“When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend my motivation is not financial gain but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price, not some bargain, matinee, cut rate deal…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.”-Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis
Shortly after Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989) debuted at Cannes in 1989, a few critics compared Soderbergh’s accomplishment with that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) nearly fifty years earlier. Here was another film, written and directed by a twenty-five year old (Greatness at before thirty?! That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?) that would alter the landscape of American film forever. As New York Times correspondent Sharon Waxman described the film, “The movie’s distinctive tone presaged the rebel sensibility of the new generation of filmmakers. It was unpolished, sexy, funny, with an unmistakable sense of vérité, of reality…The movie was fresh and new, like nothing ever seen before in Hollywood.” While Waxman has a gift for hyperbole—-hadn’t critics described Easy Rider (1969) similarly only twenty years earlier?—-Soderbergh’s debut did shift Hollywood away from the high concept mentality that drove much of the 1980s back towards a consideration of the other mode of filmmaking that defined 1970s New Hollywood: the art film.
While Soderbergh’s film is often embraced and villainized for the role it played in bringing independent film to the mainstream and, more significantly, into the studio system as the film’s huge profits ($24 million on a 1.2 million dollar production budget) were difficult to ignore, the legacy of the film on its filmmaker’s career was short-lived. When the film was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh facetiously quipped, “It’s all downhill from here.” Ironically, he had no idea how true this self-depreciating comment would become. Following the success of sex, lies, Soderbergh went on to direct screenwriter Lem Dobb’s Kafka (1991). The film was a critical and commercial failure. After all, the hotshot director, newly assimilated into the Hollywood system, took an 11 million dollar budget and shot a black and white art film. Following the failure of Kafka, Soderbergh’s losing streak continued through both one of the most overlooked films of his career, King of the Hill (1993), and the disappointing neo-noir The Underneath (1995). Budgeted around six million dollars, The Underneath grossed a mere twelve percent of its production budget domestically.
The economic and artistic failure of The Underneath rattled Soderbergh personally who, reflecting upon the production experience, remarked “I was drifting off course. I’m sure there are tons of reasons, some personal and some professional. The bottom line was I sort of woke up in the middle of The Underneath and felt I was making a movie I wasn’t interested in.” In the hopes of revitalizing himself cinematically, Soderbergh enlisted the help of some former classmates from Louisiana State University to form the cast and crew for a film he envisioned to be “experimental…[it] may not draw a large audience, or no audience at all.” The film, budgeted at $250,000 and produced with donated film stock over a ten month shooting schedule, became Schizopolis (1996).
Fragmented into three sections, the film is structured around the perspectives of three characters involved in a love triangle. The first segment takes on the point of view of Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh himself), a cubical inhabitant assigned to write a speech for his boss, the religious philosopher T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone). The stress of his new assignment adds to difficulties at home, where Fletcher’s marriage is on the rocks. He rejects his wife’s (Soderbergh’s ex-wife, Betsy Brantley) sexual advances, only to masturbate once she has fallen asleep. Longing for another life, Fletcher finds himself jumping into the consciousness of Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh once again) during the film’s second segment. Within moments of his metaphysical transformation, Munson/Korchek discovers that Korchek is having an affair with Mrs. Munson. Or, as Munson describes it, “I’m having an affair with my wife.” After a deadly encounter with some gangsters (Remember: You will have to see the picture again and again until you understand everything), Munson finds himself back in his own body as the third section takes the perspective of his wife in which she views all the dialogue coming from Munson or Korchek as an un-translated foreign language (Japanese for Munson, Italian for Korchek).
And yet, Schizopolis is so much more than that. Given its art cinema tendencies, describing the “plot” of the film only accounts for roughly half of the film’s running time. Intercut with the troubles of the threesome are the sexual escapades of an exterminator (David Jensen) who is about to be given his own reality TV show, despite spouting incomprehensible dialogue (“Zygote. Tea house grain structure. Mellow rhubarb turbine? Jigsaw. Smell sign.”), a corporate espionage plot that may or may not involve the BBW (not BMW)-loving Nameless Numberhead Man (Eddie Jemison), and faux news reports (“race horses do not urinate more frequently than non-race horses”). In the end, Soderbergh leaves us suffering with painful laughter. We are forced to realize the soul-crushing existence that can come with white-collar jobs and healthy-sized houses in the ‘burbs and the toll that takes on the ones we try to journey through life with.
Schizopolis came just before Soderbergh’s resurgence in Hollywood, launched with the one-two punch of Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999). Given that his career has spanned 21 years and 23 feature films, in addition to television work, he has had his share of failures (Full Frontal is my probably my least favorite) that have not fallen on deaf ears. For instance, Manohla Dargis described Soderbergh’s experimentation in The Good German (2006) as “an end in itself rather than a means to aesthetic liberation. That’s too bad for us, for him and for Hollywood, which frankly could use all the help it can get.” Our own Dan Carlson, in a pissy review of the mediocre Ocean’s Twelve (2004), wrote that the film “serves no purpose other than to remind its audience every moment that we are watching a film.” Finally, our own Brian Prisco (who described Schizopolis as a “cotton-bunting mindfuck”), the sultan of snark, asked if The Girlfriend Experience (2009) hadn’t crossed the line from “avant garde to self-gratification.” There’s a through-line in these critiques of Soderbergh’s work for those who haven’t noticed: Soderbergh is a filmmaker who makes personal films—-as in films that reflect his interests, not his life—-and that can be a blessing and a curse (most of the above critiques are not far off the mark).
I’m probably more forgiving of Soderbergh than any other filmmaker, simply because that “personal” aspect of his approach changes from film to film. For instance, Pauline Kael once blasted Andrew Sarris’s auteur theory for positing that the appearance of a director’s personality in a work via themes or form is the equivalent of his or her signature. Kael, on the other hand, wondered if that couldn’t also be considered laziness (ex. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited). However, Soderbergh’s auteuristic through lines, unlike those of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, or Quentin Tarantino are largely formal—-he loves the French New Wave—-while he is willing to tackle a film in nearly any genre (crime caper, drama, bio-pic, and soon, musical). I find that aspect of Soderbergh’s filmmaking philosophy to be the draw for me. It’s like a restaurant whose menu changes from day to day and granted, some of those days are better than others, but the attention to craft is always there, rearing its ambitious head. Schizopolis is the start of that philosophy, the one-for-me (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience), one-for-them (Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Trilogy) model of filmmaking.
Essentially, I’ve just provided a long-winded ex-machina to this review. Some of you are going to watch Schizopolis and, like the majority of critics at the time, you’re going to hate it. Others, perhaps intrigued by this review (which, in retrospect, seems more like a career assessment than a proper review) and the title’s status as a Criterion release, will find a pleasant surprise. The latter, at least in my experiences screening the film for friends, seems to happen more than Soderbergh or critics at the time may have realized. Admittedly, the film is a bit rough around the edges (most of the actors, Soderbergh included, are non-professionals) but the film’s script, often worthy of quoting at length, can be incredibly funny. To put this film on a cultural spectrum, my wife, who loves Monty Python and hates Jean-Luc Godard, would shockingly place the film towards the former end of the spectrum. In any case, I’d urge you to give it a shot and to leave your narrative pre-occupations at the door.
Note: For those of you who watch Schizopolis and enjoy it or for those of you who like Soderbergh’s films enough to buy a book, here is a bit of shameless self-promotion. The forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh, includes my essay on the film and an interview with the filmmaker. Use that information and this link however you see fit.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.