High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #59 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ocean’s ∞ & Logan Lucky (2017)

Welcome to Episode #59 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fifty-ninth episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the entire Ocean’s 11 franchise, from its 1960s Rat Pack origins to its 2017 off-shoot Logan Lucky. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Unsane (2018)

I never particularly understood what makes Steven Soderbergh unique as an auteur until we covered his cerebral, low-fi prank Schizopolis for a Movie of the Month conversation last year. Filmed cheaply on Super 8 cameras while dicking around in the hellish mediocrity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Schizopolis is alone justification for Soderbergh’s reputation as a scrappy experimenter in content & form. If I hadn’t already gotten on his wavelength by catching up with that experiment in low-fi irreverence last year, 2018’s Unsane would have been just as viable of an entry point. Here, Soderbergh bridges the gap by getting on my wavelength, delivering the exact heightened horror schlock I cherish the most at the movies. Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in the modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Much like how Schizopolis mixed heady existential crises with the lower irreverence of Kids in the Hall sketch comedy, Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container, but find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

Claire Foy stars as a cutthroat corporate stooge who works in one of those sickly, florescent-lit cubicle hells from past Soderbergh joints like Schizopolois & Full Frontal. She comes across as aggressively uptight & snooty, but not without reason to be on-edge. Her mother constantly infantilizes & undermines her. Her boss leverages his position to hit on her without consequence. Potential Tinder hookups pose a threat of physical harm to her as a single woman who lives alone. Her steeled exterior is a performative defense, mostly because of a violent stalker from her past that has driven her into a constant state of fear & paranoia. As she relapses into seeing this stalker’s face in spaces he logically cannot occupy, she seeks psychiatric help from a mental health facility that tricks her into “voluntarily” committing herself for suicide watch. Once she’s locked into that system, the hospital uses every small infraction possible to extend her stay, heartlessly milking her for insurance money. The scam is described (mostly by a fellow level-headed patient, SNL vet Jay Pharaoh) in terms of a prison sentence: “They’re locking up sane people for profit,” “Do your time. Keep your head down,” “Learn how to live the routine,” etc. Remaining cool, calm, and collected proves to be impossible, though, as the stalker she fears so much surfaces as an employee of the hospital’s, an authority figure she cannot escape. Worse yet, nobody believes her, perhaps not even the audience. The rest of the film from there is a cheap slasher masquerading as a giallo mystery & a wryly funny descent into the bowels of Kafkaesque capitalist bureaucracy.

Besides my more general appreciation for morally tacky horror, I have a very specific love for affordable fad technology being documented in microbudget (and often technophobic) genre pieces. In the past, I’ve praised at length the laptop POV of Unfriended, the gaming app aesthetic of Nerve & #horror, the ringtone eeriness of Suicide Club, the GoPro energy of Afflicted, the Snapchat pop grime of Sickhouse, and so on. On the surface, Unsane’s iPhone cinematography appears to be closer tied to the classy transcendence of the medium in works like Tangerine & Damascene, but the film is too deliberately, persistently ugly to make that leap. Soderbergh intentionally chooses outright hideous angles & vantage points that recall daily digital footage we’re used to seeing outside of cinematic contexts: security camera pans, low-angle YouTube uploads, uncomfortably close webcam conversations, voyeuristic distance in clips of celebrities’ or strangers’ public behavior covertly captured on smartphones. However, outside a brief sequence where social media is explained to be a security liability to stalkers’ victims, there isn’t much outright paranoia about the evils of modern technology reflected in this approach. Instead, the film uses pedestrian modes of everyday, we-all-do-it filmmaking to approximate the feel of an investigative journalist sneaking a hidden camera into a crooked mental institution that holds patients against their will, like the horror film equivalent of an episode of Dateline NBC. An occasional experiment in double-exposure digi-photography pushes the aesthetic beyond that approach to match the protagonist’s manic (or too-heavily medicated) psyche, but Unsane mostly dwells in the drab digital hell we’re immersed in online daily. It’s something I always appreciate from my trashy horror movies, if not only as an honest document of our current culture as it truly looks to the unfortunate souls who live it.

Almost anything I could praise about Unsane would potentially be a turn-off to other viewers. Like with last year’s Split, I love the films schlocky premise as is, but wouldn’t hold it against anyone who finds its treatment of mental illness as morally repugnant. As I’ve learned from recommending small budget technophobic horrors in the past, not everyone shares my voracious appetite for pedestrian digital photography in their proper cinema. Claire Foy’s central performance (as the wonderfully named Sawyer Valentini) might be universally recognizable as a knockout punch of paranoid tension, but it’s in service of a dark, dry, often cruel sense of humor with punchlines like “Hail, Satan!” & offhanded blowjob references that might derail her presence’s wider appeal. I’m saying this to note that, like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position. With Schizoplolis, I ventured out into the wilderness of Soderbergh’s psyche to understand him on his own terms. With Unsane, he returned the favor by stooping down to my lowly genre film trash pile to offer me a leg up.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is 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.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films 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. […] 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.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet