Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Are You There, God? It's Me, A Bag

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?

It’s a question posed by Katy Perry in her smash hit “Firework” and it doesn’t bode well for the plastic bag metaphor. I love Katy Perry as much as the next person with suspect taste, but I don’t think we flock to her music for the depth of her imagery (“cherry chap stick” aside). So there are easy arguments to make against Ramin Bahrani’s film, Plastic Bag. There are certainly harder-hitting ways to attack the issue of human waste, of the products we make and then discard. Plastic Bag is short on facts and as simple as a pop lyric, at least in its scaffolding. There’s a bag that talks, who in this review will be referred to as Bagsly. Bagsly has Werner Herzog’s voice, which simultaneously makes him gloriously recognizable and ridiculous. And for eighteen minutes, Bagsly wanders, feeling the sulky malaise that Katy Perry alludes to. But I came to realize that, through such conscious, classical simplicity, an essay is born, one taking up a well-worn environmentalist’s argument and making it feel new, giving the audience enough comfort and space to force us to think and feel.

Plastic Bag could easily have been a conventional, scathing commentary on waste, combining shots of non-decomposable dumps with an “objective” narrative voice announcing that billions of plastic bags are produced each year (to which wannabe hipster douchebags like me may have responded with, “Preachy!”) Instead, the film overtly covets the power of a personal essay. We’re given reality from a particular, intimate point of view, even if that point of view is fabricated. Yes, there’s an argument being made, but the film doesn’t focus on the creation of its argument. Rather, it creates its own essayist. Bagsly is trying to figure out the world he has been given to experience and, no matter how silly that could seem (what with him being a bag), the film refuses to give the viewer a moment of objectivity or even a self-aware, humorous wink. Bagsly takes himself really seriously, right from the opening moment when we find him on a beach, watching the sunset. He says, “You may be thinking, ‘Hey, shut up and enjoy the sunset you idiot.’” Of course, that’s not at all what we’re thinking. We were thinking, “The bag talks?” We’re thinking, “Is that Werner Herzog?” But Bagsly has been instantly established as the voice of this piece. As I watched the scene, I thought of James Baldwin’s famous line from “Autobiographical Notes”: “One writes out of only one thing — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, that it can possibly give.” Plastic Bag typifies and exploits this sentiment. In giving Bagsly the voice to essay his own experience and do it compellingly, relentlessly, the film has occupied an emotionally resonant tradition, pulling the viewer away from any hardened expectation of the polemical and engaging our love of the intimate.

Bahrani’s essayist reflects back on us our most tried and true themes. We find a bag that wants to be a believer. After the beach scene, we get him waxing poetic about the memory of meeting his “Maker.” He describes this over the image of him hanging on the metal rack at a grocery store cash register (a close-up that leaves him looking crucified) before being yanked to life. He has found a reason for being, something to serve. It’s a pretty heavy sentiment, especially since his initial purpose is getting stuffed with bananas, cereal, and a box of sugar. The audience might know that visual is absurd, but it’s impossible not to feel a connection to the universal pathos being presented. Bagsly wants to believe in his Maker, to believe in the value of the life he’s been brought into. The audience’s identification is stranded between Maker and product. We see the Maker, that cruel God, and she looks like us, she behaves like us. But we find our voice, our insecurity, our feeling, in Bagsly. He is the noble human sufferer we want to see ourselves as.

The film gets even more interesting, to my mind, when people are gone after five minutes, and Bagsly is left in the wasteland of our environmental neglect, roving through quiet pastures, into empty cities, along the barbed wire tops of fences that no longer serve a purpose. Through his endless life, the viewer is shown how tenuous our organic survival is, how common and quiet it will be for the world to exist without us. But we’re not told that outright. The film never says, “This is reality after man’s extinction from creating a world he can no longer survive in.” Instead, the voice remains innocent, sincere, longing. Seductive in its emotion. As Bagsly floats through an empty forest, he says, “I wonder if my Maker knew such places existed.” He’s not yelling at us. He just wants to know. Had she (we) seen such beauty? Could we conceive of it? In what he doesn’t understand, what he is unable to express, lies white space for the audience to fill in. It makes our minds work and then we must reckon with our own knowledge that we never put to use.

As I mentioned earlier, not much really happens on screen over the course of Plastic Bag, but subtly, I think, there is an essayistic crescendo reached by the last scene, and we’re forced to interrogate why we’ve been moved by this strange little film. Bagsly is underwater, hanging on some coral, watching some fish. He cannot distinguish exactly where he is or how much time has passed. He can’t even be sure anymore if his Maker, if mankind, ever existed. Then he asks, “Why were my moments of joy so brief?” And I realized that is what got me. It wasn’t the awful notion of bags clogging our coral reefs, of the “Pacific Vortex,” where tons of wasted plastic will float forever, poisoning sea life. It was the weepy human sentiment of happiness being fleeting. I am a sucker for humanity. We all are. I will never hunt thanks to Bambi, not because the movie made me realize that animals are killed needlessly every day (though it did that), but because Bambi whimpered, “Mama, where are you?” Because the film allowed me to be self-centered, to think of the symphony of grief that my own mother’s death would unleash. In creating a bag that feels like I feel on my most Emo of days, that speaks like (and is!) Werner Herzog, that legendary dramatizer of the human perspective, Bahrani fed me all the things I love. And as I lapped them all up, he turned a mirror onto my own human selfishness, how I can only be moved by my way of seeing the world.

There is a moment before Bagsly’s final monologue, when he has found the Vortex and drifts with trillions of other wasted bags. That should be the end. The film and the audience both know that clotted, drifting destruction is the reality of every bag’s unending existence. But Bagsly, good old emotive Bagsly, says, “No one here thought about anything. I grew restless and I started to think about [my Maker] again.” It should be obvious throughout the whole film, but here, after we’ve suspended disbelief and invested in his story, it’s made so clear that Bagsly isn’t like any bag. He is so apparently us, an exaggeration of humanity, with all of our thoughts and motivations, be they religious, social, or introspective. As we feel deeply for him, our mind must also acknowledge the cutting truth underneath — there is no life or story or purpose to the plastic bags we make. And we already knew that but found it easy to ignore. Bagsly, this fighter, this underdog, is what we can stomach, but there will be no human perspective in the world we leave behind. There will be the mass of the mindless plastic that Bagsly is differentiated from. We create products that will outlive us and we are on our way to making a world with no stories, no us, just trash. Instead of telling or shrieking, Bahrani has presented us with the loveable humanity that we will make absent. And he’s made me realize all the hand holding artifice that it takes just to make me listen.

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