After all the praise I’ve lavished on Ramin Bahrani’s three feature films, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that this short is just as great. But pretend for a moment that I’d never even seen Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Or, that I didn’t know beforehand that Plastic Bag was by Bahrani. The excellence of it would have spoken to me regardless. It just so happens for me personally that I was feeling a little sad and vulnerable when I watched it, which only made me that much more receptive to the artistry of this less-than-twenty-minutes of outstanding cinema. It made me cry. Hard.
There is some fantastic staging at work here. It might look easy to move a bag around on location, but there are moments in Plastic Bag when the thing takes on an organic visual presence. It sometimes appears to travel with muscular intention and even to gesture. The romantic interaction with the other bag is airborne ballet. The theatrical level approaches that of genuine puppetry. I make note of this upfront because obviously it is the audio narrative that literally gives voice to the bag, so I mean to acknowledge the contribution of the cinematography to the entire anthropomorphic fabrication. The thing often looks alive.
That it always sounds alive is a tribute to the uniquely affecting quality of hearing Werner Herzog deliver English lines. Much has been made of him interjecting his own personality in his documentaries. Regardless of how one feels about this either way, it cannot be denied that his speaking voice is a kind of aesthetic artifact in its own right. Setting aside Herzog’s reputation as an artist and, even more, his cultural celebrity, it was a stroke of genius by Bahrani to cast him in this role. The timbre and cadences of Herzog’s speech are absolutely perfect for the forlorn pathos of the character.
And the characterization is there to perform in the first place. Plastic Bag is nothing if not a brilliant screenplay. The text achieves poetic concreteness. What might have seemed little more than a gimmick—yet another brave little toaster (hey, Plastic Bag starts off cute and funny enough)—soon takes on truly tragic proportions when we seriously contemplate what the protagonist is saying. His words make us pay attention to the setting as he is situated in it. We are made to confront the environmental crisis as it is experienced by him. Hello—we’re talking about empathetic dramatic identification with a plastic bag. A plastic bag people! Brilliantly shot, brilliantly read, brilliantly written. Yes, the music really works too. The whole tone of the piece changes when it enters.
Thematically, the level of profundity achieved by Plastic Bag is staggering. At first glance, it might seem that the personification of a lifeless object must necessarily advocate spirituality. To animate the inanimate certainly has the potential to point in this direction; and further, to give self-consciousness and voice to a thing is to positively humanize it with those attributes of cognition most commonly equated with soulfulness.
Meanwhile, the plot of Plastic Bag is all about the bag seeking the source of his origin. The bag is searching for “my Maker.” He had a personal relationship with an entity that he conceived to be God or at least a demiurge. He believes he has been forsaken. He searches for reunification. Even in the depths of his despair and doubt, he is able to overcome the worldly utopian misguidance that is the pantheistic cult of the Vortex and hold true to his journey to return to The Creator. How can this not be a religious parable?
It isn’t because Plastic Bag makes it plain that the bag is operating according to bogus mythology. He holds that life was breathed into him when he was separated from the bunch at the grocery till, but this was actually not his birth. The individual who activated him and subsequently engaged with him just enough for him to idealize his own telos did not, in fact, create him. Towards the end, when he questions if his Maker was ever real and wonders if he just dreamed her up—this is him reflecting critically on his own mythology and considering that it may very well be bogus.
At the very end, when he states that if he ever re-encounters his Maker he will proclaim that he should have been made mortal—for the audience this definitively points beyond the individual consumer who once used him for various domestic functions to his true creator, the collective social structures of industrial science and technological production that really did make him never to rot. What is more to the ecological intelligence, the bag’s desire for mortality is the highest expression of common sense, truly no nonsense materialism. Rust never sleeps but plastic doesn’t rust. Hence, the gyre now swirling in the Pacific, a mass of jelly two times the size of Texas.
The relative non-biodegradability of a plastic bag is practically—according to any time scale we can honestly fathom—an absolute indestructibility. In other words, an eternal life. Contra the entire history of metaphysical longing, in Plastic Bag it turns out that living forever is a bad thing. Eternal life is necessarily Hell for those of us who see no supernatural escape hatch from our corporeal being. The protagonist of Plastic Bag makes it to the massive mess of Jell-O in the sea, only to discover that it is not the Heaven for plastic it was made out to be by the secular priests self-crucified on the fence. Following this, he knows he should have been made not to last. He wants to die. He wants to recycle himself in the metabolism of nature.
