Those who dig Steven Soderbergh's more mainstream projects (Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, Ocean's Eleven) often seem to forget that, at his heart, Soderbergh is a restless cinematic risk-taker. Not content to remain within the creative confines of Hollywood, Soderbergh delights in exploding conventions, splicing genres and tackling subject matter that might seem antithetical to narrative filmmaking. Fitting then that Bubble isn't billed as a new movie, but rather as "another Steven Soderbergh experience" - clocking in at 73 minutes, Coleman Hough's script is subtle and spare, allowing for the barest semblance of a plot and concentrating more on mood and atmosphere than character development. As the saying goes, it's the journey, not the destination.
Filmed entirely on location in Belpre, Ohio and starring non-professional actors, Bubble achieves a weird sense of voyeurism - Soderbergh's sterile, Kubrickian compositions give the Midwestern doll factory utilized as the setting spectacularly creepy life. In this oblique, deliberately arty look at flyover country, Debbie Doebereiner stars as Martha, Dustin James Ashley stars as Kyle and Misty Dawn Wilkins stars as Rose. Martha and Kyle spend long, soul-deadening days assembling dolls, making small talk and living out their lives in small-town mid-America. Kyle doesn't particularly notice, but the much older Martha has a mild infatuation with the younger man - she herself doesn't even seem to realize it until the newly hired single mother Rose begins making overtures towards Kyle. With 73 minutes, there's not a lot of wasted time but Bubble manages to feel leisurely as it inexorably builds towards its tragic climax.
Admittedly, the reliance upon non-professional actors makes for some awkward early going, but for those who give themselves over to Soderbergh's vision, a certain dramatic effectiveness is achieved as the plot develops and tension mounts. Where Bubble succeeds even more is in its portrait of the average blue collar grind as well as its examination of tragedy in microcosm - there are scenes that feel journalistic, as though ripped from a documentary (although the film's end credits are easily the most unnerving images in the whole film). These aren't witty, urbane individuals, but rather high school dropouts scraping by on manual labor and late nights spent working second jobs, drinking beer and dreaming.
But enough of the film, what about the circumstances surrounding it? Part of a new venture with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Entertainment, Soderbergh's first film in a proposed series of six was released day and date across multiple platforms: DVD, the cable channel HDNet and theatrically in the Cuban-owned Landmark Theatres. Granted, it didn't make the biggest splash at the box office but it's a fascinating experiment; further closing the window between theatrical and DVD release, Cuban, Wagner and Soderbergh upend the conventions of film distribution, proving that the content doesn't necessarily always trump the means of delivery. In this case, it's fortunate that a director of such high caliber is aggressively pursuing new and different ways of filmmaking. Bubble is an austere, quietly disturbing examination of what lies beneath the surface in every small town - it also happens to be the opening shot in what should prove to be a revolutionary approach to film distribution.
Bubble arrives on DVD with a flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer - razor sharp, clean and with absolutely no defects, this is an amazing visual representation. Shot with high-def cameras by Soderbergh (working under his Peter Andrews alias), Bubble looks positively life-like in some scenes; black levels are rock solid, there's no discernible edge enhancement and the smooth, high-def image pops off the screen.
For such a high tech, forward-thinking project, it's amusing that the only audio options are Dolby 3.0 stereo and Dolby 2.0 stereo - but then, this isn't exactly a film that lends itself to a bombastic soundtrack. Dialogue is heard clearly throughout, with no drop-outs or distortion. Given the tendency of characters to speak at muted levels, I found that I needed to turn the volume up just a bit for some early scenes. The acoustic score, performed by ex-Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard, sounds clean and clear. Spanish subtitles are included.
Thankfully, this groundbreaking experiment is outfitted with a healthy, informative selection of supplemental material: Soderbergh sits for a typically candid and engaging commentary track with director Mark Romanek, dissecting this avant-garde work; the three main actors (Doebereiner, Ashley and Wilkins) sit for a cast commentary track with writer Hough; a six-minute deleted scene with an alternate ending is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen - the alternate ending is a little more on the nose than the theatrical, draining much of the mystery; "Bursting The Bubble: The Real Lives of the Actors" is a 11-minute making-of featurette that follows the three main actors around Belpre. Also included is nine minutes of an episode of HDNet's "Higher Definition," hosted by the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky, centered on Bubble;
"Finding The Cast," which houses cast audition interviews, available separately or all together; the eerily impressionistic Bubble trailer is here, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen as are trailers for The World's Fastest Indian, One Last Thing, Pulse and HDNet as well as a Bubble photo gallery.
Steven Soderbergh's Bubble is a spare study of small-town tragedy but what's more, it's the opening shot in what promises to be a revolution in film distribution - austere and oblique, this non-professional ensemble acquits themselves well and the DVD extras nicely flesh out both the cast and the groundbreaking multiple platform release strategy. Highly recommended.