Reality Play

“We are not concerned with the very poor,” wrote E.M. Forster in a famous passage from Howards End. “They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.”

As a writer's creed, these lines have dated badly even if, when his novel was first published in 1910, Forster was merely being candid about the sorts of characters that his novel -- and most respectable novels of his day -- could dare to encompass. George Eliot, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Virginia Woolf would have admitted to the same discriminatory policy. Literary fiction grew up as entertainment and moral instruction for the middle class. Figures in these novels often aspire to a better life but are terrified of degradation into a lower social order; Leonard Bast, the hapless bank clerk who is one of Forster's catalysts in Howards End, “was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more.”

The movies have never had to worry too much about respectability. Melodramas about the very poor have been the lifeblood of American, European, and Asian popular film. For decades Hollywood storylines celebrated cowboys, pirates, and gangsters, men who flourished defiantly at the economy's outer limits. The lumpen-proletariat are the driving force in thousands of plots about organized and disorganized criminals -- serial killers, jewel thieves, con men, jailbirds, drug addicts and drug dealers, the mentally ill, and others Karl Marx called “the flotsam of society.” Soon after the passing of the Edwardian era eulogized in Howards End, Charlie Chaplin became the most luminous star of cinema's youth by playing a shiftless and canny bum.

But the working poor -- men and women paid minimum wages, struggling to make the rent and keep up with medical bills for ailing children or parents -- are much less likely to see their lives reflected on screen. Pictures about mothers in the projects with low-paying jobs will never play as widely at the multiplex as sagas about their gun-slinging children. Movies love the problems of the young and are sentimental about problems in general, which is why the perilous hand-to-mouth existence of a tramp can be served up as romantic comedy.

Steven Soderbergh's new film, Bubble, is a shock in part because it so openly violates several tenets of this unofficial commercial code, ones that Soderbergh himself has successfully followed as the director of Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve. Instead of making a diversion about a raffish band of thieves filmed with Hollywood sets and actors, he has this time pointed a realistic lens on the crisis of rustbelt America. Set in Ohio and shot for a low-budget $1.6 million on location in towns along the Ohio–West Virginia border, the movie features adults who have little chance of bettering themselves unless they win the lottery. The title is ironic. These are not people who have experienced a meltdown of their high-tech stocks or a jump in housing prices. They never had a bubble to begin with.

The main character is an overweight middle-aged white woman named Martha who works two jobs and takes care of her ill and aged father. The story concerns her flirtation with Kyle, shy and handsome and decades younger, who lives with his mom in a trailer. He dropped out of high school because he couldn't tolerate the crowds in the hallways and now works with Martha in a low-wage doll factory. He accepts her attention -- he doesn't have a functional car and she is more than happy to drive him places -- until the arrival at the factory of Rose, an attractive young divorcée with a child who takes a shine to Kyle and soon becomes a rival in Martha's jealous eyes.

The workaday lives of this trio are depicted with a cynical eye unusual in American movies today. In addition to depicting an age-inappropriate sexual triangle, Soderbergh devotes considerable time to the step-by step manufacturing of the dolls, viewed here as surreal comedy. The screenplay, by Coleman Hough, manages to depict factory production with existentialist irony, as an activity both meaningful and absurd.

Kyle's task is pouring hot plastic into molds for the heads and limbs, then levering those heads and limbs out with an iron bar -- they make a satisfying pop when they're cooked; Martha, who paints faces and attaches wigs and eyelashes, begins a whispering campaign against Rose, suggesting to Kyle that the new recruit lacks the temperament for skilled, patient labor.

Several of the funniest scenes take place during coffee breaks at the plant, as Martha and Rose use their gift for gab to try to impress passive, taciturn Kyle. Rose has one additional gift: she smokes, and so takes breaks with fellow addict Kyle while Martha watches them with envy through the mandatory non-smokers partition.

To heighten a sense of contemporary immediacy, Soderbergh hired nonprofessionals as his leads. Martha is played by Debbie Doebereiner, the general manager of a local Kentucky Fried Chicken for the past 24 years. An aspiring computer technician, Dustin James Ashley, plays sleepy-eyed Kyle, and Misty Dawn Wilkins, mother of four and a stylist at the Regis Salon in Vienna, West Virginia, is the vixen Rose.

The decision to cast untrained amateurs in dramatic roles, a technique brilliantly employed by the Italian neorealist directors Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti in the years after World War II, by Luis Buñuel in his Mexican period, and recently by Gus van Sant in Elephant, has its pitfalls, and Bubble ultimately falls short in part because of them. Doebereiner is asked to deliver high-pitched emotional scenes at the end of the film that are not within her range. But this is more the fault of the screenplay, which devolves into a murder mystery, and her warm, dignified, solidifying performance until then is the reward for not having to watch Kathy Bates or some other gifted Hollywood actress attempt to convey what it's like to be poor in America today.

The gamble pays off, in Buñuel's harsh Los Olvidados and in Bubble, because ordinary people shrewdly observed and directed can often achieve a state of natural grace denied to trained actors. Forster and Theodore Dreiser were impoverished in their powers of description when compared to the ruthless eye of a camera. Soderbergh, who doubled as cinematographer on Bubble, tracks each character home to show us what kind of dwelling each can afford. One can guess simply by glancing at the façades and furnishings who rents and who owns, who has medical insurance -- the factory is likely too small to provide it -- and who goes to the emergency room for anything graver than the flu.

Bubble moves at the pace of daily life in the town, which is slowly losing energy and hope, and Soderbergh studies the actions of the people with a humane deliberation and cool distance. At times we seem to be witnessing a rain-forest tribe in danger of extinction. Best of all, the story does not resolve in simplistic ways meant to reassure Marxists or libertarians. Issues of age and wounded feelings, not money or class, provide the motive behind the crime at the film's climax.

The English directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, are conspicuously dedicated to presenting the social and economic realities of contemporary life in their films. American directors, no matter how much they may secretly loathe the current system in Hollywood, have been less willing to sign their names to this manifesto. Soderbergh is one of the few to express open rebellion and also take action. In interviews he has expressed his contempt for reality television, a formula that in his view humiliates poor people eager to do anything for a camera's momentary aggrandizement and that is, as he points out, “as far from reality as you can imagine and more fictionalized than the movies you see.”

In pursuit of his reality campaign and to reach the moviegoer without the intervention of theatre owners, Soderbergh has teamed up with a pair of new-economy billionaires, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, to produce six low-budget features that will be distributed in a radical new format. Bubble, which was shot on Sony 950 high-definition video -- the same technology George Lucas chose for his recent Star Wars prequels and sequels -- is the first in the series. It has played at festivals in Toronto and New York and will open in art house theatres in January. At the same time it will also be broadcast on the high-definition cable channel HDNET Movies and sold through their DVD division. The window between theatrical release and home consumption is here virtually eliminated.

As the director of The Good German with George Clooney and Che with Benicio del Toro, both in pre-production, Soderbergh has hardly turned his back on star-driven, big-budget movies. And there is no reason he should. The welcome news about Bubble is that he felt a need to make this kind of drama as well. It shouldn't be a revelation that the very poor exist in large numbers in America, although to judge from the stunned national reaction to the live images beamed from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, apparently this comes as a surprise. Bubble is a reminder that even people with a job and who live outside a flood zone may be only a few steps away from the abyss.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.