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Entries in Bubble [2005] (1)

Tuesday
Nov172009

Bubble (2005)

When the Walls Come Tumblin' Down...

There’s a Henry Rollins joke from the late 90’s that predicted the rise of reality television. While riffing on inauthentic sitcoms like Friends, he posited that perhaps audiences really did need ridiculous escapism; after all, he wondered, who would want to watch a show called, Your Shitty Job, or Factory!? A decade later, programs about average people dot the TV landscape; Hollywood has found a way to sensationalize the unglamorous, to monetize the mundane. From scripted sitcoms about office life to series that purport to document the perils of raising eight kids, reality is the new escapism. Rollins, I think, would have been a big fan of Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble.

I love Bubble. It’s a captivating short film about life in an impoverished Ohio town that exudes authenticity in every respect, from casting to shooting style. The fact that it was made on a shoestring budget by the high-powered director/producer of Ocean’s Thirteen is a sign of both true artistry and integrity. The movie is almost perfect.

Bubble tells the story of two friends, Kyle (Dustin Ashley) and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). They both work at a doll manufacturing plant; Kyle pours rubber into the molds that produce hands, feet, and creepy, empty baby faces, and Martha paints their cheeks with spray-on blush and sews their Sunday-best dresses. Kyle’s a soft-spoken twenty-year-old waif and Martha is heavy-set, middle-aged, and single; they’re best friends, bound by an utter lack of prospects and united in a love of small-town gossip. Martha’s world is shattered one morning when the plant manager introduces a new employee, Rose (Misty Wilkins), whose youth and beauty immediately draw Kyle’s attention.

I won’t delve further into the story because to spoil the late-film plot development would be a sin. Bubble thrives on the documentary quality of its presentation, and is an utter joy to watch; if you’ve seen the film, you no doubt find this a puzzling statement. This is not a joyous movie—it’s actually rather depressing—but you can tell by the attention to detail and the refusal to rely on cliche that Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough set out to prove that a movie could be utterly convincing and entertaining.

All of the performers in Bubble are non-actors with no previous film experience. Ashley and Wilkins come across as the real deal, directionless underachievers whose greatest ambitions involve weed and a steady paycheck. I don’t know if they needed training beyond tips on memorizing lines; I wouldn’t be surprised if they just played versions of themselves. The real find of the movie is Debbie Doebereiner. She’s a natural, and the only one of the performers who creates a complete character; granted, that’s partially by the script’s design. I was moved by her jealousy, frustration, and compassion—and, in the end, her tragic madness. It’s fitting that she hasn’t acted in anything since Bubble; she’s frozen in time here, like the Mona Lisa.

Like Soderbergh’s other recent short-form experiment, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble takes a cinematic snapshot of a small group of characters (this film is actually shorter, clocking in at just 73 minutes). Unlike the other movie, Bubble has no fat. Soderbergh spins his story quickly through everyday dialogue and many scenes of people assembling dolls and slinking from the factory to their tract homes and back again. He packs the front end of the movie with just enough quiet, drawn out scenes to give a feel for the interminability of his characters’ existence without alienating us, and then plows full boar into the plot.

Depending on how many police procedurals you’ve seen, you may or may not think Bubble has a “twist” ending. It’s unclear what Soderbergh and Hough’s intent was with the film’s climax. Are we meant to be shocked, or is the film just meant to be appreciated as a character study? I wasn’t surprised by the revelation, but I was surprised by one character’s awakening, in the scene that closes the movie (Hint: “Oh my God.”).

I hope Steven Soderbergh makes more films like Bubble, or at least inspires other filmmakers to take up the mantle. This is the movie of a young, ambitious artist, and the fact that it comes from someone who could have long ago put that aspect of his creativity away is amazing to me. The director has brought us full circle now. From stand-up joke to mass-marketed faux “reality”, and now back to a more authentic reality (that is still a construct) produced outside the studio system, entertainment has officially eaten itself. Whatever comes next will be awesomely awful, I’m sure, but we can count on Soderbergh to keep things interesting.

Note: If anyone has seen this movie and can clue me in on the white cross motif, I’d greatly appreciate it. For the uninitiated, look for four white crosses in the early part of the film, in four different scenes. It may be a coincidence, but I’m happy to entertain any theories you might have...