Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Rambling Bag, Not a Rambling Mind

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the essay. (Well, I should explain that I’m a linear-traditionalist seeing as I’m quickly learning that the roots of the essay are planted in diverse grounds.) So when I first explored this short film, I couldn’t help but balk at its labeling as “essay.” Plastic Bag is a beautiful film, no doubt, reminiscent of the scene in American Beauty that reminds all of us to look around and appreciate life. But this film took that beauty in a different direction, in a harrowing and dystopian direction. Throughout my first viewing of the short, I kept asking myself why this film qualified as essay. I have since read up on the director’s and writer’s perspective on the film, and while I see some rationales for this piece could be viewed as an essay, I cannot help but feel it rings of propaganda. Let's examine.

Firstly, the filming itself seems significant. Whereas a print-writer may manipulate connotations and word choices so as to help reinforce her implied purpose, film must use framing, lighting, recurring images, editing. Throughout the earliest sequences of the film, Bahrani shoots Plastic Bag (PB) with a particular framing, never allowing the face of the Maker to be fully within the shot. The effect of this choice is two-fold, I believe: 1) it allows the audience to see a bit more of the intention of the focus, robbing us of what we would normally seek—facial expressions. The impact is that we look more at the expressiveness of the bag rather than the woman. 2) It shows the uninformed perspective of the bag. At the beginning of the film, PB has not experienced the world apart from his time with his Maker. His only perspective is upon those things that he is regularly near—hands, sides, legs. That we never see the Maker’s full face indicates that he never sees her full face, never really becomes intimate with portions of her humanity. This separation deepens the notion that the relationship between humans and plastic is dilapidated at best. Bahrani and Jenkins manipulate this relationship so as to bring the reader's attention to it.

Next, for techniques of lighting. Most of the initial shots in this film—especially those shots that are indoors—use focused light spots, accentuating PB’s “plasticness.” The way the light glints and sheens sets off the almost-subconscious thought that this bag is not natural in its environment. Through the disparity of shiny plastic and dull human skin, the director manages to deepen the disjoint in their relationship. We are more aware of how this plastic bag we have all encountered differs drastically from us and our lives. By the time the short ends and we hear the thought of “I wish you had created me so that I could die,” we are able to retrace all of the visual rhetorical cues Bahrani set up to accentuate plastic’s apartness. We may use plastic every day, says Bahrani, but the relationship we have is as unnatural as the sheen on the bag itself.

Another trick that Bahrani uses to for persuading his audience is recurring images. The floating of the bag happens more often than anything else in this film, making the film tres monotonous. Which is the point. Bahrani and Jenni Jenkins wanted to create a film to draw awareness to the fact that plastic does not have an end; it will continue to exist long after we discard it. As PB finds his way out of the dump, so will all of our plastic. The winds will carry it around and around the world, landing it in the North Pacific Gyre (“The Vortex”) and the environments of animals. The fact that so much of this film features shots of the bag floating draws attention to the listlessness and lastingness of plastic. Another frequent shot—that of PB (and his friends) caught on trees, fences, grass, coral—also reveals the listlessness of plastic. Coupled with either the narration of choosing to remain caught or being “patient” about being caught, these shots of PB’s passive attachment to the world again allude to plastic’s forced relationship with the natural world. “Patience” especially draws out the notion of plastic’s lasting impact—PB will outlast the trees, grass, coral, and fences that he attaches to.

On the thought of “patience,” word choice and editing play a crucial role in developing the persuasive essaying quality of this film. “Monsters,” an oft-used word choice in this short, makes intentional shifts towards powerful rhetoric. By our acts of mindlessly discarding our plastic waste, Bahrani and Jenkins say that we are doing monstrous things to our world. The fact that “monster” couples frequently with the landscapes we’ve left behind—the discarded warehouses of New York City, the houses filled with plastic bottles, the dump—we are supposed to recognize that our actions in the world do turn us into monsters for the world. The only other times the word appears—regarding the dog, the horses, the fish—are moments when PB discusses how the animals are not interested in him. About the horses, he even says, “I served no purpose for them [horses],” showcasing, again, the unnaturalness of plastic: If animals have no need for plastic, says the film, it is likely that we don’t actually have a need for plastic either.

