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High Definition Look at Mid-America

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Steven Soderbergh’s assured and awkward experiment

Even before it turns into a murder mystery, “Bubble” feels sinister and off-kilter. For its first half hour, it seems to be a gentle, observant account of working-class Midwestern life. For most directors, the plot, setting, and nonprofessional cast would call for a pseudo-documentary style, but the film aims for a much different look.

Shooting on high definition digital video, director Steven Soderbergh creates a hyper-real feel. However, he subverts the way most filmmakers use video. It’s typically used––especially in combination with a handheld camera––to give fiction the air of reality. “Bubble” looks crisp, but far less slick than Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” the current high-water mark for DV elegance. The lighting is slightly shimmery and the colors a little distorted, but it’s never stylized to the point where the setting looks unreal.

“Bubble” is the first of six low-budget DV films Soderbergh plans to make. In an experiment, they will be simultaneously released to theaters, pay-per-view TV, and on DVD. Soderbergh’s previous two attempts to return to his indie roots––“Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal”––were flippant throwaways, although the latter wasn’t bad. By contrast, he’s obviously taken “Bubble” more seriously; this attempt to make an art film comes closer to recapturing the somber beauty of his “Solaris” remake.

“Bubble” begins with Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged woman who takes care of her elderly, ailing father. She wakes up, makes breakfast for him, and goes to work at a doll factory. At the factory, she’s friends with a much younger man, Kyle (Dustin James Ashley). A new worker, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), has just started. A young single mother, Rose seems nice at first but shows a tendency to use people and also a kleptomaniac streak. At one point, she enjoys the Jacuzzi in a house she’s supposed to be cleaning. After Rose’s first week of work at the factory, she goes on a date with Kyle, hiring Martha to baby-sit. The date goes well, but Rose comes home to find her angry ex-boyfriend, who accuses her of stealing from him, waiting outside. The next morning, she’s found dead, a victim of strangulation.

As we were leaving the screening room, a friend said, “I kept thinking I can’t wait for the American remake.” While watching “Bubble,” I couldn’t help imagining the same story with “Erin Brockovich” stars Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart. That said, Ashley and Wilkins may be nonprofessionals, but they’re quite conventionally attractive. Much like Gus van Sant’s past three films, “Bubble” draws its inspiration from outside American cinema. Soderbergh’s framing and use of static shots suggests the influence of photographer William Eggleston. He also seems to draw on Taiwanese directors Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, although he lacks their patience to let the camera linger for minutes at a time. In fact, “Bubble” is quite rapidly paced, clocking in at a swift 73 minutes.

Soderbergh is a wealthy man who’s achieved great success in Hollywood. The characters of “Bubble” have to work two jobs to make ends meet––Kyle casually mentions that he doesn’t have a checking account, as if that would be a major, insurmountable achievement. Films about Middle America, especially indies, often fall prey to the tendency to treat their characters as cute yokels––the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” best exemplifies this tendency.

“Bubble” avoids condescending to its characters, all the while making it clear that there’s something weird going on under their lives’ banal surfaces. Class isn’t exactly its subject, but it takes working-class life far more seriously than most American films. For one thing, Soderbergh devotes a surprising amount of attention to the details of work––pouring molten plastic, airbrushing doll heads, gluing wigs to them––while making it look quite surreal.

“Bubble” is both assured and awkward. At its end, it’s apparent that Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough knew exactly where they were going all along, but on a moment-to-moment basis, it’s hard to predict what will come next. The sudden leap into genre tears the film in two, yet the mystery’s solution is a matter-of-fact anticlimax. “Bubble” avoids psychology in order to use visual means to suggest barely submerged turmoil and turbulence. There’s something slightly self-conscious about the performances, particularly those of Doebereiner and Decker Moody, a real-life cop who plays a detective. Robert Pollard’s noodly acoustic guitar score is the only major misstep.

David Lynch is the only American filmmaker whom “Bubble” calls to mind. However, this film doesn’t include any nitrous oxide-huffing madmen, mysterious torch singers, or detached ears. It takes place in a recognizable landscape, yet it’s a world where people’s emotional reactions and social interactions are cold and oddly detached. It doesn’t pretend to be able to speak about its characters from the inside.

Soderbergh’s project is adventurous beyond the use of DV and nonprofessional actors. Instead of making a film “about” America’s class and culture gaps, he’s willing to place his own difficulty understanding and bridging them at center stage.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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