Colombia Tristar Home Video
by ANDY IHNATKO
"American Movie" is a documentary centering around the adventures of film enthusiast Mark Borchardt. He drinks way too much. He dropped out of high school to devote more time to drinking and smoking dope with his buddies, Mike and Ken. There was an (apparently) ill-advised hitch with the Army, followed by a bad marriage which resulted in three kids. Now he's 30 years old, dead broke, living in his parents' basement and scraping by with a paper route and a job vacuuming mausoleums at a local cemetery.
But all of those problems will be behind him, once he completes his feature film "Northwestern" and it makes him a fortune.
There's just one hitch with this plan...oh, hell, there are a million hitches. But the One Hitch that forms the basis for the documentary is the the fact that a dead-broke Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin resident without a single professional film credit of any kind can't possibly get financing for a feature, even a ultra-low-budget horror flick. So after "Northwestern" quickly and inevitably collapses, Mark develops a plan: he'll finish "Coven," the short ultra-low-budget horror flick he began and abandoned a few years ago. He can make that film for only $3000, which he can hit up his 82-year-old Uncle Bill for.
So he'll finish "Coven," release it direct-to-video, and if he can sell 3000 copies one at a time at $14.95 a throw, he'll raise enough money to pay Uncle Bill back and finance "Northwestern"...just like that.
How did the makers of "American Movie" find Mark? I guess the Lord lets drunk drivers walk away from tree-assisted rapid vehicular decelerations unharmed, He puts winning lottery tickets in the hands of people who've never entered so much as a church raffle before, and when He's taken the time and trouble and inspiration to create an engaging and likable character like Mark, He'll make sure that there's a film crew hanging around during what's probably the most interesting few years of his life. Mark's a fascinating subject surrounded by characters straight out of a Coen Brothers film.
And of critical importance is the fact that Mark is a talker, able and willing to spill endlessly and earnestly at any given moment. He's one of those people everyone knows, who ends each sentence with "...man!" and precedes most adverbs with "f***in'." "The best thing Mark's going for him is his mouth," his brother allows, and we believe it when we see what he has to do to shoot this film. Completing "Coven" will require the concerted, patient, and unpaid efforts of dozens of Mark's friends, relatives, and acquaintances...basically, anyone who's available at the time when anything needs to be done.
Even his poor Mom has no defense against Mark's gifts of persuasion. One morning she has a busy day of shopping and errands laid out, but sure enough, she's intercepted on her front porch and shortly finds herself being driven to a snowy wooded acre, putting on a black hooded robe and menacing Mark's camera along with three or four of his friends. I think Uncle Bill forks over the dough for "Coven" because he knows he'll be more likely to get his $3000 investment back than to get back all the time he'd lose unsuccessfully parrying Mark off.
Mark's most reliable resources are still the pals he dropped out of high-school with. Mike (who comes off as a sweeter and more talkative version of Kevin Smith's "Silent Bob") capped off a life of drinking and drugging by dropping some bad acid a few years ago, and barely lived to tell the tale. He's now given up his addictions (Except for scratch tickets. "Because when you play the lottery, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," he says. "But when you drink and do drugs, you always lose"). Ken hasn't had that epiphany yet and is building on his criminal record, seemingly unable to take a step back and look at where his life is headed.
Mark worries about nothing but, though. Think on this: in "Midwestern," Mark plays an alcoholic junkyard worker who thinks he's a loser going nowhere, powerless to improve his lot and the victim of vast forces he can't comprehend. "Coven" is the same story, only this time he plays a writer. During production Mark comes across like a fish on the hook, aware that he's steadily but slowly being reeled in toward a messy destiny but desperately thrashing to throw the line anyway.
He turns that frustration both inward and outward. Time and time again he rails about people who refuse to make something of themselves. While watching the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl, he suddenly launches into a (beer-fueled) tirade against hollow, soulless factory workers who just trudge to work every day. It seems like Mark sees two possible destinies: he'll either remain a loser or he'll give up on his dreams and get with the daily drudge of an ordinary life. It's hard to decide which fate he fears more.
