AMERICAN MOVIE

(1999)
With Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Bill Borchardt
Directed by Chris Smith
Reviewed by JB

Struggling filmmaker and ex-stoner pal     The subject of this documentary is Mark Borchardt, a jittery and lanky 30-year-old Wisconsin native who loves movies and movie-making. Now, at the moment he realizes he has to start taking life seriously, he decides he must finish NORTHWESTERN, a slice-of-life drama about Wisconsin life he started ten years ago.  In order to raise funds to complete that film, he figures to first complete "Coven", a low-budget horror short, sell it on video and use the profits for NORTHWESTERN. 

     While following Mark's quest, we often witness some very private and uncomfortable moments, such as when he opens his mail and finds nothing but bills, more bills and legal threats, or when he must finish the final shot of the film, a close-up of himself, moments after his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his three children) and current girlfriend have both abandoned him.  Mark rarely seems to be playing to the camera.  He displays a natural charm that is missing in his own "acting" shown in the footage of his two films in progress.

     As the lead character in AMERICAN MOVIE, Mark is not a hero. his treatment of his elderly uncle Bill, who is so obviously just hanging around waiting to die, is often condescending, even though the poor guy has put up the three thousand Mark needs to complete the short film. (In Mark's defense, we do see him bathing Uncle Bill and washing his clothes).  It is also plain that Mark has an alcohol problem that threatens every one of his endeavors, and, during scenes in which he is working at his two pathetic jobs (delivering newspapers and taking care of a cemetery), you wish you could reach into the screen and shake him to his senses.

     But Mark is also an often compelling character who makes you root for him as he faces obstacle after obstacle in his quest to finish the short.  It is obvious to almost everybody that his dream of being the next George Romero is a fantasy, but his unflagging enthusiasm is so infectious, he convinces a large group of friends, family and strangers to go along for the ride.  His love for movies is real, and there is a raw talent there that could blossom into something special under the right circumstances.  When he is talking about films and filmmaking, he is riveting, especially in his more desperate moments, such as when he has his entire crew searching for two missing frames of film (approximately less than one-tenth of a second) that, according to him, absolutely must be in the finished product. 

     Mike Schank, an ex-stoner now hooked on scratch-off tickets and soda, acts as Silent Bob to Mark's Jay.  Mike has clearly done some major damage to himself over the years - in one of the film's most stunning scenes, he casually describes the night he almost died from an overdose - and the laughs he brings to the film are tinged with sadness.  Yet Mike is a sweet guy, a wonderful friend, and his simplicity does generate amusement.  How can one help not but smile with exchanges like this:

     MARK: "Mike, make sure everybody has brown gloves."
     MIKE:  (to cast) "Does everybody have brown gloves?"
     MARK: "No... dude..."

     There are many other funny Mike moments, such as when Mark asks him to distribute some advertising flyers and Mike immediately starts down the road before Mark even hands them to him.  Other comedic moments are provided by a foppish actor who correctly insists on the proper pronunciation of the film's title "Coven", only to be overruled by Mark, who pronounces it with a long "o" because the real pronunciation sounds too much like "oven".  There is also a classic scene in which a cast member's head is repeatedly banged into a makeshift breakaway cabinet door that refuses to break away.

     Yet for every comic moment, there is a sad or disturbing one.  In a shockingly candid moment, Mark's mother reluctantly admits to director Smith that she doesn't think her son will ever be a success.  Uncle Bill's inability to remember his four simple lines for the film will break your heart.  The whole film has a pathetic air about it, underscored by scenes in Uncle Bill's shabby trailer, a Super Bowl Sunday where a drunken Mark becomes verbally abusive to his mother, and one of the saddest-looking Thanksgiving dinners ever.  

     Though we are only allowed to see clips of it in AMERICAN MOVIE, the completed "Coven" looks exactly like what it is - a low-budget, amateurish horror film by a man with talent behind the camera but not enough in front of it.  (The complete film, on the AMERICAN MOVIE DVD, confirms this).  Yet, as most film professors, such as director Chris Smith would tell you, it is the journey that is important.  The journey of fledgling filmmaker Mark Borchardt is a fascinating one.  Because it can provoke so many different emotions, AMERICAN MOVIE is a documentary worth multiple viewings. - JB

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