‘Bubble’ is a mere 75 minutes long, shot with a digital camera by Steven Soderbergh, and using “real” people as actors. Soderbergh found a hair stylist, a KFC manager and a slacker and recruited them to play the primary roles in this bare bones story. The movie is set on the Ohio-West Virginia border, which is where the actors all grew up and live today.

The plot itself is a little simplistic, and I’m not sure I like the motivation used to explain the murder, but what makes this a quite wonderful little movie is the cinematography. Soderbergh does for mid-Ohio what he did for LA in ‘Limey’: in a few brief stills he captures the heart of a certain kind of existence. In this case it is the gray, flat world of working people struggling to keep their heads above water in a minimum wage economy. Every single damn shot is a masterpiece of composition. Unobtrusively, the store names, the contents of the vending machines, the posters on the walls, the church pews, and everything else behind and around the principal actors paint a picture of this part of the United States and of a social milieu that we rarely get to see on film. Much of the movie is filmed at night, or in dimly lighted factories, diners, trailers and rooms. The contrast to the dazzling light of ‘Limey’ is striking. The interiors are superb, particularly the doll factory which manages to evoke efficiency and soul-destroying monotony simply with a few stills and the hum of machinery.

I suppose the film is minimalist in the van Sant sense. The camera simply follows the actors around and records their conversations. As non-actors, the voices are almost entirely without affect, contributing to the flatness of the movie. There are long periods of silence during the conversations, and the dialogue is so limited that each social interaction feels awkward. At one point, talking through a screen in a prison visiting room, Kyle just keeps responding with exactly the same words, “I don’t know,” to Martha’s cries for help. To my ears, though, the dialogue is utterly authentic, as indeed is the image of semi-rural Ohio that the movie portrays.

In a very old “Hancock’s Half Hour” sketch, Tony Hancock goes to a photographer for some new publicity photos and asks him to take some snaps. “Snaps?” the photographer replies, “I don’t take snaps; I paint with light.” Soderbergh certainly does that here.

2 thoughts on “Bubble”

  1. ugh . . . I just wrote this really long and extremely enthusiastic response to Bubble and then lost it, stupidly. I’m so angry. I can’t recreate it now, but I was very surprised and pleased by this film. It lacks the oh-so-easy ironic gaze that so many films dealing with rural, working-class populations seem to require, and it treats its characters and the world in which they live with respect and integrity. Sure, there is a definite lack of affect and the narrative is flat (and yes the filmmaking is exemplary) but these are characters who are not given permission to show emotion or to imagine a world that offers such easy liberties as the ones in which we find ourselves. And sure there is something voyeuristic about that but at no time did I feel as if the film condescends. One character lives at home and suffers from an anxiety disorder, another is undone by desires for which she has no vocabulary to articulate even to herself, another is a single mom who simply does what it takes to keep it all together. I know I have been labled a sentimentalist but I felt for these characters and wanted to know how it would all play out. And Robert Pollard wrote the score (god bless him, the guy cranks out twelve tunes between beers). Maybe I’ll add more later, but I’m a fan.

  2. Finally saw this, and could just hum the tunes Chris and Jeff composed–utterly gorgeous film.

    But I could add simply this, riffing explicitly on Jeff’s excellent point about how “these are characters who are not given permission to show emotion or to imagine a world that offers such easy liberties as the ones in which we find ourselves”: the shot of Martha at church, hell the preliminary expository shot of the congregation, leads to one stray flash that challenges Jeff’s reading (and, because such an aberration in the film, actually confirms Jeff’s reading). The churchgoeers all stare flat-faced, affectless, as if in a still photo; the shots cut closer to Martha, then to a close-up, then the lighting shifts to bright spot on her face and all around her darkness. And a look of transcendent joy flashes on her face. I found that wrenching; it was the one moment–or one of two–where affect bubbles up in the performances. A closing reiteration of that shot (with Martha in jail, finally realizing or recalling what she’s done) plays like a grim joke, collapses the (seeming) desire for a better life into the grimy pointless murder and the grimier restrictions of her personal and professional life.

    I agree, this was surprisingly strong. I went in willing to go anywhere–I even liked Schizopolis a helluva lot, so I’m a sucker for S.S.–but I did not expect so effective a little film. (I don’t think Soderbergh can make an uninteresting film, take an unalluring shot. And I’ll foolishly reiterate an earlier rec–if you set aside your expectations for coherence and caper plot, and don’t lean too heavily on your awareness that the rich goodlooking people are having fun, Oceans 12 is equally astonishing for its look and style and editing and sheer filmmaking pleasures.)

Leave a Reply