A ghost is a disembodied spirit unable to reside in the hereafter because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth. Unable to rest in peace, the spectre haunts the living. The bag in Plastic Bag is an inverted apparition, an embodied ghost. Forever trapped in an undead body, he is a kind of zombie; except mindful, oh so mindful. All too corporeal yet cursed with immortality, the bag also cannot rest in peace. Unable to pass away on this planet, he is haunted by a memory of the living, a sole survivor because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth.
Plastic Bag held me rapt from its opening to its closing frame, sunrise to sunset. I have seldom been held in such thrall by a film; I have never been so moved by a film about an inanimate object. Plastic Bag is among the best short films I have ever seen. And I really enjoyed your study of the aesthetic at work—the poetry and ballet of the bag traveling through this world both ugly and beautiful—as it was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the film. Bahrani seems to have literally breathed life into this bag. It becomes he as he appears to inhale and exhale, applauding and adoring the movements of his personal god while she summons and interacts with his life, then dancing like a ballerino over what can only be the post-apocalyptic surface of the earth. Bahrani here confirms his position—well struck in his feature films, which are chock full of subtle and affecting lyrical imagery—as a master poet of the ordinary. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrows and white chickens.
Furthermore, your examination of the bag’s heart of green was something I was particularly tuned into and connected with. However, I was also drawn to this sole survivor as a lost soul. In highlighting the “ecological intelligence” of Plastic Bag, you glossed over the striving of the bag to reunite with his Maker as “bogus mythology.” But the bag’s spiritual journey touched something deep inside of me.
While I enjoy a good walk as much as the next guy, I do not climb mountains. Yet, I am riveted by stories of mountain climbers who strike me as setting out to reach a place in nature where God is somehow more obvious to them. I could not put down Jon Krakauer’s study of a famously doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air; likewise, I was completely absorbed by the troubled Andean expedition recounted in Touching the Void. Any attempt to find God in this earthly realm is compelling for me. I really dig the metaphysical poetry of John Donne because of this. The Passion of Joan of Arc is among my favorite films of all time, and not just for its formal brilliance; I am captivated by Joan’s mysterious adoration of a God who appears to have abandoned her.
Plastic Bag is tapping into this as well. I am not a religious person. Forget about a church of any kind, I do not even have a particularly spiritual bent. Nevertheless, I feel it is valid to appreciate the spiritual striving of others in broad terms of existentialism. A specific search for God is a case of the general search for The Meaning of Life, or at least a meaningful life. I relate to the bag’s spiritual journey on this basic level. He is a seeker.
In focusing on the quest of the bag to find his Maker, I feel it is valid to see this in broad existential terms because of the plainly allegorical approach taken by the film. Just as the bag searches for meaning, so too do we. At first, the bag is content, finding meaning—and even joy—in servitude to his perceived Maker. Secure in his initial religious faith, the bag is an inspired utilitarian, believing his life has meaning only if he is being slavishly useful to his Maker. This leads to the ultimate degradation of being a dog’s pooper scooper, perhaps an inevitable outcome for anyone who seeks meaning through vassalage to a lord. Once he is cast aside, abandoned to the landfill and deprived of his previous mission in life, the bag can only embark on a lifelong journey to fill his existential void.
And I do mean void. The bag is literally hollow. But of course, he is also metaphorically hollow. The bag’s hollowness is a reflection of his lost utility. The bag felt fulfilled when he was actually filled; used by his Maker to carry tennis balls, hold ice, wrap dog crap, whatever. Once he is disposed of, he finds himself fired from the job he was made for, by the very Maker that supposedly made him for it. He is able to travel the world because of this—not weighed down by her needs/uses—but rather than embracing this freedom, he feels a desperate lack of purpose. He wants to return to his Maker so he can feel useful again. So he seeks her out.
There are profound distractions along the way. In one of the film’s most visually affecting passages, he engages in a momentary flirtation with love. The brevity of the encounter suggests the impossibility of maintaining a bond with another without a bond with the Maker to sustain it. In any case, he is compelled to keep moving, continue seeking. The journey proves fruitless until he finds his way to The Vortex, symbol of shared faith. He is converted to The Vortex by other bags martyred on barbed wire, becomes a pilgrim and is baptized upon leaving the land for the ocean.
At first, he believes he has been reborn. Mixed in with all the rest of the rotating plastic, he feels that his journey is finally over, he is happy at home, swirling around in the sea—like the religious masses circling the Black Stone in Mecca—in this continent of like-minded, similarly-bodied types. But faith comes with a price. Consciousness must be left behind. These similarly-bodied types have become no-minded. Eventually, the bag leaves because, “no one thought about anything.” He must set out again independently.
