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Photograph by Jen Tracy Duplass
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN? A simple disguise saves the filmmakers a lot of budget in 'Baghead.'

Mask Master

The Duplass brothers mumble along with the mumbling mumblecore in 'Baghead'

By Richard von Busack

THE DUPLASS BROTHERS, Mark and Jay, are roped in, whether they like it or not, with the rest of mumblecore—the cinema of ineffectuality. This shot-in-Austin romance/horror/comedy shows some signs of life. It has an easily penetrated plot and rudimentary visuals. It's clearly an artistic choice to make the camerawork so shaky; the soundtrack is actually quite crisp, despite the Duplass' membership in a movementless movement of half-audible indie films. Baghead comes out of the gate funny, with an excerpt from We Are Naked, an impassioned black-and-white student film, as grainy as a $1 plank. The powerful finale makes We Are Naked a hit at the Itty Bitty Film Festival, or whatever it's called. A quartet of friends of the now big-time director of We Are Naked get the velvet-rope kiss-off at the afterparty. Nursing their chagrin at a coffee shop, the four decide to make an instant movie up at a remote cabin. One of the four is Catherine (Elise Muller), a pretty actress who isn't getting callbacks. Her boyfriend, Matt (Ross Partridge), is the one with the most ambition, and the one who has to put it plain: "We don't have any motherfucking ideas." Chad (Steve Zissis, physically a cross between John Belushi and Richard Nixon) has an idea, but it's not the kind he can make into a movie. He's sweet on Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who thinks of Chad as a buddy. Michelle is more interested in Matt and is planning a way to pounce on him.

Out in the woods, when the drinking starts, Matt has a million-dollar idea: a serial killer movie, with a villain concealing his identity under a thrifty paper bag. The made-up plot turns out to be frighteningly real, or would be if the Duplass' element was fright. Mumblecore becomes stumblecore as the stranded foursome hike off to civilization to escape being sliced and diced. This movie is an experiment. It tries to get twentysomethings to watch a film about people walking, talking and yearning for each other, by disguising such a film as a slasher.

And Baghead has a real star: "She just has this glow," says the lovesick Chad. It's true that the tiny blonde Greta Gerwig is a thrift-shop Stanwyck, with a rich yet ambiguous smile. Michelle is an enigma: Could she really be that out of it? I didn't see Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs; it should have been called Hannah Takes the Stares, from the crushes aired out on the Internet. But Gerwig does have a kind of mystery, even when she belches from too much beer, or when she dutifully takes off her shirt for the topless scene. "Dutifully" is the word for it; she's going along with it obediently, but it's not an overpoweringly sensual moment. Toplessness aside, this film wants to strip overdressed cinema down. Baghead might be essential viewing for beginning filmmakers who are too easily intimidated by masterpieces. After all, here is a movie that proves The Blair Witch Project was too damned ambitious.

Movie Times BAGHEAD (R; 84 min.), directed and written by Mark and Jay Duplass and starring Steve Zissis and Greta Gerwig, opens Aug. 1 at Camera 12 in San Jose the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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