The release pattern for movies ' first in theaters, then on DVD, then on pay-per-view and subscription channels, then on regular TV ' is so familiar to us that it seems ordained by God, but in fact it's ordained by mammon, the desire on the part of those heathen Hollywood studios for material wealth of biblical proportions. Stringing things out like that allows for double-, triple-, even quadruple-dipping into our entertainment budgets. But there's no other reason a movie couldn't premiere at Eastgate, at Blockbuster and on HBO on the same day. In fact, such a release pattern, what's now being called day-and-date, might actually increase a movie's overall revenues, allow it to strike in several different formats while the iron's still hot.
That's the thinking behind the release of Bubble, Steven Soderbergh's no-frills, no-thrills-and-chills look at life (if that's what you want to call it) in the fly-over zone. Set in Belpre, Ohio, also known as the middle of nowhere, and starring local residents, one of whom was "discovered" while working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, Bubble might not have garnered much attention except for the role it's expected to play in the history of film distribution, that and the director's last name. Soderbergh, who's best described as an A-list maverick, has brought us such mainstream fare as Ocean's Eleven, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight and such out-of-the-mainstream fare as Schizopolis, Solaris and Full Frontal.
And did I mention sex, lies and videotape, which is given credit for having jump-started the independent-film movement back in 1989? If Bubble takes off at the box office and the cash register and the monthly cable bill, it could have a similar effect on the kinds of movies made available to us and the methods by which they're made available. But I don't really see that happening, not this time around. To catch the movie in a theater today, you'll need to drive over to Milwaukee, where it's screening at the Downer. And to rent it on DVD, you'll need to get in line, because even as enlightened a video store as Four Star has only one copy. Blockbuster doesn't carry it, and how can you become a blockbuster without Blockbuster?
Obviously, the point isn't to make a killing. The point is to find an audience for a movie that would otherwise get trampled by the Hollywood behemoths, with their mammoth marketing campaigns ' an altogether new audience, it seems. "Only about 10% of the population goes to movies," Todd Wagner, one of the gentlemen behind the all-at-once launch, recently told Newsweek. "I want to reach that other 90%." And from that other 90%, he hopes to cherry-pick enough art-film-loving couch potatoes to not only keep Bubble afloat but revolutionize an industry. I wish him luck, I suppose, but since I'm not in the habit of reviewing release patterns, I would now like to turn to the old Lincoln-assassination question: Otherwise, how was the movie?
It's not bad. In fact, it's quite good, in a low-rent kind of way. Soderbergh shot it himself, allowing the camera to kind of sit there, collecting dust. And when he does finally pan, it just serves to remind us how small the town is, one dead end leading to another. We're first introduced to Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, the KFC employee), a middle-aged woman who works in a doll-manufacturing factory and sews doll clothes in her spare time. A bit of a doll herself, Martha has chubby arms and legs, eyes that sparkle with childlike petulance and a need ' stoked by years of loneliness ' to be played with, let out of her plastic box. When she speaks, the words seem prerecorded. All you have to do is pull the string.
Actually, what really pulls Martha's string is being around Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), her much younger co-worker, whom she gives rides to and takes coffee breaks with. Shy almost to the point of catatonia, Kyle has a way of swallowing his words on their way out of his mouth. And when we do understand what he's saying, there's an obviousness to it that suggests, then relinquishes, a higher meaning. "You talked to your dad lately?" Martha asks him between slurps of a refreshing beverage from Hardee's. "No, not since the last time," Kyle replies. And the dialogue's like that, so naturalistic that you have to wonder whether the movie's trying to communicate anything beyond the fact that Kyle hasn't seen his father in a while.
It is, but you have to read between the lines to figure out exactly what's going on. Martha's relationship with Kyle (a relationship Kyle may not even be aware of, keep in mind) is thrown for a loop when Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a single mother about Kyle's age, takes a job at the doll factory. Thin and attractive, with a long neck ripe for strangling, Rose has airbrush experience, having worked in a T-shirt shop. But Martha smells trouble, gets on her case. "You know you gotta double-glue those before you put them in the box," she says to the newcomer, who's attaching eyelashes to a spherical blob of pink latex. Translation: Take one more step in the general direction of Kyle and I'll chop your legs off.
That Rose gets more or less what she deserves, having stolen money off Kyle and having stolen Kyle off Martha, suggests that these lives of quiet desperation sometimes come through loud and clear. There's an undeniable air of condescension to the movie's depiction of these small-towners. But the untrained actors, whose amateurishness comes across as awkwardness, not amateurishness, have a reality to them that most trained actors can only aspire to. They seem to be drawing on their own lives ' double-shifts, then home to double-wides. As to whether they would ever check out a movie like Bubble at the local video store, if it happened to be on the shelf, well....
By the way, stick around for the end credits, which feature photographs of dolls being born or aborted, hard to tell which. Like the people who manufacture them, these plastic replicas of human beings hover between life and death, seemingly unable to tell the difference.