Movie of the Month: Schizopolis (1996)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made BritneeBrandon, and Boomer watch Schizopolis (1996).

Alli: I spent my teenage years moping away in Baton Rouge. I lived in the thick of the suburban sprawl, I dealt with LSU Tigermania, and I struggled with the boredom of living in a place where the main source of entertainment was trying to learn to be into football or embracing the wacky nature of not really belonging. I didn’t watch Schizopolis until after I had moved to New Orleans, but it just stuck with me how the film doesn’t explicitly say it’s set in Baton Rouge anywhere, yet Baton Rouge is everywhere. All of the city’s most iconic landmarks are onscreen: Louie’s Cafe, the local new age emporium Coyote Moon, Highland Park (which I wonder if they even got permission for the obscene moments they filmed there), and the strip mall where Little Wars, the game store and nerd refuge, is located. Basically, Baton Rouge is integral to me as far as Schizopolis is concerned. Outside of the disjointed narrative and surrealist moments of invented language, it’s basically a movie about how the typical American suburban life with a cubicle office job drives you a little crazy.

The main character played by director Steven Soderbergh, Fletcher Munson, works a boring office job for a self help guru/cult leader reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard, T. Asimuth Schwitters. (There’s a strong Scientology presence in Baton Rouge in real life.) He wastes his time at work throwing paper balls into a waste basket and literally jerking off. He has a regular wife with a regular daughter. A generic life full of “generic greetings.” His wife is bored and tired of his inattentiveness, so she starts cheating on him with his doppelgänger: Dr. Korchek, a dentist and philanderer. There are many other wild characters who jump in the narrative along the way: Elmo Oxygen, Nameless Numberhead Man, and Attractive Woman #2.  It’s a jumble of varying perspectives, nonlinear storytelling, and basically just nonsense.

Steven Soderbergh filmed Schizopolis in nine months, working whenever he felt like it. It’s a total self-indulgent vanity project. He starred, directed, wrote it (or rather mainly improvised it), was the cinematographer, and even worked in the sound department. But Schizopolis is a very aware kind of self-indulgent. Before the actual movie begins, there’s a prologue that really serves to set the mood, where Soderbergh is in front of a microphone in an empty theater introducing the film. It’s almost a Monty Python-esque sort of dry humor, right down to the intertitle that assures you that no fish were harmed.

In general, I think the writing is extremely funny, especially for having been improvised. The love letter written to Attractive Woman #2 is a really great example: “I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I’m standing near an air conditioner.” Brandon, what did you think of the use of humor in a non linear narrative like this? Do you have any favorite lines?

Brandon: Monty Python is actually a perfect point of reference, since the disjointed nature of Schizopolis reminded me a lot of a genre I love that rarely goes over well with most audiences: the sketch comedy film. Gags in this comedic mosaic often feel like isolated vignettes before they connect to the larger themes Soderbergh is playing with, namely suburban boredom & romantic miscommunication. Because of the cheap, handheld 90s cinematography that feels so firmly nestled in the era’s indie cinema boom, I suppose sketch comedy troupes like The Kids in the Hall or Upright Citizens Brigade would better fit the vibe Schizopolis traffics in than Monty Python or (for a more esoteric example) The Groove Tube, especially since their televised series would often work individual sketches into a larger episodic narrative. There’s a Gen-X slacker quality to Schizopolis that I really appreciated as a contrast to its heady explorations of the flawed nature of language or the faux-spiritualism of its Scientology stand-in, Eventualism. It’s basically the movie equivalent of a late-period Picasso or a 90s low-fi indie rock act like Half Japanese or Daniel Johnston, getting across genuinely intellectual ideas through a formally sloppy mode of expression. Looking at the film from an intellectual distance, many might think that anyone could’ve made it, that there isn’t much craft to its prankish amateurism. I don’t believe that’s true. There are plenty of other low-fi experiments filmed on microbudgets in Nowhere, America that aren’t nearly as watchable or as cerebrally stimulating as this film. Just look to the documentary American Movie to get a taste of what I’m talking about.