Another editing and word choice example is of PB’s encounter with nature. As he trips and dances over the fields and under the trees, Werner Herzog’s voice intones, “There were always new worlds to see—I wonder if my maker knew such places existed.” By using the plastic bag’s experience in these worlds—worlds free of other plastics and man-made products—Bahrani and Jenkins illustrate humanity’s lost wonder in nature. The fact that PB ponders his maker’s interaction with these spaces shows us the director’s intention is to make us ponder our interactions with these spaces. Rhetorically significant in moving our curiosity, these narrational moments tie with the images to inspire the audience to consider its relationship with the environment. That it seems so shocking to see a plastic bag drifting through these beautiful settings makes the audience evaluate the disjoint between our treatment of some environments and our treatment of others. The Maker (we) had no problem throwing away the plastic bag, but we are supposed to have a problem with this scene.

There are more tricks, so many more. But I think they all go towards showcasing this film as a piece of visual propaganda rather than an exploration of a topic. The authors knew from the onset what they were attempting to do with their piece—Jenni Jenkins is a sustainability consultant who approached Bahrani about making a film to spread awareness of the North Pacific Gyre and the destructiveness of disposable plastic. That the film is beautiful and moving makes it successful in accomplishing its goal—to spread awareness and make people think of their choices—but I don’t know as these characteristics makes this piece successful in functioning as a processing of the world around. The world of Jenkins and Bahrani seems thoroughly preprocessed and prepackaged. That’s not to say that it is not a fantastic short film. But if we’re approaching essay as “activity” (Monson) or as “a mind’s inquisitive ramble through a place wiped clean of answers” (D’Agata), Plastic Bag fails on both accounts. Rather, it is a piece meant to move the audience’s mind through an evolving world of answers, one in which Plastic Bag’s creators had already determined their stance.


  1. What I find myself wondering about--when wondering about the ways in which this text essays, and the spaces that it opens up--is about collaboration: how essential collaboration is to an essay. Which is to say: are all essays in some way collaborative? (Using collaborative in a fairly open sense here.) Or is it possible for a project that's so obviously collaborative--funded by a studio, prompted by a producer of sorts, written and directed by a director, filmed by a cinematographer, soundtracked by the dude from Sigur Ros, and narrated rather spectacularly by Herzog--possible to think about as an essay? Or is there something inherently individual about what an essay does and what it is?

  2. Michelle (and Ander), interesting question. Ander, I interpret your comments to mean that you are asking if the collaboration of various parties on this film complicates the question of what it is essaying. With that in mind...

    Michelle, you state that the film's goal is "to spread awareness and make people think of their choices". First, I agree that the invocation of the highly recognizable environmental themes (the Pacific Gyre/Vortex, the statements that the bag survives the decomposition in the dump, etc.) would lead many (and has led many, judging by the comments online) to come away with the idea that the impact on the environment by plastic is the main thing the essay is attempting to convey. So it's interesting that the author of this "essay", Ramin Bahrani, said in an interview, "I mean, we can talk about sustainability issues, about plastic, about the Earth, but the movie's about something else, something more … it's about a journey." Bahrani states that when Hertzog agreed to do the film he said, "I'm so glad this is not an agenda movie or I would run like mad and get away from here."(

    So how is it that so many people walked away from this film believing it was an agenda movie (which I agree it leans toward with the references it makes), when supposedly that was not the intention of the author or even Hertzog? In my critique and our discussion of the piece, I placed the blame on Bahrani for muddling his messages. I felt that as the author, he made a poor choice in trying to mix themes (the environment vs. the philosophical/existential) in this film as allegory, because once he planted that "Pacific Vortex" reference at the very beginning, I was not able to hear a pure philosophical/existential interpretation of lines like "That world decomposed. It was eaten by monsters, some too small for me to even see. Not me. I remained." (5:45) or "Some ate pieces of me until they realized I was useless to them. I wonder where those little pieces are now?" (14:36) No. By invoking this highly publicized Pacific Vortex image which has been appropriated by many environmental advocacy groups in the past decade, these lines began to sound like heavy-handed statements about the literal non-biodegradability of plastic, something that Bahrani claims he was not aiming for.

    In light of Ander's comments above, however, I find a whole new side of this problem emerging for me. Can we call Bahrani the essayist if his essay is transformed into something other than his own essay through the process of collaboration? In other words, with Jenkins as sustainability consultant wanting to essay the damaging effect of plastic on the planet, and Bahrani as filmmaker wanting to essay more existential themes, do their differing goals serve to actually undermine the whole concept of an essay? What then, is it exactly essaying, when more than one person comes to it with a different question to explore? Food for thought. I'm not sure I have an answer. All I can say is that I found the two differing goals to be rather obvious in this film, and while some people found they did not invalidate each other, I found them to diminish the clarity of each theme by invoking dueling interpretations of each metaphor I encountered.