The solitary nature of the bag’s quest is central to my existential reading. The bag rarely meets up with his own kind. More essential, even when he does, he is unable to establish a lasting connection. Exactly why he cannot master the wind enough to stay together with the other single bag he loves for an instant is not clear, but his passing incorporation into The Vortex leads to a loss of self he cannot abide. He leaves before becoming gelatinous himself and forever stuck in the collective glop. There may be solace in the mass of the group, but there is no enlightenment for the individual in The Vortex, so he quickly returns to his solitary position. He remains a stranger in a strange land to the extraordinarily bitter end, surrounded by Otherness he cannot transcend.
The bag remains, above all else, an intelligent, sentient being whose ongoing survival necessarily makes him curious about what it is he is surviving for. He could be any one of us. It is not enough to simply believe, he wants to understand that his life has meaning. He begins to question if his Maker exists, or if he has created her out of his own imagination. He wonders why his moments of choice have proven so rare over the course of his long life. His inspired utilitarianism has proven futile. His romantic love fleeting. His experience with alternative religion unsatisfying. And in the end, reunion with the Maker appears unattainable.
The bag reaches the point of absolutely solitary crisis. He desires his own death. This is a completely understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning, such existential torment. I cannot help but feel sad at the film’s close because the bag begs for a death he cannot have.
What Bahrani has accomplished here is no mean feat. He has personified a piece of plastic and in the process made me care deeply about an otherwise insignificant man-made object. Credit must certainly be shared with fellow writer (and newcomer) Jenni Jenkins, Bahrani’s regular cinematographer Michael Simmonds and composer Kjartan Sveinsson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but the truly vital collaboration is that with Werner Herzog. There is such a gravitas to Herzog’s voice, borne out of a life of questing and uncertainty, of searching and not finding, that I cannot imagine a better fit for the existential subject matter of this piece.
Your existentialist appreciation of the bag’s changing consciousness of himself is fine by me as long as we are analytically clear that my ecological take on the film rests exclusively on the material substance of the protagonist’s body, whereas you only touch on this in the course of mostly attending to the form of his body. Everything I argue has to do with the elementary physical fact of his plasticity as it relates to his theoretical conception of himself. You are far more concerned with his bag-ness as a narrative phenomenology or lived personal experience. I acknowledge that the dramatic personification of the character through the plot fundamentally resides in his bag-ness and I am open to suggestion about how to interpret this, but not at the expense of my understanding of his understanding of his plastic materiality.
I fear you do contravene my ecological take insofar as you treat his death wish as the consequence of him reaching the point of crisis as a bag, rather than what I take it to be—the crisis itself that he undergoes as a piece of plastic. When you say his death wish is the “understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning,” I hear you saying that he cannot bear to live anymore, that he is suicidal for his own tortured sake as a bag. That’s not what I hear the character/Herzog/Bahrani saying at all. Rather than a negation of the world, I hear the piece of plastic positively embracing the world. He has figured out that it would have been better for all concerned if he had been made to biodegrade. His crisis is that he is physically incapable of acting on his will to do so.
I don’t know about him and his search for his God, but he’s certainly on to the truth of the matter. His existential suffering as a bag may take a number of twists and turns but in the end, his tragedy is as a piece of plastic and his pain in being one is profoundly practical. His growing knowledge is connected to his decreasing alienation from the material world, his increasing sense of belonging in nature. Your concern for the bag’s Otherness notwithstanding, he steadily comes to embrace the organic. Let me sketch some detail onto this contour I have just drawn.
His initial contact with life and its messy waste makes him simultaneously repulsed and envious of biological being. He is jealous of his Maker’s dog for the affection she shows to the pet and revolted by his slobber and his feces. After he escapes the landfill and travels the planet, however, he is completely past these petty, self-centered first approximations. No longer repulsed at all, he is attracted. The bag has come to be comfortable with the “monsters.” No longer envious of this or that particular biological stuff, he wishes to become that stuff in general.
Indeed, he wants to become the most general sort of that stuff, what he once picked up after the pet of his Maker so long ago. The fish nibble away little bits of him and he can only wonder what will happen to those bits, but WE know that that’s as close as he’s going to get to becoming real shit returned to the life cycle. Yes, he remains inorganic. So yes, unable to die and become compost he “remains a stranger in a strange land.” But no, not “to the extraordinarily bitter end.” The bag is not bitter. He is full of tragic passion. He has a practical desire. It’s the exact opposite goal of Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner. LESS life fucker! That is what he will demand of his Maker should he ever find her.
