USA 1996 : Steven Soderbergh : 96 mins

Much like Gus Van Sant’s absurdly-maligned conceptual-art Psycho remake of 1998, Schizopolis is a film made first and foremost for the benefit of its director, not any potential viewers. Feeling burned out with Hollywood after his own first remake, The Underneath (an underrated 1995 update of noir classic Criss Cross), Soderbergh withdrew into a relatively comforting guerilla-zone of low-budget, high-freedom obscurity and blew off a freewheeling, larkish, deliberately inconsequential little movie that barely received any kind of theatrical release anywhere – and remains by far the most difficult of his films to track down.

As an example of celluloid self-help, however, Schizopolis was a massive success, arresting his self-perceived downward career-spiral – his follow-up feature Out Of Sight remains by far his most coherent and satisfying work, notwithstanding the fact that, after another minor-noir detour with The Limey, he then made an unexpectedly sudden leap to the top of Hollywood’s directorial pile with the blockbusting, Oscar-laden double-whammy of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and then the freakish global box-office bonanza of Ocean’s 11.

Schizopolis is, to say the least, a very different kind of animal. Virtually impossible to synopsise and even harder to explain, it’s divided into three parts, each filmed on scrappy, cheap-looking, roughly edited, scratchy-sounding ends of celluloid. In the first, downtrodden, geeky everyman Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh himself in a droll, Malkovichian turn) works as a speech-writer for a sinister, messianic self-help guru named T. Azimuth Schwitters (Soderbergh lookalike Mike Malone), whose organisation may or may not have been infiltrated by a mole and/or a spy.

After some half-hearted slapstick developments, we abruptly switch to a different plot-line in which our hero is now suddenly Dr Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist who suspects his wife (Betsy Brantley) of infidelity – the fact that Soderbergh had only recently split up with ex-spouse Brantley adds a slightly sobering Godard-Karina touch to the celluloid-as-therapy angle. The same-actors/different-characters trick was, of course, to be more famously employed a few years later by David Lynch in Mulholland Dr – its presence here perhaps explained by the fact that Soderbergh was already on the record as an admirer of Lynch’s legendary unproduced screenplay One Saliva Bubble, which features an early, comic variation on similar if-we-were-all-suddenly-somebody-else themes.

Schizopolis, meanwhile, makes about as much sense on film as it does on paper. Unified only by a skit-centric sensibility that anarchically combines The Goon Show, Kurt Vonnegut, and (Soderbergh’s film-making mentor) Dick Lester, the three sections kind of dovetail into an amusingly paranoid vision of modern American suburbia, dominated by shadowy corporations and populated by desperate weirdos.

Any project so deliberately self-indulgent will, however, by definition strain the patience of many audiences – especially such smart-arse as replacing proper dialogue with deconstructed ‘signifier’ phrases (“Generic greeting” instead of “Hello”, etc) or deadpan gibberish (“Vienna dog. Jigsaw.”) But, given this proviso, however, a surprising amount of the scattershot humour does hit the mark, especially the pitch-perfect satires of TV news and – in the film’s comic highlight – what may well be the funniest funeral oration in movie history.

1st October, 2002
(seen 28th February, NMPFT, Bradford)

by Neil Young
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