Has Steven Soderbergh gone barking mad? We know the director of Oscar winners (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) and box-office cash cows (Ocean's 11 and 12) likes to experiment. His 1989 debut with sex, lies and videotape was low-budget high-wire act that paid off big time. But audiences and some critics hung him out to dry when he went too arty and out-there for them with Kafka, Schizopolis, Full Frontal and Solaris, which sank like a stone even with the star presence of his frequent producing partner George Clooney.
Other directors with a career and a lifestyle to feed would have returned chastened to suck at the Hollywood tit. Not Soderbergh. is new movie, Bubble — shot on high-definition video — cost $1.7 million (about the value of Paris Hilton's award-season goody bags) and tars no one you ever heard of. What's it about? Three Ohio assembly-line workers who bore themselves breathless screwing doll heads on doll bodies.
How does that grab you? Soderbergh is confident that it will. So much so hat he, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner — dot-com billionaires who financed the project — intend Bubble to start a revolution: If you can't get to ne of the theaters in the Landmark chain (owned by Cuban and Wagner) starting January 27th, you can order Bubble from Cuban and Wagner's ay-per-view cable channel HDNet or buy the DVD (on January 31st) at a pricey thirty dollars from their home-video label. In short, Bubble s out to kill traditional theatrical distribution: theaters first, then hotel and in-flight showings, then DVD about four months later.
Is Bubble the future of movie watching? Some theater owners would like o screw off Soderbergh's head for threatening their business. Others think his triple-release strategy will save millions in marketing costs, serve a wider audience and appeal to a generation that wants what it wants right now, whether it's on a DVD, a computer or an iPod.
I have my own theories, the first being that unless Bubble starred Brad and Angelina or a lion who thinks he's Jesus, it's too small a David to slay the goliath of standard distribution — the monster that wants us to buy the same movie over and over in different formats. I also think that the time a film spends marinating at the multiplex is essential to building an interest n seeing it in ancillary markets. "Direct-to-video" is still a sign of damaged goods to most of us.
That said, Bubble deserves a shot at finding an audience, however strenuously it tries to reach one. Soderbergh remains a gifted, searching talent with far more interest in the possibilities of film than in its potential for profit. Don't ask me why Soderbergh shot Bubble under the name Peter Andrews and edited it as Mary Ann Bernard. Just be assured that his guiding intelligence is apparent n every one of the film's scant seventy-two minutes. The cumulative effect f Soderbergh's tense and terrific psychological thriller is powerfully resonant.
The screenplay by Coleman Hough — she wrote Soderbergh'sFull Frontal and acted in his Schizopolis — is meant to bring out emotions under the surface. Hough, a poet and playwright, once described her writing this way: "My characters all share an operatic scale of suffering that is muted by having to survive the day-to-day. Everyone speaks n code: enduring silences, searching for words that won't explode and make mess of things. I love to create uncomfortable situations. I often live hem."
Her words are a helpful way into the mysteries of Bubble. he title refers to the working-class cocoon of red-state Ohio, in which the characters survive day to day as they assemble doll heads that sport the same unchanging expression. As Soderbergh lingers on those doll faces,Bubble takes on the contours of a horror film. Sub textual terrors are also picked up in the tantalizing score from former Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard.
Discomfort is certainly there in the face of Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged, overweight factory worker burdened with the care of her ailing father (Omar Cowan). Flickers of joy merge in Martha's lunchtime chats with Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a handsome teen working two jobs and content with sneaking a joint in the trailer he hares with his mom (Laurie Lee). Martha has longings for Kyle that she ever expresses, perhaps even to herself, but we see them in the looks she throws him and the photograph she takes as a keepsake.
Enter Rose (Misty awn Wilkins), a hottie temp who paints lips on the dolls and Martha into a corner. The shock is intense for Martha when she agrees to baby-sit Rose's two-year-old daughter so Rose can go on a date, and the date turns out o e none other than Kyle. Later, Rose's jealous boyfriend (K. Smith) shows up, and tamped-down passions explode in a murderous rage.
He won't reveal the unnerving ways in which the plot unravels. But Soderbergh deserves kudos or the note-perfect performances he gets from non-actors: Ashley is a student, Wilkins works at a beauty salon and Doebereiner — who paints an inedible portrait of stifled desire — manages a fried-chicken franchise.
American filmmakers so rarely deal seriously with blue-collar fears and d oncerns — as the Dardenne brothers do in Belgium and Mike Leigh does in England — that Soderbergh's film may be mistaken as exploitation or, worse, patronization. However you see Bubble — theater, DVD, pay TV — see t for what it is: a potent and provocative look at life unhinged. Bubble is said to be the first in a series of six low-budget films from Soderbergh. If they all rock the boat like this one, bring 'em on.