What you aptly called the bag’s green heart is no doubt beating loudly in your ear, but you run the risk of becoming deaf to it when you stare so long at the existential contortions of his shape. Hence, you are much bleaker about the message of the film than me. I get the impression from you that you get the impression from the film that our situation is hopeless. But I take the allegorical dimension of Plastic Bag to be more actively engaged in the material world, more critically didactic, more a challenge to invent synthetic materials that do biodegrade. I believe it is a film that any elementary school teacher could show to the class. Nay, I believe it is a film that every elementary school teacher should show to the class.
I am not so full of angst as it may appear. I hear what you are saying about the protagonist’s positive passion. I neglected to address that. You are too strict about only applying this to him as a piece of plastic though. You acknowledge that his bag-ness is the fictional vehicle for him being a person in the first place, but then you refuse to see how it must therefore be implicated in this passion he feels and the tragedy it entails.
It is his bag-ness that allows him to travel as he does and change his mind about the “monsters.” He acknowledges the beauty of things as he flies overhead. After he submerges himself in the sea, he feels familiarity with a jelly-fish. They look enough alike for him to experience a hint of kinship. By the last act of the film, when he has returned to the sky and is flying higher than ever, there is a wonderful moment where he is floating above the whole earth and sees that he looks just like it, then he turns to the sun and notes that he looks just like it too.
So, he certainly does come to positively recognize himself in everything, to see his body as belonging in nature. The point is that this identification he feels is all about his form as a bag. But his quest ends up proving his sense of Otherness, not eliminating it, because no matter how much the bag-like appearance of those around him resembles his bag-ness, his elemental substance—his plasticity—is still alien. In fact, he is not part of anything and nothing is part of him.
I feel for the bag—as a bag—because he wants to trade his material substance for a different material substance, transform from inorganic to organic. That transformation is allegorical for the human aspiration to seek a similar transformation at the end of life—from material mortality to spiritual immortality—which is just as hopeless a quest as the bag’s desire to die as an organic being. Is it really that much of a stretch to see human beings as plastic bags? That is, we view ourselves as separate from the world around us, and hence have a quest to escape our bodily existence (that which connects us to the world around us) by achieving non-corporeal everlasting life. And there is definite irony in the fact that we are equally doomed to frustration and failure. The bag gets what so many humans desire—immortality—while humans are doomed to mortality, because of the very organic nature that the bag can never achieve.
But even without the religious impulse, all of us experience certain expressions of alienation from existence that push us to seek transcendence in material ways that are just as hopeless a quest as what spiritualism chases. I return to the hollowness of the bag as representative of the inner vacancy experienced by modern individuals, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Just as the bag in order to feel fulfilled needs to fill up his emptiness again and again with stuff assigned to him as worthwhile by his Maker, people—falling prey to the advertisers who insist that this will make it so—fill the emotional hole inside themselves by consuming more and more stuff, thereby creating the ecological crisis that the plastic bag adds to, much to his anguish. The emptiness remains. Which pretty much boils down to him being existentially all by himself. This is much of what makes me sad. He is so very alone.
I grasp that your existential reading of the film hinges on the falsity of Cartesian dualism for the plastic bag and the human being analogously. Hence, you expend considerable effort to expose the substance/form contradiction in both generally and you compare the specifics of how this plays out for each respectively. This is all very well. But the pronounced materialist interpretation I bring to Plastic Bag compels me grasp the substance/form contradiction of the plastic bag as asymmetrical. I prioritize substance over form when it comes to deciding which side of the contradiction is the essential source of the protagonist’s problem.
As far as I can see, a very similar story could be told about a plastic package or a plastic cup or a plastic bathing cap. Or the same point from the opposite direction, the story simply could not be told about a bag made of paper. You claim to feel the pain of the bag—as a bag—and no doubt you do over the course of the story. But the pain we feel at the very end of the tale—you know, when the moral of the allegory as a whole is finally delivered—this is his pain at being synthetically ripped from the womb of Mother Nature, his anguish about being born a piece of plastic. And there is not one, single, comparable moment in the film where he regrets being born a bag.
This registered, I grant that the essential manifestation of the protagonist’s problem is registered on his form as a bag, about which you have made some provocative statements. I like the general connection you are making between the bag, consumerism and ecological degradation. This is astute. For the bag is first and foremost a shopping bag. This is the activity that he was created for and this is indeed his original activation.
But then the woman moves from shopping to other domestic endeavours and in so doing re-uses the bag for all sorts of jobs. This is soundly ecological on her part and, by association, on his part too. But even if it somehow wasn’t, I cannot see any of the tasks performed by the bag as analogous with recreational shopping conducted by people out to fill their existential emptiness by consuming more and more. This is because the bag is not a consumer, recreational or otherwise. The bag is a producer, a worker.
