Despite opening on July 25th to pretty positive reviews, and boasting a horror-movie (plus parody of same) hook and young, pretty cast, Baghead is already playing one 9pm show nightly at Cinema Village, and will be gone from theaters pretty soon. This is, I think, because everybody who would have seen this movie theatrically already saw it before it opened, at festivals and press screenings and via people they knew in the independent film community. Jay and Mark Duplass, the writer-directors, were lumped in with the everybody-hates-the-name-but-nobody-can-stop-using-it mumblecore movement of recent years, which is to say they make low-budget, improvisatory American independent movies about people a lot like (and often played by) themselves and their friends.
But here, with Baghead, the Duplass brothers and their cast quite literally kill off the mumblecore movement.
We open at a film festival, where the central quartet is watching an ass-looking, solipsistic indie movie called We Are Naked, which is a pretty spot-on parody of the tendency, among D.I.Y. filmmakers especially lately, to conflate self-exposure with honesty. Similarly, the post-screening director Q&A is a spot-on parody of the scene and its self-obsession. All anyone asks is “how much did it cost?” (and all the director can talk about is how truthful real life is), and Our Heroes, in between the standard mumblecore relationship-jostling and awkward evasions, are inspired to make a movie and star in it themselves, too.
So, up to someone’s uncle’s secluded cabin, to flirt and drink too much and write, as it turns out, a horror movie about a guy with a paper bag over his head. And as they flirt and drink and try to write said movie, they come to actually be menaced by a guy with a paper bag over his head. (Or is it just them, playing games with each other?) The narcissistic sexual roundelay is germane to both the horror and mumblecore genres (so too is nudity, gamely provided here as in LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs by Greta Gerwig), as is a shaky, handheld camera that both apes on-the-fly verité texture and keeps the terror suggestively peripheral.
What Baghead is getting at, we discover in the final twist when the source of the menace is revealed, is the absurd self-centeredness, and occasionally serious consequence of blithely thinking that your art and your life are the same thing. Without giving too much away, the ending creates a very specific reductio ad absurdium of mumblecore’s privileging of everyday life and experience as the true truth of art — this is what happens if you think it’s all about you, is the message.
The final scene, too, where a guy continues to call his unrequited crush his “movie girlfriend” is kind of sad, as he’s still self-deluding trying to use a mumblecore-type independent film as a vehicle for the kind of satisfactions he’s incapable of working out in life. This genre has often been criticized (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) as insular, navel-gazing group of films, but Baghead‘s appeal — to a much wider audience than has seen it — is that it recognizes more than its characters do the necessity of movies that go beyond the self.