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The Fraternal Order

The Duplass-a-Thon charts the evolution of a goofily lovable archetype

By Melanie Haupt, Fri., June 1, 2012

Steve Zissis (l) and Mark Kelly in <i>The Do-Deca-Pentathlon</i>
Steve Zissis (l) and Mark Kelly in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

The man-child is a hot property these days. He populates contemporary movie screens in films about parenting, bachelor parties, idiot brothers, marriage ... the list is endless. Jay and Mark Duplass are not immune to the trope of the emotionally stunted male; in fact, they have built their careers on his very back, from their feature-length debut, The Puffy Chair (2005), to their mainstream breakout, Cyrus (2010), to Mark's role on the raunchy FX fantasy football sitcom, The League. In fact, 2012 has been the year of the Duplass man-child, with the one-two punch of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which opened this spring, and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which premieres this July and forms the centerpiece of the Austin Film Society's Duplass-a-Thon on June 4.

Filmed in 2009, but shelved in the wake of Cyrus' greenlight, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is a particularly incisive example of how, within a Duplassian context, the man-child is treated with compassion and empathy for the state of modern masculinity. The comedy tells the story of two grown brothers, both beset by his own unique variant of melancholy, seeking to rekindle the fiery competition of their youth in a prolonged athletic pissing match in search of a nameless triumph neither brother is able to articulate from the goopy depths of unhappiness. The result is an awkward, uncomfortable, and painfully funny exploration of what happens when brothers say "I love you" in socially unacceptable ways.

Explains Jay Duplass, who will be in attendance at the Duplass-a-Thon event, "We grew up down the street in New Orleans from two brothers who were very close in age who actually created a do-deca-pentathlon to determine not only who was the better athlete but who was the better brother. It was ultimately a determination of greatness on a grander scale. Mark and I have always been obsessed with that relationship – with the concept of two brothers who love each other very much, but the only way they know how to express it is with headlocks and noogies and stuffing a basketball down somebody else's throat." But the brothers did not set out to aggregate a sustained meditation on what it means to be a man over the course of their body of work; it just sort of fell out that way in the course of trying to tell stories authentically.

"We went to UT in the early and mid-1990s," says Jay. "We wanted to be the Coen brothers. We built formulas and intellectual theories about how to build films, and we made those films, and they sucked horribly. Mark and I live and create in this soup of stories that come from our lives, and the lives of our friends, and the lives of the people around us that we notice – and we have always giggled about these terrible, cringe-worthy, embarrassing things that we do to each other and to our family members and everyone around us. It wasn't until we started sharing those moments on film that our films took off."

Working from the present and back through the brothers' canon, the Duplass-a-Thon program features a collection of the pair's early, semi-autobiographical shorts, including 2002's "This Is John," a seven minute meditation inspired by Jay's emotionally draining attempts to perfect his answering machine message. Equally true-to-life is "The Intervention," a more serious look at what happens when a group of friends pushes their buddy to face a glaring truth about himself. As the Duplass brothers have spooned from that "soup of stories" that surrounds them, their artistic vision has continued to crystallize in increasingly compelling ways. "Film schools don't teach you who you are and what you uniquely have to offer the world," Jay muses. "Until you tap into that, I don't think that your art can really take off."


The Duplass-a-Thon takes place Monday, June 4. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon screens at 7pm; a shorts showcase featuring live music by Kevin Gant takes place at 9pm. See www.austinfilm.org for more info.

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