American Movie

The first time I saw American Movie was sort of like the first time I saw This Is Spinal Tap.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t see the humor, I didn’t understand the point, and I was just plain ol’ bored.  I remember renting it with my brother Andy and cousin Jeremy clear back in high school and after an hour or so we gave up and watched Terminator instead.  And for a while I thought nothing of it, but noticed that American Movie would show up on various “Top Movies” lists put out by various print and online publications from time to time.  I found this curious, but little more, and it wasn’t until I stumbled across Rotten Tomatoe’s 50 Movies for 50 States list that I decided to give American Movie another try.  Was it worth it?  Yes and no.

Ostensibly, American Movie is a documentary that chronicles would-be director (and beer-swilling Wisconsin thoroughbred) Mark Borchardt as he struggles to complete his horror film Northwestern.  Due to a severe lack of funds, though, Borchardt decides to finish another film he had been working on called Coven instead.  His plan is to sell 3,000 copies of Coven, at $14.95 each, which would give him enough financial wherewithal to accomplish his goal of completing Northwestern.  Documentarian Chris Smith thus follows the filming of Coven for over three years, and in doing so, creates what is essentially a Spinal Tap for low-budget indie flicks (one of the jokes being that American Movie is itself a low-budget indie flick).

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the dynamic duo of Milwaukee filmmaking

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the dynamic duo of Milwaukee filmmaking

The hero, or perhaps simply the protagonist, of American Movie is Borchardt, a guy in his upper 20’s with a dream of becoming a filmmaker.  He has almost no means by which to accomplish his dream, though, and instead whiles away his days by drifting from one odd job to another (one day he’s delivering papers, the next he’s a cemetery custodian), occasionally parenting his children, trying to make a relationship with his girlfriend work, and also get in some shots for Coven.  Helping him out is his longtime friend and movie-making buddy Mike, a burnout with a penchant for playing the guitar and barely enough motivation to even get out of bed in the morning.  Rounding things out is Mike’s uncle Bill, a miserly, crotchety, bitingly sarcastic retiree who lends money to Mark even though he’s not entirely sure why.

No one can fault Borchardt for a lack of vision, though, and despite all common sense he dutifully forges ahead with the filming of Coven, oblivious to a fault to just how badly the odds are stacked against him.  He has grand visions of what he wants to accomplish, but things never seem to work out quite right.  Actors (read: locals who responded to “casting call” flyers in grocery store windows) don’t show up for filming, equipment breaks down, footage is lost, and money is virtually nonexistent.  Nevertheless, Borchardt continually forges ahead with Coven, often at the expense of family and friends, not to mention a relationship with his own children.

The cynical, sarcastic, and profoundly hilarious Uncle Bill

The cynical, sarcastic, and profoundly hilarious Uncle Bill

And this is where American Movie becomes more than a simple documentary about a guy who wants to make a movie.  It’s a deeply profound insight into the plight of the American Dream as it exists today.  Beneath that is also an indictment of the grade-school creedo that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.  Borchardt has to face the harsh realities that span the gulf between dream and realization, but one thing that stands in his way more than anything else is his refusal to take stock of his situation and realize that he could possibly change things if he wanted to.  Better planning, a clearer line of communication between him and his (albeit somewhat limited) support staff, some community college courses in film production…any number of things could have been done by this aspiring director to lift himself, and his projects, to the heights he dreams for them.  He really does want to make movies, and he really does set his mind to it, but he seems condemned to wander the path of mediocrity.

But something about Borchard’s story is very interesting, engrossing, and often flat-out entertaining.  Watching him interact with Uncle Bill is often downright hilarious, and one priceless scene involves Borchardt trying to get his uncle to say what is supposed to be the opening line of the movie–a very simple recording process that just doesn’t quite work out.  Another highlight of the film is a scene in which a man’s head is shoved through a cabinet.  Borchard knows what he wants to happen, but he and his “crew” just can’t get it right:  the cabinet door doesn’t break like it’s supposed to, the cameras aren’t positioned correctly, and when they finally get the man’s head through, he is seriously injured and lays on the floor bleeding.  A microcosm of the movie as a whole, really, that also showcases Borchard’s odd sort of dedication to his craft:  he is so concerned with wanting to be a good director that he doesn’t just be a director.  Smith also includes a host of clips from interviews with Borchard’s family, friends, and people around town who have heard of him through the grapevine.  In the end we get a very intimate portrait of a dedicated but somewhat misguided man (his fumbling camerawork often comes at the expense of even having a good relationship with his children), and yet, we are never asked to gawk like distracted commuters passing an interstate accident.  We are instead shown the portrait of a man with myriad personal faults who chases his cinematic windmills with such aplomb that it’s perhaps even a bit inspiring.

And so I leave American Movie with some confused semi-admiration for its subject, wondering if I witnessed something deeply profound, profoundly sad, or confoundingly entertaining.  Maybe in another ten years I’ll give it another shot and see what happens.


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