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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Blind Picks from Netflix: Schizopolis (1997)

I rented Schizopolis knowing nothing about it, other than the fact that it is an independent comedy directed, written and starred in by Stephen Soderbergh. I’m a big fan of his work, so that was enough of a reason for me to put it into my Netflix queue.

The plot is the least important part of the film, so I'm going to try to explain it using as few words as possible. Fletcher Munson (Steven Soderbergh) works for an organization (similar to Scientology) known as Eventualism. When the speechwriter for T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone II), Eventualism’s founder, drops dead from a massive coronary, Fletcher has to step up and write an empty, meaningless but totally emotionally engaging speech (similar to something our President might present). Meanwhile, his relationship is falling apart with his wife, who is having an affair with a dentist (also played by Soderbergh). Throughout the film, we also see a pest exterminator, Elmo Oxygen (Mike Malone II), who is hired by a mysterious couple to star in a violent cinema verite production.

Schizopolis is a truly bizarre combination of absurdist imagery, visual puns, slapstick and strident surrealism. There were segments I truly loved, and other parts I merely endured. I am reluctant to call it a whole film, as it is more of a series of loosely associated ideas organized into a makeshift postmodern framework. In the opening of the film, Soderbergh speaks to the audience in a style meant to evoke Cecil B. DeMille's intro to the Ten Commandments. "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." Ha. The most wonderful scenes are those that satirize everyday social situations, specifically the interactions between Fletcher and his wife. As Fletcher moves through his day, he pays more attention to the purpose served by everyday dialogue rather than what is actually said. His interactions with his wife and child are literally exchanges of generalities (similar to the generalities spewed forth by the new age hegemon for whom he’s writing). Here’s an example:

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

These scenes are very clever; so clever that one gets the feeling that Soderbergh tried to write a whole movie around them. At times, Soderbergh’s writing conveys the kind of brilliance seen in Woody Allen’s early essay and plays. At other times, it is not sturdy enough to support the length of time it occupies. The product is, therefore, noticeably disjointed and lopsided. I would, however, recommend Schizopolis to anyone who likes unconventional comedy.

There is nothing in Schizopolis that I have not seen before, but I have the impression that Soderbergh was making the film as a tribute to the avant garde, rather than as an actual showpiece of the movement. The film is reminiscent of Richard Lester’s Beatles comedies, Luis Bunuel’s more surreal outings, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and David Byrne’s early films and videos. Schizopolis owes its greatest debts to the Dada movement, as it is pretty much 90-minutes of irrational anarchy wrapped in an aesthetically disturbing package. At no point does Soderbergh deny his influences; at one point he even includes Richard Lester’s name in a funeral scene. "Lester Richards is dead, and aren't you glad it wasn't you?" This scene is one of many in which the characters externalize their internal monologues. My personal favorite line comes from a news anchor on television reporting a big story:

“A New Mexico woman was named Final Arbiter of Taste & Justice today, ending God's lengthy search for someone to straighten this country out. Eileen Harriet Palglace will have final say on every known subject, including who should be put to death, what clothes everyone should wear, what movies suck, and whether bald men who grow ponytails should still get laid.”

If this line and the general tone of the DVD commentary are any indication, it is clear that Soderbergh has a real problem with critics in general. Why should a handful of people get to decide what the majority should like? Why should the Eileen Palglaces of the world tell us what to watch and what to read? As a fan of the eccentric, I’m with him. As a film critic, well, no one takes my recommendations seriously anyway.


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