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June 2011

Rubber DVD

cast: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser, and Roxane Mesquida

writer and director: Quentin Dupieux

82 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Rubber poster

Rubber artwork by Julie and Boris

There are times in life that William Burroughs described as 'naked lunch moments', by which he meant moments in which you come to realise what it is that's on the end of every fork. Another way of putting this is that there are moments in life when you see past the clutter of context and justification and perceive the grotesque absurdity of even the most commonplace and mundane of actions. Take going to the cinema for example: there you are, sitting comfortably at home and suddenly you hear news of a film that you want to see. However, rather than ordering the DVD on Amazon or downloading the fucker, you have to get up out of your comfy chair and travel into town in order to see it in a particular place and at a particular time.

Once you have arrived at the place, you are then charged an amount commensurate with what you might expect to pay in order to own the film on DVD and are ushered into a darkened room where you sit on an uncomfortable chair and watch adverts for the best part of half an hour. You may never see adverts at home but you've paid for your ticket and so you will be treated to an endless stream of Coke adverts and those annoying 'please turn off your phone' things that supposedly make fun of films and mobile phone companies whilst actually advertising both in quite a crass and unfunny way.

Once this is done, you get to the actual film which you sit in silence watching before going home. You don't get to respond to what you saw. You don't get what you have just seen explained to you. You just go home. And if you happened to miss a few minutes of the film because you had to pop to the loo then you'll just have to buy the thing on DVD anyway. Why do we put ourselves through this absurd experience? Quentin Dupieux's Rubber is an exploration of our relationship to film posing as an old-fashioned exploitation film. As weird as it is clever, Dupieux's film is unlike anything else you will see on DVD this year. Rubber is a film composed of two partially overlapping universes.

The first is a universe in which an old tyre suddenly comes to life. Shaking off the sand and slowly working out how to move under its own power, the tyre rolls out of the desert and into a nearby human inhabitation. Taking its cues from the humans around it, the tyre takes a room in a motel until it is mistaken for garbage and thrown out. Clearly annoyed at this snub, the tyre then uses its psychokinetic powers to start exploding people's heads. Initially tentative and experimental, the tyre's murderous powers take on a grander scale when the tyre notices some humans burning a load of old tyres. Faced with the genocidal destruction of its own people, the tyre begins to systematically kill all the humans it encounters until the local police are forced to intervene in an effort to stop it. While Rubber's first universe may be inspired by cult classics, schlocky monster movies and exploitation films, its second universe is a decidedly more postmodern affair.

The second universe is introduced in the opening shot of the film. In the middle of the desert, a man stands loaded down with pairs of binoculars. Along a dusty trail, an old car swerves from side to side, destroying chairs piled by the road. Eventually, the car stops, and its boot opens to reveal a man in a police uniform (Stephen Spinella). The man climbs out and delivers a speech straight to camera about the fact that many great films possess plots that hinge upon something that simply does not make sense. This film, he explains, contains a large dose of senselessness, but which film is he referring to? As the man climbs back into the car; the camera pans back to reveal an audience standing in the desert. The audience are handed binoculars and are instructed to look out over the desert where they will see the film that takes place in Rubber's first universe.

As events in the first universe unfold, the audience in the second universe assume to role of a Greek chorus, commenting upon the events in the first universe. The audience speculate about the tyre's motivations in a way that seems to flesh out the character of the tyre despite its lack of dialogue and the fact that it is an inanimate object. Dupieux's decision to draw attention to the way in which the audience projects emotional states onto characters in a film is reminiscent of Nicolas Philibert's recent documentary Nenette (2010).

Nenette is a short film about one of the orang-utans that lives in the Paris zoo. While the entirety of the film's 70-minutes is given over to footage of Nenette in her enclosure, speculations by visitors and keepers about what is going on in Nenette's head dominate the film's soundtrack. By never actually showing us any of the people doing the speculating, Philibert is effectively placing these people in the audience and so is drawing a parallel between the people speculating about Nenette's emotional state and the people who sit in cinemas speculating about what is going on in the heads of the on-screen characters.

What makes this analogy so fascinating is the fact that, in both cases, the entities we are speculating about are not the sort of entities that might reasonably be expected to possess human emotional states. Indeed, Nenette is an orang-utan and so presumably has her own orang-utan emotions. Similarly, the characters we see on cinema screens are fictional images projected onto a screen for our amusement and so they possess no inner lives at all. By confronting us with the absurdity of audiences speculating about the emotional lives of apes and tyres, Philibert and Dupieux are drawing our attention to the inherent absurdity of the cinematic medium: why do we care about the characters in films? They do not exist! They are not real! But Dupieux's critique of cinema does not end there.

As events in Rubber's first universe continue to unfold, it becomes clear that the audience in the second universe are watching these events in real time and without the benefits of the editorial process. This means that when the tyre moves into a motel room and spends the evening watching TV, they are forced to sit in the desert in the freezing cold. Cold and hungry, the audience demand refreshment forcing the accountant (Jack Plotnick) to kill a turkey in order to feed them. The accountant is revealed to be a somewhat sinister figure who communicates with the film's director by phone referring to him as 'Master'.

The audience, having paid for the project and the need to feed them suddenly becoming an unbearable drain on resources, the director orders them to be poisoned neatly commenting on the way in which the film industry loses interest in its customers once they have been parted from their money. By having the film's audience assassinated, Dupieux begins to blur the lines between the two universes, having characters such as the police lieutenant struggle to be both an actor playing a part and a real police officer responsible for bringing down a murderous tyre. Sadly, as the boundaries between the two universes dissolve, Rubber begins to lose its focus as the initial ideas start to wear thin and eventually give way to a series of self-consciously 'cultish' set pieces that are entertaining and likeable enough but hardly earth-shattering in either their originality or their execution.

Much like Nenette, Rubber is perhaps a little too 'meta' and a little too clever an idea to support an entire feature film, meaning that its relative brevity is entirely welcome. While the film is somewhat uneven as a whole, its singular weirdness and confrontational attitude towards the medium are more than enough to make it worthy of both your time and your thought.

As well as a traditional trailer, Rubber comes with one of the finest DVD extras I have ever encountered. Rather than a simple interview, Rubber's DVD contains a bizarrely confrontational deconstruction of the PR process. Indeed, Dupieux is interviewed not by a journalist or a critic but by an inflatable sex doll whose off-screen questions (delivered in French) are completely different to the questions posed in the on-screen English subtitles. The responses to the subtitled questions come in the form of sub-titled answers while the responses to the French-language questions are rendered incomprehensible by weird distortions that reduce Dupieux's answers to the level of garbled animal noises. Aside from providing an inspired response to the pointlessness of most DVD interviews, this featurette also contains some really fascinating insights into the film and Dupieux's creative process.

When DVDs first appeared and people began making use of the unused storage space to include extras, there was a degree of playfulness and invention that made DVD extras a real source of extra value for consumers. However, as the years passed, that initial creative energy gave way to laziness and a desire to save money meaning that, nowadays, most DVD extras bring very little to the viewing experience. Rubber's extras show quite how much can be achieved with a little goodwill and a little creativity. Frankly, Quentin's bizarre interview is easily worth the price of the DVD.

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