"You are an idiot. But it's ok."
In a little exchange like the one above, which happens in the movie Baghead, the audience gets a glimpse into the crux of what goes on between the characters in the "Mumblecore" style of filmmaking. That term was slapped on to a group of independent filmmakers - the Duplass brothers, but also people like Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski among others - and it was designed to help to categorize this new super-micro-budget format where the characters and the filmmaking approach were very "lo-fi" and low-key and if it was god forbid anything than about characters it wouldn't count. Indeed the term 'mumble' meant that actors were constantly improvising dialog - sometimes if you look at some of the credits for these movies, the directors are so generous to let like 10 people have writing credits (hey, actors DO come up with the lines as they go along after all).
With Baghead, the Duplass brothers follow up their debut, The Puffy Chair, with a take-down of pretentious movie characters, but in a way that has layers of cleverness to it. It starts off with four struggling actors -Steve Zissis, Ross Partridueg, Elise Muller, and Greta Gerwig (gotta have the Gerwig if you can, and she did several of these before breaking out a little with Noah Baumbach) -go to an ultra-low-budget indie movie where the characters are 'deep' because they get naked and embrace at the end of the movie, and decide that they want to find a way to break in to this world. They can't help but laugh about it, and yet there is an allure to what someone like Jett Garner does (his actual name by the way, I wonder if there's a joke in there, need to do more research).
So the four decide to go to a cabin in the woods and write a script over a weekend for themselves to star in. As soon as you recognize that it's 'cabin in the woods' and then that there is some ghoulish figure with a bag over his head stalking the characters - which is, in that super have-to-do-it-in-a-sentence-nutshell logline - you think you know all there is about this. Wrong on several counts.
This is first and foremost an awkward romantic comedy (or dramedy, there IS drama in here) where the relationship entanglements get screwy over the course of these days: Chad (Zissis, the most 'normal' looking/schlubby of the bunch) is infatuated with Michelle (Gerwig), and he is on edge that she may sleep with Matt (Partidueg) since he is, frankly, a better looking man with some of that filmmakery charisma (trust me, I've seen it in my time), and yet Matt is in an on-and-off again relationship with Catherile (Muller), though it's hard to tell if they're together. And who does Michelle want, if anyone - does she want Matt, or does she just find Chad cute?
What I liked most about Baghead is that it takes comedy and horror genres for a loop. The obvious assumption is that these characters think one is messing with the other, which is the gist of the main meat if the middle section of the movie, and then it turns out (dun-dun-DUN) that there really IS a Baghead-man outside stalking them. As I watched this section I got to thinking, 'you know, this is really looking at, like, let's take some characters who ARE real people, or close to it in this Mumblecore style, and see what happens if they're plunked into a horror type of setting. Not just that, but what does this guy-in-a-bag with a knife in his hands act like? Do we even need much backstory, ala Jason in Friday the 13th part 2'?
|No, we're not at ALL hipsters, by the way...|
Where this ultimately goes is a very sharp (and uproariously funny) twist that maybe one or two watching at home will get, but I certainly didn't see it and it was by far one of the most clever twists for any movie I've seen in a while. I think part if it is because of the tone; I thought back to why something like Shyamalan's The Visit, also shot in a style not unlike Baghead, with a composition that was shaky (actually, Duplass' like shakier than not, certainly more than Shyamalan), at first had an 'OH!' twist, but then the more one thinks about it it doesn't work as well.
I think in Baghead's appeal is about questioning the characters, but also questioning what you want out of this material, and that's where the intellectual rigor was stronger for me. I see a lot of movies, but this sort of material can work even for those (hopefully, maybe, especially for those who are casual movie-goers and have seen one or two horror movies like this). Because everything is so low-key here, and the characters aren't annoying (unlike, in a few key spots, in The Visit), I bought into what I was seeing, and yet had fun in half-way, in-the-back-of-my-mind expecting "what's going to happen next?"
It all comes down to the characters, and another thing to appreciate is how, legitimately, the characters are interesting and fun in the Duplass' hands. Are there some conventions with them? Oh, sure. But then it'd be unbelievable if the roles were switched between, say, Matt and Chad, or even Michelle and Catherine (the two women have a pretty simple exchange in a bathroom early on in the movie, how they view each other career-wise, that sets things up pretty wonderfully). I went along for the sort of 'guessing who-may-be-doing-this' at times, but mostly focused on who was feeling what towards another, and that was key for me. I think the Duplass' take the tropes and cliches of horror movies seriously enough to subvert them, and then by the time the shit hits the fan, it gets exciting (if not scary) as to what's really going on here.
All this praise said, it's a tough movie to recommend. It would depend on the person I am talking with, or the group of movie-goers or folks at a video store (wait, scratch that, this isn't 2008 anymore). I do think there are two issues that keep me from embracing this as a super-triumphant-this-is-the-best-of-the-Mumblecores: 1) the camerawork, not often but enough that it's hard not to notice, is so shaky and at-a-moment-reaction (i.e. how quick to zoom in or out makes things out of focus) that it is distracting in a few scenes where it shouldn't have to be that way (this may make to the Duplass' all my praise null and void, but it's how I see it). And 2) the coda is... Ok. Things get wrapped up in such a way that you almost would expect from the premise at the start - they go to the woods to write this movie, things don't turn out as planned, but at the end, hey, they have a MOVIE, aight - but I thought that the arcs for the women were kind of left by the wayside to wrap up the stuff between Chad and Matt much more.
But overall, a solid little movie! And at $1,000 budget! (I... still wonder about that figure's accuracy... anyway, see you at the after-party!)