For a film about language, however, there aren’t many individual lines of dialogue I can single out as favorites. A lot of Soderbergh’s technique in Schizopolis is dependent on generic placeholders substituting genuine dialogue. The scenes where Fletcher Munson & Mrs. Munson hold entire conversations with phrases like “Obligation” and “Location of offspring” or where the exterminator, Elmo Oxygen, hits on his female clientele with nonsensical gibberish are fascinating improv language exercises, especially when they’re turned back in on themselves from a different character’s POV in the third act. They’re not exactly quotable, though. A lot of my favorite gags were purely visual, like when an entire scene is substituted with a sign that reads “IDEA MISSING” or when the title card is presented as screenprinted text on a man’s t-shirt, only for the man to be revealed wearing only the t-shirt. The stand-out centerpiece of the film might even be the unbroken shot of Soderbergh (as Munson) making goofy Jim Carrey faces in the bathroom mirror immediately after masturbating at work, just because. As big as Schizopolis‘s ideas can be in a larger scope, its scene to scene rhythms function as a series of half-assed pranks, like a highbrow version of Jackass.

Like Alli, I was also thrown off by these highbrow pranks being staged in Baton Rouge, a severely mediocre city I regret living in for as long as I did in the mid 00s. Every now and then a K&B sign or an eerily familiar LSU auditorium would snap me back into awareness of setting in a dissociative way that was just as surreal as any of the film’s play with language or spiritualism. It’s so odd to me that after the massive success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which was also set in Baton Rouge) Soderbergh would stave off the major studio career he would later succumb to (in titles like Erin BrockovichMagic Mike, and the Oceans series) by relying on his father’s resources as LSU’s Dean of Education to film the most bizarre, dirt cheap, and, in my opinion, best movie of his career in a place as drab as Baton Rouge. Boomer, you also have a personal connection to the city Alli & I are eager to throw under the bus here. Did Schizopolis’s Baton Rouge setting contribute to its surreality in your viewing? What effect do you think the city had on this picture’s overall vibe?

Boomer: Seeing the city that I knew so well (and have much fonder feelings for than my fellows here, although all their criticisms are 100% accurate) certainly added a layer of surreality to the film that I was not expecting. I know Soderbergh was a longtime BR resident–a friend of mine from college used to live in the Sex, Lies, and Videotape house on Bedford–but I was still taken aback when the intro sequence of Act 1 featured (the old location of) Louie’s, which was never more than a five minute walk from any apartment I occupied in the eight years I lived in Baton Rouge. For me, growing up in the beyond-rural reaches of the 5.5 square mile municipality of Slaughter (now a town as of 2002!), Baton Rouge wasn’t just a city, it was the city. To put this in perspective, my parents still can’t get cable where they live, and a recent AT&T service issue left them without phone or internet for three weeks. As such, even the tiny town of Natchitoches seemed like a thriving metropolis when I lived there for a couple of years for school. Looking back, there’s a certain kind of nostalgic energy that I’ve had difficulty articulating in the past: I have very specific remembrances of passing through parts of BR I had not seen before as a child and recognizing the business signs, like the one for Kelleher in the aforementioned Jefferson Highway shopping center that now contains Little Wars, and getting a thrill that something from TV appeared in my real life. Part of this may have been born out of being fortunate enough to see the travelling Sesame Street show at the old Bon Marché mall as a very young child. When you grow up in a trailer in the woods with no connection to the cultural world other than three TV networks (four and a half on a clear day) and the “local” public library two towns over, there’s no clear distinction between national and regional broadcasts, so seeing a business in the real world that had been advertised in a local commercial was just as magical to tiny Boomer as hypothetically seeing Big Bird wandering the streets or stumbling upon Murphy Brown in a cafe.

Years of living in Baton Rouge killed that magic, although I will readily admit that there were other mitigating factors that led to me disenchantment, most of them concerned with growing up and being forced to participate in the economy, which aren’t BR-specific. On the other hand, I was fortunate enough to live on or near East State for the better part of a decade during the time when it was one of the last bastions of artists and other weirdos left in the city’s culture war against gentrification (which it lost, in case you were wondering), and being a part of KLSU gave me insight into a different, more culturally relevant side of the city. That having been said, seeing The Baton Rouge That Was, the city of my childhood, brought back feelings in me that I wasn’t prepared for, and cast a veil of intimacy over Schizopolis that was both surreal and distracting. I kept thinking of being a kid, and making connections between the on-screen presentation that were probably never intended to mean anything to a larger audience (“The lady on Channel 9 with the big teeth–they’re talking about Donna Britt!”). The part of my brain that still retains its childhood awe of the Baton Rouge of yore was a bit overwhelmed by the input, and by the time that Mrs. Munson meets her French lover in a coffee shop where I used to work, I was close to short-circuiting.

