Web hit 'Plastic Bag' blows into D.C. for Environmental Film Fest

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

It must be something in the wasser.

Just when YouTube took down the beloved "Downfall" memes featuring Hitler fulminating against everything from "Avatar" to Burning Man, Werner Herzog -- legendary auteur and Teutonic eccentric -- has become a viral hit on the Web.

"Plastic Bag," an 18-minute film directed by Ramin Bahrani and narrated by Herzog, follows the title character, a lowly plastic shopping bag, from "birth" at a supermarket checkout aisle, through a happy life with his "maker" (the woman who took her groceries home in him and used him for random daily chores) to cruel abandonment in a garbage dump. After years searching for his maker, during which the human race disappears, the bag meets its final reward in the Pacific Ocean's notorious "Garbage Vortex," where it finds rueful solace among its dispossessed and stubbornly un-biodegradable tribe.

Playful, poetic, shot through with equal doses of deadpan humor and spiritual longing, "Plastic Bag" has become a hit on the Internet since appearing on YouTube and the Independent Television Service Web site a month ago. The film was commissioned by ITVS as part of its online "Futurestates" project, in which 11 filmmakers were asked to make digital shorts about present-day issues and their implications for the future. It will be shown Sunday at 2:30 p.m. as part of a bonus screening at the Environmental Film Festival.

Though it was created for online viewing, "Plastic Bag" has been shown at renowned film festivals such as Telluride and South by Southwest. And it deserves the play on that circuit, thanks to impeccable cinematic credentials: Filmed with spare elegance by cinematographer Michael Simmonds, "Plastic Bag" elaborates on a visual trope that recurred throughout "American Beauty" and found its first expression in Jem Cohen's 1996 experimental documentary "Lost Book Found."

"Plastic Bag" also unites two of cinema's best directors: Herzog, who with "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" has long sealed a legendary reputation as one of film's most obsessively passionate directors; and Bahrani, who has proven to be one of the most promising members of a new generation of American neorealists, since he made a stunning debut with "Man Push Cart" in 2005 and followed with "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo."

With its lonely, lyrical images adrift a post-apocalyptic world, "Plastic Bag" offers a whimsical and strangely moving interlude, and it gets added resonance with Herzog's narration. At this point in his career, Herzog, 67, operates on myriad levels: European filmmaker in the heroic tradition, hipster paterfamilias, canny showbiz survivor, ironic in-joke and rigorously un-ironic philosophical seeker.

No longer relegated to the arcane universe of late-20th century German film, he's shown himself to be an unusually adaptive navigator of Hollywood and its indie outer reaches. As comfortable working with emerging troublemakers such as Harmony Korine as with straight-up documentaries ("Grizzly Man," "Encounters at the End of the World") and Hollywood genre ("Rescue Dawn," "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans"), Herzog has proven that he can do it all. (He's even been known to stage the odd opera or two.)

All those personae come to rest in Herzog's voice, which has become almost as cherished by filmgoers as his movies. In his narrations of his nonfiction films, and now with "Plastic Bag," he has proven repeatedly that no one is better suited to marry Nietzschean anxiety and American transcendentalism, as he marvels at the beauty of nature while lamenting its supreme indifference. With its combination of deep feeling and grim austerity, the heavily accented voice infuses lines such as "I loved going in circles, in circles, in circles" with absurdist humor and cosmic grandeur. With at least two movie lives behind him and who knows how many more to come, Herzog's is the closest thing we have to the voice of God.

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