh returns to the empty theatre of his film's prologue and indulges in a one-way question and answer session. What with there being nobody to actually answer questions (surely he knew nobody was going to go see this film and so, in effect, has the last laugh) he merely replies with nondescript answers that could apply to all sorts of questions on any number of topics. Schizopolis features no opening or closing credits so these prologues and epilogues act as book-ends to an otherwise rather shapeless entity.

"I know this is an unusual procedure, but I thought you might have some questions and since I'm already here I can answer some of them. Yes. Yes. Not specifically, I actually find all of them rather weird. Yes. Foot-long vegie on wheat."

Like I said, it's kind of hard to really boil everything from Schizopolis down into an easily digestible read. I hope anybody out there who hasn't had the pleasure of discovering this obscure gem does so (I know there are a lot who haven't, okay!) because it truly is a one-of-a-kind experience worth indulging. Even if you end up disliking it, you won't be able to say it wasn't something you'd seen before. A

1 comment:

Lee said...

Wonderful piece! I love this movie, and you've reminded me why. Glad you included the fact about his ex-wife playing his wife!

And I totally agree with you about Erin B's greatness.