One thing that can really bug me about a film is when it tries to push a political agenda. This is for a number of reasons; the biggest issue is either that when filmmakers commit to scoring political points, telling a compelling story tends to fall by the wayside, or in telling a compelling story, the political argument gets so dumbed down and buried in hyperbole and/or inaccuracies that its insulting. Oftentimes both of these flaws happen at the same time. This seems to particularly be the case when movies get heavy-handed about environmentalism, (for this reason, if you see a review of Promised Land appear on this blog any time soon, it’ll most likely mean I was physically dragged to the theater.)
That said, the movie I watched today had a not-so-subtle environmental agenda, driven by some large (but not necessarily significant factual errors,) but was still absolutely a delight to watch.
Plastic Bag is a beautiful short film from acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani. While it does contain a fairly heavy environmental message, it is so well done that I hardly noticed, and didn’t mind. (In fact, I’ve decided that I’m not really going to talk about the message here in the review, though I’d be happy to expound on it in the comments, if anyone’s interested.)
The film begins with a worn out plastic grocery bag lightly billowing in the breeze on a deserted California beach near sunset. Then the bag (Werner Herzog) begins to narrate, addressing the audience with a direct but conversational style, and a distinct German accent. The bag reflects upon its life, as it contemplates diving into the sea in the hopes of finding a peaceful new existence in the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. A place, mythical amongst plastic bags, that he’s not sure is real.
We are then shown, through flashbacks, and told, through Herzog’s fantastic voice acting, how the bag came to be on that beach. From his birth, peeled off the stack at a supermarket, to his life with his “creator” (Barbara Weetman). The various things the bag did with his creator, in the course of which ordinary household uses for a plastic grocery bag are shown to be profound spiritual experiences from the bag’s point of view. Right up to the point that he’s used to pick up a dropping from the “terrible beast” (pet dog), and thrown away.
This is only the beginning of the bag’s story, as he survives a trip to a landfill, escaping an indeterminate number of years later, and embarking on a quest to find his creator. The bag’s journey takes him across cities and countryside, all devoid of any type of human presence.
The bag’s quest leads him through empty buildings, and harrowing encounters with creatures, and he finds love, only to have it blown away. The bag’s story is oftentimes wistful, but the whole story is also whimsical. This odd combination is surprisingly effective
Visually the film is really amazing, Bahrani films the bag in all manner of settings, and weather conditions, and does so in such a way that it really transforms this inanimate, utterly ordinary object into a fullly realized character. On paper it might seem like watching an entire film, even an 18 minute short, of nothing but footage of a plastic bag and existential narration would be a terrible bore, yet Plastic Bag is anything but boring, and in fact the titular character is, somehow, the most interesting character I’ve seen all week.
Of course, much of that credit is due to the fantastic performance from Werner Herzog. In less than twenty minutes we witness the bag encounter a wide variety of emotions. Love, and loss, hope, and and fear, and even pride, our plastic bag experiences them all, and Herzog’s voice portrays them with resounding believability.
Our bag eventually encounters a colony of evangelizing plastic bags, stuck to a fence and proselytizing about the salvation to be found in the Pacific. This encounter leads us back to the film’s beginning, as the bag must make a decision on how to proceed. This, however is not the end, as the bag’s story continues on to a surprisingly meaningful conclusion.
This film is a really unique and creative experiment in filmmaking, and it is executed incredibly well. While it almost certainly wouldn’t work as a feature, it is truly superlative as a short. I had to give this one some thought, and I even vacillated a bit as I was thinking about this review, but at the end of the day, I can’t deny that Plastic Bag is a must see.
[Plastic Bag (2009) – Directed by Ramin Bahrani – Not Rated]