Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Dan Kwan and Danel Schinert | Swiss Army Man
rabelais rewrites robinson crusoe
by Douglas Messerli
Dan Kwan and Daniel Schinert (writers and directors) Swiss Army Man / 2016
The two Daniels, Kwan’s and Schinert’s 2016 film, Swiss Army Man, has to be one the weirdest movies ever released to American cinema theaters. My husband Howard saw it upon it’s original release, and I recall reading a review, sort of aghast by what the critic was describing. I did not see it in the theater, but finally saw it (twice I must admit) yesterday and today on Netflix. I can only praise them for allowing this odd-ball film to be released onto their on-line screenings, although I had previously ordered it up from their mailed CD disks.
I hardly ever use the word “weird” to describe anything. To me, it seems like an almost adolescent description of something one might not quite comprehend, an unusual trope, a kind of surrealist-like series of images, or even a grotesque approach to the material: films as various as The Rocky Horror Show, Frankenstein, or Freaks.
My role as a critic, I’ve always felt, is to try to help the viewer or reader (and I do argue that watching a film is akin to a literary reading) to comprehend how she or he might perceive more or less than simply “strange” or “weird,” something that expresses that the work is slightly outside the standard limits of whatever genre. Great art is always pulled into one’s own ability to comprehend it.
But the central characters in this film, Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (that charming other “Daniel” Radcliffe) so often throughout this film describe their own experiences as weird, as indeed they are, that I truly feel comfortable with that word in this case.
If you were to try to categorize this movie, it would be near impossible, thank heaven. The intelligent critic Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for the Roger Ebert blog, called it a dreamlike expression. And he’s right; it is most definitely like some of Strindberg’s “dream sonatas.” It’s also a fantasy, a kind of parody of Greek drama, and Ovid-like presentation of an endless series of metamorphoses. It’s also a buddy rom-comedy, a dark, homosexually-infused story about the love the hero, Hank, cannot speak. And, in its deep heart, is a ridiculously-inspired bad-boy satire, filled up with farts, endless erections, magical vomitations of water and shit, and hippie-inspired celebrations which, given the heroes isolation can be attended only by two. It’s a heterosexual love-story in which the beloved is, in this case, a married and happy housewife played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
It’s also, to go beyond what anyone might readily perceive, a kind of pop-opera, given its beautifully ethereal score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. I could go on: It’s a funny story about self-hate and suicide, a tale about resurrection, and even an adventure story in the manner of works such as Sky Wars and Jurassic Park, the latter of which is reaffirmed by the character’s appropriation of the song by John Williams (it might be difficult for anyone who has regularly seen my reviews to imagine that I did actually see those movies).
As Seitz summarizes it:
The film is elastic, transmogrifying from a psychological
drama into a literally excremental comedy and then a hard-edged
survival picture, occasionally embracing the cosmic and turning
into an emo hipster answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet
the emotional temperatures of the movie fluctuate so intuitively from
moment to moment, and the situations and editing choices along
with them, that there's ultimately no point trying to deal with
"Swiss Army Man" on any terms but its own.
I’d argue that, in essence, it’s a wonderful Robinson Crusoe story retold by the bawdy writer François Rabelais, who combined most of these elements into his early fictions.
To tell the plot, which I often deem necessary for the readers who might have forgotten or never even seen the films I care about, would be nearly impossible. Let us just say that the moment Hank, obviously stranded on an isolated island of his own creating, begins the film by trying to hang himself from a tree on the cliff above, this movie shifts into another world. At the very moment of his intended suicide he perceives a washed-up body from the sea and struggles to free himself from his rope embracement to check out that being, trying to resuscitate what he soon recognizes is a corpse, perhaps a vision of his own dead self.
It is a kind of mythical friend Friday, quite obviously, a man who cannot comprehend—since he is apparently dead to Hank’s own expressions. Yet, like Defoe’s “primitive,” this corpse has marvelous powers to help Hank survive that involve absurd perceptions of the contemporary world, including ski-jets (propelled, in this case by the dead man’s farts), cellphones (which Hank uses judiciously, since he is losing the message), and the corpse’s ability, when sexually stimulated to point, like the Swiss Army Knife suggested in the film’s title, inevitably north. I must admit, this not a movie of logic, but, as I expressed above, a work of dreams.
For no possibly logical reason, Hank establishes a relationship with this dead being, obviously an imagined image of his own unfulfilled youth in which he was not allowed to even masturbate. And gradually, after he begins to teach the dead man, who saves him but who he must carry around on his own back, the corpse gradually comes back to life, expressing his name as “Mahn…E,” in short, as a kind of everyman, who Hank renames as Manny.
In the new wilderness into which they have escaped, Hank attempts to reeducate his dead childhood into life, explaining the love of women, the joy of dancing, the simple pleasures that he has retreated from, while the flatulent, sexual being of his youth gradually comes back into existence.
Can one develop a sexual attraction and gay love to one’s own image of one’s failed youth? This movie even attempts that, Crusoe’s Friday becoming a kind of being with the now, spiritually- dead Hank, dressed up in to drag to attempt to explain to himself who his beloved Sarah (the locked-up housewife) truly was. Their final sexual encounters, which end in an underwater kiss, are as loving, more loving I’d argue, than any gay coming-of-age film. This is a man finally embracing his own sexuality, his own inability to even fart in public, to enjoy any of the natural experiences of his life.
I’d love to meet the young me, and to finally recognize just how loving I might have been…if only if. This film, like Rabelais, totally embraces it. Life isn’t just nice gestures and well-behaved thoughts.
In a far more conventional version of this, Ronny Commarei of Moonstruck tries to draw his love Loretta into his bed with words that Hank may have uttered to his younger self:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn't
know this either, but love don't make things nice - it ruins everything.
It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to
make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect.
Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts
and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit.
Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!
They betray one another, ultimately, and the everyman who Hank once was has, unfortunately, to die, with Hank himself being restricted again by the society in which he lives, in this case being arrested for having almost stalked Sarah, whose pictures the police find on his cellphone.
Yet Hank, once more, tries to release those youthful impulses, grabbing up the morgue-bound former self to allow him to escape in the flatulent world of youth, speeding across the continents in the imaginative farts of the youthful fullness of itself. As in the world of Greek myth, those children are all who we once were, who might create fountains of water that help us to survive far more powerful that we could ever be when we had aged, reviving our love for the world and for one another they might ever allow us to protect ourselves from all of the bears and other horrible beasts we would surely encounter in our older life.
We need, as this film makes clear, to carry those youthful visions of ourselves upon our backs, to take them with us into our futures and to let them die when they will, while freeing them to have been what they were meant to me, Swiss Army Knives of a sort, that directed us to where he finally arrived.
Los Angeles, February 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).