Steven Soderbergh is the once and future king of American independent film. I remember seeing Sex, Lies, and Videotape for the first time during my freshman year in college; my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend and I tucked into a crowded multiplex in Kalamazoo, MI, where she was attending college and were blown away. At the time of its domestic release, Sex, Lies was an exciting moment for the independent film scene, the moment that historians point to as the birth of the modern day independent film business. The impact of the film on the movie industry and its surprising win at Cannes were completely unknown to me; I felt the tinge of revelation in finally seeing an American film that thrilled me with its "European" attention to character and style (ah, the undergrad years...) and its decidedly kinky take on intimacy. I had seen Jarmusch, Wenders' Paris, Texas had changed my idea of movies, and I was a couple of years away from catching Linklater's generational signpost, Slacker. It is sometimes hard to put hindsight away and recapture the context of certain moments in one's life, but for me, an eighteen year old college freshman on the verge of heartbreak and about to discover independent film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a personal touchstone. I will never forget its thrills and the hope it gave me.
Of course, it is just as easy to forget that Steven Soderbergh's post- Sex, Lies career teetered on the disastrous. He followed his huge hit with a string of flops; the underappreciated Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath, Gray's Anatomy and my personal favorite among his films, Schizopolis. It marked a nine year stretch where Soderbergh hovered beneath the radar, making interesting films without ever duplicating the commercial success of his debut. Of course, Out Of Sight garnered critical raves but still earned less in domestic box-office than it cost to make, but that film and its stylized companion piece The Limey entrenched Soderbergh in the minds of Holywood execs. It wasn't until 2000, eleven years after his initial success, that he made the smash hit Erin Brockovich and launched himself into the upper-echelon of Hollywood directors, winning the Best Director Oscar the next year for his re-make of the British mini-series Traffic. Even after these huge hits, Soderbergh has followed his own muse, with films like his critcally admired but box-office poison re-make of Tarkovsky's Solaris and the universally ignored Full Frontal.
Like I said, it is sometimes hard to recapture things in context, but during the indie heyday of the 1990's, Soderbergh was on the outside looking in. It took a star-driven blockbuster to ressurect his name in the public eye. Now that name is as loaded as his films. Regarded by many as a crowd-pleasing Hollywood craftsman and equally as many as a sell-out, a Soderbergh film comes packed with expectations. And so, after seeing his latest incarnation, the low-budget, working class thriller Bubble, I will go out on a limb and guess that Steven Soderbergh will once again face commercial indifference and hostile critics, but I will also say that no film he has made since Schizopolis has gotten it so right. The film, his first HD feature (and part of a glitzy new media film production deal with HDNet and Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929), is being publicized, like all products in America, more for its production process and its business dealings than its artistic merits. That's the same media logic that looks at the disaster in New Orleans and asks aloud how inflated gas prices will affect the President's poll numbers. Who cares?
Spoiler Alert: There are important plot details revealed in the remaining discussion of Bubble.
What does matter is Bubble as a film. It is unlike anything Soderbergh has ever done, in that it is formally excellent while housing incredible performances by non-professional actors who, without question, re-create the cant and tone of Midwestern working class life like no other film I've seen. Whereas the Dardenne brothers can throw a 35mm camera on their shoulders and follow the trudging brutality of working class life in a film like Rosetta to critical shouts of genius, I expect Soderbergh's formalism in the face of his utterly informal location and actors to be the subject of critical scorn. That is a mistake; Soderbergh's sly telling of this blue-collar whodunit houses some amazing moments, and his direction of the non-actors, particularly lead actress Debbie Doebereiner as the sweet but humiliated Martha, makes for a truthful reverence for the rhythms of working class life. I can think of no higher praise for a movie than it feels absolutely true, but Bubble does. I don't know how many of you have spent time among the workers of the rust belt, struggling against hope to make a living while confronting loneliness and a puritan understanding of right and wrong, but I believe that Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough have hit the nail on the head. The way these characters walk, mumble their conversations, lie, cheat, and steal is note perfect. This is no small feat; I can't remember the last time I saw an American film with a coherent depiction of manual labor coupled with the understanding of the deeply felt shame, pride, and the physical violence lying under the surface of the American class system. It also absolutely understands the selfish jealousy and the longing of unrequited adult love, and the combination of class struggle and romantic indifference make for a potent cocktail; what other killer can you remember who goes to the beauty salon after committing murder?
Workin' For The Weekend: Misty Dawn Wilkins as Rose, Debbie Doebereiner as Martha and Dustin James Ashley as Kyle in Steven Soderbergh's Bubble
The look of the film is straight out of a 1970's thriller, with enough dark exteriors harboring palpable danger to evoke a film like Klute. In addition to the look of the film, it features a surprisingly evocative score performed on acoustic guitar that echoes the stripped down lives of the characters; it sounds like music written and performed by American Movie's Mike Schank. The score is a perfect compliment for the character's dreams of overcoming their economic struggles, dreams we know will never come true. It is curious to think of this as the follow-up project to Ocean's Twelve, but looking back over Soderbergh's career, it should be no surprise. It is great to see the director taking up the formal challenges of low budget independent films again, and while Bubble is no Sex, Lies, it is certainly a step forward. Here's hoping that Bubble is given a chance in the marketplace. It is a deserving film and signals Soderbergh's return to his indie roots.