Monday, September 16, 2013

Schizopolis (1996): Going Backwards to Re-educate

Schizopolis (1996)
dir: Steven Soderbergh

I introduced myself to Schizopolis in quite possibly the best way possible.  I was doing a sleep study drug test for research, and had to stay in a psych ward for 72 hours.  I didn't socialize much at the psych ward, and was the only person there for "research."  So, I watched movies and tv on DVD all day.  Schizopolis was one of those movies.  And, in my mind, there is no other way to experience this movie, which is quite possibly the closest experience anybody could ever have of a nervous breakdown without actually having one themselves.  And, yet, this is only the surface of the movie.

I'm sure you all know Steven Soderbergh.  This was a man who came on strong with his first movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape, but got sucked into indie Hollywood hell of a string of rather uninspired crappy non-movies for 7 years.  Then, after he divorced his wife, he came out with Schizopolis, which is simultaneously a student film by a then-not-so-major director, a clarion call for help, and a learning process.  After this movie, his career rejuvenated and he started making popular and/or award-winning movies, and has continued to do so to this day.

Schizopolis is the story of three nights and days in the life of three characters told from different points of view.  The first two characters are Fletcher Munson (Steven Soderbergh) and his wife, Mrs Munson (real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley).  After the death of Munson's co-worker, Fletcher is assigned to write a speech for his boss, a pseudo-L. Ron Hubbard type for the book Eventualism, but struggles with it.  His wife, however, has been having an affair with our third character Dr Jeffrey Korchek (Steven Soderbergh, again)...who is also trying to seduce Attractive Woman #2 (Betsy Brantley, again).  As the days go by, and the speech gets finished, and the affair is totaled, Schizopolis finally gives us a fake fantasy ending of happiness that it doesn't share with the real life couple.

Intertwined in this are two separate tales, whose tales move linearly out of sync with the Soderbergh stories.  The first is that of Elmo Oxygen, a pest control agent who goes door to door to seduce women, and is hired by a reality TV show team to assault people.  The second is that of Nameless Numberhead Man who is unhappily married to Attractive Woman #1, because she used to be fat but has lost all of her weight. So, while she's having affairs with the likes of Elmo and possibly Dr. Korchek, he's seducing an insurance agent who is much larger in size.

Soderbergh structures Schizopolis in 3 acts, each act telling the same set of days from a different perspective.  It's very Go before Go.  But, it is post Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  The first act is told strictly from Munson's point of view, in which he is so bored with his usual marriage that he doesn't even hear their conversations in real sentences.  All he hears is "Generic Greeting" and "Generic Greeting returned".  Basically, the framework of all our routine conversation to maintain our lives, even though it seems inconsequential.  Meanwhile, he has to suffer through work by masturbating in the bathroom, while writing shitty speeches and getting phone calls offering him money to be a mole.  He doesn't even notice that his wife is obviously cheating on him.  And, he barely notices that she left him on the second evening.  Also, in this first section, we first see Elmo seducing women using a Burroughs-esque cut-up nonsensical language.  And, we learn that Nameless Numberhead Man is depressed by his wife.

The second act is told from Dr. Korchek's point of view, which is fairly mundane and straightforward but observatory in ways that Munson's story isn't.  He also acknowledges that this may be the same character but a completely different personality.  At one point, he remarks "I'm having an affair with my wife."  In this section, we learn that Korchek is in love with Mrs. Munson and asks her to move in with him.  But, when she does move in with him, he rejects her out of the possibility that he has fallen in love with Attractive Woman #2.  The second act also has Elmo, now hired by a different reality tv crew, assaulting random people for his show.  And, we watch NNM seduce the rather large secretary as he mildly belittles Attractive Woman #1 for losing weight, telling her to eat something.

The third act is told from Mrs. Munson's point of view, who only hears herself in English.  She hears all the men in different, unsubtitled, foreign languages.  She hears Fletcher in Japanese, Korchek in Italian, and when she reconciles with Fletcher post-Korchek rejection, he is now in French.  The new information presented is that she actually leaves Fletcher.  And, after she is rejected by Korchek, Fletcher comes and rescues her from a coffee shop and they go home together.  They have sex, the speech is finished, and everybody is talking in normal English once again.   The third act is missing Elmo until he shows up in the epilogue.  And, Mrs Munson finds a video tape meant for NNM which is really large women who are having sex with small men.

So, in reality, this is a screaming reality check by Soderbergh for himself.  He started shooting with no script, and this is the movie that came straight out of his head.  It may seem like it is a psychotic movie about personalities and points of views that is further confused and obfuscated by Soderbergh playing two parts and Brantley playing two parts.  It may seem like the whole point of the film is story as therapy.  Especially when you add in that the speech sections came straight out of notes from executives on Soderbergh's scripts.  But, really, I don't think that was the purpose of this movie at all.

Schizopolis reminds me of Man Bites Dog, in that this was a movie that really wasn't about its subject.  Man Bites Dog was a movie about the making of movies.  Sure, it happened to be a movie about the making of a movie about a serial killer.  But, it was intended to be a movie about making movies.  It just had a sick sense of humor. Likewise, Schizopolis is mainly a training ground for Soderbergh to experiment on the effect of cinematic points of view, and in turn, to teach the audience on how to watch movies.  That it is also a bit of masturbation on affairs and marriage, just after he divorced his ex-wife, is incidental mind-fuckery.

Soderbergh was teaching himself what a point of view was in a film, and how the different ways you tell a story can have different effects on the story itself.  Since we don't follow Mrs. Munson at all in the first act, we don't really know that she's having an affair, even though the audience suspects it.  We see how following this character affects what the audience knows about the story, and then when we follow Dr Korchek, we learn more about the affair.  And, when we follow Mrs. Munson, we get the final pieces.

In the process, the audience learns that the language to the scene is incidental, even though the language used is far from incidental.  While one character is hearing things as a generic script filled with replacement place holders, the other is hearing the same conversation in two completely different languages.  Teaching us that we may not actually be hearing each other even if we think we're listening.  Also, teaching the audience that the words in plays and movies barely even need to exist as long as we learn the various attitudes of the characters through their dialogue.

Where the A-story is mainly an experiment in structure and form, the B-stories (that of Elmo Oxygen and NNM) are an experiment in style.  Elmo jumps from genre to genre.  From weird detective movie to sexpot movie to 60s drug out movie to reality tv show to, eventually, assassination thriller.  NNM is a straight up generic romance. Each different style is showcasing how every movie structures their camera shots, lighting, and editing to achieve a different feel for every scene.

Schizopolis played at Cannes to a legendarily bad reception.  Nobody knew what to make of it.  It played as a "surprise" film, and had no credits. The title is presented as a word on the shirt of a bottomless man, and ends with a single frame blip of a copyright. The movie, moving extremely fast with its overly complicated plot, operates at a pace where it is years ahead of its first-time audience at every scene.  Just as an audience thinks it may have caught up, wham its a different movie.  People were still catching up on the timeline experimentation that was Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Variety had a particularly scathing and clueless review, saying "No narrative is developed on a comprehensible level, nor is any single idea fleshed out to meaningful dimensions."

As I said, though, Schizopolis is a training ground for both Soderbergh and for audiences alike (even though nobody saw Schizopolis).  In 1997, Tarantino would reuse this type of multiple viewpoint narration for his movie Jackie Brown, and Soderbergh would totally fuck timelines up with Out of Sight in 1998.  In fact, five of his next six movies would deal with points of view or timeline fuckery that Soderbergh developed here in Schizopolis.  Those movies: Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, and Full Frontal.  They also dealt with genre styling in a way that Soderbergh developed in Schizopolis.

There are a lot (a lot) of valid criticisms of Schizopolis. It's intentionally confusing. It's too fast to keep up with. It's too compressed with too many ideas. It's pretentious and self-indulgent as all get out. It's amateurish. It feels like a student film thesis project. It's disconnected. It's obvious. It's obtuse. In a sense, this movie doesn't work for a lot of people not willing to put time or energy into a film.  On the other hand, it is a blisteringly funny take on relationships, communication, and how to watch movies in general without feeling lecture-y about any of it.  This is one of The Other Films' Required Viewings.

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