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Review: ‘Rubber’

Art House Exploitation

Above: Robert the tire in "Rubber."

In a summer of films that feel like nothing but retreads, here's a film that is about... well... a retread, "Rubber" (opening May 20 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium Theaters).

Okay, we've had a car come to life and kill people in "Christine;" a children's talking doll went on a murderous rampage in the "Chucky" films; and there was even "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats." In "Rubber," it's a tire that becomes a serial killer.

This premise may sound odd but that's only if you don't look to what the French filmmaker has been doing up till now. Writer-director Quentin Dupieux previously made a name for himself as Mr. Oizo, a songwriter and producer of techno music. He turned to filmmaking in 2002 with the tellingly named "Non Film," about an actor who wakes up in the middle of shooting a film he knows nothing about. Dupieux followed that debut outing with something called "Steak" in 2007 and then "Rubber" in 2010. He's currently shooting a film entitled "Wrong" in LA with the talented William Fichtner. So it's pretty clear that mainstream filmmaking is not on his agenda.

Stephen Spinella deconstructs cinema in "Rubber."

Magnet Releasing

Above: Stephen Spinella deconstructs cinema in "Rubber."

"Rubber" opens with a surreal sequence in which a man holding numerous pairs of dangling binoculars stands by as a car runs over a series of chairs (perhaps it's 12 chairs -- I didn't have a chance to count them -- in reference to Mel Brooks' film or perhaps Russian literature). Then Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) comes up to the camera to explain the filmmaker's "No Reason" theory. All films, he tells us, contain something that exists for "no reason," like the brown color for ET. And because so many films rely on this, why not make a films that's essentially grounded entirely in that principle. Consequently, if things in film can exist for no reason, why not let a tire named Robert become a crazed killing machine. This prologue basically tells us not to bother asking why anything is happening because it's happening for no reason. The result is something akin to Luis Bunuel or Samuel Beckett making a 70s exploitation film.

So on one level, Dupieux is lampooning all the inconsistencies one finds in movies ranging from Oscar-winning dramas to the lowest grade Z movie. But he's also creating a self-reflexive, post-modern, absurdist meta-commentary on cinema as a whole. So Dupieux includes a peanut gallery/Greek chorus of observers who watch the film that's being presented to us. They and Lt. Chad then deconstruct the film as we watch it, critiquing its flaws and shortcomings, and drawing attention to its gimmicks, devices, and genre conventions.

Does a film exist if there's no one there to watch? "Rubber."

Above: Does a film exist if there's no one there to watch? "Rubber."

So the crowd in the film like the crowd in the theater watches as Robert the inanimate tire becomes Robert the killer. It all begins innocently enough with Robert rolling over a bottle and crushing it and then discovering telekinetic powers to shatter a glass bottle and blow up a little bunny. The tire expresses an almost childlike delight in his ability to destroy things -- it makes him feel good and he needs more.

The film's sparseness and extreme low budget actually work in its favor and helps it to break down the barrier between the audience (both the one in the film and the one in the theater) and the film. Dupieux shot on a consumer-grade SLR camera and creates stark, crisp images that occasionally have a charming DIY quality to the animating of the rubber tire.

Dupieux manages to convey both an esoteric art house tone and a goofy low budget exploitation feel. His idea or ideas can't really sustain the full 90 running time but there is an eccentric sense of intellectual playfulness and fun that feels fresh in a summer of stale remakes and sequels. But overextending the gag occasionally makes the film feel pretentious as it keeps turning in on itself for further and further self-examination. Some may get bored with the self-referential tone while other may take delight in figuring out all the inside jokes.

"Rubber" (rated R for some violent images and language) could have done more to comment on genre conventions and to deconstruct contemporary cinema but as the prologue in the film suggest, don't ask why because there is no reason. "Rubber" outstays its welcome but has enough clever invention and deadpan goofiness to make it worth checking out.

NOTE: Reading is offering discounted coupons for "Rubber" through the myKPBS Film Club. Click here for more info.

Companion viewing: "Christine," "Chucky," "Living in Oblivion"

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