Whatever else it may be—a riotous Möbius strip of deranged word games and doppelgänger metaphysics, a scalding allegory of professional and personal disappointment, the missing link between Ferdinand de Saussure and Kentucky Fried Movie—Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis is, most obviously, a compendium of Things You Just Don’t Do.
For starters, you don’t shoot a film with borrowed equipment, a five-person crew, and almost no money less than a decade after winning the Palme d’Or, don the mantles of writer, director, cinematographer, and (with almost zero acting experience to your name) star. You don’t make your alter ego a downtrodden speechwriter for a pseudo-Scientological cult whose gasbag taskmaster sputters mandates you’ve lifted from actual script notes from studio executives. You don’t cast your soon-to-be ex-wife opposite yourself and contrive a bizarro-world scenario that requires you both to take turns cheating on and leaving each other.
But not for nothing did Soderbergh title his published post-Schizopolis journal Getting Away With It. Did its maker anticipate the galvanizing effect this little hand grenade of a movie would have? (Emblazoned on an exterminator’s truck, briefly glimpsed in Schizopolis: “Let Me In & Let Me Leave My Mark.”) Soderbergh’s career up to that point existed in the shadow of sex, lies, and videotape—a precocious debut feature and, before long, a free-floating signifier of Sundance/Miramax success. Since Schizopolis, made while on self-imposed exile in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Soderbergh has straddled Hollywood and the indies with unparalleled dexterity—his résumé, an implicit rebuke to the restrictive conventions of both spheres, stretching to encompass sleek genre exercises (Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven), lyric existential reveries (The Limey and Solaris), and socially conscious pop hits (Erin Brockovich and Traffic).
In hindsight, it’s easy enough to tag Schizopolis as the pivotal point in this chameleonic filmmaker’s ongoing reinvention—a rulebook-shredding liberation that reawakened his inner avant-gardist, made an asset of his habitual restlessness, and purged any remaining autobiographical impulses in one fearless psychodramatic burst. But upon its barely noticed 1997 release, critics were quick to dismiss Schizopolis as an onanistic prank—a verdict the filmmaker may have encouraged with numerous shots of himself furiously jerking off.
Divided into three sections, each of which confounds more than it clarifies what came before, it’s certainly an unapologetic one-man show. In the opening scene, Soderbergh plays deadpan emcee, informing the audience that failure to understand the movie is “your fault, not ours.” (He reappears at the end for a decidedly non-interactive Q&A.) The prevailing tone, as with many other films that install the auteur as protagonist (Adaptation, most Woody Allen, Guy Maddin’s peepshow Cowards Bend the Knee), is one of knowingly narcissistic self-flagellation.
Soderbergh No. 1, Fletcher Munson, is a compulsive masturbator and a cubicle drone for the Eventualism personal-growth corporation, struggling to compose a key address for Hubbardish guru T. Azimuth Schwitters. Munson and his wife (Betsy Brantley, then Mrs. Soderbergh) have settled into a relationship so grindingly predictable, they speak entirely in templates, too enervated to even fill in the blanks: “Generic greeting.” “Generic greeting returned.”
Psyches begin to fissure in part 2: In a parking lot one day, Munson spies his lookalike—the pun-happy, Muzak-loving, tracksuited dentist Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh again)—and somehow takes over his identity, resulting in a startling discovery and an out-of-body punchline worthy of Philip K. Dick: “I’m having an affair with my own wife.” And in more ways than one: Korchek falls for Attractive Woman # 2 (Brantley again) and promptly dumps Mrs. Munson, right after she’s dumped Mr. Munson. (Incidentally, Lost Highway, which David Lynch was making at the same time, hinges on uncannily similar switcheroos, likewise residing at the intersection of soul transmigration and adultery.)
Sheer syntactical mayhem, the final third ups the already giddy disconnect, replaying and tweaking earlier scenes, with an emphasis on Mrs. Munson’s perspective and the various Soderberghs dubbed into Italian, Japanese, and French, and left unsubtitled. (Heeding the warning on the original video box—“All attempts at synopsizing the film have ended in failure and hospitalization”—this essay will make only parenthetical mention of playboy exterminator Elmo Oxygen, suspected office mole Nameless Numberhead Man, and dapper sage Man Being Interviewed.)
Anarcho-punk semiotic provocation that it is, Schizopolis seems largely indebted to postmodern literary experimentalists, from William S. Burroughs to Donald Barthelme. That said, the manic montage and cardiac-arresting staccatos of Soderbergh’s acknowledged hero, Richard Lester, are in ample evidence—see especially The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. (In an Oedipal twist, Munson gets his big assignment when one Lester Richards drops dead.) And the unrelenting sense of imminent catastrophic narrative collapse is purely Godardian—indeed, Jean-Luc Godard’s self-starring comic riff on artistic frustration, Soigne Ta Droite, might have turned out something like this had it been made with Monty Python and not Jerry Lewis in mind.
It’s no coincidence that Munson is a sophist by profession—a practitioner of the dangerous art of saying absolutely nothing. The film’s position on language—or more precisely, the failure of language—might be termed structuralist or surrealist. Perfect communication is an impossibility. Comic set pieces are predicated on logorrhea and aphasia. Characters are fluent in cliché, euphemism, doublespeak, or, in the case of the film’s secret, sometimes camcorder-wielding trysters (a nod to sex, lies), a raunchy vernacular of Burroughsian cutups: “beef diaper,” “nose army,” “mellow rhubarb turbine.” Fittingly, Schizopolis’ religious figurehead is named for collage artist Kurt Schwitters, who after being denied membership in Club Dada founded the one-man Merz movement, and whose best-known work, a mutating architectural installation he called The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, might have provided an alternate title for this film.
Even its admirers tend to regard Schizopolis as an intellectual indulgence—the belated student film the director needed to exorcise—which makes the element of pathos all the more unexpected. Attuned to the ineffable weirdness and crushing mundanity of workplace paranoia, the climate of desperation that breeds predatory belief systems, and the deadening vocabulary of a fatigued relationship, the film finds real anger and sorrow in the way we brutalize our means of communication, and in the profoundly estranging (if often comic) consequences of that abuse. Language is both a weapon and a casualty in Schizopolis—a kingdom of cleaved psyches, a damaged city where word and meaning are irrevocably sundered.
Dennis Lim is film editor of the Village Voice, where he writes about film, music, and books.