Schizopolis (1996) Goes Hollywood: Full Frontal (2002)

When Steven Soderbergh filmed the largely improvised, aggressively irreverent Schizopolis in the mid-90s, he seemed to be deliberately disrupting the flow of his career. After a few consecutive big budget duds failed in wide release, the director returned to the themes & means of his popular debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with the intent of burning them to the ground & shaking himself out of a creative rut. Soderbergh’s one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern never felt as drastic as when he filmed Schizopolis, which was seemingly made with an audience of one in mind: Steven Soderbergh. The trick worked. The next stretch of the director’s career brought on a string of mainstream successes that made him a formidable creative force within the Hollywood system, instead of a one hit wonder in the 90s indie cinema boom he helped spark. Even success has a kind of complacency to it that begs disruption, however, and early in the 00s Soderbergh returned to the cerebral irreverence of Schizopolis to shake himself out of the comfort of Hollywood System filmmaking.

Following on the heels of major financial successes Traffic & Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood-insider comedy Full Frontal returned to the low-fi absurdism & disjointed structure Soderbergh gleefully turned into a Looney Tunes farce in Schizopolis. Full Frontal is a little less aggressive in its sense of silliness than that 90s work, but is just as prone to jarring non sequiturs, unexplained shifts in form & reality, and playful experimentation with improv. Shot in less than a month on intentionally low quality digital video, the film was called out by contemporary critics for being confusing & visually amateurish, as if those effects weren’t deliberate. For at least the second time in his career, Soderbergh was consciously working in low-fi, anarchic modes of expression to break away from a creative comfort zone that threatened to dull his output. The only difference, really, was that Schizopolis featured mostly non-professional actors (including Soderbergh himself & his real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley), running amok in the Baton Rouge suburbs, while Full Frontal heavily relies on a vapid Los Angeles movie industry playground for its own hijinks, including public persona-subverting turns from Major Movie Stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, David Duchovny, etc.

Full Frontal vaguely tackes the shape of many 00s indies with large casts. A collection group of characters weave in & out of each other’s lives in a loose, everything-is-connected narrative over the course of a single day. Actors, producers, public relations drones, playwrights, and every other brand of LA industry type you can imagine entangle and drift apart in various combinations in the day leading up to a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Occasionally, Julia Roberts poking fun at her America’s Sweetheart™ persona or Catherine Keener asking nonsensical, stream of conscious questions to her employees in layoff interviews will steal the show, but the movie is ultimately more concerned with form than it is with performance. Jarring shifts in visual quality & location of setting will intentionally disorient the audience, especially as (borrowing a page from Sex, Lies, and Videotape) the audio drifts out of sync from the image presented, to a dissociative effect. Sex is blurred & obscured from the camera. Movie within a movie layering & voice-over interviews deliberately confuse what’s “real” within the narrative. Character introductions are presented in headshots before the opening credits (which are actually credits for a non-existent movie Rendezvous) as if they were a playbill in motion. Much like Schizopolis, Full Frontal feels like a filmmaker playing with the basic tools of his craft to reach for freshly innovative effects he could not achieve in the more well-behaved works that preceded it.

There are plenty visual & thematic details connecting Full Frontal & Schizopolis if you intentionally keep an eye out for them. Catherine Keener’s slow-motion romantic breakup with David Hyde Pierce certainly echoes the domestic fallings out between Soderbergh & Bentley’s various doppelgängers in the earlier work. The reality-breaking interview tangents, the drab office place settings (including scenes set in workplace men’s rooms), and Soderbergh’s choice to appear in front of the camera (this time with a blurred-out face, as if he were an episode of Cops) are just a few blatant connectors that run as parallels between the two films. What’s more important is the way the films use an improv-style spontenaity to make the audience feel as if anything could happen. In Full Frontal, a nameless neighbor is shown performing simple domestic chores in a full Dracula costume; an unnamed man crawls across a hotel hallway on all fours in his underwear, unacknowledged; an actor with a Hitler mustache sings the theme song to Cops in a makeup mirror (there’s that show again). This spontenaity revitalizes Soderbergh as a filmmaker, a creator. Instead of shaking up the romantic ennuii of Baton Rouge suburbanites, it disrupts the business-as-usual mundanity of Hollywood’s sycophantic starfuckers & namedroppers, but the intent remains the same even in the transported setting. Unfortunately, these films also share the burden of being overlooked & undervalued for the deftly absurd ways they reshaped & untidied Soderbergh’s career as it evolved into Hollywood-insider status. They’re two of his best films, yet somehow two of his least loved.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its romantic doppelgänger crisis to the similar themes of Anomalisa (2015), and last week’s look at how it violently subverted the director’s hit debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-Brandon Ledet

