Review: American Movie

Directed by Chris Smith, this documentary from 2009 introduces us to a modern day Edward D. Wood Jr. in Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt (whom Smith met at a film class Smith was teaching). Borchardt, who barely makes a living doing odd jobs, and who has a whole lot of passion to be a filmmaker (His favourite films include “Night of the Living Dead”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and- I shit you not- “The Seventh Seal”). Unfortunately, he seems to have a serious lack of actual talent. Undeterred, the 30 year-old pours his heart, soul, and a substantial amount of money from his 82 year-old and possibly senile Uncle Bill, into pursuing his dream project. Called “Northwestern”, it will be a personal story about dead-end life in Wisconsin, full of ‘rust and decay’. Borchardt, who has been making movies since he was 12 (with titles like ‘The More the Scarier’ and its apparent sequels), hasn’t yet got the funds to make his dream film. In fact, despite having kids to support, he’s practically broke. So what’s a super-driven filmmaker with seemingly no concern for the welfare of his kids to do? Borchardt decides to finish the 30 odd minute short B&W horror film “Coven”, which he started years ago but never got around to completing. Once finished, he hopes to sell about 3,000 copies on VHS at $14. 95, and that’ll be enough to get “Northwestern” up and running. Oh, and according to Borchardt, that’s “Coe-ven”, not “Coven”, which to Borchardt, sounds too much like ‘oven’. No one ever said the guy was a master linguist, folks.


This film is alternately hilarious, sad, depressing, off-putting, and even inspirational. I mean, is there anyone who looks at Borchardt and doesn’t instantly feel superior? No offense, but as much as “Coven” looks to have a couple of nifty shot compositions, the guy’s not even Russ Meyer, let alone Spielberg, Scorsese, Fellini or Truffaut. At times I wasn’t sure if Smith wanted us to sympathise with Borchardt or laugh at him, and there is the faint whiff of the latter intention that I couldn’t quite shake I must say (though Smith doesn’t appear on camera himself to offer any comment, nor does it appear that any unfair editing or overt manipulation is at play here, let me make that perfectly clear). I can’t say I saw much purpose to the film outside of that. I mean, Smith must’ve had a reason at the outset for making this film, surely. And if the intention was to sympathise with Borchardt, there’s one big roadblock preventing that: Mark Borchardt himself. He’s somewhat of an interesting guy, at times, but he’s also a high school dropout (and apparently he was far from the worst student in the world) who rather than focus on earning money to help out with his kids (who I’m sure he loves, don’t get me wrong), would rather toil away at his lifelong passion that doesn’t ultimately seem worth it. He’s perhaps not the worst filmmaker in the world, but at the same time, sometimes you need to let go of your dreams and enter the real world. I felt as though Mark (who perhaps has some Asperger’s tendencies or something of that sort that has him not always noticing the feelings of others, let alone his lack of talent) had already passed that point by the time we meet him. So whilst he doesn’t quite classify as a deadbeat dad (he does work and does seem to be trying) it’s still a little hard to sympathise with him, particularly when I’ve already made a point of disagreeing with the main character in “Into the Wild” making similarly stupidly stubborn life choices. He’s also occasionally extremely belligerent and annoying, especially when drunk. And to further the Ed Wood connection, his acquiring of his ailing uncle’s funds for his film projects seems like the kind of shameless, almost cruel manipulation that detractors of Ed Wood (i.e. Bela Lugosi’s son) would often accuse him of. I felt really uneasy during the scenes with poor, crotchety Uncle Bill because I wasn’t entirely sure how complicit he was in the whole thing (Sadly he died not long after filming). I couldn’t even laugh as much as I wanted to at the numerous takes Mark made the increasingly tired Uncle Bill go through just for a couple of lines (And you thought Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers on “The Shining” was bad!). He’s 82, Mark, fuck saying it with passion and meaning. He’s saying the lines the best way he can, and you’re lucky he’s even doing it. Let the poor guy have a lie down, you self-serving jerk. Frankly, Mark’s a bit unpleasant to be around at times. Fascinating perhaps, but certainly a bit tiring after a while.


Still, there are some really great moments here in what is a pretty solid documentary. From Mark’s idiotic insistence on the correct pronunciation of “Coven”, to the poor sap of an actor who had a hard time of it with a stunt gone wrong during initial photography of “Coven”, only to return a few years later for the tricked-up door he’s meant to be bashed into still not giving way enough. Priceless stuff, and you honestly couldn’t make any of this shit up. The film also has a dose of real heart from Mark’s long-time buddy and film composer Mike Schank. This big teddy bear of a man is a recently recovering alcoholic and drug user whose brain cells appear to have been mostly fried at this point. Much of his camera time sees him with a blank, zonked-out stare and giggling like he’s just partaken in some questionable chocolate-y treats. But beyond the Silent Bob-esque stoner laughs one initially has at his expense, is a sweet-natured man who, in the film’s saddest and most oddly touching moment offers up this monologue about their friendship, “I was partying in my basement and I used to get really pissed off inside because I would want to party really heavy and no one else would, then all of a sudden Mark came along and I was so happy that I found someone that would drink vodka with me”. See, everyone needs a friend. Even the barely coherent stoners. I mean, if that doesn’t go straight to your heartstrings, you need to check your pulse. It’s kinda sweet, in a low-rent, douchy working class kinda way. I’ve heard Schank (who has a thing for scratch lottery tickets and beams like a kid on Christmas when he wins $50) is a little more ‘normal’ and functional outside of the film (and indeed his cover of ‘Mr. Bojangles’ played over the end credits is genuinely accomplished, certainly more than his ‘original’ songs that are practically copies of well-known songs like Metallica’s ‘Fight Fire With Fire’), and I wish the big lug the best of luck in whatever he’s been doing in the more than ten years since this film was released. He’s the real star of this film and a pretty cool guy who seems to know very well what his substance abuse has left him with.


I wish this film had been a bit shorter, perhaps, because while it is initially intriguing to see one of American cinema’s non-success stories for a change, actually enduring the whole thing isn’t quite as insightful or rewarding as Mr. Smith perhaps thinks. It’s a solid film, but I never quite got in its wavelength as much as I think was intended because Mr. Borchardt’s lack of success is perhaps not entirely admirable. He’s just not talented enough, and on evidence here, he stubbornly refuses to see that and change the course of direction his life is on. There’s a limit to how much admiration I can have for a guy like that because his problems are largely his own doing. It’s not like he’s a great undiscovered, unheralded talent or anything.


At the end of the day, I found this film interesting, entertaining, infuriating, funny, sad, pathetic, questionable, and tiring all rolled into one, and sometimes all in the same scene. Definitely worth seeing at least once.


Rating: B-


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