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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001

Tales from the dark side of Soderbergh

Schizopolis / Gray's Anatomy

Rating: * * * / * * * * Director: Steven Soderbergh Running time: 93 minutes / 79 minutes Language: English Now showing

Back before he was Steven Soderbergh, Hollywood's Hottest Director, there was a time when he was just "Stephen who?" You know, the kind of guy who couldn't get his phone calls returned. After peaking too fast by winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 with his debut feature "sex, lies, & videotape," Soderbergh and his career began a long, slow slide into near oblivion. "Kafka" (1991), "King of the Hill" (1993) and "The Underneath" (1995): Each found increasingly smaller audiences.

Steven Soderbergh in "Schizopolis"
Spalding Gray in"Gray's Anatomy"

Then, in 1998, Soderbergh somehow pulled out of his slump. Making good use of the chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in his adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel "Out of Sight," the director proved to Hollywood that he was still a bankable talent. He's been on the gravy train since, enjoying popular and critical acclaim with "Erin Brockovich," "The Limey" and "Traffic."

But let's turn back the clock a bit, to 1996 and the film that emerged from the black hole of Soderbergh's seemingly bottoming-out career. Described by the director as "the film that nobody saw," "Schizopolis" is a mad, flailing work made by someone who's beyond caring what people think. As such, it's a fascinating bit of looniness, but one that's also deliberately convoluted, a flip of the bird at cinematic conventions.

The director himself admits as much in a piss-take of a prologue, saying that if viewers don't get the film, it's their fault, and they should see it repeatedly, paying full admission "and not some bargain matinee cut-rate." This is no idle challenge: 45 minutes into the preview video, I had rewound it to the start in an attempt to sort things out.

As far as I can tell, it goes like this: Office drone Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh) works for a Scientology-like organization known as Eventualism, where he's tasked with writing a speech for its leader, T. Azimuth Schwitters. After he retreats from his wife (Betsy Brantley, then Soderbergh's real-life wife), preferring instead the sins of Onan to conjugal relations, she starts up an affair with banal dentist Jeffrey Korchek (also played by Soderbergh). Somewhere in the mix is a crazed exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), who's bedding babes and slowly going berserk.

Soderbergh seems to be aiming for a kind of Dada-esque, expectation-defying nonsense, pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel and Monty Python (the grinning streaker in a "Schizopolis" T-shirt who's chased by the men in the white suits is an obvious tribute to Python). Soderbergh's silliness knows no bounds, ranging from sharp parodies of New Age platitudes ("Eventualism is the long overdue recognition of people everywhere of their own significance") to a scene where Soderbergh makes funny faces into a mirror (which, actually, is a lot funnier than it sounds). Married couples have elliptical conversations (Him: "Generic greeting!" Her: "Generic greeting returned!"); lovers speak in total gibberish (Her: "Nose army . . ." Him: "Beef diaper?"); and near the end, entire dialogues recur dubbed in Japanese.

This works in spots, but Soderbergh doesn't have the timing -- essential to comedy -- to press home all his anarchic ideas. It's still an engaging mess and best viewed as one massive, creative enema, loosening the director up from the oblique, passionless blockage that doomed "The Underneath."

Also enjoying a revival in Tokyo is "Gray's Anatomy," Soderbergh's other "lost film" from 1996, which features comic monologue artist Spalding Gray, previously seen in the Jonathan Demme-directed "Swimming to Cambodia."

The idea of one guy in front of a camera telling you a story for 80 minutes might not seem like much, but it is here. Imagine your most motor-mouthed friend after a few beers, telling you the most incredible shaggy-dog story and it just keeps getting more and more outrageous. Gray's style is talky and informal, with its expert timing and sharp swings between humor and pathos seeming unrehearsed.

His tale here consists of a case of near-blindness in his left eye, and his subsequent panic and attempts to cure it, which include everything from Christian Scientists to Filipino "psychic surgeons."

Gray has been called the "WASP Woody Allen," and his neurotic kvetching certainly lives up to that rep. Soderbergh's use of lighting and setting add some counterpoint to Gray's meandering tale, but don't sweat the details -- this one's a good laugh, straight-up.

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