Thursday, August 25, 2016

American Movie

(1999) Directed by Chris Smith; Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Ken Keen and Bill Borchardt; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½

“I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world. Now I’m back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand, and he’s thinking about the great American script and the great American movie, and this time, I cannot fail. I won’t fail.” – Mark Borchardt

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Outside of the blogging arena, I rarely share my favorite movies with others, because our preferences are often very personal. It’s hard to articulate why I gravitate toward certain titles, or why one would have such an effect on me. Several years back, I loaned my copy of American Movie to a friend, and learned my enthusiasm wasn’t infectious. She thought it was entertaining in spots, but was perplexed why I found it so special. Regarding the main subject, Mark Borchardt, she commented, “He’s a loser.” In my humble, albeit biased opinion, I think she missed the point of American Movie. At its core, it’s a film about tireless passion, ambition, and a desire to succeed in the face of everything working against you.

Director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price (who also assisted with the sound and camera work) filmed American Movie over the course of two years, and edited for another two years. The end result chronicles the arduous path* Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt takes to complete his short horror film Coven. Movies are Mark’s passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him. His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority. Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. As his brother Alex observes, “His best asset is his mouth.” Mark appears to overflow with a flurry of ideas, and his fast-talking style sounds quite convincing on the surface, like the mogul he aspires to be. What sets Borchardt apart from those who have managed to climb to the top of the movie business? He has many positive attributes: an encyclopedic knowledge of film, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. Yet, he struggles to pay the bills, and he’s plagued by a series of projects that never reached fruition. His manic episodes are often followed by periods of intense depression and self-loathing. He’s unhappy where he is, and wants to do something about it. In the meantime, he’s relegated to working a series of dead-end jobs (including a paper route and groundskeeper for a cemetery) to keep his head above water.

* In an ironic parallel to Borchardt’s production woes, the filmmakers experienced their own troubles financing their feature, and continually ran out of film stock.

Another key player in American Movie is Mark’s buddy Mike Schank (who confessed that the initial basis for their friendship was their mutual appreciation of vodka). Mike, now a member of several 12-step programs, is the rock in their friendship. On the surface, he appears to be a mellow burnout, but for Mark he’s a safe harbor amidst all of the chaos. Mike battled drugs and alcohol and remained mostly intact, while Mark is still struggling with his demons (which obviously inspired Coven). Mike is an amiable presence, seemingly unfettered by his friend’s tirades. He’s the proverbial shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.

Mark’s relationship with his cynical, laconic uncle Bill is a fitting metaphor for his endeavors. Bill, whose best days are clearly behind him, sits in his cluttered mobile home, mostly silent while his nephew talks a mile a minute about his grandiose dreams and plans. In his zeal to complete Coven, Mark begs and cajoles his friends, family members and acquaintances to help him with every aspect of the production,** managing to rope almost everyone in his circle. In one of the funniest scenes, Mark convinces Bill to go through 32 takes to record a single line of dialogue. Like many of the other people involved in the production, Bill isn’t buying anything Mark is selling, but he goes along with him anyway.

* On a sad note, Uncle Bill passed away shortly after American Movie was filmed. He willed $50,000 to Mark for the completion of Northwestern, which remains unfinished.

** Mark’s mother Monica, who’s featured in the film, is recruited to help him with camerawork, and as an extra (despite her protest, “I have shopping to do.”).

Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in American Movie evoke feelings of schadenfreude, but documentarians Smith and Price are not interested in being mean spirited. For anyone who’s ever struggled paying the bills, or suffered from chronic underemployment, many scenes ring true. It’s easy to see the film as a freak show, but there’s a tragic undercurrent that runs throughout. There’s a feeling of desperation, as if getting Coven made is a matter of life or death for Borchardt. Coven isn’t an end, but a potential launching point to finance his semi-autobiographical film Northwestern. Many of us have met people like him – full of talk and ideas, but with little to show for their labors. What sets Mark apart from other dreamers is he didn’t move on to something else. His persistence and dedication to film creates its own inertia. Mark is motivated by the very American belief that there’s something bigger and better on the horizon, just out of sight.

American Movie should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker, or anyone who ever asked why any rational individual would try to break into the movie business. How much is talent, tenacity and good connections, and how much is just plain luck? American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll. How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good,* but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated he should stop. As a post-script, it’s comforting to know he’s still out there, perhaps no closer to making the great American movie, but continuing to fight the good fight for no-budget indie filmmakers.

Additional Note: As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven. So, is it any good?  The stark 16 mm black and white reversal footage works to its credit, with some nice atmospheric exterior shots that capture the quiet desolation of the Wisconsin countryside. As for the story, acting and dialogue, well… You can’t have everything.


  1. I love this movie, and can connect with it on a very deep personal level. Definitely one of my favorites as well.

    - Cody

    1. I agree. There's so much that rings true for anyone who values sticking with their ideals over financial stability.

  2. I haven't seen American Movie in years but I remember loving it, so you are not alone in your appreciation of this entertaining doc!

    1. Glad to hear I'm not alone. The family dynamics (minus the alcoholism) hit a little too close to home.

  3. I can sympathize with your dismay that your friend was less than enthused about the film. As an outsider art fan, I can attest to the ratio of those that can appreciate the artist's compulsion to create with whatever raw materials are available, the unquenchable desire to communicate in whatever manner they can, the eccentric, hardscrabble lives and the muses that drive their art, the naive beauty in the finished pieces, to those that say, 'My kid could paint that', and how small that number is. Continue exposing films like this to the uninitiated; you never can tell when someone will connect with a piece in a profound way, and be driven to create art of their own. You do good work.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Although I've never attempted to make my own film, this documentary made me appreciate the trials and sacrifices independent filmmakers must endure for their craft. I can also relate to the themes in this film to the compulsion small-time bloggers like myself experience, to get the word out about the movies that deeply affect us. Thanks so much for the support.