Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“Plastic Bag” Is Way Better Than the Star Wars Prequels

Ever since my childhood anger at the lameness of Captain Planet, I’ve disregarded pollution-awareness productions as heavy-handed, manipulative, and never a very good time. Pollution’s bad, planet’s doomed, Toyota Prius. But I was willing to suspend my disbelief for Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” because it was narrated by Herzog, and ever since American Beauty got the Oscar nod in 1999, plastic bags caught in the breeze have maintained cultural currency as a symbol of modernity’s horrible beauty. A bag trapped in the wind, understandably, strikes many as a powerful metaphor for the uncertainty of experience. Perhaps, some argue, the most powerful yet.

I’m not so concerned with Bahrani’s message of sustainability, because the film works as a narrative text outside of that message, as something of a personal essay that happens to be narrated by a bag. I don’t “care” that the essay is about “pollution” because Bahrani and Jenkin have also constructed an evocative coming-of-age narrative. The bag’s life, like all our lives, is a desperate search for purpose and meaning. Bag develops as a character: he begins his conscious life with some fundamental misunderstandings about what he is. He believes that the consumer using him is somehow his mother, his maker. He mistakes this usery for intimacy. Here, I sympathize with his confusion, as his “Maker” does make baffling overuse of his utility. (Watch the actress struggle with the absurd reality of using a grocery bag to feed a dog.) The ice scene presents similar logistical problem, but it does advance our understanding of the bag’s inner conflict. This part of the essay feels to me a comedy in that we the viewers are aware of the bag’s misconceptions (silly bag), and though we may not laugh, we are reassured his story will not end with him being thrown away. We know that even though he’s been used to clean up dog shit, his ultimate worth as a character is not yet decided.

Next, we see the bag floating around the landfill, which leads most viewers to ask “What happened to the dog shit that not one scene before caked his insides?” We never learn. This is one of a long list of plot inconsistency that I’ve enumerated on the film’s Goofs page on imdb. I suppose this problem and the others can remained unresolved because it is beside the point: the point is the bag has been cast out of the ideal, out of the garden, out of childhood, and enters a state of terminal adolescence: buried literally in landfill, metaphorically in emotion. Things grow dark, time slows to a near stop, and there are only the horrible, microscopic “monsters” that eat Bag back up to the surface somehow. He reemerges into to a world where no makers exist to provide life meaning. A sparse musical score plays as the bag searches in vain and struggles against loneliness, despair. (You’ll find the soundtrack is nearly identical to Explosion in the Sky’s brilliant sound-tracking of the underrated high-school drama Friday Night Lights.)

Immediately after the bag’s resurrection, he finds a clear sense of self and motivation. “I was strong and smart,” says Bag, “and I would find my maker.” This confidence and self-possession doesn’t last long: Bag must realize the size of the world, confess to himself that sometimes reality “was even too great for [him].” No matter what stories he tells himself about his Maker, Bag is still divorced from his purpose, and as he floats in the sunlight asking unanswerable questions about his nature, we empathize with both the freedom and terror of realizing a false narrative. Because Bag is able to realize falsehoods, his quest has become biblical in scope: we traverse ruins, we are fooled by idols, we are tempted, we meet prophets. In a stroke of oedipal fulfillment, Bag forgets all about his “Maker” mother and gets with smoking hot red bag for a minute. But this source of meaning, like all the others, is destined to failure. Without discernable purpose, the bag’s questions deepen, become decidedly existential. He questions the God-like nature of his Maker: “I began to wonder,” he says, “if my maker knew such places existed.” We’ve watched the bag grow and we are invested in his journey. It is romantic.

And this is when we learn about the vortex from the appropriately wind-torn bag prophets. We return to the scene in which the film began. Bag hits the water and is “born again,” baptized. His motivation has shifted: we’ve moved passed the childish yearning for home, and into a more abstract notion of what home might be. There are “others” who might offer comfort. Like the Poe’s maelstrom, the vortex lends itself as a metaphor for the violent tumult of experience which eventually destroys those trapped in its currents, births them back into the realm of the ideal, back to the maker. It’s supposed to be that entering the maelstrom is a life sentence, but we are reminded Bag has no definite lifespan. (This is how our filmmakers have taken what would have been a campy anti-pollution conceit and used it to turn our hero into an unwitting and troubled immortal.) And as we have learned to expect from him, Bag realizes the vortex narrative is false. It is not the maker and so Bag must be free of it.

Lastly, I think it’s important to consider that this is a film about a bag that can talk. Capital was invested to produce a film seemingly destined to be a special kind of bad, something silly in addition to preachy. But the attempt does not fail, because of the psychological complexity of Bag. He struggles with impatience; he overcomes his childish notions of monsters. He is given agency but is also left frustratingly inadequate. His origin story was false and his vortex narrative failed to bridge the fissure in his identity. (I, too, Bag, have lost my home and my God.) Our bag is left to consider the worst kind of horror: he cannot die, his maker has shown him no mercy, no hope to return to nothingness. Existence is nearly intolerable but for brief moments of joy and beauty. And though we are terrible Gods, creation remains dignified.

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