Friday November 12, 1999
Chris Smith's "American Movie," which took the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance this year, is sure to draw lots of laughs. Here's this small-town Wisconsin guy, Mark Borchardt, trying to make a movie on a shoestring with the help of some pals, in particular his spacey, shaggy musician friend Mike Schank, while coaxing money out of his frail, bleary 82-year-old uncle Bill Borchardt. These people say and do goofy things from time to time, and they all sound like the people in "Fargo."
Chroniclers of the independent filmmaking scene, however, may not be so easily amused. We know all too well that the world has an abundance of Mark Borchardts, and the likelihood of any of them getting anywhere is no better than winning the lottery.
Even so, although overly long at 107 minutes, "American Movie" is an incisive, largely absorbing work and a far more mature effort than Smith's "American Job," which sent the message, intentionally or otherwise, that menial jobs are beneath young white males.
Never condescending to Borchardt, a tall, lean 30-year-old with a goatee, long hair and outsize glasses, Smith assumes a detached stance at the start and sticks to it. In doing so, he invites us to see Borchardt as an archetypal all-American individualist determined to pursue the American Dream in an era of lowered expectations.
For years Borchardt has been working intermittently on "Northwestern," which he describes as about a bunch of guys "drinkin', drinkin', drinkin' "--and which sounds more than a little autobiographical. Early on in "American Movie," Borchardt is forced to abandon the project once again, for the usual reason, a lack of funds. Instead, he resumes work on a supernatural horror thriller, "Coven," shooting in 16 millimeter. Even if he succeeds in completing it, it will have taken him three years to do so. That Borchardt's hero is "Night of the Living Dead's" George Romero is evident in glimpses we get of "Coven." ("Coven" screens tonight and next Friday night at the Nuart at 12:15 a.m., accompanied by 1981's "The Howling.")
To his credit, Borchardt, who began making movies at 14, is a resourceful, knowledgeable craftsman; he knows what he wants and how to get it. He's strong-willed, hard-working and focused. He's chronically deep in debt and in a precarious position in a looming custody struggle with his ex-girlfriend over their children. He supports himself delivering papers and working as a cemetery maintenance man. He's a motor-mouth who can be pretty wearying but has an open, affable quality that makes you hope he somehow miraculously beats the odds and enjoys some measure of success.
His Swedish-born mother is supportive, and her estranged husband, Mark's father, wishes his son well but is understandably dubious. Even more so is one of Mark's brothers, who says he thinks Mark would be better off working in a factory and wonders who would want to see "Coven" anyway.
At one point Mark pauses to consider that here he is, 30 years old, and having to clean up a filthy restroom at the cemetery. The question he needs to ask himself is how he would feel about still doing it at 40.
Note: "Coven," which runs about 38 minutes, stars Borchardt as a freelance writer who, facing a deadline, fortifies himself on such a combustible mixture of pills and booze that he winds up in an emergency room. Upon release, he's persuaded to join what sounds like Alcoholics Anonymous but turns out to be a sinister group indeed. "Coven" is too obvious and juvenile to hold much interest, but Borchardt, as a filmmaker, is energetic and personal, knowing how to project what clearly are his own fears and frustrations. Clearly, filmmaking is for him a means of self-expression, but whether he has what it takes to make a feature-length film that audiences can connect with remains to be seen.
American Movie, 1999. R, for language and some drug content. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director-cinematographer Chris Smith. Producer/sound/additional photography Sarah Price. Co-producers Jim McKay, Michael Stipe. Editors Barry Poltermann, Jun Diaz, Smith. Music Mike Schank. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times