When my brain was working, I kept thinking about Jacques Derrida and his work in Of Grammatology, wherein he espouses a theory of language that prioritizes a kind of Logocentrism that revolves around the conceit that writing is a removed (and thus less pure) form of speech, and that speech is a removed (and, again, less pure) form of thought. In the scene where Elmo Oxygen finally breaks down what he really wants (to have sex with a certain P.A.), he makes the statement that “Language does not always require speech,” which on the surface appears to be the opposite of his personal ideology. Elmo’s speech seems to instead require no language, communicating emphasis and meaning through a form of comically exaggerated aphasia in which words have no objective meaning. I have to ask, Britnee, do you think that this is an intentional inversion, or is there a meaning to his statement that I’m overlooking?

Britnee: Elmo is by far my favorite character in Schizopolis. The moment that funky beat of his theme music starts to play, you can be sure that Elmo and his bug-eye goggles are about to grace the screen. He’s the generic sexy neighborhood “pool boy,” except he’s a lanky, middle aged bug exterminator that doesn’t need to try too hard to seduce lonely housewives. Elmo’s character doesn’t make much sense, but I don’t think he’s supposed to. That’s what makes him so funny. While his bizarre manner of speaking seems to be another one of the film’s hilarious improvisations, the strange language eventually starts to make sense. Elmo’s nonsense words are repeated in multiple scenes (“nomenclature,” “jigsaw,” “beef diaper”), and they actually start to develop meaning. For example, when “jigsaw” is stated, it means something along the lines of a sexy “Alright.” When he does state, “Language does not always require speech,” I thought it was just another comical element to his character and nothing more. It’s interesting that Boomer mentioned this theory of language from Jacques Derrida. I have no idea who Derrida is and I am not familiar with his work. However, it made me look at Elmo’s statement in a different light. It’s quite possible that the statement was a nod towards the art of improvisation, but I’m leaning towards it just being a goofy line for his nonsensical character.

Other than Elmo, one of the more fascinating parts of the film was the relationship between Fletcher Munson and his wife. I love how we are able to see the same scenario repeated through the eyes of each character. When we see Fletcher’s version, everything is very matter-of-fact. When he comes home to his wife and child at the end of the work day, it becomes quite obvious that the two have a lack of communication. Fletcher greets his wife by saying, “Generic greeting,” and she responds with “Generic greeting returned.” It’s actually really sad to see the lack of connection and emotion between the two while they put on fake smiles and pretend to give a shit. Fletcher’s wife’s version of events is a little different. When she hears Fletcher and his doppelgänger, Dr. Korchek, speak, the two speak in Japanese and Italian, further representing the inability for Mrs. Munson and the men in her life to communicate with each other.

I felt so bad for Fletcher’s wife. She gets shut out by both versions of her husband, and she doesn’t even get a name! She’s simply known as Mrs. Munson. Alli, what are your thoughts on Mrs. Munson’s character? Is she supposed to represent the invisible suburban housewife?

Alli: Mrs. Munson does seem to represent the average bored and lonely housewife, jaded and treated horribly by a culture of men who are bored, neglectful spark-chasers. However, much like how Munson has his doppelgänger, she has her own in Attractive Woman #2; still a character without a name, but a character with much more agency. On one hand, we have this maternal and pragmatic woman fed up with her husband and his lack of attention, but then there’s also this woman who just wants a dang dentist and takes a man to court for being a creep. She’s a mother trying to figure out where her life is headed next and an unattainable love interest who has the upper hand, which is slightly more than the Soderbergh character gets, even if it involves less screen time and no first name.

It’s this duality that really creates the central conflict of the film. There’s a dichotomy between the settled American family life, represented by Mrs. Munson and her husband, and the single life, represented by Dr. Korchek and Attractive Woman #2. The question being posed and answered in that dynamic amounts to, “Is the grass greener on the other side?”  And of course, going a little deeper than shallow inspection (Munson peering into Korchek’s windows) and beyond infatuation, the answer is resoundingly “No.” If you’re a normie suburban type, you might as well just embrace it.

The female characters in general do seem to be given a level of inconsideration, however. Like we’ve already mentioned, none of them are given first names. None of them have any obvious occupations. They’re stuck in the stereotypical world of women, gossiping with friends and taking care of children. The men aren’t exactly portrayed favorably, but it doesn’t feel balanced given their female counterparts’ lack of screen time, lines, and story beats. It’s the same sort of attitude that I feel like the film is trying to lampoon, ironically enough, by making all the men boneheads. I don’t want to be too harsh though, because, unlike in real life, being creepy and sexist has noticeable consequences here. Dr. Korchek gets his words thrown back at him by three unamused lawyers, and even gets shot. Munson is unknowingly ignoring his wife into leaving him. All of the men get their due, even Nameless Numberhead Man, who’s constantly and disgustingly shaming his wife for being too thin. He’s made to look like a ridiculous ass, and much like Mrs. Munson with Dr. K, his wife is cheating on him with Elmo the exterminator, who is a weirdo but not a creep. Everything between Elmo and women is consensual.

