Schizopolis (1996)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

The use of narrative subjectivity in the cinema is too rarely commented on. When directly addressed, one ends up with dire overly literal POV shots like in the film Doom, a bizarre approximation of literal human visual subjectivity copied from a video game attempting to imitate such subjectivity to far more pragmatic ends. When the full range of possibilities it offers are realized, one ends up with the almost Jamesian brilliance of Mark Rappaport’s Local Color and The Scenic Route.

Soderbergh, in this feature length experiment in narrative subjectivity, has a couple striking sequences but much of the work falls flat. And oddly, the sequences that most seem to vindicate his experiment, clumped in the middle and involving the dental profession, seem uncomfortably reminiscent of similar but more elegantly executed explorations of the dentist in Local Color.

The film covers the same story from three perspectives, each granted roughly 1/3rd of the film’s running time. The first sequence sets up the film, which is essentially a mid-life crisis film. Banal domestic scenes are boiled down to their seeming simplistic actualities, characters frequently speak the literal intent of their dialogue rather than the actual dialogue we’ve been trained to expect, but rather than showing us some objective truth to each scene we realize these spoken intents are actually the interpretation of a middle aged man questioning if there’s any meaning in his day to day existence, a middle aged man who has likely made a lot of films, a middle aged man like, well, Steven Soderbergh.

Scattershot interludes are thrown in to give the film some flow, many of them essentially the sort of blackout gags that marked early television sketch shows. They don’t seem to relate to the primary proceedings in any way beyond their shared weary irreverence, though some of them are fairly funny and in a stream of consciousness fashion that refreshingly don’t feel the need to reach any greater coherence than a suggestion of the filmmaker’s preoccupations. It seems disingenuous to suggest that a film as guarded in intellectual disdain as this one has a feeling of easy intimacy but this one does; perhaps all Soderbergh had left of himself by the time he made Schizopolis was such a disdain and he’s speaking as directly as he can. Perhaps there was more of himself in the James Spader character in Sex, Lies and Videotape than we all realized, he is in fact hiding behind a camera and while comfortable there has the feelings of being lost, of meaninglessness, that any expressive comfort can induce.

The funniest sequence comes in the film’s only invocation of what seems to be genuine passion. Our dentist character goes to a palm reader and finds out he’ll meet the love of his life soon. When an attractive woman comes in for some work on her teeth, he’s instantly smitten and writes her an obscene letter declaring his love for her; even though her name must be in his office files he can only refer to her as “Attractive Woman #2” and in the note we increasingly realize he only express such feelings in the almost offensively mundane particulars of his existence finally comparing her lips to those of a “French model” he “desperately wants to fuck.” To call her by an actual name would actually be less than truthful in the situation; she is to him and the filmmaker (that the director plays him only drives this home more concretely) purely an abstraction, a potential not really believed in.

I’d recommend this film to people interested in abstract narrative who’ve already gone through the far superior works of Godard, Rappaport, Korty, and the early US narrative avant-garde first. It’s most rewarding when seen as an attempt by a fairly straightforward director to try to dabble in the genre and his failures when matched up to the works of the masters puts their great successes in a more distinct relief.

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