Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Eddie Jemison, Scott Allen, Mike Malone, Katherine La Nasa, C.C. Courtney, Silas Cooper, Liann Pattison. Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh.

Schizopolis is the movie that famously reinvigorated its worn-out director, Steven Soderbergh, by all accounts made him want to make movies again. Indeed, it's the film that really got him behind the camera, debuting here as his own cinematographer and camera operator, tasks he reassumed to wider renown in Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, and Full Frontal—and for this, we all owe Schizopolis a warm regard. We are excused though, if our regard also remains a little cock-eyed, a little bit skeptical. It is interesting, for example, despite the energies that it rejuvenated in its creator, how many of those energies he has not repeated since. He has barely acted again, cameos in Full Frontal and Waking Life aside. He wrote none of the screenplays for his seven subsequent films, and though he did pen the upcoming Solaris adaptation, the guiding hands of Stanislaw Lem and Andrei Tarkovsky loom large in that endeavor. Most obviously, you could hardly call Soderbergh's post-'96 features "experimental." The Limey comes closest, with its relentless achronology and interpellations of '60s film, but even that picture hardly qualifies Soderbergh as a Michael Snow, a Sadie Benning, or a Stan Brakhage.

But let me rush to make two disclaimers. One, I for one am thrilled that Soderbergh's career has evolved in the way that it has—a commercial auteur as prodigiously gifted, prolific, unpretentious, and uncondescending as he is what Hollywood has sorely needed since around the era of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Spielberg has been the closest approximate to this type of figure, but his output after E.T. alternated too obviously between patronizing pap and self-announcing importance. I would have hated to lose Soderbergh to a Salinger-like existence of making personal 16mms to stow away in his own vaults or screen for his friends at cast parties.

Plus, second caveat, I largely feel this way because Schizopolis doesn't necessarily feel like the work of a born experimental filmmaker, audacious and irreverent as it is. Real experimental film—Maya Deren's 14-minute domestic-nightmare classic Meshes of the Afternoon can serve as a good example here—doesn't just present us with confrontational images or surprising notions of sequence. A film like Meshes actually experiments with film grammar, the way a movie is assembled, so that the very ideas of editing and cinematography or the alleged cooperation of those disciplines is called to question, or put to new uses. To use a linguistic analogy, I can say, "The purple farmhouse ate my oven," and make you wonder what circumstance I could possibly be referring to, even though you "get" what I am saying; this isn't the same as uttering, "Farmhouse the oven farmhouse oven farmhouse oven EAT IT," which actually departs from how nouns, verbs, and syntax normally operate, prompting the listener not just to ask what I am referring to, but whether words might actually do other things besides "refer."

Within cinema, Meshes of the Afternoon and thousands of other personal or experimental films pose such radical challenges to how we receive content. Schizopolis, though hardly easy going for the first-time viewer, conspicuously starts taking shape as something like a story the longer it goes on. It is odd to see the film's single opening credit on the T-shirt of a half-naked person, or to see chapter divisions announced in quirky inserts within a café, a fishing dock, and a wall of mailboxes. But notice that we are still being clearly told when something like a chapter break is about to transpire. And notice that each successive chapter helps to smooth and organize the rumpled, blithely discontinuous images and vignettes of the preceding sequences. Among the most remarked and most effective scenes in Schizopolis are those in which Soderbergh, playing the main character Fletcher Munson, and his wife, played by Soderbergh's own ex-wife Betsy Brantley, communicate with each other not through words but through the types of words we all expect them to use. "Generic greeting!" he calls out as he returns home from the office; "Location of offspring," she later calls out while she exits, in the stead of "Emily's in the TV room."

The scenes are sharply satiric about the banality of conversation even between the most familiar people, but for that very reason, they don't show or tell us anything we probably don't already know. And when the same scenes are repeated later with most of the "real" dialogue restored—this time, Soderbergh's interjections are dubbed into foreign languages—it is all the clearer that what Schizopolis is up to is not a reimagining of film form but some temporary, minimal monkeying with convention in order to rephrase some well-worn ideas about seriocomic modern alienation, the interchangeable persons and routines of corporate American life, the emptiness of much "inspirational" speech, and the communicative lapses between men and women once in love.

To state that Schizopolis is more playful than genuinely experimental is not a rebuke to the movie. It's just a necessary qualifier to the over-quickness with which the film is often identified as something more "avant-garde" than it is. A powerful reflection of just how conformist most American movies and their spectators have become is that any form of difference or non-convention is easy to overrate as something really outré. (The simple act of non-sequitur that recurs in much of the dialogue—"I really believe in mayonnaise," for instance, and even the title card declaiming "No fish were harmed during the making of this movie," are hardly forceful ripostes to the status quo; dada was a long time ago, and what feels like a galaxy far, far away.) And, of course, the parallel temptation in a film culture increasingly parceled between "Hollywood entertainment" and "independent art films" is to valorize Schizopolis as a relic of Soderbergh's integrity while writing off Erin Brockovich or Ocean's Eleven as landmarks of his selling out. Appraising Schizopolis more carefully for what it is allows us to perceive more justly that Soderbergh's later films are a logical and, to me, an increasingly accomplished extension of what his "experimental" phase actually amounts to: a defamiliarizing of perennial material (whether the satire of alienation, the parable of a woman's conscientious awakening, the comic heist) through stylistic bents and surface alterations that postpone but also fondly amplify our recognition of the central content.

Schizopolis is a funny movie, an inventive one, and the best career advice that a modern-day Hollywood director ever assigned to himself. I would simply refrain from calling it a sui generis masterpiece, or even a flawless execution of its own minimal agenda. A major visual leitmotif throughout the quasi-narrative is of the Soderbergh character compulsively masturbating (at home, at work, in bed with his wife), and with characteristic self-deprecation but also self-awareness, Soderbergh furnishes in these shots and scenes a serviceable metaphor for the movie. Yes, there is an onanistic quality to starring in a movie you wrote, shot, and directed yourself, and to casting your ex-wife and the mother of your daughter as your increasingly distant wife and the mother of your daughter. Yes, Schizopolis feels furtive and abrupt, and its bursts of wit and inspiration do not always yield a fully fertilized film. But the atmosphere of narcissism is so generously and ubiquitously acknowledged, and enough of the scenes really do work (especially Brantley's), that the enterprise is comfier than we expect. Schizopolis is by no means an epochal event, but it's clever and offbeat, well worth appreciating on its own proper terms. Grade: B

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