Plastic Bag

Ramin Bahrani's Plastic Bag is a deceptively simple short film that achieves an emotionally cathartic and poetically beautiful effect through a story that might, on its surface, seem like little more than a gimmick. The film charts the "life" of a plastic bag from its "first breath" — being born in a supermarket when it's pulled from its rack to be filled with groceries — to its long exile from the woman it comes to think of as its maker. The film's narration, relayed by the distinctive, unmistakable voice of Werner Herzog, concerns this bag's journey through the world, a journey that is at first tangible and physical, a quest to be reunited with this woman, but eventually becomes metaphysical and philosophical, a journey to discover the purpose of this life, the purpose of the world through which the bag drifts, carried along by wind and currents. Over the course of this journey, the bag's progress through the world becomes an obvious allegory for life itself: not knowing its intended purpose, not understanding its true place in the world, the bag tries to find happiness and struggles to divine its purpose in a world where it seems so inconsequential. The bag is happiest when it feels useful, when it knows that it is needed. The woman uses the bag for her lunch, to hold her tennis balls, to hold ice to soothe her injured ankle, and the bag is content, not really understanding anything but happy to know that it fulfills some purpose.

But when it's discarded, used a final time to clean up a dog turd and then thrown out to be taken to a trash heap, the bag loses that happiness. Its subsequent progress mirrors the casting-about of humans in a world that we, too, can't fully understand, a world whose purpose we only pretend to know. The bag drives itself onward at first in search of its former owner, its "creator," but eventually finds a new religion in the search for "the vortex," an ocean whirlpool where bags and other detritus are twirled happily around by the currents. The bag finds fleeting moments of joy, in a midair dance with a bright red bag, beautifully filmed by Bahrani, and later in the sensation of being carried along in the circular currents of the water. But in the final moments of the film, the bag wonders why these moments of happiness are so brief, why it has been unable to find others who had a use for it the way its first owner did, why it still hasn't figured out the workings of the world in which it floats. As a metaphor for the human experience of the world, it is heartbreaking and strangely affecting, especially as delivered by Herzog's blunt, fatalistic cadences.

Herzog is in many ways a perfect choice to deliver the film's narration, since his bleak worldview is such a natural fit for the bag's pointless and aimless journey. The bag fundamentally misunderstands its true place in this world, believing itself to be more important than it is, and this idea is implicitly applied to humans as well: we give ourselves central roles in the dramas of the universe, but in all likelihood we're as irrelevant to the real cosmic stories as this bag is to its "creator" and the rest of the world. But what's striking about this film is the streak of perverse hope and beauty that Bahrani finds in this seemingly dispiriting perspective. The bag, set adrift in a world whose scope dwarfs it, revels in the beauty all around it, and Bahrani's camera does as well: even as Herzog's voiceover insists that enjoying a beautiful sunset is not enough, the images belie this dismal philosophy, finding beauty and satisfaction everywhere within the world. The bag drifts through a world that seems destroyed and empty, dominated by ruined and abandoned houses, by seemingly closed factories and office buildings, by landfills and waters polluted with trash. But even in the midst of devastation and environmental catastrophe, there is beauty, both the pure beauty of nature — the white-hot glow of the sun, the verdant greens of meadows and trees — and the manufactured beauty of man's constructions, which are beautiful almost in spite of themselves as seen through Bahrani's lens.

Plastic Bag is quite a powerful and thought-provoking film, even if on its surface it occasionally seems as simple as an expansion of American Beauty's famous video tape of a drifting bag. That's an obvious but shallow comparison, in the end. The floating bag in American Beauty was about aesthetics, about finding the beauty even in prosaic man-made objects, in trash. Plastic Bag is about ideas — it finds beauty less in things than in the idea that life is aimless and pointless and ultimately incomprehensible, and that it can nevertheless be joyous, and fulfilling, and poignant. It's about accepting the insignificance of a single life and at the same time exalting that life's beauty and resilience in the face of an indifferent, alienating universe whose purpose we can only guess at lamely. It's a film whose unassuming greatness lies in its discovery of profound ideas in the most unlikely of places.