Some Thoughts On Interpersonal Communication and The Film Schizopolis

Because of a request from Roscoe, here is the latest paper I have been working on. This may not bear any interest if you have no seen the film, Schizopolis, or have no interest in the field of Communications. Without further ado, and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions:

In 1996, Steven Soderbergh created a film called Schizopolis that made much fewer waves than it should have. On paper, it could be described as an unpredictable comedy (of which the director claimed to “heal minor cuts and abrasions”) about a man that goes through identity issues throughout a mid-life crisis. The film reached a very small audience, and was chastised by many for being self-indulgent and an incoherent mess with little to no narrative. What these audiences didn’t see, however, was the deep analysis of human communication that is injected in to almost every scene. For the most part, Soderbergh critiques the way that our everyday encounters fall into clichés, and how this communication defines the relationship with the ones that we speak to. Two writings that this movie can be directly associated with would be “Some Tentative Axioms of Communication” by Watzlawick and “On Talking To Oneself” by Gass.

Although Bateson first stated it, Watzlawick’s writing delves deep into the concepts of analog and digital communication. It is basically stated that humans utilize 2 types of communication, as the analog side expresses mood and tone while digital gives the actual defined verbal message.  (P. 60 – Par. 1 & 2) If used in a singular fashion, analog communication is not fully effective because there is no proper message to convey the intent of the communicator. On the other side, communicating solely digital can be problematic as many common phrases can have different meanings.

In Schizopolis, Soderbergh explores the effects of humans communicating analogically. In the film, there is a secondary character named Elmo Oxygen. The only characteristic of this person that the viewer can pull out digitally is that he is an exterminator that goes around door to door to assist bored housewives. Throughout most of the film, Elmo and the person he is communicating with talk in a nonsensical code. He commonly uses phrases like “smell sign” and “nose army”, which to the viewer has no correlation at all with what is going on in the scene.

Although there is no digital message given between the two, the viewer can tell through the tonal inflections of their voices and their actions that he is seducing the housewives. After a few scenes, the analog dialogue starts to flow much easier to the viewers mind, and we can start deriving translations through the placement of the words. For example, “smell sign” more than likely means “goodbye” or “I love you” because the phrase is always placed at the end of the exchange and is always spoken in a more tender tone.  For most of the film, this mode of communication is effective for Elmo, as the other housewives speak in the same tongue. However, at the end of the film, he is placed in a situation in which people are interrogating him digitally, and he can only respond in his analogical code. In this exchange, it becomes apparent that although they are both human beings, they are also foreign creatures to each other, and no effective communication is accomplished.

What Soderbergh is trying to say with this character is that the way in which we meet people has become a formulaic process. There is a misconception that a man can talk about whatever subject he wants, and as long as he speaks fluently and touches the right nerves, the girl will be flattered. In American society, this seems to become further and further away from the truth. There’s a certain formula to meeting women, most men call it “game”, that is lived by in order to prey on a female target. Although every person has a different mind, we all repeat the same phrases time and time again. Soderbergh does a critique of this by creating a character that only communicates in his own untranslatable language.

In the writing “On Talking To Oneself”, William Gass explores the notion that through our self-talk, we rehearse the cliché conversation that we have every day.  He implies that “we have rehearsed “good morning” and “how are you?” and “have a nice day” to the place where the tongue is like a stale bun in the mouth”. (P. 211 – Par. 2) Basically put, because differentiated conversation in everyday run-ins with individuals can be challenging, we tend to rely on cliché phrases. After all, because of the fact that they are clichés, they are also the ones that get the most rehearsal time. While we rely on these phrases and other meaningless subjects of conversation, it can be inferred that it is causing our interactions and relationships to become more mundane and trivial.

Soderbergh takes this concept and runs it into the ground numerous times throughout the film. A prime example would be the conversations that the main character, Fletcher, has with his wife. Although they both speak in normal words and sentences to other people, they only speak to each other in categories. Simply put, instead of using a cliché phrase, they will state the intent or genre of the cliché phrase. For example, instead of saying “hello”, they say “greeting”.  Later in the evening, when his wife proposes that they have sex, he states “Really well-rehearsed speech about workload and stress. Genuine sorrow. Umm…truthful sounding promises of future satisfaction?” Although both of these people function properly in the fictional society, their personal conversation has become generic to the fullest and most exaggerated extent.

The aspects of these characters can be seen as a critique on married life, or simply the everyday encounters that we all have with each other. After getting to know a person too well, most conversation tends to shift into the category of the cliché and the mundane. Soderbergh takes this notion extremely literally, thus creating characters to expose the generic forms of conversation that we have welcomed into our lives.

Going back to Watzlawick, it is also theorized that all conversation dictates a relationship. (51) Although the same message might be coming across in two different conversations, there are circumstances surrounding the statement that define the relationship between the two people communicating. These factors can be something as subtle as facial expressions or as obvious as word choice. (52-53)

It can be clearly seen that this concept is utilized to express Fletcher’s failing marriage. Towards the end of the film, this is explored even further, showing a different perspective of the relationship. All of the scenes in which Fletcher talks to his wife are repeated, however this time he speaks in Japanese, and his wife speaks in normal conversational English. Basically, the same story is being told, and there is still no tangible communication barrier between them. What it does represent is the wife’s perspective of their relationship. Through Fletcher’s eyes, they were a bored couple that has had too much of each other. To his wife, he is a complete stranger, foreign to her life. Although the same conversation is going on, the two people communicating are viewing the dynamic of the relationship in different ways at the same time.

In “On Talking To Oneself”, Gass discusses how we are able to talk to others while still maintaining a completely different inner-voice. He elaborates, “I tell my neighbors pleasant lies about the beauty of their lawns and dogs and vandalizing tykes, and in my head I tell the whole world where to get off.” (P. 210 – Par. 2) In life, we all deal with the contradiction that we cannot always speak about what our inner-voice is saying. In order to be civil in society, one must abstain to a certain code of conduct in order to keep inner thoughts and communicated thoughts in check.

This concept is used many times in Schizopolis. It can be analyzed through most of his conversation that the first part of the film is inside Fletcher’s mind and the second part is on the outside. Therefore, some exchanges are influenced by his self-talk instead of actual conversation. A good example of this is a conversation he has with his neighbor. Although tonally they are having a civil conversation, Fletcher talks about having relations with the neighbor’s wife. When the scene is played over towards the end of the film, it is a normal conversation about sports. This can be seen as Soderbergh’s critique on how we actually think about the one’s around us, and how we inversely hold conversations with them.

There are many other juicy things to be found inside the loose narrative of Schizopolis, including an analysis on the concept of self and a critique of the Hollywood system. However, the critique on interpersonal communication tends to cut the deepest. Although this cut is not healed by the movie, as the director had promised, it is a very interesting and hilarious critique on the world around us.  Steven Soderbergh uses very descript and exaggerated examples to convey his opinions on how society communicates with each other.