American Movie (1999)

by Mark Reiter


Horror Flicks and Vodka

In this “post-modern” moment, most people agree that documentaries don’t show or explain The Truth. What we get, in the documentary’s most noble moments, is a near truth — an edited, framed and composed chunk of the almost-real, distilled. It wasn’t so long ago that Documentary the Genre proposed that it could deliver an objective view of history, facts that could be lined up to make sense of events and people. Now, however, since TV news and Cops have become pervasive, and documentary makers like Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), Spike Lee (Four Little Girls), and Trinh T. Minh-ha (Surname Viet Given Name Nam) have made subjectivity in their work overt, it’s clear that documentaries can not be impartial (and never were). Shaped by circumstances, budgets, and politics, each documentary can only present what its maker can imagine and articulate. Each is a story told from a very specific point of view.

American Movie avoids the dishonesty and self-importance of most traditional documentaries by selecting a subject so genuine, specific, and original — and so flawed — that no matter what segment of the whole we’re seeing, it seems very real and very very human. Chris Smith’s documentary details two years in the life of Wisconsin-based aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt. Fueled by a love of Sam Raimi horror flicks and vodka, the high school dropout bungles his way through the completion of a thirty minute black and white short called Coven, which he directs, stars in, writes, and shoots. His mismatched crew includes downtrodden misfits and reluctant locals from whom Borchardt extracts cash, talent, and time. His mother, Monica, shoots some footage of Mark; his dying Uncle Bill finances the film; his friends (Mike Schank, Ken Keen) are the supporting cast; and his girlfriend, Joan Petrie, is the location scout and associate producer. And while it’s difficult to tell how confident these people are in Borchardt’s project, they dutifully trudge through snow, endure numerous retakes and all night editing sessions, pushed on by the intensity and conviction of Mark’s visions and aspirations.

cover art

American Movie

Director: Chris Smith
Cast: Mark Borchardt, Uncle Bill, Mike Shank, Monica Borchardt (as themselves)

(Sony Pictures Classics)

Borchardt is chasing, as he says, “the American Dream.” As he puts it, “I really feel like I’ve betrayed myself big time. I know when I was growin’ up I had all the potential in the world. Now I’m back to being Mark with a beer in his hand, thinking about the great American script, the great American movie.” But make no mistake, this isn’t Clerks filtered through a Springsteen album. Borchardt’s filmic vision is grounded in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s hack-and-slash horror films, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series or Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now recognized as classics, these films were initially dismissed as trash. Borchardt, however, loved them immediately, and emulates them in his own work, using plenty of violence, blood and clunky dialogue. While he may be aware of the recent indie film revolution, he’s either ignored or abandoned the hip swagger of Tarantino and Rodriguez.

While it’s both amusing and a little depressing to watch Borchardt haul his antiquated vision into fruition, plunging himself into debt and straining his personal relationships, there’s something that stops him from becoming the poster boy for false consciousness: he actually knows what he’s doing. The few snippets of Coven that Chris Smith allows us are striking visually for all they lack in maturity or depth. Shot on 16mm black and white, Coven captures the grimy and beaten expanse of the mid-west in powerful images. For all its badly acted gory death scenes, Coven offers up genuinely well shot landscapes and panoramic establishing shots. It’s simultaneously stunning and stupid.

But Coven is only half the story, a film within a film. In capturing Mark Borchardt’s journey, Smith himself opts for gritty production value, using mostly handheld shots and employing only one additional crew member of his own. (Clearly, Smith’s own budgetary constraints had something to do with this decision.) A combination of interview footage and “behind-the-scenes” segments, American Movie at first seems to operate like any Hollywood “making-of” film, giving up the inside scoop on a big production with commentary from the principal actors and production crew. The difference is that the film in question — Coven — gets mired in a repeating cycle of fuck ups and catastrophes, such as principal actors going to jail and senile extras forgetting their lines. The result is a sort of meta-film, two pictures being made simultaneously, one plowing forward despite its drastic limitations and the other keeping a sympathetic watch over its blundering counterpart.

How good is American Movie? Hard to say. It’s more endearing than brilliant and more poignant than insightful. It tells a simple story in a simple way and shows a genuine affection for its subject. Borchardt’s struggle is every bit American, part war, part futility and part desperation. Still, as you watch him pound away at the obstacles dropped in front of him by his financial situation, locale, and upbringing, you can’t help asking if he should bother, if it’s worth it, and if he has what it takes to make it. But he doesn’t give a fuck what you think. He’s making his movie anyway. How American.

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