American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of classic important and contemporary films presents American Movie.

Menomonee Falls may be a long way from Hollywood, but quick-talking filmmaker Mark Borchardt has a cinematic dream and he aims to finance his magnum opus, Northwestern, through a direct-to-market, no-budget horror short titled Coven. Filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price filmed Borchardt and his team of hometown thespians and semi-willing family members through two years of financial crisis and emotional turmoil. The result was a bizarrely heartfelt and hilariously poignant documentary that became the award-winning hit of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and a uniquely arresting portrait of Midwestern eccentricity, determination and character.

Disc Features:

American Movie was originally conceived as a short film, with director Chris Smith tagging along with amateur filmmaker Mark Borchardt and his Swedish mother Monica on their trip to the Toronto Film Festival. Mark promised a sit-down with Roger Ebert and Smith believed that the efforts of the verbose amateur to drum up investments for his passion project, Northwestern, would make for interesting subject matter. The meeting with Ebert proved to be wishful thinking and Mark’s feature film remained unfinanced by the time they returned their Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls, but Smith was charmed by Borchardt’s single-mindedness, leading him to film Mark for nearly two years while Borchardt’s dreams of cinematic achievement struggled to reach fruition. Smith’s resulting film, American Movie, proved to be a tragicomic masterpiece of artistic perseverance, winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and providing Borchardt with a window of celebrity that included five appearances on Late Show with David Letterman. Few films celebrate the glorious ruin of filmmaking like the real-life mockumentary that is American Movie.

The Making of Northwestern

American Movie opens with Mark Borchardt delivering copies of The Wall Street Journal in a beater sedan and declaring, “The American Dream stays with me each and every day.” For Borchardt, his underemployment is on the one hand a strategic choice that staves off the traps of wage-slavery and leaves him free pursue production of his feature film masterpiece, Northwestern. On the other, it is emblematic of his stagnation, having failed to live up to his own potential as an artist and an individual. Borchardt commits himself to finishing Northwestern, rallying a cast and crew with his peerless ambition/hucksterism and giving the documentary its subtitle, The Making of Northwestern, yet he abandons those production plans early on after assessing the entire project as being artistically, technically, and financially unready.

Aside from some rather good-looking footage of a junkyard, relatively little detail about Northwestern appears in American Movie. Borchardt has been generally tight-lipped in interviews about the still unmade Northwestern. His most forthcoming statement on the film may have been made to Josh Modell of the A.V. Club, remarking:

On the surface, dramatically, it’s about this dude working in a junkyard who literally writes his way out of it. It’s not autobiographical by any means, but it deals with the phenomenon of coming out of nowhere and doing something with your life without going through a pattern-istic set of circumstances, such as graduating from high school, going to college, getting a job, working your way up a so-called ladder. It’s coming out of nowhere, out of anywhere, and achieving what you want to achieve by the sheer brute force of self-motivation and self-delight.

Northwestern seems like a particularly Borachardtian vision of the American Dream – a fantasy of rugged individualism that revels in the success of an outsider who short-circuits the system and forces its recognition in the face of his undeniable merit – but with it being abandoned early on, American Movie frees itself of its subtitle’s obligation, at least in any literal sense.

The Making of Coven

Mark elects to tackle his financial issues first by reviving a horror short called Coven (pronounced like woven, not oven, because oven “doesn’t work”). When asked what the project is, Borchardt launches into his clearly rehearsed pitch:

Coven is a 35-minute direct-market thriller film shot on 16mm black and white reversal. It’s an alcoholic, man, compelled to go to this group meeting by his one and only friend left. But they’re not that helpful, the group, you know?”

His plan is to sell his horror short on video to raise $30,000 and then complete Northwestern. To do so, Mark wrestles a modest investment from his miserly Uncle Bill (who drunkenly hears “cinema” as “cinnamon,” such is his admiration for the form); occasionally enlists his mom as his director of photography (depending on her errands that day); and reconvenes his cast that includes weekend player, Tom Schimmels; Shakespearean scenery-chewer, Robert Richard Jorge; and Mark’s adorably fried, classical guitar-playing, scratch-off ticket-loving best friend, Mike Schank. Much of American Movie attends to the challenges of making Coven and the phenomenon of things falling apart once the camera starts rolling. Locations burn down, extras fall through, cabinet doors resist breaking, birds refuse to chirp, dentures rattle, and film gets lost in editing, but Mark remains resolute, surmounting the limitations of talent and capital to achieve his vision.

Despite its attention to the making of Coven, American Movie gives away relatively little about the horror short. Coven‘s evocative opening sequence and some of its wonderfully grainy shots are seen, but Smith’s documentary seems careful not to provide too much detail, perhaps to tantalize potential cassette-purchasers, perhaps to avoid dissuading them. In fact, Coven is thematically quite close to Northwestern. The “alcoholic … compelled to go to this group meeting” is a writer struggling with pills and alcohol and the short’s social order, the self-help group, proves to be a nefarious collective that Borchardt’s writer must resist and overcome. Coven is another tale of a self-determined artist, an iconoclast conquering his personal demons and the limitations of conventional thinking. While the making of Coven is presented as a necessary step in the ultimate making of Northwestern, the two films dovetail as light and dark representations of the same ethos and so the making of Coven can stand-in for the making of Northwestern.

