The Dead and Dying

Where's Erin Brockovich when you need her? Debbie Doebereiner in 'Bubble'

Where's Erin Brockovich when you need her? Debbie Doebereiner in 'Bubble'

Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, according to Newsweek's Sean Smith, "could go down in history as the movie that changed everything." (Everything!) Smith's postulation, mind you, has little to do with the film itself, a modest, short story-like noir shot for $1.7 million in 18 days, with a roughly equivalent rehearsal period. The movie's epochal potential instead comes from its distribution and marketing plan. Bubble is the first product of a six-picture deal that Soderbergh struck with HDNet, a branch of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's multimedia leviathan 2929 Entertainment, which encompasses a theater chain, two production companies, two high-definition cable channels, a home video label, and the state of Nebraska*. The bigger news is that the movie is opening in theaters on the same day it becomes available as a DVD and on high-definition cable. This three-pronged release strategy, which Soderbergh and others see as the mode of the future, is naturally unpopular with studios and many theaters, though 2929 was able to get Landmark Cinema on board as exclusive exhibitors. (Negotiations were perhaps facilitated by the fact that 2929 owns Landmark Cinema.)

Some--Mark Cuban, for instance--would say that this all-at-once model is a great leap forward in terms of consumer liberty and access. No one, after all, except possibly the poor, will be deprived from seeing Bubble straight away--good news for impatient agoraphobics and people in Landmark-deprived communities such as Belpre, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, in which towns the movie was made.

At any rate, big-screen loyalists are rewarded by Bubble's opening shot, a collar-grabbing close-up of a scarlet-haired, nearly middle-aged romantic named Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). Like several images from Bubble, shot and edited by Soderbergh in high-def digital, the leadoff Martha portrait recalls William Eggleston's photographs of pensive small townies and mundane objects, blown up for posterity in aroused color.

Martha and the movie's two other principals, flat-affect Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and scheming Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), work in a doll factory that's made to look predictably creepy, all severed plastic limbs and soulless, plotting eyes (plus a spacious, well-lit break room). The trio forms an unconventional romantic triangle that ends, like all doll-factory love triangles, in someone getting strangled. The town is depressed, economically and emotionally. Kyle's mother, an unemployed TV buff, is sad-eyed and lethargic. Kyle, who, like Rose, works two jobs, is lethargic and somewhat less expressive than the factory's dolls. Outside of work, there's little to do, and less money and energy with which to do it. Accordingly, in a style that's nearly a nation away from his jumpy Ocean's duo, Soderbergh populates Bubble with long, static shots. The actors at times appear to have been caught in the act of playing a game of freeze tag in slow motion.

Soderbergh cast nonprofessionals from the area--Doebereiner, for instance, was discovered at KFC, where she was the manager--and incorporated some of their stories into the narrative. Wilkins reveals a natural aptitude for histrionics and camera manipulation, but most of the time, low-key is the rule. Ashley's performance in particular isn't so much underplayed as defiant. Like the smoking-pit stoic dragooned into a part in the school play, he refuses to emote, even when his character has mortality-related drama thrust upon him. It's a disorienting performance that offers mysteries the script withholds.

Coleman Hough's screenplay (more of an outline, with room for adlibs) seems to divide its allegiance between the common and reasonable idea that the prospect of evil, like the language of cinema, is universal, and the romantic/gothic idea that behind the Dairy Queen dumpsters of small-town America lurks the heart of darkness. When presented by and for urban types, this latter idea is a syllogism of projection: I would go crazy in a dull, oppressive hick town; there are people who live in dull, oppressive hick towns; therefore, they are going crazy. It's not that Bubble is unsympathetic to its characters, just that it doesn't allow them to be characters. Whereas Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich depicted working-class people with a full set of dimensions and something to say, Bubble is principally about its own process: We made a movie with regular folks in a small town, and isn't that different? When the film abruptly ends after a short 72 minutes, one takes a certain pleasure in its willingness to be inconclusive, and in the memory of its intermittently striking images and intriguing performances. Which doesn't change the fact that the questions Bubble doesn't answer weren't terribly interesting to begin, or that the film's veneer of elliptical artfulness could be scraped off with felt.

*Not actually true (the Nebraska part).