Elmo is a somewhat main character who isn’t given a double; what you see is what you get with him, although he’s given an alternate life or two. He’s an exterminator, he’s a sexy neighborhood “pool boy” like Britnee mentioned, and eventually he’s sort of a reality TV star. “Meta” is an overused word, but between Elmo’s video life, the intro, and the interview with the guy in the park, there’s this sort of self-aware thread running through Schizopolis. Brandon, how do you feel about that kind of post-modern “This is a movie you’re watching” thing? And what do you think of Elmo’s involvement in it?

Brandon: While it’s true that Elmo Oxygen doesn’t have an exact doppelgänger (at least not in the form of a separate character also played by actor David Jensen), he does have a sort of counterbalance in the cult leader guru T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), author of How To Control Your Own Mind & the engineer of Eventualism. The film contrasts Elmo’s aggressively informal demeanor & working class lifestyle distributing Elmo’s Bug Juice throughout Baton Rouge suburbia with Schwitters’s stuffier, self-agrandizing nature as an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in. The way they function within the plot as a unit suggests they might have originally been intended to be cast as a single actor, like Fletcher Munson & the dentist or Mrs. Munson & Attractive Woman #2. Schwitters’s Eventualism lectures have a decidedly more academic air to them than the hypnotic gibberish Elmo employs to seduce the bored housewives of Baton Rouge, but the philosophical sentiment of those monologues mean just about as much as Elmo’s “jigsaw nomenclature” ramblings; i.e. they mean nothing at all.

The dual function of these two characters also operates mostly outside the domestic drama of the doppelgängers, which is more of the film’s A-plot. Elmo & Scwitters are allowed to address the audience directly and reveal the barely hidden mechanics of Making a Movie in a way that points to the self-aware, “meta” nature of Schizopolis Alli was referring to. Elmo’s role in that dynamic seems to be to represent the film’s function as a sophomoric prank with Looney Tunes sound effects, while Schwitters represents its more heady, philosophical aspirations. Both are played for equal, self-effacing humor and anchor other meta elements like the interviews in the park, the diagetic chapter breaks, and Soderbergh’s introductory address to the audience to something more thematically substantial. Usually when movies are this self-aware they fall firmly in the Dumb Comedy genre, where breaking the fourth wall or directly pointing to the artificiality of their own existence is a more widely employed trope. Elmo managed to make a more significant impact than Schwitters in this way, as his prankish existence is much more in line with the cartoonish weirdos you’d likely see in a wacky comedy from the Farrelly Brothers, ZAZ, The Lonely Island, etc., but I found them both about equally fascinating as two sides of the same meta coin.

As fun as the film’s self-aware meta humor is on a scene to scene basis, Schizopolis‘s main concern seems to be the romantic affairs between the various doppelgängers played by Soderbergh & Betsy Brantley. This dynamic, in which spouses cheat on each other with characters who look exactly the same as the people they’re already with, opens the film up to many thematic provocations we’ve already covered: the breakdown of communication, the mundanity of suburban life, the dwindling passion inherent to romantic partnership & domesticity, etc. What I’d like to hear from Boomer is how he thinks that dynamic compares to the similar themes of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, in which attraction to a new acquaintance makes them appear different from the rest of the world only until time eventually renders them to be the exact same as everyone else: just another body within the dull hegemony. Does that more conspicuously bitter stop-motion drama traffic in the same waters as Schizopolis‘s “Love the One You’re With” domestic strife for you or are they doing entirely different things?

Boomer: What a great question! For me, I see the two as being complementary and compatible, but not really aligned with one another. Within Anomalisa, Michael’s issues appear to stem from a pretty severe mental illness which causes him to see all people as variations on the same archetype of a person; for him, the whole of humanity is a vast sea of individual bodies bearing identical faces and voices, “proving” to him that he is the only unique (and perhaps only real) person in the world. Michael is adrift in a sea of non-persons, circumscribed by his own existence and unable to find value in others, trapped. When he meets Lisa, he perceives that he is like him, an individual, and creates a facade of her with which he falls in love. When the real Lisa does not live up to this false expectation (because no one can), she begins to assume the same face and voice as the rest of the human horde, until Michael can no longer see what attracted him to her in the first place. My reading of the text of Anomalisa is different from my reading of SchizopolisAnomalisa is very much a work about the failures of human interaction, yes, but I interpret its thesis to be a statement about men’s needs to create an artifice of a woman in place of a real person, as this is less complicated than recognizing a person’s individuality, and how that mental circumlocution is supported by predominant social narratives about the gender but is ultimately doomed to failure because it fails to accept that gender is socially created and performative, not a fact of biology. On another level, Anomalisa is about Michael’s particular and idiosyncratic sociopathy when it comes to his lack of recognition of the humanity of others.

