American Movie (review)

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How to Make an American Movie

Like a reverse Blair Witch Project, American Movie is a documentary that you’d have to be forgiven for suspecting that it might be fictional. It’s not that its subject matter is hard to believe but that the story it tells seems so perfectly complete that it almost has to have been created. And its characters are so supra-ordinary that they seem to transcend banality in a way that only fiction can usually achieve.

American Movie is all true, though, and although it follows a seat-of-the-pants filmmaker in his quest to make his biggest movie yet, it tells a tale that will be appreciated by anyone who has struggled to fulfill a dream of grander things for himself.

Mark Borchardt, who looks like a younger version of Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan, lives in a suburb of Milwaukee, where he has been making short horror movies all his life, like The More the Scarier III, starring his friends, produced with the help of his friends. Now, he wants to move on to his first feature, the autobiographical Northwestern, the third draft of which he is currently writing — he gets peace and quiet for writing by sitting in his car at the local airport with a thermos of coffee, scribbling his script out longhand.

But money is extremely tight. We watch Mark open piles of bills, disheartened — he owes money to the IRS and utility companies. “He wants to have the good life,” live in a big house, his mother, Monica, tells us, but his jobs are menial: delivering newspapers, vacuuming mausoleums at the local cemetery. (We also learn — and this disquieted me — that Mark owes child support to the mother of his three children. It’s one thing to owe money to the IRS, but to leave your own kids hanging is quite another.) But Mark is realistic about his filmic aspirations and his financial problems, and he develops a plan to fund the production of Northwestern by finishing a half-completed horror short called Coven (which Mark mispronounces to rhyme with woven) and selling videos of it.

Like Ed Wood meets Waiting for Guffman, American Movie is as poignant as it is funny. Director Chris Smith intersperses Mark’s irrepressible gung-ho for movies with examples of the uphill battles Mark faces: Mark talks excitedly about shooting a scene for Coven with “lots of assistant directors” and barriers to keep people back; his brother thinks Mark is probably most suited for “working in a factory.” A gifted student who dropped out of high school, Mark tends to turn to alcohol when things don’t go quite his way. Amusing bits like Mark’s explanation of the benefits of filming in a cemetery and his friend Mike Schank’s philosophy of playing the lottery are countered with painful scenes, as when Mark cadges money from his 82-year-old Uncle Bill, trying to convince the somewhat senile old man that his investment in Coven is safe. And much of American Movie is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking — I found myself laughing at things that must have been immensely frustrating for Mark, as when a stunt for Coven goes awry, or when Mark is forced to use his mother as his director of photography.

It’s the rawness of having a man’s unfulfilled — possibly unfulfillable — dreams on such open display that makes a tiny part of me wish that American Movie were in fact a fake. As a person whose life has been devoted to things creative, this is one film that hits uncomfortably close to home for me, and I can sympathize with the despair that sends Mark to drink. The Coven production meetings in diners mirror similar gatherings of a community theater group I worked with for years. The scene in which Mark discovers that the flyers for the premiere of the finally completed Coven have disappeared nearly brought my friend — another member of the theater group — to tears: oh how we dreaded squandering, as Mark does, the precious few flyers we could afford to print. And Mark, as much as he wants greatness for himself, can’t seem to conquer a fear of finishing things — like many creative people, his past is littered with half-completed projects. (So says the reviewer with half-done short stories and novels lying about.)

Paradoxically sad and hopeful, American Movie is both tremendously moving and laugh-out-loud funny. If you love movies, if you share in the American dream, don’t miss this one.

[Coven is available for sale on video from the American Movie Web site. Check out my review of Coven here.]

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