Way back in the prolific filmography Steven Soderbergh (whose latest film, Unsane, is out on DVD this week), there’s the tiny Schizopolis (1996), his hilarious, endlessly creative mental breakdown of a vanity project. Full of ideas and self-amusement, It’s best imagined as Soderbergh’s sketch comedy show, as projected straight from his brain. The movie has no beginning or end credits, it’s bookended by Soderbergh saying that it’s your fault if you don’t get it, and it wants nothing more than to be a whopping art-house fart.
In his first and only leading role, Soderbergh stars in Schizopolis as two people. First, there’s Fletcher Munson, a corporate drone who is hired to write a speech for a guru named T. Azimuth Schwitters and his religion, Eventualism. He’s married and has a child with a woman (Betsy Brantley, his ex-wife in real life), who we later find out is having an affair with her dentist, the tracksuit-weaning Dr. Korchek (also played by Soderbergh, in aviator glasses). The very basic nature of the plot concerns Fletcher’s dull existence, his fraying marriage as expressed through dialogue that speaks purely subtextually (“Generic greeting,” he says when he comes home; “Generic greeting returned,” she replies), and his goal of writing the speech (“It should contain nothing that can be confirmed … or denied,” his boss instructs him with a stern face).
But Schizopolis has even more on its mind, cutting between different narrative strands that involve a sleazy, casanova-level bug exterminator (David Jensen) who speaks in gibberish to women he seduces (“Arsenal. Nose army” he says before boning a housewife), a couple that follow him around in a regular van as if commenting on the viewer’s impression of him, an educated spokesperson for the movie who seems to not be in on the joke, and various news reports that are like Onion stories.
For a movie as thoroughly and elusively ironic as Schizopolis, it’s best understood through the contradictions it loves so dearly (which, by no coincidence, is how Eventualism communicates): Its themes are absurdist yet sober; the dialogue can sound like wingdings but is easy to follow; its editing is erratic but focused; it’s all a big joke, and yet it could be Soderbergh’s American pastoral, especially with its images of hypocritical spirituality, bleak relationships, the coded nature of language and the very act of making such a ridiculous movie. There’s a lot to unpack in this story, but it would be a waste of time to overthink any of it.
The only thing that clearly makes sense about this film is that Soderbergh needed it; it was always meant to be a very personal project after forgotten misfires like The Underneath and King of the Hill. In 1996, he talked to Patricia Thomson at The Independent Film and Video Monthly about how he was able to secure funding for the movie, but always prefaced that it wasn’t for his distributors, or possibly anyone else. “You’re not going to want this movie; this is just to keep me going,” he quotes himself saying to Universal. Soderbergh never seemed concerned with it making money, and Schizopolis benefited from coming at a time when filmmakers could more easily bankroll their artistic projects. Schizopolis would pay off in a different way — it provided an artistic reboot that would lead to one of Soderbergh’s most successful movies, Out of Sight, practicing non-linear editing techniques and even a similar dry sense of humor that translated to a box office hit.
It’s hard to imagine Schizopolis working if Soderbergh were not at the center of it. His rare presence onscreen completes the self-amusement factor of the film, as in his opening scene where he’s shown masturbating at work, or making grotesque faces at the camera. But the usage of any other actor would take away the non-scripted movie’s mascot, whose very presence just shows how impulsive it is.
While Schizopolis is assuredly the work of a delightfully bizarre filmmaker, it does have a heart at the center regarding its perspective on relationships. In one form Schizopolis is the creation of a film artist processing a dead relationship by not providing it with any distance, to the point that he and Brantley each play two people, their spousal characters cheating on each other. It has a genuine comic sadness at its core not unlike other relationships seen within Soderbergh’s often less sarcastic ideas of romance.
Influenced by the likes of director Richard Lester (who Soderbergh interviews in a book about making Schizopolis titled Getting Away with It), Monty Python, Looney Tunes, and probably whatever Soderbergh ate the morning of shooting, Schizopolis functions as uniquely, delightfully dorky comedy. In particular it shows the bombastic freedom of his dry sense of humor, as in an extensive scene where Soderbergh, as Dr. Korchek, seemingly riffs on every dentist joke in the book.
As a movie that would have only played in independent theaters and been sought out by people looking for some kind of art, Schizopolis can be very glib with the idea of sophistication, going for obvious metaphors and storytelling devices. One of its obvious metaphors is of a pants-less man being shown running away from people trying to catch him, wearing a T-shirt with the film’s name on it. But Schizopolis is liberated in a way that few films are. The amount to which it wants to be self-amusing becomes invigorating, especially for those who like how Soderbergh is a rascally filmmaker. An art-house movie about male strippers, as with Magic Mike? Using an iPhone instead of a camera for Unsane? Schizopolis shows that he’s always had that spirit, despite whatever audience or prestige his other projects may have.
But the miracle of this movie — aside from the fact that it wasn’t just put in Soderbergh’s personal collection, given its very selfish existence — is that despite its upfront denial of quality, Schizopolis prevails as an excellent, compelling piece of entertainment. Even when working on a stream of consciousness, his storytelling instincts shine through. The movie is designed to be a fluke, or “a lark,” as he told interviewers. As one of his greatest films, it’s anything and everything but that.