My reading of Schizopolis, on the other hand, is more about the relationships between individuals. It is still a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people. As noted above, his conversation with his wife is like an exchange of placeholder dialogue despite their physical proximity to each other on screen and the intimacy which we would expect based on the fact that they are married; alternatively, his shouted comments to his neighbor, who is placed across the street to imply that the distance between them is personal as well as physical, are too familiar, talking about the man’s wife in intimate (and derogatory) terms.

The biggest difference between the two films, however, is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. We see Lisa’s true face at the end, but only briefly and out of Michael’s sight. Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person. I wouldn’t say that makes Soderbergh’s the richer film (it’s too tongue-in-cheek to have the same haunting effect as Charlie Kaufman’s unique brand of melancholy), but it does make it one with more rewatch value.

Britnee, what did you think of the role of (dis)organized religion in this film? Do you think that the director’s choice to mock Scientology over other, more popular and stable religions was designed to prevent offense? What does the film say about cult thinking?

Britnee: Eventualism is always looming in the background of Schizopolis. These sad, lifeless characters (minus Elmo) are products of Eventualism. Much like Scientology, Eventualism dangles the cheese in front of its members, giving them the promise of reaching their full potential, but in all actuality, destroying their lives. Part of me wonders if Fletcher and his wife’s doppelgängers are what they would actually be if they weren’t part of Eventualism. Lately, I’ve become fascinated with Scientology. No, I’m definitely not becoming a member, but the more I learn about the religion the more blown away I am that it exists. On a recent trip to Quebec City, I stumbled upon Eglise de Scientologie on accident (I thought it was a bookstore), and it was quite the experience. Lifeless, robotic individuals were walking up to me and my mother, offering us the “secret to happiness” by trying to lure us into taking personality tests. I couldn’t help but think of these folks when watching Schizopolis. Like Fletcher and his wife, they really aren’t horrible people; they’re just in a horrible situation. Like with many cults, if the members aren’t 100% brainwashed, they’re trapped. Their families are members and it’s become the only life they know, so it’s not easy to leave. Take Fletcher, for instance: he works for the leader Schwitters and his family belongs to the faith, but he’s absolutely miserable. He’s forever doomed and he knows it.

I don’t think that Soderbergh targeted Scientology over other popular religions to prevent offense, as he doesn’t strike me as the type to play it safe. It seems like he chose Scientology because it’s more interesting than boring old Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. Scientology is a little more on the flashy side, as it’s practiced by many celebrities and even advertised on television!

Lagniappe

Alli: As boring and ill-fitting as suburban, domestic life is presented here, ultimately there’s some sort of resolution and acceptance. Fletcher meets with his wife in the end at coffee shop to patch things up. It seems like they’ve had a taste of the other, more adventurous side of life and it fits even less. Hopefully they resolve their communication issues, but overall it’s an ending that says maybe the average American life isn’t so bad. Some people are just born normies, and that’s okay.

Boomer: As for another artistic view on Baton Rouge that is more in line with Brandon and Alli’s feelings about the city, I recommend “Polio Addict” by BR band The Melters. As for other Baton Rouge-iana that permeates the film, I thought that perhaps Soderbergh’s mention of “foot long veggie on wheat” was a reference to Inga’s Subs and Salads, but wanted to make sure that this was possible, timeline-wise. As it turns out, yes! Inga retired a couple of years ago, but her shop is still in existence on West Chimes Street, and I recommend it.

Britnee: I can count the number of times I’ve been to Baton Rouge on one hand, so I didn’t have any nostalgic feelings like the rest of the crew. I will definitely check out some of the Schizopolis landmarks on future trips!

Brandon: Schizopolis was the most important motion picture I ever rented. It is my 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 streaming price, not some cut-rate deal. I found certain sequences & events confusing, but it was my fault, not filmmakers’. I will need to see the picture again and again until I understand everything.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

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2 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Schizopolis (1996)

  1. Pingback: The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Schizopolis (1996) Brought Soderbergh Back to Home Base Only to Burn It to the Ground | Swampflix

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