Tuesday, October 15, 2013

FI: Schizopolis

US, 1996
Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh

There are some films that you can admire on principal, whose intentions you can respect even as you recognize that their execution is flawed (and, indeed, could not be otherwise). Such is Schizopolis, a low-budget absurdist satire from Steven Soderbergh. Produced, basically, on-the-fly during Soderbergh's time in the indie woods—after his audacious bow-shot sex, lies, and videotape, but before his mainstream resurgence with Out of SightSchizopolis is a fractured take on modern American life, touching on issues of communication, sex, identity, media, and religion. As the title suggests, everything is presented from a skewed angle, with frequent absurd cut-ins from fake news stories, an amount of self-awareness (with some characters even acknowledging that they are in a film), and very little in the way of narrative coherence.

The film is split into three parts, each taking a different character's perspective on a repeated, partially-overlapping series of events. In addition to performing or assisting in almost every aspect of production, Soderbergh plays three roles: himself, in sequences set in a theater that bookend a "screening" of the film; Fletcher Munson, a cubical drone turned speechwriter for Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), the leader of a Scientology-esque faith called Eventualism; and Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, a track suit–clad dentist. Munson and Korchek each anchor one segment, while Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley) leads the third. We see events repeat through each segment, along with one character, a sexed-up, word salad–spewing exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen) who seems to have a tangential story that continues through all three. Much like Oxygen's nonsensical dialogue, other characters see and hear each other in various strange ways. From Munson's perspective, he and his wife communicate solely through descriptive-but-hollow phrases—saying hello through the exchange "Generic greeting." "Generic greeting."—while from her perspective, he speaks Japanese. This sort of weirdness works at times, but the Brechtian distance it creates is too difficult for the plot's lack of cohesion to overcome.

Indeed, even with its rough three-episode structure, the film is so loose and fitful that its deeper intentions, whatever they may be, get lost. Taken strictly at face value, it makes an occasionally-amusing watch. Its cleverness and Soderbergh's goofy performances carry a lot of weight, though not quite enough to keep me engaged. I'm typically a fan of Soderbergh's work (though I admittedly know little of his early period short of sex, lies, and videotape) but I don't think his ability to master and subvert genres was fully developed yet. Plus, with its themes and the degree of experimentation they require, it's hard to picture any way in which this film could "work" and maintain its integrity. As an exercise in anarchic experimentation, Schizopolis makes an interesting diversion and provides some insight into the sense of humor and commentary Soderbergh has since developed. But for anything beyond that, it's a hard film to recommend.

If you want to see for yourself, Schizopolis is part of The Criterion Collection's streaming catalog on HuluPlus, so you can watch that here, at your own peril, in lieu of a new Criteritron entry for this short week.

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