Monday, August 25, 2008

"Baghead": "fact or fiction": write your screenplay and let somebody film you, and there's a releasable movie!


So, when do the imagined happenings of a fictitious screenplay become real enough to matter? I’ve had some very personal experience with this question, but let’s get to a commercial film that tackles this problem. That’s the silly, reflexive rondo romp “Baghead,” from Jay and Mark Duplass (not exactly “the Jonas Brothers”, maybe the next Coen Brothers instead, with a bit of Cajun heritage), who had given us the manipulating characters of “The Puffy Chair.” (In that film, Mark Duplass played the socially adroit Josh Sagers on a road journey to deliver a puffy chair to relatives in Atlanta.) That is their art, to take a situation with simple things and make a clever story and situation, with no real existential meaning. The film appears to be made in digital video and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (e.g., Columbia Pictures) and that’s a big accomplishment for Duplass Brothers Pictures.

Here, four actors hole up in a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains for a weekend to write a screenplay that will make a good low budget movie for the film festival circuit and launch their careers. “Le quatre” are Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Mullera). Now, it’s fair to say that the 84-minute movie has a 10-minute prologue, starting with John Bryant’s short “We Are Naked” (in black-and-white) and there is an edgy sequence where the actors try to crash a party held by the filmmaker (Jeff Garner, playing himself). (Actually, the opening amateur "screening" reminds me of the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, where IFPMSP holds such events.) Garner impresses the four protagonists about the idea of making a hit movie for a thousand dollars or so, rather than $100 million as in Tinseltown. That all will matter later, in a way that seems predictable, after the fact.

So, they’re secluded and exposed, alone in the wilderness. Yup, even as "actors" they know that a commercially viable screenplay has a "beginning, middle, and end." (Actually, there are more components, like "opportunity" and "point of no return".) You have the makings of other movies, like "The Blair Witch Project", or "The Last Broadcast" (with its "fact or fiction" theme), or, more recently, "Funny Games", or, particularly, Rogue Pictures's "The Strangers" (which also has “bag people”). Here, they come up with the idea of a serial killer covered in a shopping bag running around the woods knocking people off, while the victims are trying to pair off in love relationships. (The first idea for the screenplay is, in fact, “love”). Well, you got it, pretty soon they see the bag man. It’s not clear where the idea came from. Michelle says it was a dream. But, she had to dash outside to vomit, and when people are drunk, they don’t have enough REM sleep to imagine such a thing. Clue, the baghead is real. It isn’t hard to imagine you can wrap all this up. There is love, and it swings both ways, mostly straight, but with some gay hints.

Now I had a situation where I wrote a screenplay, at home, and posted it on my own domain. Not violent at all, it nevertheless had some disturbing subject matter and implications. It had a school setting, and it caused consternation where I was subbing. People had to figure out that it was just fiction and a thought experiment, when life and imagination would converge too much for comfort. So, I see what “The Duplass Brothers” are getting at. Next time, they can play with issues that really matter. But that’s too risky, isn’t it.

Picture above: a puffy chair in a Super 8 in Topeka, KS. (See brief review of the earlier Duplass film on this blog, Sept. 17, 2006).

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