American Movie

(Chris Smith, USA, 1999)


Mark Borchardt, an ordinary guy who by day cleans a cemetery in Milwaukee, never stops talking about the American Dream.

He intends to live out this dream in his own life – by making an ultra-low budget horror film called Coven (1997). To do so, he’s going to need the help, money, time and goodwill of just about everyone he knows.

At the beginning of American Movie, Chris Smith’s documentary about the slow, agonising process of getting Coven in a can and up on a local screen, Borchardt seems like a charmless, hectoring, obsessed nerd. By the end, few viewers will be convinced that he is a talented filmmaker. But most will have come to adore Mark and his motley crew.

American Movie is an extraordinary work which offers an unforgettable and very emotional experience. Smith and his producer-collaborator Sarah Price take a simple, unfussy approach to their documentary craft. The fluid naturalness of what we see belies the fact that the filmmakers spent years winning the trust and complicity of their subjects.

There is a straight line in American Movie – the path from one of Mark’s inadvertently hilarious radio plays to the opening night of Coven, where he makes a speech as informal as it is heartfelt. But woven in and around this narrative is a rich, collective biography of Mark and his companions, especially his sidekick Mike Schank (whose sometimes fumbling guitar recitals provide a charming soundtrack score).

A whole way of life is quietly laid bare for us, without overt editorial commentary: the drudgery of work, the tensions and joys of family life, friendships permanent and impermanent, the constant presence of hopeless addictions (to drink, gambling, drugs).

And then there are the moments of release and creativity, those little gestures that embody such grand and probably unattainable American dreams: for Mark, this spirit expresses itself in the trashiest Super 8 movies imaginable.

The making of Coven is quite a spectacle. Mark keeps announcing lasts – last shot to be filmed, last sound to be recorded, last splice to be made – until we and his assembled gang want to scream. But everyone (including his kids and mother) is eventually drawn into his meticulous obsession, matching negatives and fiddling with prints at dawn in a cramped editing room.

Mark’s very old uncle Bill becomes a major figure in this saga. He reluctantly signs over his money to finance the venture, and never stops whining about Mark’s incessant demands. But the deep, unspoken, familial tenderness between them is always palpable, even in the grottiest of circumstances – such as when Mark bathes Bill and endures yet another of the old man’s wondrous, free-associative raves.

Like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), but even more radically and profoundly, American Movie demands of its audiences that they overcome any lingering vestiges of class or cultural snobbishness. The film makes us see through the tatty surfaces of Mark’s art to its poignant wellspring in life – and lets us respect the crazy patchwork of quotes, clichés and ruminations that comprise his philosophy.

Likewise, while never losing its sharp eye for the drolly humorous, the film forces us into close contact with the hardcore humanity of its subjects. Mark and his company are neither – in the cut-throat vernacular of our world – winners nor losers. They simply live, struggling on – blowing their cool one day, regaining it the next, negotiating perennial waves of despair and euphoria.

American Movie – among the essential films of the ’90s, and far above the supposed, facile critique directed at it in Todd Solondz’s woeful Storytelling (2001) – is a wonderful, heartbreaking tribute to them.

© Adrian Martin April 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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