Low-Budget Bird

When director Steven Soderbergh screened his latest film, Schizopolis, at this year's Slamdance -- the alternative film festival created by a group of filmmakers spurned by the obscenely influential Sundance -- it reeked of deliberate political statement.Soderbergh's kinky, introverted and seminal sex, lies and videotape stormed Sundance in 1989, putting both the festival and independent cinema on the commercial map by weaving low-budget artistry with box-office success (shot for $1.2 million, the film went on to gross $24 million domestically). Ever since, the 34-year-old director has been the annual festival's unofficial poster boy ("People really do win with Sundance!"). So by flagrantly "fraternizing with the enemy" this year, Soderbergh seemed to be protesting the hype-driven circus Sundance has become."Everybody asks me, 'Why did you go to Slamdance instead of Sundance?'" says the director, who resembles an egghead Chris Elliott as dubbed by Rob Morrow. "It's because they asked. It's that simple."Well, there goes the political-statement theory.Still, perhaps Soderbergh's reluctance to verbally bite the hand that once fed him stems from a feeling of guilt by association, or in Sundance's case, commercialization. After all, while sex, lies and videotape redefined the fiscal and thematic perceptions of independent film, its success also inadvertently dragged independents into the same market-driven mindset against which they were rebelling. Many major "independent" distributors-like Miramax and Fine Line Features-are now subsidiaries of conglomerates."It was strictly due to the film's financial performance that the following year Sundance turned into a feeding ground for distributors and agents and shit like that, and that people started looking at independent film as a possible source of revenue," Soderbergh says of his role in the co-opting of indie cinema. "It just seemed that the time was right for somebody to break through. I don't think they had to do anything with the film itself. Even if I had made that film a year earlier or later, I don't know if we would have had the same response."Once out of the Sundance gate with sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh was quickly tripped up by the sophomore rashness of Kafka. 1993's King of the Hill was a critical triumph whose Depression-era storyline resulted in equally depressed box-office, and the snazzy, hollow noir of The Underneath registered nary a blip on Hollywood's commercial radar. "I know it sounds completely insane, but I actually thought there was an audience for Kafka and King of the Hill -- which may be an indication of how out of touch I am," Soderbergh says. "Directors either have a style that is theirs, and look for material that allows them to apply that style or -- in my case -- work from the inside out and find the style that best suits a piece of material. My tastes are pretty eclectic, so I like shifting gears like that."Seen against Soderbergh's eccentric oeuvre (which also includes the recent film version of Spalding Gray's monologue Gray's Anatomy), Schizopolis isn't quite the anomalous gambit many are making it out to be. Imagine Luis Bunuel and Richard Lester co-directing Repo Man and you'll have some idea of the jarring, absurdist tone of this paranoid midnight-movie-to-be. Soderbergh himself plays a dual role: He's milquetoast speech writer Fletcher Munson -- pressured to compose the latest solipsism for self-help guru T. Azimuth Schwitters, founder of Eventualism (Dianetics, anyone?) -- and Munson's swinging dentist-doppelganger, who has an affair with his wife (played by Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh's ex-wife).As the "plot" makes its circuitous way, interpersonal relations and linguistics are wryly twisted into avant-garde balloon animals: deadpan exchanges between Munson and wife ("Generic greeting." "Generic greeting returned"); peculiar dialect from an oversexed exterminator ("Teahouse grain structure. Mellow rhubarb turbine"); and the recycling of previous footage that has been re-dubbed in various languages for ironic effect.The film's disjunctive narrative and Dadaist provocation give it the clammy sheen of a nervous breakdown; it's as if Soderbergh's psychoanalyst had advised him to "make one weird film and call me in the morning.""I had gotten bored with the films that I was making and, more importantly, I had gotten bored with the way that I was making them," the director confesses. "I felt like I had 150 people tethered to my belt and that I just couldn't move. While I was shooting The Underneath -- a film I told Universal that I'd write as long as I could produce, to make sure they didn't hire some idiot to screw it up, not knowing that I was that idiot -- I feared that I had lost interest in making movies, so I decided that I just had to start over again. Schizopolis was, in a sense, me going back and re-asserting my amateur status, which I think is important to do every once in a while."Like its protagonist's favorite pastime in the company bathroom, Soderbergh's latest film is an act of masturbation that provides harmless and enjoyable release. "It's a lark," he says with a rubbery grin. "For $20 million, I can understand being angry about it, but $250,000?"It's not for everyone -- that was our whole theory. For that kind of money you could make a film for the three people in the theater that will 'get it.'" Soon Soderbergh will step up to the big-budget bat again, directing an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's comic thriller Out of Sight starring George Clooney. "I was in the very ironic position of being the studio's choice," he says. "To essentially make my first real studio movie on the heels of Schizopolis is sort of perfect. The strange thing is now, suddenly making a movie like that seems like the most exciting thing in the world, whereas two and a half years ago it would have seemed like a prison sentence."He adds dryly, "By going with my instincts, maybe once every nine years I'll make something that people will actually see."

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