Monday, November 8, 2010

Plastic Bag

Ramin Bahrani's Plastic Bag is a deceptively simple short film that achieves an emotionally cathartic and poetically beautiful effect through a story that might, on its surface, seem like little more than a gimmick. The film charts the "life" of a plastic bag from its "first breath" — being born in a supermarket when it's pulled from its rack to be filled with groceries — to its long exile from the woman it comes to think of as its maker. The film's narration, relayed by the distinctive, unmistakable voice of Werner Herzog, concerns this bag's journey through the world, a journey that is at first tangible and physical, a quest to be reunited with this woman, but eventually becomes metaphysical and philosophical, a journey to discover the purpose of this life, the purpose of the world through which the bag drifts, carried along by wind and currents. Over the course of this journey, the bag's progress through the world becomes an obvious allegory for life itself: not knowing its intended purpose, not understanding its true place in the world, the bag tries to find happiness and struggles to divine its purpose in a world where it seems so inconsequential. The bag is happiest when it feels useful, when it knows that it is needed. The woman uses the bag for her lunch, to hold her tennis balls, to hold ice to soothe her injured ankle, and the bag is content, not really understanding anything but happy to know that it fulfills some purpose.

But when it's discarded, used a final time to clean up a dog turd and then thrown out to be taken to a trash heap, the bag loses that happiness. Its subsequent progress mirrors the casting-about of humans in a world that we, too, can't fully understand, a world whose purpose we only pretend to know. The bag drives itself onward at first in search of its former owner, its "creator," but eventually finds a new religion in the search for "the vortex," an ocean whirlpool where bags and other detritus are twirled happily around by the currents. The bag finds fleeting moments of joy, in a midair dance with a bright red bag, beautifully filmed by Bahrani, and later in the sensation of being carried along in the circular currents of the water. But in the final moments of the film, the bag wonders why these moments of happiness are so brief, why it has been unable to find others who had a use for it the way its first owner did, why it still hasn't figured out the workings of the world in which it floats. As a metaphor for the human experience of the world, it is heartbreaking and strangely affecting, especially as delivered by Herzog's blunt, fatalistic cadences.

Herzog is in many ways a perfect choice to deliver the film's narration, since his bleak worldview is such a natural fit for the bag's pointless and aimless journey. The bag fundamentally misunderstands its true place in this world, believing itself to be more important than it is, and this idea is implicitly applied to humans as well: we give ourselves central roles in the dramas of the universe, but in all likelihood we're as irrelevant to the real cosmic stories as this bag is to its "creator" and the rest of the world. But what's striking about this film is the streak of perverse hope and beauty that Bahrani finds in this seemingly dispiriting perspective. The bag, set adrift in a world whose scope dwarfs it, revels in the beauty all around it, and Bahrani's camera does as well: even as Herzog's voiceover insists that enjoying a beautiful sunset is not enough, the images belie this dismal philosophy, finding beauty and satisfaction everywhere within the world. The bag drifts through a world that seems destroyed and empty, dominated by ruined and abandoned houses, by seemingly closed factories and office buildings, by landfills and waters polluted with trash. But even in the midst of devastation and environmental catastrophe, there is beauty, both the pure beauty of nature — the white-hot glow of the sun, the verdant greens of meadows and trees — and the manufactured beauty of man's constructions, which are beautiful almost in spite of themselves as seen through Bahrani's lens.

Plastic Bag is quite a powerful and thought-provoking film, even if on its surface it occasionally seems as simple as an expansion of American Beauty's famous video tape of a drifting bag. That's an obvious but shallow comparison, in the end. The floating bag in American Beauty was about aesthetics, about finding the beauty even in prosaic man-made objects, in trash. Plastic Bag is about ideas — it finds beauty less in things than in the idea that life is aimless and pointless and ultimately incomprehensible, and that it can nevertheless be joyous, and fulfilling, and poignant. It's about accepting the insignificance of a single life and at the same time exalting that life's beauty and resilience in the face of an indifferent, alienating universe whose purpose we can only guess at lamely. It's a film whose unassuming greatness lies in its discovery of profound ideas in the most unlikely of places.


Anonymous said...

Yes, that and the fact that our trash will outlive us all.

Jake said...

I managed to miss Plastic Bag, despite my love for Herzog and Bahrani. It came out during a stressful part of spring semester so I put it on the back burner until I could focus, then I just forgot because I got so backed up on other things. But when I saw you posted this I went and watched it, and I just finished my review so I can finally read what you said.

I saw a lot of the same things you did, it seems, and I was also surprised by the half-joking, half-serious Freudian aspect of the maker/mother figure. It takes a lot to get away with that sort of thing these days but I think the film managed to touch on all its ideas -- Oedpial complexes, man vs. nature, feelings of insignificance, the worry of mankind's effect on the environment with all that trash -- with such delicate poetry that it ends up being one of the more evocative films I've seen this year. Granted, there are only about 12 films (including this) I would really embrace, and I only expect to love a few more when I get to see them, but this was magnificent.

Considering Ebert's bias against Kiarostami, I'm surprised that he was the one to really be Bahrani's champion, but I totally agree with him that Bahrani is the best new American director. I hope he goes back and watches some Kiarostami films he panned and reassesses how much of what makes Bahrani's films great comes from the Iranian master. Then again, this is the first film that I think fully breaks from the influence and I think of Bahrani fully and completely as his own filmmaker.

Ed Howard said...

Oddly enough, this is the only Bahrani I've seen - it was an extra on the DVD of Herzog's My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, which is how I came upon it. Based on this evidence, Bahrani definitely seems like an interesting filmmaker, though I have to imagine that his features would be quite different from this. But anyway, I agree that this is a surprisingly effective film. The premise could easily have been utterly silly or else unbearably pretentious, and instead it's nimble, poetic, sometimes funny, sometimes profound, and always very stirring.

Joel Bocko said...

I've never heard of this film but I'm really intrigued - this sounds like something I'd love. Something that I feel has been lacking from the neo-neorealist films (but not the original neorealists) is a sense of romance, of engagement with life rather than a distanced "respect" for the subject which translates to a withering disengagement. I thought Bahrani's Man Push Cart was pretentious and phony, but I liked Chop Shop which didn't lose the poetry in the realism, or the reality for the principle. I didn't think it was necessarily great, but it was interesting. I haven't seen Goodbye Solo yet.

I love the idea of Plastic Bag (the American Beauty thing was a tad trite - I can definitely see the character in that film growing up to make dull, faux-humble ) and I'd be interested to know your reaction to other Bahranis when/if you saw them.

Ed Howard said...

Despite this being over a year later, I still have yet to check out any other Bahrani films, unfortunately. Definitely need to follow up on that, because this was a really cool short.