Way back when I first saw the ad for a social science professor at Iḷisaġvik College, I remember pulling up the college website to fight a polar bear alert on the front page. Now some might have found this a bug, but I can assure you that for me this was a definite feature. I really wanted to see this place. As it happens, polar bears don’t show up that often, and when they do, it seems that I’m always busy. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to get up close and personal with one of these guys; I just enjoy seeing them from time to time, and especially when I have a camera handy.
So, I’m sitting in the cafeteria during the orientation for this semester when a notice goes out telling us there is a polar bear on the beach, just across from our buildings. The point of the alert is of course to let us know that we shouldn’t wander out that way (at least not on foot), but they do sometimes have an ironic effect. I desperately wanted to take a really long bathroom break right then and then, but I managed to hold myself together long enough to take advantage of a legitimate lunch break.
…and then the bear stuck around for a couple of days. Apparently, a walrus carcass had washed ashore nearby and he was munching on that in between naps on the beach and out on the ice. Eventually the local Wildlife department moved the carcass, but not before I and half the town got plenty of pictures.
For me, Schizopolis is nearly entirely a personal pleasure. Almost nobody I know has seen it, and still fewer people seem to have liked it. Still it’s my all-time favorite Soderbergh film.
What is it about?
Well, I could tell you, but that’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing. Really, Soderbergh says it all quite clearly at the beginning of the film; if you don’t understand it, you must watch the film over and over until you do, and you must pay full price for the ticket at a genuine movie theater. Nothing else will do!
Suffice to say that the movie is well-named.
What I do want to talk about here, for a paragraph or two anyway, is some of the language games Soderbergh plays around with in this film. At first these games appear to be just so much nonsense, part of the chaos at which the name of the film barely hints. In time, though, I can’t help thinking that Soderbergh managed to say something interesting through these games, something about the relationship between the meaning of words and the nature of human human relationships.
What do I mean?
One of my favorite sequences consists of an assignment given to the main character at work. He is to write a speech for a motivational speaker. The instructions for this speech would be a great take-down of the entire genre. What should be red flags in view of basic critical thinking skills turns out to be the very means by which some of these people will make connections to an audience full of vulnerable people. The next time someone asks me why I hate motivational speakers so much I should just link them to this video.
My favorite language games from this movie are those involving romantic connections, or the lack thereof. There are two main story-lines for this theme; one involving a womanizing exterminator, named Elmo Oxygen, and other another involving a couple whose marriage has clearly taken a turn for the worse.
Elmo Oxygen is an id in a jump suit. He does what he wants in people’s houses, and for the most part he does who he wants as well, because all the housewives seem to fall for him. (Really, it’s why they call for him in the first place.) What Elmo doesn’t do is speak in meaningful sentences, not for most of the film anyway. His flirtations always take place in a kind of code. He knows the code. The women know the code. We the audience, don’t even recognize that it is a code for a little while. It just sounds like nonsense, and then we start piecing it together. As I recall “Nose army” means “yes.” (Elmo hears this phrase a lot.) About the time, we can start to follow these conversations the story-line takes us someplace else, someplace just as odd, I can assure you. For a time anyway, the Elmo Oxygen story-line treats us to a delicious jumble of utter nonsense which actually turns out to make perfect sense. What is said in flirtation between Elmo and his lust-interests never really amounts to anything but the flirtation, and if that’s going well, one may as well say ‘nose army” as ‘yes.”
…the same goes, if it’s not.
For their part, the couple spend much of the film speaking in metapragmatic descriptors. Instead of using normal words to communicate; they describe what they are doing in the conversation. Instead of saying ‘hello’, they greet each other with words like “generic greeting.” Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” they say “sincere apology.” Their communication is always meta-communication, and that meta-communication remains disingenuous throughout their first few scenes in the movie. The only exception to this occurs when the husband turns to his daughter and suddenly speaks to her like a normal father would. When he turns back to his wife, he is once again going through the motions, or rather calling out his motions, because the content no longer means anything anyway. He and his wife do this for awhile.
…and then one of them starts speaking a foreign language.
This word-play alone was enough to sell me on the film. It’s an excellent commentary on the nature of romance, or the lack of it. What the Elmo Oxygen story-line and that of the couple have in common is the absence of substance in communication. What’s different is the reason for it. Elmo and his lovely companions don’t really say anything because they don’t have to. Whatever they have between them is working and the words themselves just don’t matter. Of course e could ask whether or not the shallow code that works so well for Elmo might also be devoid of substance because he really isn’t connecting after all, not in any meaningful sense, but he would surely be unimpressed with such vapid nonsense. In fact, the character would probably be off to some new conquest before we could finish asking the question. For their part, the couple no longer have anything to say to one another, and so they call out their moves instead of talking to each other, because these empty moves are the only thing that matters at that stage in their relationship.