American Movie and more
Will Keenan, Lloyd Kaufman, Trent Haaga, Debbie Rochon, Ron Jeremy
US theatrical: 29 Oct 1999
What’s the best independent movie of the ‘90s? Was it Quentin Tarantino’s tough talk and homage-heavy masterpiece Pulp Fiction? How about the Coen Brothers bowling cult in the making The Big Lebowski? Could it be something made outside the confines of America, like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves or Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter? Frankly, you’re way off if you consider anything other than Lloyd Kaufman’s loving homage to true, outside the mainstream art, Terror Firmer. That’s right, the Troma title, freely adapted from its company chief’s own tell-all tome All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger is a ballsy, brazen dismissal of traditional Hollywood and the so-called professional production dynamic involved. In its place are a collection of outsiders so dedicated to their craft that they can’t see the serial killer carving up crewmembers in their midst.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be a Troma film without buckets of bloods and dozens of bared breasts. The storyline follows Kaufman’s cinematic alter ego, a blind auteur named Larry Benjamin as he tries to create yet another sequel to the successful Toxie franchise. Working with a group of interns and volunteers, our hack hero must balance the needs of drone diva starlet Christine (a delightful Debbie Rochon) with the less than polished artisanship of his helpers. They include suave and sophisticated boom mike operator Casey (Will Keenan), overly sensitive PA Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle), and manic make-up man Jerry (Trent Haaga). As the bodies start piling up like cordwood, the company starts to wonder if there’s a psycho stalking the shoot. Of course, all Benjamin cares about is getting the days storyboards on celluloid before everything f*cks up.
For all it’s inside joking and absurdist humor, its Grand Guignol overindulgence and reliance on toilet gags as satire, Terror Firmer is a fascinating deconstruction of the filmmaking myth. It’s a slap in the face to all those pretenders to the cinematic throne and wipes its ass with the so called artistic endeavors of the big budget media conglomerates. It’s rude, crude, crafty, and of so effective. It’s also the most personal film in the entire Troma catalog. Kaufman can actually be heard channeling several of his own corporate missives here, from safety to humans to the necessary ridicule of inept film school graduates. With Rochon, Keenan, LaTourelle, and Haaga carrying most of the narrative weight, Kaufman is free to indulge in his Id-inspired commentary on trying to make meaning out of a bunch of film stock and a group of game but rather scattered onset talent.
In many ways, Terror Firmer plays like a mild mockumentary. We actually believe in the inherent truth in many of the mangled set-ups, the sequences where major mistakes are crafted out of too little sleep, too many crappy cheese sandwiches, and not enough time in the trenches. Several of the supporting characters are made into standard stereotyped caricatures - gay, slutty, suitcase pimp, naïve innocent, overworked waste - and Kaufman definitely utilizes their pre-programmed presence. Indeed, the only element underserved here is the whole Toxie tribute, which feels forced onto the film to stay within the Troma universe (and avoid anything fiscally messy, like paying for the rights to another project). As blood-drenched death scenes meld into moments of interpersonal struggle, Kaufman covers the entire subgenre in one savage sweeping.
