My Favorite Movies – Baghead (2008)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t want to call Baghead one of “my favorite movies” because it’s just so…simple?

But the whole “mumblecore” thing has definitely been a big influence on me as an indie filmmaker, so if I had to pick one, I guess I’ll have to pick “Baghead,” my favorite of the directorial efforts of Jay & Mark, the Duplass Brothers.

For those who wonder what I’m talking about, here’s a definition of “mumblecore”–a subgenre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue (sometimes improvised), low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

“Baghead” is a strange, wonderful little film is centered around four actors who are down on their luck–one of whom is played by Steve Zissis, who went on to star in the Duplasses’ HBO series “Togetherness”; another is played by the one and only Greta Gerwig, who back then was labeled the “mumblecore queen.” They decide to take a trip to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods so they can all work on a script idea for them to star in together. One of them has a nightmare about a stalker with a paper bag over his head, which sparks a new idea for a film: a horror movie about a “baghead” stalker-killer. But WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT–there seems to be an actual baghead lurking outside the cabin!!

I know–what are the odds, right?!

This isn’t really a horror film, necessarily. It’s mostly a romantic comedy about Chad (Zissis) hoping to score with the lovely Michelle (Gerwig), who has a crush on Matt (Ross Partridge), who used to date Catherine (Elise Muller)…and then occasionally, Baghead shows up. It’s only near the end of the movie where the suspense truly elevates, and its payoff would be disappointing only if you’re going into this film thinking it’s a standard slasher flick. And I admire Jay & Mark Duplass for handling things unconventionally.

And how the movie was made was basically this: Jay, Mark, their actors, and a very small crew, went up to a cabin in Austin, Texas, in August 2007, and decided to just make a movie. They got the film completed just in time for Sundance 2008 and they ended up selling it for a whole more than it took to actually make it.

Jay & Mark’s first film was a similarly made-on-the-spot production “The Puffy Chair.” I admire that film more than I “like” it, though to be fair, I think it’s because I saw “Baghead” first. They followed up Baghead with their first studio production: Cyrus, starring popular actors like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, but still made with the feel of a “Duplass Brothers production.”

The story of the Duplass Brothers, as chronicled in their wonderful autobiography “Like Brothers,” inspires me even today. They teach me that it doesn’t matter what I have to make art–it’s what I do with what I have that truly matters.

My favorite scene in “Baghead”: there’s actually a fairly creepy scene in which Michelle is waiting for Matt to enter her bedroom; Baghead appears and Michelle thinks it’s Matt playing a joke, so she takes her top off…but IS it Matt? She isn’t so sure anymore, and Baghead keeps watching until he suddenly walks away… Uncomfortable.

How did I first find out about this movie? Well, in June 2008, there was an episode of Ebert & Roeper in which Richard Roeper and guest critic Michael Phillips talked about it. They both admired it for its strangeness–Phillips in particular admitted he probably liked it so much because he saw many other films at Sundance that year that were even more pretentious than this one.

I may be dealing with a copyright issue here, but…here’s a transcript of that initial review, aired in mid-June 2008:

MICHAEL PHILLIPS: “I can’t think of a single reason why BAGHEAD should work at all…but it does. This new microbudget film by the Duplass brothers gives us four LA friends who want to jumpstart their fledgling film careers. So they head to Big Bear, east of LA, with the idea of writing a screenplay in the woods. For a while, the characters spend time scaring each other for fun, drinking too much, and then SOMEONE appears outside the cabin with a bag on his or her head. No one knows who it is, and at this point, a nicely observed deadpan comedy gets more and more interesting.”

(shows clip from trailer–“Somebody saw me naked!”)

PHILLIPS: “I don’t want to inflate Baghead or anything, but for me, the Duplass brothers show us, with Baghead, how the so-called ‘mumblecore’ genre should be done–with a sense of humor to go with a sense of everyday realities. In very limited release this weekend, it opens wider over the July 4th weekend…and I say ‘see it!'”

RICHARD ROEPER: “I’m with you, Michael–I liked this film quite a bit! I think this guy should’ve walked into that movie ‘The Strangers’ where they had the guy with the sackcloth over his head! (chuckles) This one’s a lot more entertaining–it’s very funny, it’s smart, and it can be really scary, and…it really has some nice performances as well, so, you know, people should look for this one.”

PHILLIPS: “I saw it the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, and I didn’t know if I was laughing then because I had just seen 10 movies that were so much lamer and more pretentious than this. But you know, second time through, it works well as its own kind of comedy.”

ROEPER: “Absolutely.”

Side-note: I miss this show. Roeper and Phillips had a good rhythm in reviewing new movies together.

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