Mumblecore Heads Into The Woods Of The Horror Flick
Baghead is the first movie from the badly named but heavily hyped mumblecore movement to get picked up by an Indiewood distributor like Sony Pictures Classics. While mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski has reaped much critical acclaim, he's had to distribute his two features himself. Thus, Baghead carries tremendous baggage. So far, it hasn't turned into a hit, but it's gotten wider release than any other mumblecore movie. And the writing/directing Duplass brothers are acutely aware of the position they're in: Baghead mocks the pretensions of indie filmmakers, while raising questions about their ethics.
So far, mumblecore movies such as Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha and Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs have concentrated on the minute and miniature. While the aesthetic has been criticized for focusing solely on middle-class white characters, its directors may simply be accurately describing a segregated, relatively isolated milieu. Nevertheless, mumblecore at its worst suggests a lack of ambition that's content merely to depict small corners of the world without ever showing curiosity about other aspects of American life. When a character in Aaron Katz's Quiet City says that he hasn't left the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope in several weeks, you might wonder if he's speaking for Katz himself.
Baghead kicks off at a film festival, where the lame indie We Are Naked unspools. Its director, Jett Garner (playing himself), emerges for a Q&A session. The barrage of inane questions will be familiar to anyone who's attended such events. In the audience, a quartet of actors and aspiring writers watch, deciding to make a movie of their own. Matt (Ross Partridge) and Chad (Steve Zissis) are both enamored with Michelle (Greta Gerwig). The slightly older Catherine (Elise Muller) is infatuated with Matt. The four decide to get a cabin in the woods and settle down for a weekend of screenwriting. They come up with an idea about a serial killer who wears a bag over his head. Their script, however, appears to be coming to life: Baghead stalks their cabin.
Baghead could have been made in response to criticisms of mumblecore. While its cast doesn't include any people of color, it's far more ambitious than Hannah Takes the Stairs or Quiet City. In fact, it bites off more than it can chew, aiming to synthesize an indie-scene satire, a portrait of romantic manipulation, and a horror film.
A bit prematurely, mumblecore has been hailed as the second coming of John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Eustache. Baghead recalls a more disreputable precursor, The Blair Witch Project. There was already a touch of Cassavetes in that movie, which emphasized profane shouts and endless slogs through a forest over more typical horror-movie tropes such as monsters and on-screen violence. At heart, Blair Witch pitted technology, exemplified by a trio of filmmakers, in a losing battle with tradition and nature. While Baghead copies some of its imagery, especially the woodland trek, it's even more concerned with the power of manipulation inherent in filmmaking. Baghead looks genuinely artless--needless to say, it was shot on digital video, usually a handheld and shaky camera. That lends a degree of reality to the characters' shenanigans: in its first half, you could almost believe you're watching a documentary.
The Duplass brothers are fascinated by several types of power games: the kind practiced by directors and that pursued by men and women trying to get laid. The latter are more convincing. For once, the Rohmer comparisons aren't far off. Like the French director, the Duplass brothers are concerned with the way lovers use language as a weapon. Their quartet of characters talk incessantly, but they're not very articulate. Baghead casts an insightful eye on the way their insecurities manifest themselves in the bedroom. The monster that Matt, Chad, Michelle, and Catherine have seemingly created out of thin air can be seen as a metaphor for their anxieties and bad faith toward each other.
It's difficult to explain what's ultimately so unsatisfying about Baghead without giving away its trick ending. Many recent horror movies have moved away from the stylized worlds of Dario Argento and John Carpenter's 1970s classics toward a video-based, quasi-documentary aesthetic. A genuinely DIY project, Baghead manages to duplicate some of the flaws of pseudo-edgy mediocrities such as Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, relying on deliberately crude videography to give the narrative credence. The movie's more suggestive moments of dread are scarier than its blossoming into full-blown horror. Compared to the way directors push their actors' buttons and men and women mess around with each other's emotions, a serial killer seems almost benign.