Toward the end, as a particularly paunchy cast member runs buck naked through the streets of Manhattan (with the typical nonchalant reactions of the native New Yorkers), Kaufman is forced to put the mystery to bed, to reveal the murderer and make us understand his mentally deficient motivations. As the plotline unspools, as everyone in the cast joins in for sequences of shock, horror, dismay, and handicapped redemption, Terror Firmer delivers its final farcical blow. Given the identity (and gender orientation) of the killer, Kaufman gets Lemmy from hard rock icons Motorhead to deliver a PSA on hermaphrodites. Then, South Park gods Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who got their big break with Troma) appear, playing the roles of misunderstood she-males. It’s enough to make your already swollen brain itchy with irony. As with most of this amazing movie, thwarting convention is not enough. Terror Firmer takes the rules and runs ramshackle all over them - and if that’s not independent filmmaking, what is? Bill Gibron
Mark Borchardt, Uncle Bill, Mike Shank, Monica Borchardt (as themselves)
(Sony Pictures Classics)
“It’s all right. It’s okay. There’s something to live for. Jesus told me sooooooooo…”
‘Uncle’ Bill Borchardt
For wannabe auteur Mark Borchardt, no truer words have ever been spoken. Stuck in a dead end part of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reduced to living with his mother as the various bills and delinquent debts build up, he maintains a single, solitary dream - to be a filmmaker. He’s tried before: an incomplete project known as Northwestern has haunted his professional pipe dreams since the day he abandoned the shoot. If he can raise enough cash, he can finish off the simmering slice-of-life statement and finally put to bed the rotten reputation he has with members of his family. That he’s 30 and so disconnected from the realities of his world makes his goals that much more unrealistic - and romantic.
In Chris Smith’s sensational documentary American Movie, Borchardt’s plans to get Northwestern off the ground again gives way to an insightful character study in which real people take the place of standard fictional folks. Yes, this is an actual human being, a genial huckster with a gift for gab and a growing drinking problem. Borchardt is many things in Movie - dreamer, deadbeat dad (he has three kids), ex-military man, family scandal, best friend, boyfriend, and bungler. While clearly talented when it comes to creating evocative visuals (Smith shows us clips of Borchardt’s iconic images to support the point), the overall narrative drive of film escapes him. For as much encyclopedic knowledge he carries about the craft, he just can’t seem to get beyond the basics.
Movie follows Borchardt as he finishes up a failed horror short known as Coven (which he, bizarrely enough, pronounces with a long “O”). His plan is simple - make this gory black and white genre entry, sell 3000 VHS units, rake in a pile of cash, pay off his investors, and jumpstart Northwestern. Supporting him in this backwards business strategy are his far too understanding mother, his ex-junkie buddy - and talented classical guitarist - Mike Schank, and certified scene stealer (and aging relative with moolah) Uncle Bill. As he tries to channel his muse, as he sits at the local airport with a pen and pad in hand trying to hammer out script rewrites, Borchardt stands like a celluloid Don Quixote - only in this case, the windmills he must battle are his own raging inner demons, a love of beer, and a failure to recognize his own limits.
It would be sad if it wasn’t so true, and Smith keeps things light and genial by balancing his lead’s darkness with the sunny sponsors around him. Schank is especially memorable, a curly haired manchild who used to party so hard that he has “several stories” about winding up in the hospital, too inebriated/high to maintain consciousness. Bill is also a veiled voice of reason, his inability to fully embrace his nephew’s dreams counterbalanced by his own lonely life in a dirty trailer on the outskirts of town. Wisconsin is viewed as the last bastion of culture and creativity. Borchardt (and via his observations, Smith) loves to focus on the wind spent winter vistas, the skeleton of trees painting dark black tendril lines against the smoky gray backdrop of the sobering sky. It’s what keeps him struggling. It’s what keeps him trapped.
True, there are moments of joviality here, times when Borchardt celebrates the arrival of a new credit card and Schank secretly tells Smith’s camera that he just won $100 bucks on the lottery. There are also sequences of unnecessary sadness, as when our subject and his ex fight ferociously in front of their underage children, or when Uncle Bill sings one of the dire dirges he himself writes. For Smith, the situation is crystal clear: Borchardt is someone with just enough skill to get by - perhaps even thrive somewhat - but lacks a foundational force that would truly move him to greater rewards.
It’s interesting to note that, in the 10 years since American Movie became a Sundance sensation, our visionary has yet to complete Northwestern (he’s currently making something called Scare Me). Perhaps he can’t. Maybe he never could. Or it could be, that with time and perspective, Borchardt came to realize what American Movie symbolizes. He’s able, but he’s no artist. Now that’s indeed something to live for. Bill Gibron
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.