Schizopolis (1996) Brought Soderbergh Back to Home Base Only to Burn It to the Ground

One of the most exciting aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, is in trying to figure out exactly who it’s for. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh has consistently maintained a one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern, balancing out crowd-pleasers like the Oceans & Magic Mike series with head-scratchers like Solaris & The Girlfriend Experience. Few creative enterprises have ever felt as self-satisfying as the deliberately impenetrable Schizopolis, however, which was seemingly made for Steven Soderbergh and Steven Soderbergh alone, an audience of one. What’s interesting is that as insular & self-indulgent as Schizopolis can feel to anyone who isn’t Steven Soderbergh, it also closely resembles the debut crowd-pleaser that jumpstarted his career, a feature that made him a name before he had even fully found his voice. In a way, Schizopolis documents Soderbergh’s return to his creative home base, his professional launching pad, only so he could set fire to the good will it generated and move on with his life. Soderbergh may have built his career on a one-for-me-one-for-them ethos, but Schizopolis is a rare case of the director returning to one of his one-for-them successes with an anarchic intent to explode his own legacy.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a Big Deal in 1989. At 26 years old, Soderbergh was the then-youngest director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this debut feature, which then went on to earn great financial success that made a name for the Sundance Film Fest and was a major player in kick-starting the 90s indie cinema boom. That success also weighed heavily on Soderbergh’s shoulders. A film famously written on a legal pad during a week’s worth of travel and filmed in just a month’s time in Soderbergh’s makeshift home city of Baton Rouge, Sex, Lies, and Videotape quickly built the young director up for a massive professional fall, a danger he immediately succumbed to. His three immediate follow-ups– Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath— bombed critically & financially, leaving him dangerously close to becoming an indie cinema one hit wonder. To shake himself out of this professional slump, Soderbergh returned to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to film another hastily-written, dirt cheap reflection on domesticity & suburban ennui. Where he had formerly crafted a poignant, darkly funny drama that struck a chord with everyone within earshot, he now seemed determined to cut loose with a nonsensical comedy designed to strike a chord with no one. Schizopolis was the inverse, anti-matter version of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a kind of self-targeting professional blasphemy that set Soderbergh free from the expectations set by his initial success.

Much like Schizopolis, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is about a long-married Baton Rouge couple struggling to maintain intimacy & honest communication as their domestic life loses its initial spark of romance. Andie MacDowell stars as a bored suburban housewife who doesn’t believe women enjoy sex as much they report to while her eternally horny husband cheats on her with her equally oversexed sister. Although she’s never experienced an orgasm and is embarrassed to discuss masturbation even with her therapist, her sexual appetite is seemingly awakened by the arrival of her husband’s old college buddy, a drastically gloomy James Spader. Spader’s lovelorn drifter is an impotent fetishist who can only get off by interviewing women about their sexual past on the titular videotapes, which he watches in isolation. McDowell’s lack of a sexual appetite & Spader’s social impotency amounts to a kind of sexual miscommunication that builds nicely with the ambient tension of Sex, Lies, and Videotape‘s Cliff Martinez score. The film’s payoff is in watching two emotionally wounded animals eventually get on the same page to fulfill their obvious desire for one another, despite the communication breakdown of their sexual language. Paradoxically, Schizopolis would later make this exact kind of romantic miscommunication more literal and more abstract.

Schizopolis may return to the themes & settings of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it also feels hostile to the commercial elements that make Soderbergh’s debut a universal success. Themes of romantic miscommunication are made irreverently literal as a husband & wife’s dialogue are overdubbed in two incompatible languages or converted to generic, nonsensical placeholder phrases. Where Sex, Lies, and Videotape was hastily written, Schizopolis is almost wholly improvised, making its spontaneity even more abrasive. In his debut, Soderbergh made sure to keep his Baton Rouge setting mostly confined to interiors, where MacDowell’s thick Southern accent is the only identifying element at play that makes it feel unlike Anywhere, America. By contrast, Schizopolis makes a point to document as many Baton Rouge-specific exteriors as possible, to the point where half our initial conversation on the film was distracted by its tourism of a city where most of us had lived at one time or another in the 2000s. He made the film even less universal by casting himself & his ex-wife (Betsy Bentley) as the film’s romantic doppelgängers; not to mention the lack of commercial appeal inherent to an irreverent film about romantic doppelgängers in the first place. It’s a film that covers the same adulterous, dispirited, emotionally dysfunctional territory as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but with none of the universal appeal that made that landmark erotic thriller a critical & financial hit, deliberately so. It even forsakes the immediate appeal of its predecessor’s instantly intriguing title.

