How I have managed to elude Ramin Bahrani's short film Plastic Bag for months baffles me. Bahrani, the greatest newcomer to American cinema, is guaranteed my money for anything he does, and Plastic Bag was conveniently available on YouTube, legally, for free. However I ended up getting distracted, I was reminded at last to finally set aside the time for the 18-minute short upon seeing that Ed Howard posted a review earlier today. Before I could read it, I had to sit down and watch Plastic Bag, and when it was over, I kicked myself even harder for waiting all these months.
Superficially an expansion of the (in)famous bag sequence of American Beauty, one of the dumbest and most vacantly symbolic moments in modern American cinema, Plastic Bag plays like what Sam Mendes and Alan Ball wished they'd said in their film. Where Ball intended the bag sequence as one of the few serious moments in a suburban satire, Bahrani understands the innate humor of following a bag around as it floats through the air, sticks in trees and rolls along a beach. Yet he also delves into the suggestive properties of such an insignificant thing in an indifferent world.
Ergo, the decision to use Werner Herzog as the voice of the bag is a stroke of genius: no other filmmaker has more consistently focused upon the imposing endlessness of the world around the speck of an ambitious protagonist than Herzog, and no one has been as darkly funny in the process. His unique cadence, in which words slur together slightly as if being rushed out of the mouth even as Herzog draws out every last syllable in sostenuto tones, is fatalistic but deadpan, creating a depressing narration but also one filled with laughs.
The bag speaks of taking its first breath when a grocery clerk pulls the flattened bag open to fill it with groceries. The woman who buys the food grabs the bag, which comes to view her as his Maker, and takes her stuff home. There, she continues to reuse the bag as a means of recycling, and the bag speaks of the pure ecstasy of carrying her lunch and other items, bordering on sexual desire when she puts ice in the bag and rests it on a sore leg. Then, she starts using the bag to hold dog food and, finally, to pick up the dog's crap before tossing it in the trash.
The landfill where a garbage truck takes the bag is endless, stretching over hills teeming with seagulls as bulldozers try in vain to compact the refuse. The bag speaks of being pecked by the monsters who take pieces of it until they realize that the bag is not food. Several types of creatures do this to the bag in its journey to return home, poking holes in the thing but never fully destroying it.
Through Bahrani's lens, the sight of a plastic bag being endlessly pecked and experiencing moments of blissful flight and excruciatingly dull stillness when the wind dies becomes a poetic view of life itself. Everything is sunny and wondrous at the onset of being, only for maturation and moving into solitary life to bring the hardship of feeling as if the world casually steals pieces of you. Worse, it has no reason to do so, no way to use those bits it strips from the flesh and soul. The bag enjoys a moment of happiness when it enters into a midair "dance" with a red bag, but in an age where half of marriages end in divorce, the wind blows the two apart. At last, our hero makes its way to the Pacific Trash Vortex to be with its kind, only to pine for its Maker until it cannot relate to the other trash. Bahrani -- and maybe even Herzog -- paints life as the combination of fleeting moments of bliss and a sense of discomfort that nags whenever the good moments pass, and they always pass so quckly. Maybe that's bleak, but the director achieves a more beautiful rumination of life by choosing exclusively neither optimism nor cynicism.
The subtlety of Bahrani's direction also allows him to deal with environmental and economic messages. He tracks the bag through the outside world through alternating shots of nature and post-industrial decay. The press material for the film places it in the "not-so distant future," and the sights of suburban rot the bag passes by speak to a dying world where the pollution of humans may be the inheritor to mankind. The only human ever shown is the woman who bought the groceries, but the effects of humanity on the world are plainly evident. The bag, itself trash that could kill one of the animals that pecks at it if something swallowed the whole bag, rolls through abandoned homes possibly foreclosed upon during the economic crisis and finds not one but two massive areas coated with non-degradable garbage. At the same time, nature surivives, and the bag's spoken views on its surroundings, which displays a peevishly human view of nature as an obstacle, are contrasted with the beauty of Bahrani's high-definition imagery, capturing blue skies and green foliage in brilliant clarity. Mankind may be circling the drain like the garbage in the trash vortex, but nature will survive, and its beauty is mesmerizing in the background.
What amused and affected me the most was the Freudian streak running through Bahrani's narrative. The first person who has any use for the bag, just as the first person to care about us, is his "mother," who creates an expectation for life that life cannot live up to. Eventually, she sends him packing to go into the world, and for all the bag's adventures, it can never stop thinking about its maker/mother, even drowning itself (literally) in its own kind to try to forget about her. In the end, it cannot, and it throws itself outside the vortex, only to get caught on a rock and be left to float for eternity to be gently nibbled at by fish. But the bag finally sobers up a bit and accepts the beauty of what's in front of it. Still, it has one complaint for the mother that abandoned it and provided the basis of a life of searching: "I wish you had created me so I could die."
In 18 minutes, Plastic Bag manages to be funny, bleak, thought-provoking, emotive and poetic. It is the fourth significant work by Ramin Bahrani, and the fourth great movie. Plastic Bag contains as many memorable images as any feature I've seen this year, from the gorgeous, lilting sky ballet between the two bags to a shot of the main bag floating through the ocean by jellyfish that do not look so different from the flimsy but endurable plastic. Bahrani's direction normally recalls the other great modern North Carolinian, David Gordon Green, only with a clearer deference to Abbas Kiarostami than Terrence Malick. Yet it is this short film that breaks him fully of even the slightest dependence on any other director. The comparisons to American Beauty are as meaningless as the scene in Mendes' movie that prompts the juxtaposition: this is art, symbolic yet emotive and expressive, stylistic but aesthetically spare. Once again, I am reminded that a short film in the hands of a master can be vastly superior to the full-length products of the less-talented.