Scary Talk: With Baghead, the mumblecore movement goes mainstream.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Mumblecore, the favorite genre of film geeks and hipsters everywhere, may be moving toward a more popular market share than the Staff Picks shelf of independent DVD stores. For the uninitiated, the genre’s films are traditionally made on the cheap by aspiring filmmakers with a camera, some angst and a story to tell. They’re often about the real-life dramas that are part of living a hipster life in one’s 20s and 30s (which usually means having sex, breaking up, being depressed). The films are talky, and much of the dialogue is improvised. Right now, mumblecore is the new black of filmmaking, inexpensive, creative and often very smart, and while there’s been no conscious effort to create a mumblecore movement (as it were), many of the leading artists associated with the genre, including Mark and Jay Duplass, the writer/director team behind Baghead, and Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore “It Girl” who is in the cast, have crossed each other’s paths on multiple projects.
The Duplass brothers are considered two of mumblecore’s founding fathers, having made the strange, awkward and sweet film The Puffy Chair a couple of years ago. With Baghead, they’ve created something very different– the first mumblecore horror film. It succeeds in a number of ways– it’s very much true to its cerebral, ironic roots, and it also manages to be, at times, really scary.
Four struggling L.A. actors catch an arthouse movie at a film festival, and decide that auditioning and working as extras isn’t paying dividends, so they head up to an isolated cabin in the woods to write their own screenplay. Matt (Ross Partridge) is the ringleader, followed by Chad (Steve Zissis), and the girls, Michelle (Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller). But it’s not simple. Chad has a crush on Michelle, who is dying to get Matt into bed. Matt and Michelle have history, and while he’s ready to let it go, she’d like to give things another shot. For Matt, this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for, but for his friends, it’s just another chance to get laid. Even when he comes up with an idea, making a horror movie about a crazy dude who wears a bag over his head stalking them through the forest, everyone would rather get hammered and get down than try to further their careers. They have serious relationship issues that take precedent– until, of course, they’re suddenly confronted with a real dude wearing a bag over his head carrying a knife. Which puts things into perspective in a hurry.
By building up four very real characters, who are at times self-absorbed or shallow, the Duplass brothers have raised the stakes much higher than in a standard slasher flick, because even if we don’t always like them, by the time they’re in real danger we’re invested in them. And the meta-horror-movie is clever, because as audience members the shift from ironic little drama, where relationships and self-identity are terrifying, to an actually unsettling horror film is pretty intense. The slasher film clichés are all there, but they’re all acknowledged and, basically, stabbed. And the build-up really works. Which is good, because otherwise the film would be little more than spending a weekend in a house full of narcissistic, self-loathing actors. And really, what’s scarier than that?
BAGHEAD (3) Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass • Starring Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig and Elise Muller. • R, 84 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.