Soderbergh’s Fragmented Personality Collides in Schizopolis
A DVD Review of Schizopolis: Criterion Collection
By Drew Morton
One of the extra features on the superb DVD issue of Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis is a commentary track in which Steven Soderbergh interviews himself. The commentary is audibly mixed so that the left speaker has a humbled Soderbergh asking the questions to the right speaker of his egomaniacal doppelganger. This extra feature is based around one of the core themes of the film: the interaction between fragments of a personality.
The film, a hybrid of Soderbergh’s ode to the Godard films that inspired both him and itself and a cross between Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, begins with a relationship between a husband and a wife. The husband, Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh himself), is a corporate drone for a religious philosopher satirically based on L. Ron Hubbard. Fletcher’s wife (Betsy Brantley), played by Soderbergh’s wife at the time, stays at home and cares for the couple’s little girl (played by Soderbergh’s daughter).
Fletcher and his wife interact, but their conversations are limited to sterilized, minimalist dialogue reminiscent of the plays of Samuel Beckett. Fletcher greets his wife simply by saying “Generic Greeting” and is responded to simply by his wife saying “Generic Greeting Returned.” Their relationship is cold and emotionless, mainly due to Fletcher’s preoccupation with having to write one contradiction of a speech for his boss that “isn't to answer all questions, but to question all answers” and “has a straight direction, but can change course at any moment.” Fletcher rejects his wife’s sexual advances and seeks gratification by chronically masturbating on the job. While it is implied that Fletcher is having an affair with his neighbor’s wife, whose husband claims that she enjoys sex with Fletcher much more than she does with him, the relationship never physically manifests itself in the film’s narrative. While other characters appear in the film, such as a man who is attracted only to fat women and a gibberish speaking exterminator who seduces every woman in the neighborhood, Fletcher seems strangely alienated from his surroundings.
The second relationship the film follows occurs between Fletcher’s wife and Fletcher’s doppelganger: swinger, muzak enthusiast, and pun speaking dentist Dr. Korchek (again, played by Soderbergh). During the second half of the film, Fletcher takes over the body of his doppelganger and becomes aware of the affair and comically discloses it by stating “Oh my God. I’m having an affair with my wife.” Unlike Fletcher and his wife, Korchek and Mrs. Munson communicate rather expressively. That is until Korchek meets Attractive Woman #2 (also played by Brantley). His overwhelming passion for the woman overtakes him and he writes her a sexually charged note reading:
Dear Attractive Woman Number 2, only once in my life have I responded to a person the way I've responded to you, but I've forgotten when it was or even if it was in fact me that responded. 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. I know that your hair sits atop your head as though it could sit nowhere else. I know that your figure would make a sculptor cast aside his tools, injuring his assistant who was looking out the window instead of paying attention. I know that your lips are as full as that sexy French model's that I desperately want to fuck. I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants. I know all of this, and yet you do not know me. Change your life; accept my love. Or, at least let me pay you to accept it.
Attractive Woman Number 2 rejects Korchek’s advances and both lawyers and a gangster get involved until the film reaches its final act.
Soderbergh brings the film full circle with another perspective on Fletcher and his wife’s marriage, this time seen from Mrs. Munson’s point of view. Instead of speaking in Beckett minimalism, Mrs. Munson hears all the dialogue in her life coming from men in un-dubbed foreign languages, making the miscommunication between both Fletcher and herself and Korchek and herself literal. However, the conflict is resolved, a naked man is captured by mental hospital attendants, and Rhode Island is turned into the largest shopping mall by the government in order to eliminate the national deficit. Confused? Well, as Soderbergh claims in the film’s introduction scene, “If you don’t understand this film, it is your fault and not ours.”
There are several ways to look at film and quite possibly infinite readings of it. However, the film is a representation of Soderbergh’s splintered personality and is both hiding himself and laying himself out for all to see. By casting himself into the film and his wife and daughter in their respective parts, Soderbergh is narrowing the gap between himself and his material. He even makes fun of his early 90’s perm in the most hilarious deleted scene on the DVD featuring himself in an afro wig.
Not only did Soderbergh cast himself in the film, but he wrote, directed, edited, shot, and even composed some of the music for the film. He also throws in several subconscious nods to his previous film, sex, lies, and videotape and the effect it had on his career. For instance, the house which Korchek lives in is the same house the main characters in sex, lies lived in and the seductive exterminator, Elmo Oxygen, is subject of a parody of sex, lies when he is videotaped, with the same camera used in the previous film, about to have sex with a married woman. Schizopolis, like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a self reflexive representation of the artist himself, with each character portraying a part of a conflicted personality.