American Movie Reviews
What word means the opposite of "inspiring?" I suppose it's "discouraging," but that doesn't quite capture how this film makes me feel. Oftentimes, I get a paroxysm of courage that tells me to "just make the damn movie; use your iPhone if that's all you have." But this film casts a shadow of doubt over such moments because I fear that I could look as foolish and incompetent as Mark Borchardt, whose limited cinematic vision, failure to understand basic story-telling concepts, and utter lack of self-reflection are only eclipsed by his self-assuredness and courage. He's no doubt an idiot, but he's an idiot who fashions himself an artist, and there are lower ambitions that a man might set himself to.
American Movie is Borchardt's story, and your patience with his brash, over-taxing ambition will determine your patience with the film. For my part, I found him pitiable and my viewing of the film uncomfortable.
Overall, this documentary serves as an unwelcome mirror for those who fashion themselves artists; I only wish it were required viewing for all Hollywood execs as well.
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.
Documentary about an aspiring filmmaker's attempts to finance his dream project by finally completing the low-budget horror film he abandoned years before.
It is ironic and a little cruel that the success of this documentary by independent film-maker Chris Smith is due largely to the bungling of Smith's subject, would-be film maker Mark Borchardt. And yet, despite Mark appearing to be an object of pity for much of the film, and occasionally feeling sorry for himself, he emerges as a kind of existential hero, battling against the odds, never giving up, and living to fight another day. Perhaps the best parts of Smith's film are not directly about Mark's efforts to bring his horror movie, Coven, to completion, but about the circle of friends and relations supporting him. Mike Schank - who provides the music for Smith's film - may or may not be a good advertisement for drugs, but he is certainly a good friend, who's there when Mark needs him, as are Mark's Mom, his Uncle Bill, his girlfriend, and sundry Milwaukee residents. But it's a two way street - while they give Mark financial and material strength, they draw a spiritual or psychological strength from him; and they seem to look to him to fulfil their American dream as well as his own. American Movie is at times funny; at other times sad; but ultimately it's quite uplifting.
Unless independently wealthy, it's just not possible to pursue such longshot dreams while maintaining a life of your own, and Mark proves to have difficulty in this area. Living at home with his mom, he drinks too much, sees his kids perhaps too little, and is in debt up to his eyeballs. He has various part-time jobs, from paper boy to custodian at a cemetary, he's determined to not be a worker drone who's just another cog in the machine. He has vague notions of wealth and success "one day", a day when all those who doubted him will eat their words. Uncle Bill, an elderly man not in the best of health, has no great faith in Mark, helping him financially more out of wanting to make his nephew happy than anything. Bill is an interesting guy: living in a trailer home yet supposedly worth over $280,000. It's hard to tell whether he's amused by Mark's exploits or just being pushed into things he might not want to do by his crazy nephew.
American Movie is just that, a slice of life from right in the center of the country. People like Mike Schank, an acid casuality who just happens to be a brilliant musician can't be created to have this kind of depth in a hollywood movie script. It's trailer park angst and the great sound and fury of nothing significant being created. The current release of the American Movie dvd has a copy of "Covan" as part of the bonus material, in what must be the producer's way of "giving back" to Mark (I assume he gets a healthy royalty from this arrangement). The bottom line: it's an awful movie, and there's nothing to suggest Mark is some great undiscovered talent. Strange that such a great documentary should be made about him then.
I liked this flick and I recommend it for anyone out there who is trying to make their own movies outside of the studio system.
There are many documentaries that filmmakers could watch to learn from. You could watch Burden of Dreams, Hearts of Darkness, Lost in La Mancha, or Overnight... all great looks at the struggles of making a film. But American Movie looks at the dreamer's approach to films; those who don't have millions of dollars or a studio to back them, only themselves and their vision. I also guarantee American Movie is way funnier than all of them.