It's hard to figure him out. On the one hand, he can't deal with the simple task of paying bills and filing taxes. But on the other, filmmaking on any level requires an immense amount of planning, coordination, and follow-through. "Coven" isn't a simple weekend home-video shoot. It's fully storyboarded, with shot selection, coverage for editing, effects, additional dialogue recording during post-production, final cut and striking prints. Yet this stuff, he's on top of...no, let's give Mark his due: few people could produce so much on so few resources, and shots from the completed film show that he has some obvious skill.
Does he put so much time and focus into filmmaking to the exclusion of everything else because he thinks it truly will save him from a life working in warehouses and factories? Or is film just another drug he uses to escape from his reality?
Oddly enough, he has quite capable advisors in Mike and Ken and Uncle Bill, or at least in the examples they provide. Ken is completely oblivious to his own situation; he's probably doomed. Mike wised up and is successfully turning his life around, though his somewhat ephemeral and faraway speech patterns make me wonder if he'd put it off too long to avoid permanent physical damage.
And while Mark (during his many visits) chastises Uncle Bill for never having pursued a Great, All-Consuming Dream, it appears that Bill quite successfully realized a less ambitious one: he led a Life. He worked hard and saved his money, and in his Eighties found himself painting pictures and writing songs with a quarter-million dollars to see him through to the end.
"American Movie" illustrates the flip side to the film industry's many great success stories. Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino...there are plenty of big names who got their start with a film that was made by hand on begged, borrowed and stolen resources and the maxing-out of a great many credit cards. But those tales have happy endings thanks to the immediate commercial successes of their early works of all-consuming passion.
Mark Borchardt might demonstrate a more valid commitment to film than any of those guys. "Northwestern" if and when it's completed probably won't find the audience that "Clerks" or "She's Gotta Have It" or "Reservoir Dogs" did. Those other directors made films that said and did entirely new things, defining a "style" that future filmmakers would copy. If "Northwestern" is anything like "Coven," it'll properly be labeled (though not properly dismissed) as a child of George Romero's classic "Night Of The Living Dead."
I don't necessarily know that any of those other directors would have made a second film if their firsts had flopped. But I'm sure that so long as Mark Borchardt has friends and his gifts of persuasion and a nearby U. of Wisconsin campus that will give him equipment and film and processing for an entire semester for the cost of a single film course, he'll always be making films.
Features scene selection; original trailer; English and Spanish subtitles; Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround.
Picture is clean enough for handheld documentary shooting.
Sound, again, is best covered with the phrase "Look, it's a documentary." Still, let's use this space to give a cred to Mike Schank's nifty acoustic guitarwork, which makes up the soundtrack.
Alternate Audio Track is a real gem, with the filmmakers plus Mike and Mark filling in extra background to scenes. And Mike gets off on so many tangents that it's almost like hearing the sountrack to "American Movie II."
Deleted Scenes are utterly wonderful, containing footage leading up to and trailing after scenes in the movie, illustrating events that are hitherto only referred to, and showing us great stuff that was just too easy to cut (like Mike's fruitless visit to the Toronto Film Festival to seek funding for "Northwestern." They're the best kind of material for this sort of section: the only reason it wasn't in the final film was to keep the running time down.
Supplemental Stuff. All during "American Movie" you get to see snippets of "Coven" as it's being filmed and edited. Buy the DVD and you get to see the whole thing. To be honest, "Coven" is probably of keen interest only to people who've just seen "American Movie," but what luck: that's just the sort of audience the flick is capable of exploiting in this venue.
Copyright ©2001 Andy Ihnatko. May not be redistributed without permission. Studio PR types wishing to send Andy tapes, promotional clothing, or high-end video gear in hopes of securing a positive review are advised that such efforts are futile, but they're free to try to determine how high Andy's price actually is. Mail any and all pelft to Box 279, Norwood, MA 02062. He already has a subwoofer for his home-theater but could probably use a good pair of casual slacks.