Steven Soderbergh's Bubble is an odd film to launch a revolution. But remember the title, because whether the film is remembered forever or forgotten in a month, it will become a trivia question. Something along the lines of, "What Steven Soderbergh picture marked the end of the moratorium between a film's theatrical release and its home-video debut, premiering the same day in theaters, on DVD, and on television?"
I feel nostalgic already.
In the beginning, you had a choice: See a new movie or don't see it. With the advent of home video in the late 1970s, your choices broadened: See it now or wait nine months. That window gradually narrowed, and now you have Bubble, giving you a choice of where you want to see a new release: at home, in a movie theater, or both.
That's the plan anyway.
Bubble opens tomorrow in a handful of theaters around the country, not in Toledo but in Detroit (for reasons we'll get to). It'll also be available tomorrow on DVD (Magnolia, $29.98). And if you have cable, Bubble will be available through video-on-demand. Already you can see the advantage of this kind of distribution, particularly for smaller specialty films like Bubble. Have you ever read a review, seen a commercial, and looked forward to seeing a movie, then learned that the film is playing only in New York and Los Angeles, and not even coming to your city for another six weeks, if at all?
If the Bubble experiment works, that frustration could be history. When I spoke with Soderbergh last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, he said the old ways of distributing movies had become antiquated, audiences no longer want to watch movies the way studios want them to, and the recent box office slump was a warning:
"We should be realistic. Audiences download off iTunes. They TiVo. They get their media when they want it, and they know there are so many movies coming out now that if they wait 60 days or less, the movie will be out on video. Except they want it faster. [A simultaneous home video and theatrical release] is the logical next step. Not everyone is gonna love it, but they are going to have to get used to it."
Well, yes, and no.
Think of Bubble as a test. It's the first of six similar films Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic and Ocean's Eleven, plans to make and distribute this way, through a production agreement with Mark Cuban's HDNet, Magnolia Pictures, and Landmark Theaters. (Incidentally, at the moment, Landmark is the only chain supporting this method of releasing a picture; the National Association of Theater Owners, and majority of the chains it represents, are grumbling it will cannibalize their audiences.)
Detroit has a handful of Landmark theaters. Toledo has none. And there's irony in that, because even though you can't see Bubble in Toledo the same day it opens in other cities, this is one of the most accurate depictions of small-town Ohio ever made, and one of the most committed.
It was shot around Belpre, a town of 7,000 in Washington County, on the southern border with Kentucky, nestled along the Ohio River. The actors are not actors at all: Glum, barely able to raise his head to get through the day, twentysomething Kyle is played by Dustin James Ashley. Plump and quiet, with red hair to match her complexion, middle-aged Martha is played by Debbie Doebereiner. The third wheel in this relationship is Rose, pretty and flirtatious, and played by Misty Dawn Wilkins. They work in a doll factory, where passions never flare between them so much as spark for a second, and then fizzle out.
Never heard of these people?
That's because Soderbergh set up shop in Belpre for a few months, looked around for residents willing to act, then cast his film. It's not all that strange for an A-Lister as provocative as Soderbergh, but it is unique: After Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh returned with the stripped-down Full Frontal and muted Solaris; now, after Ocean's Twelve, he's gone as far from Hollywood as you can imagine, delivering perhaps the strangest movie ever made by a filmmaker of his status. It almost entirely lacks his stylistic fingerprints, or even his talents.
The first 50 minutes or so happen with such a low-register, deadpan everyday practicality, Bubble shames movies like Blue Velvet (and even A History of Violence), which mean to show the dark underbelly of even the most placid small town. Kyle and Martha do repetitive line work down at the factory. They have lunch. They say a few words. They go back to work. We see where they live, their families, aging parents, the modest interiors of their cramped apartments and homes. Nothing large happens.
Then Rose is hired as a temp.
Desperation seeps into the triangle. There is a slight romance, and as lacking in suspense as the picture is, I hesitate to say more. But I will add that there is a murder mystery that is not much of a mystery, and for a reason: Soderbergh is digging into the ways you never know anybody, even the people you see every day. The residents are alienated from each other, almost perversely bored by lives so mundane that any show of passion is a shock.
So bored that the slightest break from routine leads to ... murder.
Is Soderbergh condescending? Not so much as some of the reviews for Bubble: In Premiere magazine, one critic wrote that the way Soderbergh shoots "one of the most notorious red-states could be misconstrued as aestheticizing poverty." In fact, he's shooting an economically strapped, middle-class town the way it looks, without the shine of art direction. The trade journal Hollywood Reporter had this to say: The film's laughs come from the "actors' under-reaction to dramatic events, a case where their natural deadpan probably has the jump on an expressive, trained actor." These actors might be surprised to learn they possess a "natural deadpan."
Or they might look at it this way: You're hired to act in front a camera, you're being directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker who is business partners with George Clooney. You're well aware that this movie will become a Hollywood footnote someday. You'd look scared, too.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org