American Movie (1999)
(left) Mike Schank, Mark Borchardt / (right) Cast of Coven
You get to see
Americans and American dreams, and you won't walk away depressed after seeing this.
That's Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt describing
his years-in-the-making epic Northwestern, but his words could just as easily apply
to the extraordinary new documentary American Movie, which details Borchardt's
failed attempts to launch production of Northwestern and subsequent determination
to complete the 35-minute horror film Coven. An often hilarious and
thoroughly moving portrait of a man, his community and his dream, American Movie is
without a doubt one of the year's best.
Borchardt is a true blue believer in
the American Dream, and he clings to it with feverish tenacity. Words spill out of
his mouth faster than the speed of thought; they emerge as a sort of mangled poetry,
perfectly in tune with the bleakness of his surroundings. The disparity between his vision
of himself as a successful filmmaker leading the good life and his mundane reality of
delivering newspapers and vacuuming crypts at the local cemetery forms the emotional core
of the documentary.
Ever since acquiring an out-of-focus
Super 8 camera as a child, Borchardt has been making movies. His influences include George
Dead series and The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre, but what's interesting is the way Borchardt describes what he
admires in those pictures. He doesn't mention the splatter and gore, but rather the
gray skies, dead trees and grim, bare-bones settings. He conceives Northwestern not
as a horror film, but as a down-and-dirty look at the economically deprived,
fast-track-to-nowhere world he inhabits.
In order to properly bring Northwestern
to the screen, he decides, he must first complete a direct-to-video horror short. If he
sells 3000 copies at $14.95 apiece, he'll take in $45,000, with which he'll be able to do
his dream project justice. So, with the help of his gentle burnout friend Mike Schank, his
Eeyore-like octogenarian Uncle Bill, and a cast of master thespians, Borchardt sets out to
film his macabre tale of a support group from Hell: Coven.
The pitfalls of no-budget filmmaking
provide some of the movie's most uproarious moments, such as a Coven scene in which
Borchardt's character shoves his support group sponsor's head through a non-breakaway
cabinet door. This aspect of American Movie calls to mind another documentary about
the making of a low-budget horror movie, 1979's little-seen Demon Lover Diary
(which detailed the harrowing production of Demon Lover, coincidentally retitled Coven
for video release). But where Diary evoked fear and loathing for its
subjects, American Movie maintains an openhearted, empathetic perspective.
The film's surprising emotional
depth derives from Borchardt's relationships with his family and friends. Some viewers
will no doubt find the fried, giggly Mike Schank and increasingly decrepit and fatalistic
Uncle Bill to be figures of derision and mean-spirited laughter, but they'll be missing
the point. In one of the most oddly moving scenes in recent memory, Borchardt shares a
Thanksgiving dinner with Schank, Uncle Bill and a few other Coven castaways. This
is a non-traditional gathering, to say the least, but the warm feeling is evident
nonetheless, particularly when Borchardt drunkenly gives thanks to Schank for coming over
and making him smile.
All of this unfolds against the
melancholy backdrop of Borchardt's hometown, Menomonee Falls, which emerges as another
central character in the documentary. This is a Middle America of scratch-off lottery
tickets, 7-11 coffee and Pabst Blue Ribbon twelve-packs - terrain rarely glimpsed in
contemporary cinema. But anyone who has seen director Chris Smith's debut feature American
Job (all six of us) will recognize it immediately. That film, while a work of fiction,
used documentary-style realism to hilarious deadpan effect as it traced one man's odyssey
through the day-to-day tedium of minimum wage employment. While it may not sound like a
crowd pleaser, American Job deserves wider recognition for its dead-on depiction of
an all-but-ignored aspect of contemporary life. Smith has marked out this fertile
territory as his own, and it will be fascinating to watch him continue to explore it in
There are so many moments in American
Movie that linger in the memory: Schank's maniacal screeching during a sound effects
dubbing session; Uncle Bill's repeated attempts to nail his single line of dialogue;
Borchardt camping out with his kids in a University of Wisconsin editing suite. Whether
the would-be filmmaker is able to achieve his dream remains up in the air, though a look
at the finished product Coven reveals flashes of wit and an eye for the sort of
harsh, gloomy compositions he professes to admire (as well as some admittedly Ed
Wood-level writing and acting). At the very least, his moment in the spotlight (Borchardt
recently appeared on the David Letterman show and is touring the country with midnight
showings of Coven) all but ensures he will sell those 3000 videos. But even
if he is never able to pull off Northwestern, the essence of that dream project
informs this documentary, investing it with an indomitable spirit and passion for life.
This is a great American movie.
Scott Von Doviak