I’ve had mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh. I often feel that this prolific filmmaker has been celebrated far too much for many projects that are basically film-school-level experiments in style. I view The Good German (2006), Bubble (2005) and Full Frontal (2002) as interesting in concept, but devoid of any substance in execution, whose good exists merely as an exercise in style. Bubble (an exercise in minimalism) and The Good German (an exercise in recreation of style) infuriate me in particular because the style is so overbearing that it comes at the expense of depth of characterization and narrative. (Good German is misguided even in its own goal, giving elements such as sex & violence and rapid-fire editing that routinely removes itself completely from any illusion of American war-era filmmaking reborn.) Not that I don’t think Soderbergh was well-deserved in receiving the directing Oscar for Traffic (2000), and not that I didn’t enjoy films like The Limey (1999), Out of Sight (1998) and sex, lies and videotape (1989). Soderbergh has talent, no doubt. However, his best films are not his indie experiments, but the ones he makes that have a more traditional narrative while still retaining some originality (and punch) in their style, such Traffic, Out of Sight, sex, lies and the first Ocean’s film.
There are many filmmakers today that straddle the constantly-blurring line between the studios and the indies: Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater, Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuaron, Christopher Nolan, Spike Lee, etc. These filmmakers have seen success with mass audiences, while at the same time making more personal, lower-budget pet projects. Yet most of these filmmakers retain a distinctive style no matter what type of film they’re making. Soderbergh, on the other hand, has no discernable style except for an abundance of style itself. Most of his more obscure work has seemed like empty film school exercises in concept from somebody with too much success, fame and money to still be in film school. Not that I disrespect experiment in film—I love what the French New Wave and many other European traditions have done for the medium. But, with Soderbergh, there seems to be something missing beyond character development and narrative thrust, and it is the essential ingredient in artistic filmmaking: a critical element.
Then I saw Schizopolis (1996).
This film accomplishes a major feat that nothing else in Soderbergh’s oeuvre has: it deconstructs the language of cinematic expression. But not only that, it aims to deconstruct language itself—a post-structuralist exercise in a medium of self-imposed rules and regulations. But perhaps the greatest feat in this worthwhile experiment is that it doesn’t treat itself too seriously (or seriously at all), and is in fact absolutely hilarious.
The film bookends with a theater attendant (Soderbergh himself, who plays two other characters in the film as well) telling the audience of the theater (ie. you) how important the filmis that you are about to see. He stresses that he is not relaying this information for financial gain, but because he sincerely believes this to be true, then says, “if you don’t understand this film, it’s your fault, not ours. You must watch it over and over again until you understand everything.” He ends the film with a rather droll Q&A with a silent audience. This is an obvious tongue-in-cheek approach to the distance that art house cinema puts between the screen and the audience through its self-important deviation from mainstream film style. It’s basically what every film geek would like to say to the normal moviegoing audience: “if you don’t understand, it’s your fault.” But by far the most notable aspect of this approach is that it aims to seem as if it’s not taking itself seriously at all within a critical style that is known for its seriousness. This contrasts with Soderbergh’s own work even.
There is a great tradition of inaccessible European and independent art cinema that is celebrated by critics and film buffs alike, many of whom refuse to acknowledge that the films themselves “make no sense” in any practical way (Fellini Satyricon is one of my personal favorites of these types). This takes nothing away from their cultural importance—I’m certainly not knocking these films, and neither is Soderbergh. What Soderbergh accomplishes quite brilliantly is that he takes much delight in his own awareness that his film “makes no sense”. He uses experimentation with dialogue, editing and any recognizable narrative form as sort of a light game, which relaxes the audience (me) enough to enjoy the seemingly anti-intellectual ride. He dares us to treat this seriously. He dares us to make sense of this work. (His commentary on the Criterion DVD is an interview he has with himself that illuminates nothing about the production and meaning of the film. The joke continues…)
But the film’s great irony is that it uses undisciplined meaninglessness as a technique to search for meaning itself (or lack thereof), most notably in its use of language. Characters in some scenes use a variety of random words that seem to describe something (usually a proposition for sex. ex, Woman: Arsenal. Nose army. Man: Nose army. Beef Diaper?), but the words themselves mean nothing at all; they merely suggest meaning in their inflection and the action that follows them. In other scenes, characters communicate with one another using entirely different languages (sans subtitles). And, in some of the funniest and most frustrating scenes, characters interact with one another by merely describing what they’re saying (Husband coming home from work: “Generic greeting!” Wife: “Generic greeting.”). Are these examples a deconstruction of filmic language, and how it sounds familiar even when it means nothing? Or, is it an examination of the meaninglessness of our routine suburban façade of propriety and dialogue that substitutes for real human connection? The similarity between the two is scary. But in the tradition of the film itself, I’ll restrain drawing conclusions.
Whatever is going on, the film is certainly subversive in style and form, on par with Luis Bunuel (although without the same explicit aim). Also, a sequence toward the end of the film, in which several events are re-told from the female's perspective, can't help but hark back to a similar technique used in Bergman's Persona (1966), a film that, like Schizopolis, toyed with the relationship between screen and audience throughout. Therefore, the film certainly has a respect for the art film, even as it tries to convince us not to take artistic filmmaking too seriously. (It is also reminiscent of many literary traditions, and could be deemed the filmic equivalent of the equally subversive works of Kurt Vonnegut or William S. Burroughs.)
Soderbergh’s physical presence throughout (as the two principal characters) is worth note as well. In the great European art film tradition, the director’s presence on screen (through their signature style, not physically) was essential in the experience of watching films that “make no sense”. One would have to come into these films with a knowledge and appreciation of the cinema, if not the specific filmmaker him/herself, in order to really “appreciate” the film. One would need to evaluate an art film in respect to the director’s canon of other films. After all, these serious films are reserved only for an elite audience, one that treats film seriously. Soderbergh, by contrast, is not only a filmmaker seemingly devoid of a signature style, but also one who rarely seems to treat the medium seriously (or at least would like you to think so). Soderbergh’s physical presence in the film is yet another subversion of the art film. A film this experimental in style and critical in purpose should treat itself very seriously, but it doesn’t. Soderbergh moves beyond subverting film techniques, but subverts these subversive techniques as well. And the director’s physical presence on screen (as the director’s presence is supposed to help “make sense” of the nonsensical in the art film) refuses to provide any illumination to the film’s purpose and meaning. His constant presence has us longing for closure, but we get none of it (the DVD commentary is an extension of this as well). The more of him we see, the less we know what to think.
Thank you, Steven, for not telling us what to think.