Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass | With Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, and Elise Muller.
The summer is traditionally a time for escapist cinema. Thus, it seems both fitting and something of a miracle that Baghead, the new micro-budget comedy from Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair) had its release (by Sony Pictures Classics) this past weekend in Chicago amidst Batmania. As The Dark Knight makes its triumphant march towards every box office record known, Baghead sits (i.e. whimpers, giggles, screams) on the opposite end of the spectrum as a film seemingly made with and for pure enjoyment.
In a year when post-9/11 politics have overtly made their way into the summer’s biggest blockbusters, Baghead’s lack of cultural context seems oddly refreshing. At a lean 84 minutes and shot on handheld HD video, the film has a simple, if not downright stupid-on-paper concept: four friends who are unsuccessful actors, retreat to the woods to write the next great American Indie, only to find themselves trapped in a Friday the 13th-esque nightmare (complete with a knife wielding villain sporting a brown paper bag over his head).
Baghead is not only informed by movies but also born out of them, and the characters are at best movie stereotypes: Matt (Ross Partridge), the handsome ring leader, his old flame and aging starlet Catherine (Elise Muller), Chad (Steve Zissis), the overweight clown, and the young and not-so-bright Michelle (Greta Gerwig), the object of both guys’ desire (and the one who, of course, gets naked). But the stereotypes are just the framework, and the subtle, improvised acting carries enough weight to transcend the setup (which is all the more important considering the suffocating close-ups).
So together in the woods, the group begins to pen the next great … actually, they don’t get very far with the writing, which in no time turns into boozy giggling and flirting. Chad embarrassingly flirts (and tries to put the moves on) with Michelle, who has turned her not-so-great attention span to the more attractive Matt. All the while Catherine observes disapprovingly, mostly out of jealousy of the younger, attractive Michelle.
In no time the pitiful writing attempts, sexual frustration, and drunken shenanigans quickly turn to horror as the group begins to be haunted and then stalked by an anonymous bagheaded villain. These radical changes provide much of Baghead’s charm: the film ably and confidently shifts seamlessly through a variety of genres (and emotions, for that matter), moving back and forth and in between, juxtaposing and blending romance, comedy, and horror, all in addition to its central position as a movie-movie.
While treading on dangerous ground (i.e. meta-ness, self-reflexivity), it’s the film’s lack of context that saves itself. While being entrenched in (whether conscious or not) certain cinematic histories (e.g. 80s slasher flicks, Eric Rohmer, John Cassavetes, mumblecore, et al.), the film pushes forward, never dwelling much on itself. Consumed by its own characters and their behaviors, it ends up successfully avoiding kitsch, parody, or any of the other traps of playing too much meta-ball (which makes it even better that the best meta-joke opens the film, showing all four characters attending a festival screening of a pretentiously horrible low-budget indie called We Are Naked, followed by audience loaded-Q&A with the cocky director).
Basically, the true success of Baghead lies in the film’s ability to make fun of itself while also questioning the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of a group of friends making a movie for the sake of making a movie. It may sound shallow and a bit solipsistic (like many of the “Generation DIY” films), but it’s far from it, as underneath lies a film about the characters’ desperation, failed dreams, hormones, survival, and mostly, friendship.
So is there any actual merit in retreating to the woods with a bunch of friends to try and make a movie? Maybe not for their characters, but it seems to have worked out for the Duplass Brothers and Friends, who have managed to create a film that, aside from its indelible DIY-spirit, winks at you, makes you laugh, smile, feel awkward, and then pulls the rug out trying to scare the shit out of you. And while the shocks don’t always work, it’s all in the name of good fun, and when it’s done this well, why the fuck not? It is the summer, after all.