Bubble Bath 

Soaking up Steven Soderbergh’s multiplatform opus

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006

The movie started at 8 o’clock, so we ordered Thai around 7. Zac’s wife, Betsy, was on her way to dinner with a friend, which left Zac at home to look after their 2-year-old daughter, Vivienne. Kate and I had come over to watch the HDNet broadcast of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Bubble, on Zac’s 36-inch Sony high-definition television and to find out what movie history feels like when it happens in someone’s living room. Of course, Bubble’s day-and-date release strategy meant that history was also being made that same Friday night down the street at the Nuart Theater, where Bubble had also just opened and where Bubble DVDs were already on sale in the lobby. To get a better sense of what this all might mean, I decided to watch Bubble on all three formats during the first week of its release.

Home-theater experts say that if you sit the proper distance from a television — determined by an arcane calculation involving screen size, resolution and viewing angle — your brain will not recognize any perceptual difference between watching a movie on television versus in a theater. While not a good argument for intelligent design, it does mean everything for house-bound cinephiles like Zac, who works at a film-restoration company. Before he became a father, Zac went to see movies in the theater, on average, once a week. In all of last year, he carved out time to go twice, to see Batman Begins and Good Night, and Good Luck. For Zac, HDNet’s day-and-date plan turned Bubble’s broadcast debut into an event. “I’ve felt so behind on everything the last couple of years,” he told me, “so the idea that I can see something at home the day it came out in theaters is pretty exciting.”

Even in a film as spare and simple as Bubble, the clarity and depth of the hi-def image — devoid of any film grain to soften the blow — take some getting used to. Like those early moviegoers who sat spellbound by the simple beauty of “moving wind in the trees,” as D.W. Griffith once said, the hi-def eye becomes easily distracted by the vividness of everyday details on the screen. For instance, I had never seen the glass of a doughnut-shop display case reflect light with such dazzling intensity as occurs in one of Bubble’s early scenes. It may not sound as poetic as shimmering leaves, but so caught up was I in the reflected colors dancing over rows of glazed doughnuts that I actually missed a crucial plot detail in the relationship between doll-factory employees Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner).

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The same shot proved less captivating at the Nuart the following Monday evening, where, after a hurried dinner, I joined 25 to 30 people in the audience at the 7:30 show. (Tickets were $9, and the DVDs were $24.99, on sale for $5 off with a Bubble ticket stub.) This time around, the detail about Bubble that stood out the most wasn’t on the screen, but rather on the soundtrack: the snap, crackle and pop from a bowl of Rice Krispies. Maybe because of the Nuart’s digital sound system, or maybe because we had the volume down low at Zac’s house (so as not to wake up Vivienne), the familiar cacophony seemed suddenly striking. As for the image quality, Landmark’s decision to digitally project Bubble had the opposite effect of what one might expect. Though large on the screen, the images didn’t have the chance to acquire a character of their own, the way a film print, even after a few days in release, will begin to show visible, distinctive signs of wear. Without these distinguishing characteristics, the Nuart’s Bubble was evidence of the uniformity of the digital format from venue to venue and screening to screening.

This wasn’t an issue for Jane and Jahnna, two women in their mid-50s who attended the same screening. Neither was too aware of Bubble’s day-and-date release, although it wouldn’t have mattered to them anyway. “I think the younger generation likes to do DVDs, but I still prefer the big screen,” said Jane, who added, “I was so glad that I saw Caché in a theater, because it was so hard to sit through. If I was watching it at home, I would have been squirming in my seat and tempted to turn it off.” In her eyes, the nature of the theatrical experience, at least in the art house, has less to do with screen size than with the magnitude of the confrontation that occurs between artist and audience.

To be honest, I wasn’t able to stick with Bubble all the way through on my third viewing, this time on DVD. Perhaps the film, a spare tale of murder in a downsized heartland, was too spare to sustain such compressed repeated viewing. Or maybe it had something to do with my standard-definition television at home. Whatever the case, Bubble’s apparent thinness was quickly rethickened by the DVD’s bonus features. Soderbergh, who revels in discussing the details of his craft, always gives great commentary, and a where-are-they-now documentary shed fascinating light on the film’s amateur actors in their natural states, so to speak — ordinary folks who just happened to be a part of movie history.

I already can’t wait until Bubble comes out on PSP.

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