Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2006 2:04 pm 
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Debbie Doebereiner, who plays the older doll factory worker Martha; Dustin James Ashley, who is young coworker Kyle; and Misty Dawn Wilkins, who's staff newcomer Rose -- the three main characters in Steven Soderbergh's Bubble -- are all non-actors who come from the same small pocket of territory between West Virginia and Ohio in or near the town of Belpre. Decker Moody, who plays Dectective Don, is a working West Virginia police detective. Bubble's cast not only were recruited from the area but also had backgrounds close to those of the characters they play. Dobereiner manages a fast-food restaurant where she has worked for 24 years. Wilkins is a hair stylist. A lot of the topics these non-actors are talking about in the movie are things they talk about in real life. The main characters work in a doll factory and a real working doll factory was used for the shoot. The mostly banal dialogue is so spot-on it's uncanny.

In the story, Martha and the younger Kyle have been working at the factory for some time. There's a big new purchase order coming and new employee Rose, who has some airbrush experience, is hired on to help with the extra work load. The young, attractive Rose does fine in her job, but her unexpected presence disturbs the chemistry between Kyle and Martha.

These are people who live with their parents, have two jobs, and get no time to have fun. Coleman Hough, who wrote the screenplay, has kept it naive and simple and stunningly deadpan. When a man learns his daughter is in jail for murder, his laconic response is, "Oh, I see." The attractive young Kyle and the doughty Martha go to and from work together in Martha's car and have lunch together at the lunchroom every day. On the way to work when they stop at a donut place Martha snaps a photo of Kyle because she says he's her "best friend." After she's hired on at the doll factory, Rose joins the other two at lunch and goes off with Kyle for a smoke afterward. Then Kyle and Rose plan a date, but Martha doesn't know about it till she is at Rose's to babysit with Rose's two-year-old daughter. Because everyone is so inexpressive, it's not clear that any of them even know what they're feeling.

You might contrast the arch cleverness applied to naive people working in a nowhere Walmart-like store in Miguel Arteta's 2002 The Good Girl. These people in Bubble just are, and the murder that happens is like lots of murders that don't make it to the screen that just happen, the perpetrators being people the victim trusted, nobody knowing how it all happened. The Village Voice called Bubble "aggressively disorienting in its banality," but taken on its own terms, it works with devastating effectiveness. Deft manipulation of the non-actors and precise, attractive use of HD photography are important factors in the film's economy and success.

Soderbergh is highly effective on new territory with Bubble. It doesn't seem as if he's taken any particular movies as his models, though some of the conventions of a police procedural take over toward the end. The images shot in High Definition video of the factory, the houses, roads, and people of Ohio and West Virginia might have been lifted not from movies but from the work of 1970's and 1980's art photographers and chroniclers of the regional and the banal like Robert Adams, or Lee Friedlander, whose book Factory Valleys specifically chronicles the Ohio-West Virginia region and its laborers. William Eggleston and Nan Goldin have also been mentioned as still photographers whose work stylistically relates to the images in Bubble. The seeming banality of the images is offset by a certain stark beauty and by the heightened color of the video.

This is a part of America that is a dead-end region where there's little to do and the poor work at two jobs and can't save up extra pocket money. The mood and style of Bubble have been called "bare-bones" and "chilly" (Mahohla Dargis). But one might consider what life and work are like at this income level if you live in or near Belpre. This is as much a no-exit world as that of French regional filmmaker of desperation Bruno Dumont. But unlike Dumont, Soderbergh in Bubble doesn't go deep into the emotional lives of his people or reveal a violent, ill-repressed physicality -- except by indirection. The detachment of the film helps convey how violent crimes can happen in unlikely settings, springing out of an environment's choking repression.

The violence here, when it comes, is offscreen, but you have felt the sub-surface hostility and anger that led to it very clearly. In the film's minimal world, two young people stepping out for a smoke or a casual mean remark can assume blown up significance only a little later. This is the way minimalism works when it works effectively: to make the most trifling moments fraught with meaning and resonance. And in this case, danger.

Its release details have little to do with Bubble's artistic interest, but have caused most of the buzz about the film. Soderbergh produced it in collaboration with some dot-com billionaires with a cable network and the owners of the Landmark Theater chain. It was low-budget for Soderbergh, if not for an indie producer: it cost around $1.7 million. You save a lot when you use a digital camera and don't hire professional actors, let alone famous ones. Soderbergh's production collaboraton allowed him to break precedent in bringing out his new film on cable, DVD, and in most of the Landmark chain and some other art houses all at the same time.

There has been much clucking over this, but it's merely the follow-through on a closing gap between theatrical and home release. How dramatic an effect such a system will have on movie economics will be more observable when a more high-profile movie comes out this way, on TV and on DVD and in theaters, and is available on Netflix. If course movies have been coming out downloadable before they're in theaters, but that's the black market, and Soderbergh is legit. Bubble's cable release was on HDNet, which few people have. The whole process signals Soderbergh's return to his own indie roots with sex, lies, and videotape, but from a a media mogul angle where he can break the rules. It isn't necessarily a victory for the little guy but it does give consumers choices they have not had. Bubble is planned as the first of six digital features that Soderbergh will make for HDNet Films, all of which will be presumably shot with HD camera, quickly, with a small crew, with non-actors who will 'write their own script.' If future films in the series are as fresh and successful as Bubble, Soderbergh's choice of this series will have proven a most propitious one.

A New York Fim Festival selection. A Magnolia Pictures release.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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