Steven Soderbergh, 2005
There has been much speculation about Steven Soderbergh’s motivation for making BUBBLE, with most seeing it as an arty indie experiment. It was intended as part of a series of low cost features designed to trial a potentially revolutionary approach to independent film production and distribution by releasing the product in all markets (online, theatres, DVD, etc.) simultaneously. But speculation of a subtextual nature may also have been a strong motivation for Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough.
Like most, I enjoyed Soderbergh’s successful indie debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), but didn’t see another of his films until Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), and Traffic (2000), all of which attracted serious attention, but I wasn’t so taken by them. I still haven’t seen Erin Brokovich (2000), and I’m no fan of the glossy star-studded Ocean’s series (2001, 2004, 2007). Full Frontal (2002) was better than reviews at the time suggested, but then came Solaris (2002).
Produced by James Cameron, I expected Solaris to be a glossy vehicle for George Clooney, but surprisingly the film was a very successful reshaping of the material, a substantial and highly satisfying work with a distinct European flavour. I began to see what others had seen in late 90s films, but that didn’t prepare me for Bubble.
Bubble is set in the mid-American town of Belpre, Ohio. Cast with non-professional local residents, it’s a story about a couple of blue-collar workers in a failing doll factory, namely Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, who actually works as a manager in a burger bar), a frumpish 40-something who paints faces on the dolls, and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley, whose mother and house serve as his character’s mum and home), a socially awkward young man for whom Martha has possessive feelings. When attractive single mum Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins, a hairdresser in Belpre) takes a job in the factory and becomes friendly with Kyle, Martha feels threatened. When Martha agrees to babysit for Rose one evening (the child is played by Wilkins own daughter), she is shocked and hurt to discover that her date is Kyle. Martha feels betrayed and humiliated. The following morning Rose is found murdered.
The next section of the film deals with the police investigation led by Detective Don Taylor. The detective is played by Decker Moody, a local 24-year police veteran whose performance adds great authenticity to the film. Moody’s matter-of-fact professionalism is credible in a way that few professional actors could match. The same is true of Doebereiner, Ashley, and Wilkins, who deliver performances of great quotidian conviction, lending extraordinary verisimilitude to the film and adding weight to Soderbergh’s thematic argument.
As film critic Amy Taubin noted, “the awkwardness and emotional blockages of these first-time actors … are closer to Bresson’s models … the opaqueness of Doebereiner’s expression makes us watch her … something in her eyes suggests that she is so habituated to swallowing her anger and grief that she doesn’t even know those feelings exist in her.” Taubin’s perceptive comments highlight Soderbergh’s implication of a broad condition of not just national but global denial. It’s the same thematic subtext one finds in the work of Haneke, Siedl, and others, which may be why Bubble feels so distinctly European. It came as no surprise to learn that Soderbergh cited the influence the German master, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The last section brings Soderbergh’s pointed allegory of denial and complicity into focus. Well, I say pointed, but you won’t find a single review that supports such a reading of the film. Andrew Sarris came closest. He hated the film, but wondered out loud if the dour setting and amateurism of the non-professional actors was an attempt by Soderbergh to say something about the ‘banality of evil’. Sarris was bang on, but not for the reasons he cited. The film's thematic subtext can be found in the title, which denotes denial and isolation—living in a bubble. Of course, bubbles inevitably burst, and the bubble that bursts in Soderbergh’s film implicates the political acquiescence and complicity of every citizen in the United States (and beyond) who is content to ignore the imperialist aggression of the ‘military industrial complex’.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking that such a reading requires a huge leap of subtextual imagination to equate the trauma-induced amnesia of a lonely middle-aged factory worker in Belpre with carnage in Fallujah, but Bubble is fundamentally about the power of denial and the shock of compliance. Ironically, some criticised the film of a lack of ambition, but such a view largely depends on how one reads of the work. In my view, Soderbergh has made a very sophisticated film in a deliberately unsophisticated way, in which ultimate meaning is found in allegorical sub-text.
Form follows function. In Bubble Soderbergh eschews his renowned stylistic fluidity in favour of largely static shots, an aesthetic choice that emphasises the locked-off stasis of the lives of his characters, and the lack of movement, action, or outrage implicit in the film’s subtext. Formally and thematically, Bubble is political, and in this sense it’s one of Soderbergh’s most ambitious films. Apart from being a potential model for independent art-filmmaking and dissemination, he has fashioned a very precise and appropriate aesthetic with which to inform the meaning of the work. The doll-factory symbolises an historic political legacy with which ordinary American citizens (like the characters in the film) are intimately acquainted. In this respect one might be tempted to accuse Soderbergh of heavy-handedness if it wasn’t for the fact that no one has pick up on it.
The end credits montage of still-shots featuring piles of doll parts—limbs, heads, and torsos—is deliberate and pointed. The montage could be easily dismissed as mere end-credit colour, but it’s as central to Soderbergh’s intentions as locating the film in small-town American, employing locals as actors, and using flexible digital technology. These choices weren’t accidental, and neither is the closing montage. I defy anyone to look at the image above and not think of brutal internment, or to tell me that the closing montage of doll body parts isn't a visual allegory for carnage, or that Martha's realisation that she has blood on her hands isn't directed squarely at the acquiescence of a nation (a world) in denial.
Bubble is a morally motivated work of cinema, and it nailed its target. When Martha confronts herself with ‘did I do that?’ the implication is ‘did we do that?’—or more to the point, ‘are we still doing that?’