Ramin Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag”: Werner Herzog is a plastic bag undergoing an existential crisis

By on September 6, 2015

In this 18-minute short film from 2009, Plastic Bag, the title character — yes, he’s a plastic bag whose his inner thoughts are voiced by Night Flight fave Werner Herzog! — is undergoing a kind of existential crisis as he undertakes an epic soul-searching emotional journey, trying to find the woman who used him and then discarded him without giving him a second thought.

There’s a message behind Ramin Bahrani’s clever award-winning and surprisingly heartfelt short film, of course — plastic bags never die. There are also other subtle references to this message and facts about recycling: plastic bags cannot decompose.

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In the end, Mr. Plastic Bag comes to a conclusion, if not exactly an understanding, about his true purpose in the world:

“Did my maker exist or have I created her in my mind? Why was my moment of joy so brief? And yet, like a fool, I still have hope I will meet her again.

If I do I will tell her just one thing: ‘I wish you had created me so that I could die.'”

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Then, sadly, Mr. Bag finds others who have been discarded in a whirling trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean (one of many in the world), which is known by many names, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyrating collection of trash, much of it plastic, that was once reported to be the size of Texas, but it has now grown to the size of the continental U.S.

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If you’re interested in this, be sure to check out our post about Boyan Slat, a Dutch former aerospace engineering student, who came up with a concept about how to clean up our polluted oceans, The Ocean Cleanup, which includes

The late Roger Ebert called Bahrani a “new great American director,” and its was Ebert who actually brought Bahrani and Herzog together. Bahrani had originally planned to cast Alejandro Polanco, the wiry star of his 2007 film Chop Shop, but his cinematographer thought that the film needed to have an actor whose disembodied voice might have a kind of comic quality to it, and he suggested Herzog.

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Plastic Bag is one of the eleven films grouped together as Futurestates, a free online project by the Independent Television Service exploring “what life might look like in an America of the future.” You can watch ITVS’s online series of short films — which explore social issues with elements of speculative and science fiction — here.

The underlying story here is, as we said, the fact that petroleum-based plastic bags don’t really degrade — it takes between 500 and a thousand years for one of them to break down, and yet we throw them away without caring that they don’t really go “away”: they become part of our landscape, they strangle tortoises and choke birds and poison water in ways that can deform our hormones and lead to cancer.

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Seeing this film we were also reminded of this scene in Sam Mendes’s award-winning 1999 movie American Beauty –the film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards — where Wes Bentley’s loner misfit character Ricky Fitts has filmed a floating plastic bag, which he shows to his neighbor, Jane Burnham, played by Thora Birch. We’re wondering if Bahrani was moved by this particular scene and it led him to making Plastic Bag.

Here’s what Ricky Fitts says:

“Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me … like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember … I need to remember…”

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We all need to watch Plastic Bag, listen to what Werner Herzog is saying, and we need to remember — this is a fun little film, but the message here is not funny: we’ve got to figure out better ways to carry things around from one place to another. Plastic bags are a drag.

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