Currency | Baghead and Frownland

Baghead (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, US) and

Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, US)

By Rob Nelson

Both Baghead and Frownland offer early proof of their post-postmod, pre-apocalyptic place in American life with opening scenes of their characters watching variably scary movies. But of course there’s no one way to watch a movie these days, and whatever their similarities as works of low-fi/Gen-Y horror, Baghead and Frownland are as different from one another as smile and snarl. Baghead’s movie-within-a-movie is an indie film-fest trifle called We Are Naked, attended by two girls and two guys—young and cute, goofy and horny—who look like they’re on a double-date and watch each another as often as what’s onscreen. Frownland—now clinch your jaw and grind your teeth dear reader, for this is no fun at all—opens with a twentysomething schlub sprawled on his tiny mattress, too depressed to eat his popcorn sitting up and too darkly inscrutable for us to know whether and how he identifies with the kindred ghoul on his boob-tube.

Ronald Bronstein and the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, have all appeared as actors in works by Joe Swanberg. But where Bronstein spent five years toiling on his DIY debut Frownland in between shifts as a New York City projectionist, the Duplasses pulled out Baghead, their sophomore feature, following the two-year-long festival run of their not-bad comedy The Puffy Chair (2005), which maybe helps explain why one film is cloistered and wound-up, while the other is outgoing and gregarious—almost seeming to take a bow. Only frequent film fest attendees could create (or appreciate) the satire of Baghead’s opener, particularly as the lights come up for the We Are Naked Q&A and the audience dutifully follows another clichéd script—“What was your budget?” and “Was there any improvisation on the set?” Though the Duplasses will tip their lenses to The Blair Witch Project (199), theirs is even more playfully a movie about the horror of indie film kids.

“Let’s make a movie this weekend!” the quartet decides, after the coolest of them—suavester Matt (Ross Partridge)—tries and fails to masquerade as an all-access VIP by speedily walking towards an afterparty’s guarded entrance using a billfold as a cellphone. No question that Baghead—which premiered at Sundance and promptly sold to Sony Classics—bites the hand that feeds. “We don’t have any motherfuckin’ ideas,” croons puffy-faced Chad (Steve Zissis) while strumming an acoustic guitar at the group’s remote cabin on Big Bear; the Duplasses follow suit with relentlessly jittery, non sequitur zooms shamelessly cribbed from Dogme but playing as self-parody. Is this not how indie improv works? Dopey-loopy Greta Gerwig mumbles more or less charmingly as Michelle, Chad’s crush, who late at night flees the cabin to go and throw up in the woods as wind whistles ominously through trees and those zooms pick up speed. “Guys?”

Led by the crew’s improbably statuesque blonde Catherine (Elise Muller), a morning-after breakfast table discussion turns up two potentially shootable concepts: something about a creepy figure with a paper bag over his/her head or, ugh, “a relationship movie.” LOL! Non sequitur zooms and the DV jitters being applicable to either genre, horror or melodrama, Baghead takes the road less travelled from SxSW—thriller it is—and manages at once to riff on the cheap transparency of shakycam tricks and deliver some genuine jolts. Deli counter bag plus camcorder flail equals first-class ticket to Park City plus distribution deal. You can do it, but you need to have made The Puffy Chair first, and in fact you do need to execute the combo of slasher flick and relationship movie as cunningly as the Duplasses have done here. As for the ubiquitous Gerwig, her sing-songy whine makes her the Movie Girlfriend from Hell and secures Baghead its spot in the last arthouse on the left.

Frownland, too, has its meta-cinematic moments. This hard look at extreme discomfort with social interaction was taken, as I said, by a projectionist, and has been aptly hailed, to varying degrees of personal empathy, by serially skittish critics and other festgoers—those of us who spend far too much time in the dark. A faint glint of hope for the first scene’s monster-movie spectator comes when he dares—very awkwardly—t o invite himself onto the couch of an understandably wary neighbour who’d been hoping to enjoy his own quiet night in front of the TV. But poor Keith Sontag (Dore Mann) promptly falls asleep near the start of a silent comedy, and his host, looking to hasten the snoozing dweeb’s departure, fast-forwards to just before that blaring MGM/UA fanfare at tape’s end. Movie’s over, man—see ya, time to go.

Mann’s performance is itself a silent comedy turn of sorts. What this nonprofessional actor does with his tired eyes, sweaty forehead, clammy hands, jutting jaw, and intermittently bared teeth would be hilarious if Keith’s every miniscule move didn’t register as some kind of excruciating internal pain. Let’s not say the man mumbles, but that he stammers, stutters, slurs, grunts, and howls. Frownland’s horror comes closest to that of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1993)and Keane (2004); the synth soundtrack celebrates Halloween (1978), but the only weapon here, not counting Keith’s uncooperative psyche, is an unfortunately placed thumbtack (only slightly pricier than a paper bag, for those of you calculating production budgets). Booth-man Bronstein, no stranger to cramped quarters, certainly makes the most of his protagonist’s one-room efficiency, with its oven within arm’s reach of the bed. An indelible scene—or “scene,” perhaps—has shirtless Keith on his back flicking cig ash into a tray held precariously on his chest.

One could imagine Frownland as a ‘60s vérité doc of Keith, door-to-door salesman (Dore Mann!) of coupon books and constant mumbler—oops, mutterer—of nervous nothings: “I’m really sorry,” “I really appreciate this,” etc. Such are Keith’s severely limited abilities in negotiating the world that when he suddenly appears on a therapist’s couch, you wonder how on earth he got there, and why the shrink is busy fussing with his patient’s dreams when he ought to be calibrating meds; it’s as jarring a moment as when the kid’s fellow New York sicko Travis Bickle drops “venal” into the voiceover. A little later, when Bronstein unexpectedly shifts gears to follow the pathetic indignities visited on Keith’s marginally better-adjusted neighbor Charles (Paul Grimstad), it plays as the director’s loss of nerve—even as it also comes as a relief to get a break from Mann’s perpetually twitching misfit. Charles, flailing musician and aspiring normal guy, graduated from Oberlin—which, alas, didn’t teach him the ingredients of hollandaise sauce for use on a waitstaff application quiz.

Suffering abounds in Frownland, but anyone who names his debut feature after the first track on Trout Mask Replica would seem to have a healthy sense of humour. Indeed, Bronstein’s film is more sad than mean, lacking the cool kids whose comeuppance at the hands of Labute and Solondz once defined the cinema of cruelty. Keith, believe it or not (and I don’t), can be positively goofy when the situation calls, even trying at one point to enliven his truly miserable pseudo-girlfriend (Mary Wall) with sock puppets. Way to go, Keith! Now can you get your psychiatrist to write you a suitable prescription?

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