In keeping with this, I do not view the hollowness of the bag as so much nothingness as you do, negative space that only borrows the value of the objects that fill it. I see it rather as a site of contained potential, which the bag realizes with his labor. Because he is not a closed shape but rather an open one, he has an orifice. This “mouth” is what enables him to work with his “gut” in which he holds and carries things, his particular skill.
Listen though, you can still see him as existentially burdened in accordance with this if you’d like. Instead of a recreational consumer, the bag would be a type of workaholic. You are quite disparaging about the bag’s sense of self being based on his duty to service, associating this with a vulgar instrumentalism and serf-like status. I am not so bothered about this and could just as easily find nice what you find nasty. But either way, you are right to regard the bag as having a utilitarian ego upheld by a metaphysic. No doubt, the bag has a kind of Protestant work ethic, which I referred to before as “bogus mythology” insofar as the bag labors under the misconception that his human employer is his creator. And I think it’s just great that in the end he begins to transfer his allegiance from his Maker to matter. Instead of the Lord, he wants to work for Mother Nature. His tragedy is that he can’t do it. But admittedly, up until this agonizing epiphany, he suffers from a sort of Stakhanovist productivism, underwritten by the myth of the Maker.
I think you turned me into your straw man here. If you review the discussion up to this point, I am confident that you will observe that I never countered your assertion that the bag’s plasticity is the more elemental aspect of his tragic existence. Furthermore, while I find your suggestion to view the bag as a workaholic reasonable enough, I am not especially moved by it. You put too much of a happy face on the bag’s form in the first place. Even if I agree with you that he has an orifice, I do not agree with you that this “mouth” is a productive appendage as much as I see it as constantly needing to be fed. Hunger is as good a metaphor as any to describe the bag’s terrible longing.
You seem to think this hunger goes away at the end of the film because the bag is on the verge of some sort of enlightened atheist conversion. But his realism is cold comfort. And it is hardly confirmed. It remains true that the bag never feels as content as when his contents came from his Maker. You speak of his tragedy, but you refuse to extend this to include his incapability of self-fulfilment; as a bag he has the potential to be filled, but he necessarily needs to be filled from without. Yet nothing from without can fill him. All things blow out, wash away.
Despite making a mental connection with the biosphere, he recognizes that he cannot keep it inside of him and put himself inside of it; or if you prefer, he is only IN this world, not OF it. However the point is verbalized, he is existentially on the outside looking to get in, pining for a physical transformation that will take away his emptiness. A transformation that will not—hell, cannot—occur. Hence, my overwhelming feeling of great sorrow at the finish of the film is not just about him as a piece of plastic but also about him as a bag.
No, not a “transformation” Not a transFORMation. What he pines for in the very end is transubstantiation. Please forgive my pedantry, but my disagreement with you completely comes down to this difference between sideshow shape-shifting and miraculous substantive change. I employ this Catholic concept in order to insist on the ontological guts of the matter. At the same time, it serves to support your analogous treatment and comparison of the substance/form contradiction for the plastic bag and the Christian believer. But the price you pay for this support is the priority on substance shared by me and the church, even though the Pope and I are diametrically opposed when it comes to choosing between natural matter and divine spirit as substance.
Enough scholasticism though. Maybe you are right when you say that I put too much of a happy face around the bag’s orifice, give his life a spin too positive. But as far as I can tell, the guy gets around and it’s not all bad. That mouth of his never shuts up and the tourism its openness facilitates leads him to conclude that the world is worth saving. You are definitely right that I reckon our plastic hero is on the verge of an enlightened conversion; not necessarily atheistic but certainly secular, in the etymological root sense of the term—OF the world. Or should I just trust that you at least agree with me that he is FOR it? Jesus, he’s for it body and soul. In that order. And there’s the pathos. Personally, I’m hoping the fish eat him all up. I know it’s not the answer in the real world, but it is the happiest possible ending in the reel world.
And Finally Dan:
The bag’s movement is definitely moving, his journey is wondrous and terrible, his joy real but ephemeral. The tragedy is, the bag will have an eternity to contemplate those fleeting moments of happiness and fulfillment.
Having seen what he has done so far in his relatively young life, I find it hard to predict exactly where Ramin Bahrani is going to take us next, but one thing is certain; he is as accomplished and important a filmmaker as there is in America today. Made us talk and talk for hours and hours—that’s right ladies and gentlemen, this is the abridged version—with only 18 minutes of celluloid.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is the current Blog Slave in Residence at Cinemania.