BUBBLE

September 9, 2017

IT WASN'T ME           

 

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 critical attention, but I wasn’t so taken by them. I still haven’t seen Erin Brokovich (2000), and I can take or leave the glossy star-studded Ocean’s series (2001, 2004, 2007). Full Frontal (2002) was better than the reviews would have us believe, but then came Solaris (2002).

 

Produced by James Cameron, I expected Solaris to be a glossy vehicle for George Clooney, which in a way it was, but to my surprise the film was a very successful reshaping of the material, a substantial and highly satisfying work with a distinct European flavour. From this point on, I began to see what others had seen in earlier Soderbergh 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 blue-collar workers in a failing doll factory, namely frumpish 40-something Martha (played by Debbie Doebereiner, who actually works as the manager of a burger bar in Belpre), and Kyle, a socially awkward young man for whom Martha has possessive feelings (played by Dustin James Ashley, whose mother and house serve as his character’s mum and home). When attractive single mum Rose (played by Misty Dawn Wilkins, a hairdresser in Belpre) takes a job in the factory and becomes friendly with Kyle, Martha feels threatened. Martha agrees to babysit for Rose one evening (the child is played by Wilkins own daughter), but is shocked, humiliated, and betrayed to discover that Kyle is her date. The following morning Rose is found dead.

 

The next section of the film deals with the police investigation led by Detective Don Taylor, 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, each of whom deliver performances of great quotidian conviction that lends substantial verisimilitude to the film, and adds 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 touch on deeper thematic implications that speak to national (if not global) denial. It’s similar to the 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 cites 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. Andrew Sarris came close. He hated the film, but wondered if the dour setting and poor acting was an attempt by Soderbergh to say something about the ‘banality of evil’. He was bang on, but maybe 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 one that bursts in Bubble implicates the political acquiescence and complicity of everyone (in the USA and beyond) who ignores the imperialist aggression of the ‘military industrial complex’.

 

At this point you may be 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 denial and compliance. Ironically, some viewers criticised the film for a lack of ambition, but that depends on how one reads it. In my view, Soderbergh has made a very sophisticated film in a deliberately unsophisticated way, the meaning of which can be found in allegorical subtext.

 

Form follows function. In Bubble Soderbergh eschews his renowned stylistic fluidity in favour of static shots, a choice that emphasises the locked-off stasis of his characters, as well as the lack of real-world outrage implicit in the film’s subtext. Formally and thematically, Bubble is primarily political, and in this sense it’s one of Soderbergh’s most ambitious films. The doll-factory symbolises an historic political legacy that everyday Americans 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, torsos—is deliberate and pointed. The montage could easily be 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 (of not, a world) in denial. 

 

Bubble is a morally motivated film, and it nailed its target. When Martha asks herself, ‘did I do that?’, the implications are universal.

 

 

 

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© Steve Garden 2017 

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