Media Too real to feel good

Soderbergh’s HD experiment is magic-free

Bubble is the latest film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and likely cost less than the craft services on his last production, Ocean’s 12. The George Clooneys and Brad Pitts of the world wouldn’t even get out of bed for what they would’ve been paid for this. Still, even if they had, Soderbergh wouldn’t have been interested in their charming smiles or radiant mugs. Bubble, an unorthodox experiment at almost every turn, was never intended to be a Hollywood production and, as such, the cast was hired on location in Ohio. None of the actors had a lick of experience before the cameras rolled.

This is the first of six HDTV films Soderbergh intends to shoot for media mogul Todd Wagner and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban; together, these rich white guys co-own two production companies (2929 Productions and HDNet Films), two TV channels (HDNet Movies and HDNet), Magnolia Pictures, and Landmark Theatres. Basically, they get to make and distribute what they want. A question: Could their collective power resurrect C. Thomas Howell’s career? More on topic: Can their collective will make a film shot entirely on high-definition digital video into a hit?

It’s not like they’re not doing everything in their power to make that happen, either. Bubble is being released simultaneously on two platforms on January 27, theaters and HD cable television, and then on DVD a few days later. The daring strategy will be watched by many in the industry, as it’s a direct response to the shrinking disparity between theater and DVD releases, out-of-control international piracy, and the dwindling box-office receipts that are causing Hollywood types no small amount of panic.

None of the experiments will matter, however, if audiences prove unwilling to swallow a digital film from such a noted director as Soderbergh. Of course, George Lucas shot the last two Star Wars films with digital cameras. Then again, he had a $100 million budget to make the shit he filmed look well, less shitty. Moreover, Bubble isn’t exactly the first indie film to broach the world of digital video; it has been happening for some years now, with Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know finding much success just last year. Hell, even Soderbergh tackled the medium with Full Frontal; the 2002 ensemble drama, a curious study of reality versus cinematic fiction, died before anyone even noticed it was released. Maybe that’s why the director returned to digital with Bubble, to vindicate himself.

That vindication might not be coming, despite the support of the Venice, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals — all of which named Bubble an “official selection.” Despite the critical accolades, it seems likely that the attention being dished out has more to do with Soderbergh’s reputation and an über-rich Hollywood director’s willingness to lower himself to the rank of full-blown indie filmmaker with matching budget. The foreign press loves that kind of thing.


Dir. Steven Soderbergh; writ. Coleman Hough; feat. Dustin James Ashley, Katherine Beaumier, Joyce Brookhart, Daniel R. Christian, Ross Clegg, Omar Cowan (R)

One thing’s for certain: Bubble, despite a stirring soundtrack by Robert Pollard (formerly of Guided By Voices) and the cinematographic miracles captured by Soderbergh, does not meet the standard set by his other work. Much of that might have to do with the casting of average joes who had never acted a day in their life; the experiment works on occasion, but only when the story has something dramatic or unexpected to say (i.e., Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). Actors such as Dustin James Ashley and Debbie Doebereigner — who was spotted by a casting director in the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-thru window she worked in for 24 years — do wonders as they improv their way through the loose outline set out for them by screenwriter Coleman Hough (Full Frontal, too). It’s just that the story about three doll-factory workers, a small-town murder, and the degradations of noble people in impoverished situations is dull. In fact, the murder doesn’t even happen until the movie is almost over. The police investigation seems to go by more quickly than the series of establishing shots Soderbergh uses to beautifully capture the minutiae of living from check to check.

Soderbergh likely intended, as he did with Full Frontal, to meditate on the Big Screen’s ability to depict reality. The meditation might seem pointless after this venture, though. He has done it. This is reality, right down to mundane conversations about things like tattoos and how they’re permanent, thus deserving of much deliberation before committing to. The question is: Who goes to the movies to see reality? Movies, even when they’re “real,” still have an artificial patina to them. Whether Soderbergh likes it or not, Hollywood has conditioned us to expect this. He could eventually succeed in re-conditioning us (good on him for the effort), but Bubble won’t be the film to do it.

By Cole Haddon