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Schizopolis

Film had a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as odd as its own nature. Heading in to catch the "surprise" entry, festgoers didn't know for sure what they were about to see and were not in the least enlightened by the picture itself, which bears no credits at all, either front or rear, except for a one-frame copyright card at the end that goes by so fast as to prove unreadable. Soderbergh, who wrote, directed and shot the film and plays the main role as well, was not present in Cannes and is assuming an ultra-low profile, preferring to send the pic out as an "authorless text" to which audiences will bring no preconceived notions.

With:
Munson ... Steven Soderbergh Wife ... Betsy Brantley Elmo ... David Jensen Some combination of goof, provocation and willfully anarchic eruption, "Schizopolis" is a satire and critique of modern life so scattershot in its aim and techniques that it misses the mark more often than it hits. A no-budgeter made as a guerrilla project by Steven Soderbergh in Baton Rouge, La., pic is a real head-scratcher that so insistently keeps jumping all over the place that it becomes impossible to pinpoint its intent. This one-of-a-kind item would require some ingenious marketing for it to find secure footing on the specialized circuit.

Film had a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as odd as its own nature. Heading in to catch the “surprise” entry, festgoers didn’t know for sure what they were about to see and were not in the least enlightened by the picture itself, which bears no credits at all, either front or rear, except for a one-frame copyright card at the end that goes by so fast as to prove unreadable. Soderbergh, who wrote, directed and shot the film and plays the main role as well, was not present in Cannes and is assuming an ultra-low profile, preferring to send the pic out as an “authorless text” to which audiences will bring no preconceived notions.

Indeed, anyone expecting anything remotely like Soderbergh’s previous work will be thrown for a loop, as “Schizopolis” (title appears only on a character’s T-shirt) is as mangy, indecipherable and from-the-hip as his previous films are precise, literate and meticulously calibrated. Some of the filmmaker’s keen intelligence remains on display, but only in fractured and often obscure form, and pic overall gives the impression of a giant expurgation of negative feelings about things in general rather than a carefully articulated brief on recognizable subjects. This would seem to be the work of someone in a conflicted and bilious frame of mind.

Pic starts out as an apparent satire of, and attack on, Scientology-like organizations. Munson (Soderbergh) is a functionary working on behalf of a movement called Eventualism, the guru of which is the uniquely selfish, mean-spirited T. Azimuth Schwitters. Focus then veers to the annoying antics of a weird exterminator in an orange suit and goggles named Elmo, whose aggressively promiscuous activities remain utterly unfathomable throughout the running time.

No narrative is developed on a comprehensible level, nor is any single idea fleshed out to meaningful dimensions. Along the way, characters begin speaking in different forms of gibberish, with Munson and his wife relating in a fitfully amusing techno-ese in which they might say hello by uttering “generic greeting,” or indicate they’re going out by announcing “imminent departure.” Genuinely funny is Munson’s habit of speaking to his wife in foreign languages, and some of Soderbergh’s absurdist wordplay isn’t bad either. But what he’s getting at isn’t clear beyond some sort of comment on the paucity and difficulty of communication, a problem the film does nothing to ameliorate.

Focus returns to Eventualism in a climactic assassination attempt on Schwitters, but lack of any dramatic through-line or coherent subject makes bewilderment the principal response to the film as a whole. Its humorous intent is signaled more by such devices as speeded-up action and goofy sound effects than by any genuine wit or behavioral comedy.

Ultimately, it is less interesting to try to discern what the film is about than to imagine what drove Soderbergh, whose “sex, lies, and videotape” and “King of the Hill” remain two of the outstanding pics of the American indie movement, to make such a cranky, disgruntled effort. It obviously represents an act of rebellion against prevailing industry norms, but to what end is quite unclear.

Technically, film is a hodgepodge that doesn’t attempt to gloss over its made-on-the-run quality.

Schizopolis

(Comedy-drama -- Color)

Production: A Point 406 Ltd. production. Produced by John Hardy. Directed, written by Steven Soderbergh.

Crew: Camera (color), Soderbergh. No other credits available. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (official selection , surprise film), May 18, 1996. Running time: 99 min.

With: Munson ... Steven Soderbergh Wife ... Betsy Brantley Elmo ... David Jensen Some combination of goof, provocation and willfully anarchic eruption, "Schizopolis" is a satire and critique of modern life so scattershot in its aim and techniques that it misses the mark more often than it hits. A no-budgeter made as a guerrilla project by Steven Soderbergh in Baton Rouge, La., pic is a real head-scratcher that so insistently keeps jumping all over the place that it becomes impossible to pinpoint its intent. This one-of-a-kind item would require some ingenious marketing for it to find secure footing on the specialized circuit.

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