Seldom has so small a film created so big a flap. The flap, to be sure, has nothing whatever to do with the film itself, identified on the poster as "another Steven Soderbergh experience," though the wary customer will know that there is a wide range of experience between Ocean's Eleven and Solaris, between Erin Brockovich and Full Frontal, between Traffic and Schizopolis.
The present experience, under the heading of Bubble, is an exercise in frugality. An hour and a quarter in length. A strummy solo guitar for background music. A chamber-sized ensemble of nonprofessional actors in awkward semi-improvised dialogues, flat and unaffected, certifiably unhistrionic, yet not so much natural as forcibly constrained. (Excepting only the real police detective who authoritatively plays a police detective.) A doll-factory locale in the Ohio hinterlands worth maybe five, ten minutes of documentary shots in the Errol Morris vein. A shred of a plot, a kind of a triangle, an offscreen murder, a microscopic motive. A conscious striving, all around, for banality and bleakness and an accidental achieving of condescension. A digital camera backed up to the farthest corner of the room, maximizing and exaggerating its distance through a wide-angle lens. A "high-definition" video image evolved above the complaint zone, safely into the comfort zone, still below the commendation zone. A bubble, a bauble, a bust.
The flap, as you will know, owes everything to the marketing strategy of releasing the film simultaneously in theaters and on cable TV and DVD, slamming shut the traditional "window" between those outlets. The film industry, which as a whole has been narrowing the window inch by inch in its impatience to turn a profit, is understood to be quaking in fear or quivering in fury at the final closing of the gap. It must be the principle of the thing, and never mind how flexible the principle has been till now. Soderbergh could of course feel justified in supposing that the last leap -- the last little baby step -- was no more than a logical extension, a logical conclusion. And the cries of outrage would doubtless have come better from people whose fingerprints were not all over the window frame.
Bubble is not the type of film that was going to cause any size of flap on its own merits, and as a test case for the new distribution strategy it leaves a lot to be desired. The theaters (Landmark), the cable channel (HDNet), and the DVD company (Magnolia) are all under the same ownership (Mark Cuban, better known as the vociferous owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise), so the deal must have gone down smoothly. Any loss to the theaters would theoretically be made up in gains in the other areas, unless perhaps the audience was as revulsed as the industry at the very idea, and opted to boycott the entire enterprise. At least one rival theater chain, you might have noticed, stepped forward to announce it would refuse to exhibit the film under such an arrangement, as if, without the arrangement, it would ever have been interested anyway in exhibiting a seventy-two-minute indie with an amateur cast. Steven Soderbergh, as some of his past "experiences" have taught us, does not sell many tickets by himself. He does not sell many tickets even with George Clooney as a front man unless accompanied also by Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts. (Compare Solaris and Ocean's Eleven.) Inarguably, the filmmaker has now positioned himself as the harbinger of things to come, the vanguard of a revolution. That, at any rate, would be the flattering way to put it. A less flattering way would be to call him as big a sellout here as he was in Ocean's Eleven and ...Twelve, a knuckler-under. It pains me a little to say that about a director I respect. It would be so much more convenient if the filmmaker who had positioned himself as the harbinger of these particular things, the vanguard of this exact revolution, were someone I already despised.
The possibility that the public might be turned off by a film released in this fashion, even apart from its complete lack of other attractions, does not seem all that far-fetched. The direct-to-video designation has always had an aura of Low Class about it, whether the production started out with that designation humbly in mind or got demoted thereto before its theatrical release. The deliberate strategy to equate movies and video, the removal of any hierarchical distinction between them, can only further erode the luster, the glamour of movies, even if this will be hard to measure on the evidence of a movie so innately devoid of luster and glamour. Then again, the ways in which videos and DVDs have all along been eroding the luster and glamour of movies have always been hard to measure.
Soderbergh reportedly has a deal to deliver five more digital films for similar marketing purposes, and we'll see what comes of it. Five films, even ones as casually tossed off as this first one, will take a good bit of time, plenty of time for all parties to lose interest. It is still far too soon to panic. Bubble frankly does not have much of the look about it of a Danton, a Lenin. And the Powers That Be do not yet appear on the brink of becoming the Powers That Were. There have been rare cases, prior to this, of films reaching the big screen after their unveilings on video and cable (John Dahl's Red Rock West comes prominently to mind), and without having any significant effect on the tilt of the earth's axis. Life went on as we knew it. Too, the window between the theatrical release and DVD release has in effect been closed already in countless cases of foreign films and indies that follow no concentrated pattern of release. (Like some second-run blockbuster squeezing out a last box-office dollar, Costa-Gavras's Amen exited a local art theater a heartbeat before it entered the video store. Netflix, I am told, made Wong Kar-wai's 2046 available by mail well ahead of its arrival on a big screen.) Those, needless to say, are not the sorts of films over which Hollywood loses any sleep. Nor is Bubble the sort. Were it not for the imprimatur of Steven Soderbergh, it would have blown by without notice. (It will have blown by, even given that imprimatur, after a brief two weeks.) You may say, or Soderbergh will be glad to say it for you, that it now seems inevitable that a major studio production with big-name stars will be released under the same model as Bubble. But this could prove to be inevitable in the same way as the appearance of big-name stars in a porn film was thought to be inevitable. You might be waiting a long, long time.