Get Out (2017)

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Although they’re often (rightly) called out for their inherent misogyny, there’s a popular reading of slasher films that claims they’re subversively, politically progressive because they ask a traditionally male audience to identify & empathize with a female victim’s POV. Aligning horror nerds’ sympathies with a Final Girl archetype might not seem like the height of radical discourse, especially considering what typically happens to those characters on-screen, but it does have a cultural value to it that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sleazy 80s slashers. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele recognizes this function of horror audience sympathies and shifts its culturally critical eye from feminism to racial politics. Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.

Our de facto Final Girl protagonist is a young, hip photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family home for the first time. Isolated in a secluded, wealthy suburb, he’s faced with the outnumbered, paranoid feeling of being the only black man in a sea of white, smiling faces. The only other POC in his hosts’ community are “the help”, who have an unnatural, creepily robotic way of acting (assumedly in a direct nod to The Stepford Wives). Instead of tackling the blatant, violently hateful kind of racism that would more typically be skewered in this kind of movie, however, Get Out finds horror in racism’s much subtler, more difficult to pin down forms. The girlfriend’s family is initially very cordial with our Final Boy, but in an awkward, discomforting way, plagued with a wide variety of micro-aggressions he awkwardly smiles through to avoid confrontation. By using phrases like “my man,” “thang,” and “Sup, fam?” in an attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease, the family only makes his presence feel all the more alien. They declare proudly that they can’t possibly be racist, since they enthusiastically voted for Obama. Twice! The girlfriend, in turn, makes a big show of pointing out every subtle slight in an attempt to seem cool & above it all. Nothing about the scenario is cool. Through eerie atmosphere, mood-setting jump scares, and surreal nightmare imagery, Peele slowly, steadily reveals the ugly spirit lurking under this try-hard liberalism that reduces a human being into a cultural specimen. And when the corrupt, corrosive nature of that sentiment comes violently crashing to the surface, it’s exposed to be just as cruel & terrifying as the kind of racism usually depicted through white hoods & burning crosses.

Get Out is a good, well made genre film that then becomes spectacularly great in its violent, no fucks given third act. Peele’s well-rounded screenplay brings every stray theme, from the racial discomfort to the main character’s guilt over past inaction to metaphorical motifs as small as roadkill deer, back around for a glorious, purposeful conclusion. The seemingly well-meaning, casual racism that had been lurking under the surface like a paranoid delusion is exposed as a horrifically grotesque monster that reduces black men to physical objects, targets for the white & wealthy’s fascination & possessive entitlement. Additionally, Peele filters this thinly veiled maliciousness through a surreal nightmare where reality is warped by perception-shifting hypnosis. If I had one complaint about Get Out it’d be that it could’ve spent a lot more time diving into the otherworldly imagery & paralyzing implications of its hypnotic dream-space, known in-film as The Sunken Place, instead of chasing tension-cutting meta humor with the film’s comic relief character. The Final Boy’s best friend phones in periodically to act as an audience surrogate, asking questions like, “How are you not scared right now?” & directly calling out the girlfriend’s family as the creeps they so obviously are. He’s an amusing presence in the film, but he’s one that pushes Get Out away from the more unique touches of its modern horror surrealism into a more overly familiar horror/sketch comedy tone. However, Peele still gets the most he can out of his subtle nightmare plot’s moment to moment creepiness, especially from always-welcome character actors Catherine Keener & Stephen Root, and you can tell he made this passion project from the perspective of a life-long horror fan who knows exactly how the format works most efficiently. From Get Out‘s cultural criticism to its play with Final Girl tropes to the gloriously bizarre territory of its third act reveals & Sunken Place surrealism, it’s an impressive, striking debut feature, a great first go for a filmmaker who hopefully has a long career of these horrific, satirical mind-benders ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet