“It’s not what a movie is about,” Roger Ebert famously wrote, “it’s how it is about it.” Subject matter, we might say, separates the weak filmmakers from the strong: those who require a striking “high concept” (killer doll, body switch, Snakes on a Plane) fall into the former group, while those who can make a film about absolutely anything fall into the latter. It’s safe to say that not everyone is moved by the scene in American Beauty where the camcorder-toting teenager waxes poetic about his footage of a plastic bag in the wind. But what would similar material look like in the hands of a more assured director?
For an example, have a look at Plastic Bag, the eighteen-minute short above. Every cinephile with an interest in American film knows the name of Plastic Bag‘s director, Ramin Bahrani. Over the past decade and a half he has emerged as the maker of unusually powerful and realistic glimpses of life in his homeland, focusing on characters like a Pakistani immigrant running a New York bagel cart, an orphan working at a chop shop, and a Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina.
In its own way, the protagonist and title character of Plastic Bag is also at once an outsider to American life and a figure inseparable from it — and voiced by an insider-outsider of another kind, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. (Their collaboration has continued: you may remember Herzog’s appearance in a Bahrani-directed episode of Morgan Spurlock’s series We the Economy about a lemonade stand.)
Beginning his journey at a grocery-store checkout counter, he spends his first few happy days at the home of his purchaser. But not long after this idyll of service — carrying tennis balls, being filled with ice to numb a sprain — comes to its inevitable end, he finds himself deposited into a landfill. But the wind comes to his rescue, carrying him across a series of suburban, post-industrial, and finally rural landscapes as he looks desperately for his owner.
Ultimately the bag makes it into places seldom seen by human eyes, with a combination of gravitas and wonder imbued by both Herzog’s diction and the music of Sigur Rós’ Kjartan Sveinsson. Watched today, Plastic Bag feels more elegiac than it did when it debuted a decade ago, since which time plastic-bag bans have continued to spread unabated across the world. How long before not just the hero of Bahrani’s film, but all his polyethylene kind fade from existence — forgotten, if not quite decomposed?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.