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Farewell to Narrative

Elmo's Fire: Big zapper Elmo the Exterminator haunts the periphery of Steven Soderbergh's eccentric future universe.

Steven Soderbergh's 'Schizopolis' explores a world in which word and meaning are absurdly divorced

By Richard von Busack

THIS FILM cannot be analyzed with the brain. And yet it may be (or not) what the narrator calls it: "The most important picture you will ever see." Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh's sporadically slow but mostly exciting temporary farewell to narrative, tells, in three parts, the story of a slightly parallel world in which word, meaning and identity have packed up and gone home.

An average jerk-off named Munson (played by Soderbergh, who looks very much like Woody Harrelson) works in a paranoid office where he's supposed to write speeches for the founder of Eventualism, T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), a menacing figure who satirizes the leader of a certain touchy, heavily advertised, pay-as-you-go religion. From an Eventualist advertisement: "Do you love humanity but hate people? See page 111."

Schwitters' double-talk--"It [Eventualism] isn't designed to answer all the questions; it's designed to question all the answers"--offers one clue to Soderbergh's intentions. No doubt Schwitters is named in honor of Kurt, the grand but obscure German avant-garde artist whose nonsense yelpings on his Dada sound poem "The Ur Sonata" can be heard in the background of "Kurt's Rejoinder" on Brian Eno's Before and After Science album.

Munson's obsession with his job is destroying his marriage. He and his wife (Betsy Brantley) hardly speak the same language any more. This is literally the case--sometimes Munson comes home speaking Japanese. To solace herself, the wife has an affair with a dentist who is Munson's identical twin.


Online essay about director Steven Soderbergh.

Metro's review of Soderbergh's previous film, Gray's Anatomy.


Soderbergh doesn't unite Munson and Jeffrey, but he does bring back a peripheral character who has been raving his way through the sidelines: the scary, half-crazed Elmo the Exterminator (David Jensen), who drives a bug-zapping truck with feelers and a motto: "Let Me In and Let Me Leave My Mark."

The high quality of this absurdist tale will be no surprise to the handful who saw Soderbergh's completely underrated Kafka or his exciting work in Gray's Anatomy, where he adorned Spalding Gray's monologue with a dozen and more cinematic techniques: found footage, sound effects, interviews, a little computer toasting. Schizopolis isn't as technically flashy, but it's mysterious, hilarious, very well acted and suffused with the comic mood of doom you find in Pynchon--a happy film about disease and terror.

It was made on the run, and the effects are cartoony simple: a warning klaxon (arrrrooogah!) over a chest X-ray revealing cancer, a pair of welder's goggles strapped on Elmo to make him look crazy and a speeded-up pantsless guy (like a refugee from one of Richard Lester's experimental short films) being chased all over creation by the men in the white coats. The pantsless maniac could well be a symbol of the low-budget director crying "My ass is hanging out" (20th-century American vernacular for "I have no money") while escaping the (Hollywood) men trying to round him up. I pray they never catch him.

Schizopolis (Unrated; 96 min.), directed, written, photographed by and starring Steven Soderbergh.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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