The Making of Mark Borchardt

With details of both Northwestern and Coven notably muted by Smith, American Movie is really about Mark, using the context of his filmmaking to revel in his singular character. Borchardt admits in the DVD commentary to frequently playing to the cameras, amping up his demeanour to ensure something memorable is caught on film (such is Mark’s understanding of the precious nature of film stock) and engaging in a little self-promotion in the process. His verbose dramatics and his knack for self-commentary and reflection make him a documentarian’s once-in-a-lifetime discovery and an enthralling subject to watch. He never feels insincere in his moments of rapacious salesmanship, artistic despondency, or dictatorial artistry. And if ever Mark does seem overbearing in his urgency, American Movie tempers those scenes with moments of true generosity and compassion by Borchardt, such as in his presentation of a purloined funeral bouquet to his girlfriend, his careful bathing of Uncle Bill, and his whispered happiness brought on by an unexpected visit by Mike Schank. (Borchardt and Schank have to be one of cinema’s great pairings with the short, rotund Schank playing Sancho Panza to Borchardt’s tall, thin Don Quixote tilting at windmills of independent filmmaking.)

Mark’s opening discussion of the American Dream and his vanishing potential (Borchardt won a fellowship from the Milwaukee Art Futures Board in the mid-’90s for his Halloween radio plays) declares his struggles with complacency, remarking:

I was a failure, and I’d get very sad and depressed about it, and I can’t be that no more. Because I really feel like I betrayed myself, big-time. Because I think whe—,  I know when I was growing up, I had all the potential in the world, and now I’m back to being Mark who has a beer in his hand and is thinking about the great American script and the great American movie. And this time I cannot fail. I won’t fail. It’s not in me. You don’t get second chances and mess them up. You’d be a fool to, not just finishing films or, in the long run, getting some money, but it’s right now. I feel like, it’s like I said, five, ten, fifteen years ago, now, I’ve got the same options again and this time, I’m not going to fail. This time it’s most important not to fail, just to drink and dream, but rather to create and complete.

If Northwestern, or for that matter Coven, is not intended to be autobiographical, it is certainly emblematic of the transcendence Borchardt hopes to find for himself in the short term and American Movie proves to be about Mark finding that sense of achievement in the completion of his film. Smith is short on the details of Northwestern and Coven because the achievement is in Mark’s journey to completing the film, not in the film itself, and what is memorable about that process are the relationships he fosters (and occasionally badgers) to get there. Borchardt’s ultimate struggle in American Movie is against a life without ambition, both within himself and in those around him. Smith represents these concerns in the high relief of Mark’s daily life as he repeatedly tries to rally others to adventure of feature filmmaking. (“I can lose ten weekends to help him do that!” declares on crew member.) Mark’s resistance to complacency takes ugly turns at times, such as his inexplicable rant against factory workers after the Packers win the Super Bowl (“Bitch-ass, motherfuckin’ factory workers are goin’ down like that too!”), but even his worst moments are rooted in a steadfast commitment to preserving his ability to be inspired. And for his trouble, Borchardt is generous with his make-shift company – washing his Uncle Bill’s clothes, picking up his ne’er-do-well friend Ken Keen from jail, and hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for his collection of stray loved ones. By its conclusion, Smith’s film finds Borchardt having made Northwestern within himself by becoming that person who achieves what he wants to achieve through the infectious power of his own self-motivation and self-delight. Part true-life mockumentary, part redemption story, American Movie recalls both the words of Longfellow Deeds – “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys” – and Andrei Tarkovsky’s definition of art – “Like a declaration of love: the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession. An unconscious act that reflects the true meaning of art – love and sacrifice.”

The Criterion Collection certainly prefers its documentaries to be observational rather than didactic and has an obvious fondness for docs about impoverished eccentrics (think Crumb, Grey Gardens, Salesman, Vernon, Florida, etc.), making American Movie a natural fit for a wacky “C.” It also has the benefit of checking the box for independent American cinema and being a film about film, a subject always of interest to cinephiles and filmmakers alike. And with Smith’s film presumably available to the Collection as a Sony title and without a high-definition version of American Movie currently in circulation, a Criterion edition would fill something of a void and return a celebrated documentary favourite to its deserving spotlight.

I have a very clear image in my mind of a painting in the spirit of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) with Mark in the position of the male figure (tall, lean, and intense) and Mike in the position of the female figure (shorter and vaguely distracted), yet I can’t locate any such image. Did I make it up? A version of this homage appears in the commercial for Night of the Living Dead: LIVE in Wisconsin that features Borchardt and Schank, so I may not be too far off. Regardless, this pairing of Mark and Mike in this already satirical image of Midwestern American character would make for an entirely apt cover treatment to a Criterion edition of American Movie.

Credits: This imagined Criterion Collection edition ports over the special features of the existing DVD (Coven, the commentary, the trailer, and the deleted scenes) and adds new interviews and a collection of Mark and Mike ephemera that came in the wake of the film’s success, all in hopes of examining the film and the minor media storm that followed. Director Ti West was chosen to provide an essay given his Trailers From Hell entry on American Movie. In that video, West reveals not just his admiration for American Movie but also his continued support of Borchardt by ordering a copy of Coven at the time and casting Mark in a film as well. The cover summary is based on multiple summaries of Smith’s documentary including the one included on the existing DVD edition.

This proposal was greatly assisted by Janet Maslin’s review for The New York Times, Roger Ebert’s review, Amy Goodman’s interview with Borchardt for Indiewire, Andy Tarnoff’s article for OnMilwaukee.com, Tasha Robinson’s interview of Smith and Nathan Rabin’s article for The Dissolve, Filmmaker Magazine‘s interview of Smith, Maggie Iken’s account of viewing American Movie for Milwaukee Record, and Josh Modell’s aforementioned interview of Borchardt for The A.V. Club.

Last but not least, with strong rumours about that the Criterion Collection will release an edition of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), let’s take a moment to acknowledge Night of Living Dead: LIVE from Wisconsin, a 2006 Halloween special that aired on the G4 channel and featured a commentary by Mark and Mike. Click the embedded link to watch the whole thing!

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