Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Bubble"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

From January 2006: There has been expotentially more ink devoted to the release strategy of Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble than the film itself, which is a shame, because the film is a fascinating experiment at telling a compelling story in the least dramatic fashion imaginable. I would imagine this would sound to some like a dig, or at best a back-handed compliment. It is not. In Bubble, Soderbergh has created a film that is entirely free of artifice.

The film is populated by non-actors. There is no screenplay to speak of; Soderbergh and his writer Coleman Hough (who also penned Full Frontal) worked from an outline, combined with improvisations from the non-actors. The director shot the film on high-def video, using mostly natural light, on found locations. The whole thing feels like a Dogme 95 film, without all the pretentiousness.

There are some who will read the above paragraph and think that the resulting film would resemble a long, slow visit to the dentist; their hesitancy is understandable. Indeed, it takes a few minutes to get used to Bubble’s very particular style; for long stretches, especially at the beginning, nothing seems to be happening. But then again, in real life, nothing ever seems to be happening. In real life, people don’t spend a lot of time yelling at each other, or waving guns around, or loudly proclaiming their feelings. Mostly, they just eat a lot of fast food.

Here’s an example: the film’s main character is Martha (played by Debbie Doeberainer, a KFC manager), who works in a doll factory and takes care of her aging father. In the morning, she gives a lift to Kyle (Dustin James Ashley); they stop for donuts and coffee. They also usually eat lunch together, and then she’ll give him a ride to his second job.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of Bubble, and no one seems to agree on how Martha feels about Kyle. Some say she is attracted to him; others say that she merely has a friendly affection. Others might say she treats him like the son she never has. She undoubtedly feels jealousy when Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) comes to work at the factory and catches Kyle’s eye, but what does she fear she is losing to Rose?

We don’t know. She’s not telling, and neither is Soderbergh. Most screenwriters would concoct a scene where a heartbroken Rose pours her heart out to Kyle, as her innermost private thoughts pour out of her mouth in perfectly formed bon mots. Maybe she’d gorge on Haagen Daaz and listen to old Louie Armstrong records first. And if the writer didn’t supply that tidy chunk of information, most directors would give us lingering shots of sad, heartbroken Martha, shedding a silent tear while the soundtrack swelled with the morose tinklings of a dopey score or a Bryan Adams song.

Not Bubble. And, let’s be honest, in real life, Debbie would never tell Kyle how she felt about him, and he would never guess, or know, or ask. He probably doesn’t want to know; all he wants is a ride to work in the morning. And so it goes.

By this point in the review, you can probably take a pretty good guess as to whether this movie is for you or not. There is something to be said for a touch of melodrama, for a dash of action, for spending a couple of hours with people who are look a little better and think a little faster and talk a little smarter than the rest of us. Not everyone goes to the movies to see real life. Most go there to escape it.

And there is not a thing wrong with that. But all that flash can get awfully boring, and somewhere around the thirty minute mark of Bubble, something fascinating happens: we realize that we are really, really paying attention to what’s happening on screen, more than in most movies, more than most of the time. We find ourselves examining the emptiness and listening to the silences and trying to figure out what most films think we’re too lazy to put together. We’re involved in the narrative, instead of just watching it.

Bubble is not perfect. Most of the performances, especially the leads, are very good, but there may be a false moment or two. Soderbergh’s decision to dispense with a conventional screenplay is understandable and admirable but not altogether successful; most of the dialogue expertly captures the mundane rhythms of everyday speech, but a couple of scenes (especially the final one between Martha and Kyle) feel less like real life and more like forced improvisation.

But it is an honest-to-goodness experimental film, and Soderbergh’s desire to continue making them, at this point in his career, is the very definition of admirable filmmaking. The film is beautifully shot, efficient (it runs a brisk 73 minutes), and remarkably restrained and mature. There are moments, especially early in the film, where we’re not sure what Soderbergh is doing, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that he knows.

"Bubble" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on Netflix.

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