I realized the other night that I had, one year earlier, posted my first review at Pajiba. Looking to celebrate the occasion in a unique way, I looked upon my DVD collection for a film to review. I had promised friends over the past couple months that I would review three films that I had somehow overlooked in my eight years as a Cinema and Media Studies student, specifically Rocky (1976), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), and the original Karate Kid (also 1984). However, to review those films didn’t feel quite right for the anniversary. No, given the occasion, a review of one of my favorite films was in order and few get as great and, in this case, personal as Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie (1999).
American Movie chronicles the life of a Milwaukee independent filmmaker by the name of Mark Borchardt. If you’re familiar with his lanky figure, it would be from a cameo on Family Guy, repeated appearances on David Letterman, and a bit part in Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009). Ironically, during the past ten years since the release of Smith’s documentary, Borchardt has become known more as personality than as a director. There’s a reason for that rather depressing result: Borchardt isn’t a particularly good filmmaker. He has the passion and even a talented eye for compositions but, in the end, he often pours both qualities into horror movie schlock. American Movie begins with Borchardt at an artistic crossroads, standing deep in financial debt with a dead-end job in newspaper delivery but with an unquenchable desire to make films, he decides to try to complete his dream project, Northwestern, a feature-length drama that will tell “the great American story.”
As Borchardt tries his hardest to ramp up production on Northwestern, he slowly begins to realize just how deep the waters are around him. Aside from a handful of close friends, including Mike Schank, a talented guitar player who seems to have suffered a permanent affliction after a bad acid trip, Borchardt’s crew is too small and inexperienced to finish the feature. More significantly, he simply does not have the funds to complete a feature film. Unwilling to accept defeat, Borchardt proposes a plan B: finish Coven (1997), a 35 minute direct-to-video horror film that he began working on two years previous. In Borchardt’s rationale, if he is given funding from his rich but eccentric Uncle Bill, Coven will be completed and the sales of the video will provide the financial backing for Northwestern. As he explains to Schank in one exchange:
BORCHARDT: Would you buy this movie for $14.95?
SCHANK: Yeah, hell yeah, man.
BORCHARDT: If I can find 3,000 people like you across this country man, I’m in business.
SCHANK: Of course man, I mean… Shit, that’s what Rush tickets were. Yet, what Borchardt fails to ask (and Uncle Bill does) is who else, aside from his best friend, will buy this movie?
Regardless of Uncle Bill’s doubts, he provides the capital for his nephew to finish Coven, the production of which becomes the focus of the documentary. We watch as Borchardt hilariously struggles with make-shift special effect shots like putting a friend’s head through a cabinet door and attempts to record dialogue for the film’s post-production, running into difficulties when Uncle Bill forgets his lines and the sound of his dentures is caught on tape. As the film progresses, it becomes clear to us that Borchardt has passion and a level of competency but, unfortunately, so did Ed Wood. Moreover, he becomes so easily derailed by alcohol that it occasionally infringes on production (a weakness he himself is aware of). Yet, despite all obstacles, he finishes Coven and everyone seems happy. As the film ends, despite a bittersweet conclusion (I won’t say anything more), Borchardt finally seems to be on his way to finishing Northwestern.
Yet, those events occurred nearly fourteen years ago (Coven was released in 1997, American Movie in 1999). Borchardt still has yet to finish Northwestern and he is rumored to be in production of another horror film, Scare Me. While the ending of American Movie may give us the impression that he will ultimately succeed purely on the drive of his passion alone, the genius of the entire film is that reveals the process to be more complicated by capturing the oscillations between the humorous trials of making a film to the depressing lows of Borchardt’s own struggles. He realizes his family does not approve of his lifestyle, repeatedly telling him that he’d be better off finding a steady means of employment and taking care of his two young children. Yet, he desperately wants to prove them wrong and, as the film progresses, so do we. The result is a film that feels like a Christopher Guest mockumentary that becomes all the more touching and sad when we realize these dreams, despite passion and competence may not ultimately come to fruition.
Having first watched American Movie in high school and having loved it, I developed a more hesitant reaction to the film during my college years as a Film Studies major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). I found myself editing in the same room as Borchardt and Smith, who also worked at UWM, and often ran into Mike Schank at my part-time job as a supervisor at an Osco Drug. These were nice people and had the best of intentions, but I could not help but feel that the independent film scene of Milwaukee started to become synonymous with Borchardt as he started making appearances at the local film festivals and showing up on The Late Show with David Letterman. Sure, Borchardt had prevailed and there was something to admire from that point of view, but Coven wasn’t an especially good film. For film students working at UWM at the time, we couldn’t help but ask why Chris Smith hadn’t gotten some of the attention. Sure, he had a hit at Sundance when the film was picked up for $1 million dollars by Sony Pictures Classics and Michael Stipe (yes, that Michael Stipe) and, at the time of my study, had recently completed a follow up. However, he wasn’t as visible as Borchardt; he wasn’t the chosen mascot. At the time, the film culture of our town and department was becoming memorable for passion, not quality.
Now, four years after leaving UWM, my pendulum of opinion has swayed back to its original position. Borchardt’s passion got him somewhere, even if it wasn’t where he ultimately wanted to end up. Moreover, after watching many student films over the past years, I can say that most of them are documents of passion, not quality (mine, despite my momentary delusions of grandeur, certainly were). Finally, Smith has become a notable, if still an underappreciated, documentarian, completing Collapse just last year and his first fiction film, The Pool, in 2007. In the end, Milwaukee and the film department at UWM got to have its cake and eat it too, as we became noted for both passion and quality, both temporarily wrapped up in one amazing film: American Movie. With that said, Mark and Chris, best wishes from a fellow Mitchell Hall inhabitant.
Note to Readers: The DVD of American Movie also contains the full version of Coven for those interested.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.