Sunday, May 27, 2007


Did you know that bacteria outnumber human beings by a trillion to 1? According to Gerald Callahan, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Colorado and author of Infection: The Univited Universe, only about 10 percent of the cells in a human body can be called human.

Does that freak you out?

If it does, you're not alone. Our society has become obsessed with the fear of infection. So you'd think that a film like Bug - about two people whose home seems infested with microscopic, blood-sucking insects - could convert that fear into smashing success at the box office.

Last night, when we saw Bug, the theater was more than half empty. More notably, when the closing credits rolled, there were four audible reactions in our theater:

"I want my money back."

"That sucked."

And "Thanks alot Tanisha."

Followed by, "I'm sorry."

The film suffers from a number of obvious problems. For one, it was marketed as a horror film. I spent the first third of the film waiting for it to get scary.

It is not a horror film.

It is a psycho-drama. The main character Agnes is a lonely woman, a victim of abuse with a weak sense of self whose tragic past is inexplicable to her until Gulf War veteran Peter shows up and provides some semblance of both love and answers. If you were prepared for a psycho drama, it wouldn't sound too shabby, would it?

Yet, by the end of the film, all I could think was, "So?"

Bug spends 110 minutes showing us how two lonely confused people find each other and then go crazy.

And? So?

It is also based on a play. Blech.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have always hated films based on plays. Because plays are almost always set in one or two rooms, they're just not cinematic. In the case of Bug, the film happens almost entirely within the confines of Agnes's room at a rundown roadside motel. Director William Friedkin tries to overcome this limitation with lingering closeups on the degrading details of the characters' lives - crumpled beer cans, lines of coke, the glowing remnants of a joint, the holes in Agnes's tank top. He also throws lots of bug-like shadows on their skin as they make love, making it way too obvious that he thinks the characters are nuts.

Throughout the film, he tosses in some perfunctory inserts of surveillance style overhead shots of the motel and very low angle pans across its parking lot as cars come and go, probably intended to make us wonder (cue timpani) what's really going on.

In the end, all we really wonder is, "So?"

To keep us engaged, the film has to help us identify with the characters enough to feel afraid either with them or for them. We have to wonder whether the bugs are real or at least whether we could end up in the same kind of horrific mess. Otherwise, it becomes the celluloid equivalent of spotting a homeless person swatting at his head next to a dumpster; our natural instinct is to give him a wide berth.

It starts out OK. Agnes is beautiful, fragile, alone. Peter is sweet, quiet, attentive. He's also intelligent and thoughtful unlike her brutish ex-husband. It seems to be a match made in heaven, until, after their first night together, Peter spots an microspic aphid in the bed. Agnes can't see it but the force of his conviction overcomes her doubt and, in seconds, she's convinced.

Perhaps if we had seen the relationship rot slowly from the inside, instead of imploding in the span of 15 minutes, and if the characters had revealed glimmers of their better natures throughout, we could have stuck with them to the end. But their reactions become so obscene and disconnected from reality so quickly that we have to check out. They're no longer compelling, just freaky. And not even all that fascinatingly freaky.

Another road to cinematic success might be to create a commentary on the nature of man or the state of today's world. And Bug pretends to ask alot of important questions like: What happens when we identify as threats elements of our environment that are actually part of a complex ecosystem the workings of which scientists hardly understand and lay people like the two main characters find utterly confounding? Or what impact has the military's documented history of experimentation on service men had on our ability to trust that institution?

Instead, nobody else can see the bugs at all and when at an offscreen doctor's visit, a medical professional identifies Agnes wounds as self-inflicted, we're not given any reason to disbelieve him. It would have at least been interesting if we'd seen the examination and been given even the tiniest reason not to trust him. At the height of the main characters' paranoia, Friedkin uses patently, purposefully false helicopter sound and light effects as if to elbow us in the ribs and say "See, they are crazy." While trying to manipulate Agnes into turning Peter in, a disaffected military psychiatrist plops down on a giant can of gas and takes a few hits off a mini-bong. "See, the military and medical professionals are evil. Banally evil."

While a good film would either suggest some answers or at least make you care about the questions, Friedkin swats these ideas off the top of his head as if they were little creepy crawlies themselves. It is only instinct for the audience to stomp on them and walk away.



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