2005Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Misty Dawn Wilkins
he film is called Bubble, but it represents the first time in ages Steven Soderbergh has worked outside of his personal territory. Regardless of scale, his work has always radiated effortlessness, a reliance on his casts’ professionalism to carry the day. Is there a sleeker, less inhibited Hollywood franchise running than his Ocean’s Eleven+ projects? One senses that by only the second entry, George Clooney had a sharp enough grasp of Soderbergh’s aesthetic to merely play his blasé self. And indeed, Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck was the work of a discerning disciple, a decidedly hermetic take on ‘50s-era TV journalism inhabiting a bubble of its own. With reliable confidantes firmly in place, what drove Soderbergh to cut the tether, and mold the unwavering dailiness of Ohioan working-class lives into taut fiction?
If the chance to work with non-professionals presented an appealing challenge to Soderbergh, he’s met it. He coaxes one of his finest performances out of ex-KFC manager Debbie Doebereiner as yearning, middle-aged factory employee Martha. An ostensible martyr, she invokes Imelda Staunton’s angelic, titular turn in Vera Drake, but Martha’s enthusiasm is all-purpose and hardly virtuous; whether its effect is benevolence or simply gullibility is up in the air. She’d just as soon give you a ride home as impulsively buy a set of Ginsu knives off the Home Shopping Network. Doebereiner’s genius is giving this symptomatic woman a distinct and steady undercurrent of dread. A couple lines of dialogue and one reaction shot constitute the sum of her roiling affection for Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a shy young co-worker; another pair of brief stylized sequences comprise any compunction she feels for remorse-laden mistakes. Blink, and you’ll misapprehend. The Dramatic Moments are there; it’s the sheer parsimony of their distribution that’s galling. For the remainder of her screen-time, Martha is left to emit “oh really?”s and “I don’t believe that”s, transforming the word of even those she distrusts into legend. She’s so bent on rationalizing the improbable as to slip into pathology, and her case is far from uncommon.
But Kyle is just as recognizable, and nearly Martha’s opposite. Crippled by social anxiety, he plays the fool, rarely taking sides out of timidity, cornered into ambivalence. Martha is his worst possible friend, her spunk negating his sadness. To wit: “What do you think?”, Martha implores Kyle several times. His responses: “I don’t know.” This is a dynamic that could potentially continue in Sisyphean tedium for eternity, precisely because each party is lying: Martha is inquisitive for fear of losing Kyle’s glances, and he’s impassive for fear of confrontation. “I don’t know,” he again mutters near the film’s end, in a moment of Moral Doubt. Things may change, but people don’t.
Yes: they’re several rungs below Soderbergh on the social ladder, and it’s partially their fault. Even filmmaking this acute and sensitive can be mistaken for uninformed leering when a renowned auteur considers middle-America with even the slightest tinge of vituperation. But Soderbergh effectively subverts the hoary precepts of neo-realism, and its notion of capitalism as a widespread and uniformly oppressive disease. He does this by identifying a few very particular and invidious strands of aimlessness, making it our task to parse between those misfortunes we attribute to Society and those forever a part of ourselves.
Bubble is a major step forward for Soderbergh, but it’s more impressive still for finding its own snug place in his corpus. Just as Danny Ocean and Co. is too suave to fathom downward mobility, the doll factory is too abject a place for dreams to transpire. Soderbergh has stayed true to form by taking on a new but essentially consistent variety of socio-economic conditioning: “There is no world but our own,” his recent works collectively intimate. What’s more, Bubble is codified to conform to a particular Moment in Time in international cinema. Seen amongst A History of Violence and Cache at last year’s Toronto Film Fest, Soderbergh’s film was of a piece with a tendency to portend twists and secrets, and then effectively destroy any mystery through either an obvious solution or utter ambiguity. A post-Fight Club mockery of the ending du jour, or a post-9/11 obsession with the Seriousness of Violence? The beauty of Soderbergh’s film is that its clear and simple conclusion suggests neither, but instead a rare sublimation of passions otherwise subdued. That’s right: murder, in place of real success, is a perverse triumph, a confirmation of humanity, the only escape from misplaced and misunderstood emotions. So much for tragedy.
Regardless of trendy structures, political attitudes, and auteurist baubles, one real mystery lingers: Where is Soderbergh the Progressive Thinker in all of this? With the career sea-change that Bubble and its accompanying promise of five additional small-budget HD Net features represent, the ethical problem of “Why, Steven?” has arisen more frequently than ever before. He throws us a bone in the effigy-like figure of a crime investigator, arriving on the scene mid-film with startling guile in the form of real-life detective Decker Moody. Like Soderbergh, the investigator is meticulous, dispassionate enough not to subside into pathos, but reasoned enough not to condescend. More importantly, he discloses the crux of the investigation to subjects only after the interrogation is complete. While it’s a viable scientific method—gaining as untainted a response as possible—its callous search for the Truth has a markedly inhumane touch. But we learn more, the film suggests, if we don’t emotionalize. Soderbergh’s incentive remains sketchy, but his objectivity pays off in spades.