I think Ebert said it best when he stated that all people who want to make movies need to see this before hand. It's a pretty good piece of advice, and even for those of us who have messed around with a camera before seeing this movie can still relate in some capacity to what it's like trying to make a movie when your ambitions and ideas are far outweighed by the realities of trying to eek out a meager existence and deal with all that reality is throwing at you.
That is the set up for this little tragicomedic documentary American Movie. Mark Borchardt is a blue collar guy with an intense passion for films with a strong desire to make it big as a filmmaker. He's in his late 20s, lives in a small town in Wisconsin, works a series of dead end jobs, comes from a poor background, he dropped out of high school and spends most of his time farting around drinking and what not, but, even then, without the necessary means (primarily money, but also a strong cast and crew) he is determined to keep all of that, plus mounting bills and other personal issues from preventing him from making his great American film.
The doc starts with him trying to make his magnum opus feature Northwestern- a project that had been in the works for quite some time. When it ultimately falls through, he decides instead to go back and finish a short of his he never completed called Coven. The rest of the tilm follows him and the other colorful characters he enlists to help him do just that.
The result is a very honest portrait of the American dream being worked out in the face of great adversity and much delusion. Mark is a guy that is both sympathetic and unlikeable all at once. You eant to root for the guy because he's just so darn driving, but he's also rather pathetic since he just can't seem to get htings to realistically pan out the way they do in his mind. In a way, this is such an odd film that it is hard to believe that it is a legit documentary instead of a Spinal Tap-ish mockumentary.
There's lots of wacky and wild people here besides Mark, with probably the most funny/sad being his blissfully burnt out best friend Mike and Mark's aging and decrepit Uncle Bill who is reluctant to give his nephew any of his money since he's struggling to produce any real results. It's that last bit especially that I can relate to personally that really stung for me, and made some already difficult to watch stuff more so.
In fact, I'm really amazed and inspired by Mark for havign the guts to allow Chris Smith to film and show some of the stuff that he does. I said this was an honest film, and I wasn't kidding. This is a really unflinching and genuine look at a guy who, I feel bad saying it, but is a loser who hasn't amounted to much, and may never will.
Since the release of this film, Mark has gone on to get a bit more aclaim and attention, not as a director, but as an actor. Northwestern is STILL unfinished, but even though I don't always have positive feelings about him, I do wish Mark luck, and have some respect for him, because god knows I'm a lot like him in some ways, so I don't have too much of a right to rip on him.
All in all, this film, and its subject are very much on the level of Ed Wood, though, I do think Borchardt is a tad more competant. Do yourself a favor and watch this film. It's alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, and some very touching and inspiring stuff.