As disparate as the approaches in Soderbergh’s Baton Rouge-set domestic dramas seem aesthetically, there’s actually a fair amount of Schizopolis’s DNA detectable in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Besides the obvious overlap in themes & setting, one of the more striking aspects of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the dissociative disconnect between the movie’s imagery & its soundtrack. From the opening sequence where Andie MacDowell rambles to her therapist about waste disposal while the audience watches James Spader travel to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to later scenes where her confessions of sexual appetite deficiency overlap with images of her husband’s infidelity, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is playful with the ways the sights & sounds of cinema can manipulate audience perception when out of sync. Schizopolis pushes this dissociative effect to a comedic extreme, jarring its audience out of sync at every possible turn with the irreverence of a feature length Monty Python sketch gone rogue. By returning to his earliest success in filmmaking experimentation, Soderbergh rediscovered the tools & effects that initially excited him in the first place, then decided to push them as far as the medium (and perhaps past where his audience) would allow. He picked apart & set aflame the basic components of his first feature in an eccentrically personal work that seemed to violently shake him out of a five year sophomore slump and led directly to the most successful stretch of his career to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its romantic doppelgänger crisis compares to the themes of Anomalisa (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

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I’ve long considered pro wrestling to be the hyper-masculine equivalent to the way femininity is vamped up in drag performances. Magic Mike XXL poses that male entertainment (read: male stripping) fills that role instead. As represented on the screen here, it’s a solidly convincing argument. Early in the film male strippers & drag queens meet eye to eye in a small dive bar where the male entertainment crew from the first Magic Mike film participate in a voguing contest hosted by a wonderful small-part drag queen MC named Ms Tori Snatch. This scene not only gives the world the wonderful gift of watching former pro wrestler/NWO member Kevin Nash attempt voguing (he at least gets the spirit down more than some of his buddies, even if he can’t move his lumbering body very well), but it also establishes a connection between drag & male entertainment as artforms. Although the strip routines at the big competition at the end of the movie feature a ludicrous amount of faux ejaculations & weightlifting human beings that you’re unlikely to see in a roadside drag show, that brand of cartoonishly gendered performance is not far from what Tori Snatch does for a living. It’s just at the opposite end of the spectrum.

This exploration of stripping as absurd gender performance is limited almost entirely to Magic Mike XXL‘s on-screen stripteases & the brief foray into voguing (although Channing Tatum’s titular protagonist does reveal that his drag queen name would be Clitoria Labia), though, so what of the rest of the film? Besides a couple refreshingly casual nods to a few characters’ bisexuality & some vague philosophising about male entertainment’s role as female worship & sexual healing, the film doesn’t have all too much on its pretty little mind. The first Magic Mike film was an existential, melancholy look at the personal lives of male entertainers that had a lot of devious fun clashing their gloomy off-the-clock behavior with the over-the-top escapism they delivered on stage. Magic Mike XXL, by contrast, is pure escapism. The sequel ditches its predecessor’s despondent character study in favor of an aging-boy-band-goes-on-a-road-trip slapstick comedy. The opening of the film revisits a little of Mike’s downtrodden attempts to escape The Life, but once he rejoins the fold & starts dancing again the film is essentially a long list of road trip gags that all land beautifully (when they aren’t interrupted by the film’s hot & heavy strip teases).

True to the film’s boy band dynamic, its narrative focus mostly distinguishing the individual personalities of Mike’s crew of stripper buddies. There’s the pretty boy mystic, the aging giant with an artist’s heart, the boytoy who’s looking to shed his casual sex life in favor of a longterm relationship, etc., all for you to fawn over while they remove clothing from their shaved & oiled bodies. Magic Mike XXL only loses its spark when it strays from detailing the quirks of its all-growed-up boy band heart throbs & tries to find women for them to love. A lot of the heart of the first film was wrapped up in finding a budding romance for Mike, but the idea of repeating that process for the sequel isn’t exactly an enticing one. The love interest angle of XXL is treated like a necessary evil that the movie attempts to downplay at every turn. Mike’s potential partner is an unlikeable Ke$ha type who fancies herself an important artist too wrapped up in herself to engage with the oustide world in an interesting way. She’s self-absorbed, too young & too naive for Mike, and “not going through a boy phase right now” anyway, so her role as the generic Love Interest #2 is significantly downplayed, but it still feels like a waste of the movie’s time. Brief turns as potential love interests from Jada Pinkett Smith & Andie MacDowell (whose Georgian accent is so bad here that she uses the phrase “you guys” instead of “y’all”) fare a little better than Ke$ha the Self-Important Photographer, but they don’t make much of an impression either. The best XXL has to offer story-wise is as a goofy roadtrip movie about a ludicrous group of male entertainment buddies each finding themselves & bringing their true natures into their acts instead of emptily filling the Village People type of stripper roles like fireman in a thong, policeman in a thong, etc.

Beyond the road-trip story, which survives on the strength of its individual gags, Magic Mike XXL‘s greatest asset is its intense imagery. It’s totally understandable that a franchise about male strippers often gets overlooked for the quality of its cinematography, but it’s still a shame. Certain images (like a BDSM-themed strip tease set to Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” & a surreal tour through Jada Pinkett Smith’s dream-logic sex mansion) are just as striking as anything you’d find in a well-crafted art film, but still feel comfortably at home in this over-sexed road-trip buddy comedy. Magic Mike XXL is an impressive melding of the high & low brow, engaging both in its wealth of comedic & over-sexed surface pleasures & in its intense visual palette & light philosophising on the nature of gender performance & sexual healing in male entertainment. It’s difficult to say whether or not it’s a better film than the first, but it’s undeniably more fun.

-Brandon Ledet