Check out this lesser-known (but quite hilarious) little gem from the man behind such films as Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, and more.
Schizopolis is a 1996 experimental comedy written and directed by and starring Steven Soderbergh. The film tells two different stories about two different sides of the same person (through three perspectives), and both characters are played by Soderbergh. One Soderbergh is Fletcher Munson, a speech writer for a self help guru named T. Azimuth Schwitters, and the other is a tracksuit-wearing, smooth jazz-listening dentist named Jeffrey Korchek. The film has many more characters and layers, and to make it even more confusing, is told in a non-linear fashion. It’s this non-linear narrative, however, that leads to great lines like, “Oh My God…I’m having an affair with my wife.”
I actually discovered this film in college when a local video store was going out of business. I really liked Soderbergh and had never heard of this film, but it looked like it was worth the 3 dollar price tag. The movie was hard to decipher on the first viewing, but there was so much good happening, I had to try again. It was the second viewing that really grabbed me, as I was able to appreciate all the social satire and sight gags. Plus, any movie that aggressively insults Scientology is automatically my friend.
Schizopolis deals with Scientology in the form of T. Azimuth Schwitters and his self-help religion Eventualism. Nothing Schwitters teaches has any meaning, and as his speech writer, Soderbergh’s character has the impossible task of writing a lengthy talk that doesn’t say anything. Examples of these random parables include:
“Eventualism isn’t designed to answer all questions, it’s designed to question all answers.”
“It’s not about healing pain. It’s about the pain of healing.”
“The general thrust should be embedded in one’s mind forever… but specific words should be forgotten the moment they are heard.”
“It should contain nothing that can’t be confirmed nor denied.”
I don’t know if Eventualism is an influence, but many self-help and success-oriented blogs and Twitter feeds seem greatly indebted to it. This fine art of saying nothing is alive and well on the Internets.
There is so much wordplay in this film that it definitely reminds me of the great screwball comedies in the 30s. There are also so many great ideas. Too many to keep up with. The movie does tackle some serious subjects, like divorce, but in a fresh and interesting way, by breaking down husband/wife communication to its essence to show boredom:
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!
Among the other things happening in the film, there is an exterminator that goes through a suburban neighborhood sleeping with all the housewives and speaking in his own language, a psychologist that is trying to explain the film while being treated poorly by the film crew, a character named “Nameless Numberhead Man” that becomes obsessed with obese women, and even a half-naked guy on a bicycle being chased by net-wielding hospital workers!
The ideas are constant, but are worth keeping up with. It’s also worth noting that this film was released on DVD a few years ago by the Criterion Collection. The DVD has one of the best commentaries I’ve ever heard, featuring Soderbergh interviewing himself about how he’s the greatest filmmaker alive. He says that all the great ideas are his, and that most of Hollywood’s giant budgets are spent merely to purchase these ideas… like Spider-man and Fight Club. Amazing stuff!
It’s interesting to watch this film again after the tremendous success Soderbergh’s had with the Ocean’s 11 films, Traffic, Erin Brockovich and more. You can see the seed of so many great techniques on full display here, in a film he made on a shoe string budget with his friends.
Worth tracking down.