American Movie

American Movie

1999, R, 104 min. Directed by Chris Smith.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 26, 1999

For every big-dreaming nebbish whose pursuit of filmmaking glory lands him at the Oscars with Sarah Polley at his side, there are hundreds whose experience is more like that of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin's Mark Borchardt. Hunched behind the wheel of his pitted-out Mercury clunker in the middle of an empty parking lot, we find the scarecrow-thin 30-year-old scratching out dialogue revisions to a crappy horror film for which his highest aspiration is video-only release. Though we quickly understand that lack of opportunity and financing are the least of the (very) modestly talented Borchardt's problems, the surprising strength of Smith's documentary -- a runaway hit at this year's Sundance film festival -- is its refusal to set its admittedly risible subject up for either ridicule or condescension. Borchardt, a largely self-taught filmmaker from the blue-collar suburbs of Milwaukee, met Smith at a university editing lab where the director of American Job was also cutting his film. Fascinated by the scruffy but maniacally driven Borchardt, Smith obtained permission to make him the subject of what ultimately became one of the more memorable biographical documentaries I've seen in recent years. The main focus of Smith's film is Borchardt's frenzied, Ed Wood-like push to complete his horror short, Coven, which he gratingly mispronounces “coe-ven.” Financed with money scammed from the director's crotchety and barely compos mentis Uncle Bill, Coven is counted upon to not only pay off Borchardt's many loans (up to his tonsils in debt, he works evenings as a cemetery caretaker) but also help him finish a second movie that's been in limbo for six years. None of what we see of Borchardt, a pretentious, manipulative boozehound whose idea of a romantic gesture is giving his girlfriend flowers he's stolen from a gravesite, leads us to believe these ambitions will bear fruit. Nor do the testimonials of his long-suffering parents or the brother who at one point says he always half expected Mark to become “a stalker or serial killer.” But in a sense, it's Borchardt's very lack of talent that makes his story so compelling. Programmed as we are to feel inspired by gifted underdogs who refuse to accept failure, we seldom stop to consider the far more common lot of those who have no choice in the matter -- not because their desire to succeed is any less intense but because they simply don't have the goods. To our delight, however, it's not the oddly likable Borchardt's artistic shortcomings that register most vividly but his dogged, unyielding self-identification as an artist. Smith, the most discreet and self-abnegating of documentarians, affirms this point repeatedly not only with generous helpings of Borchardt's amped-up Norman Vincent Pealeisms (“We're about to redeem ourselves! We're in America and we're ready to roll!”) but also some delightful interviews with his actors and with childhood pals such as the well-toasted but still sneaky-smart PCP casualty Mike Schank. Though Smith's unassuming style may prevent him from attaining the exalted status of Errol Morris, it's perfectly suited for the subject at hand, offering viewers a revealing, heart- and mind-engaging insight into a uniquely American character type many of us may have known. (Or harbored within.) (opens Wednesday)

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American Movie, Chris Smith

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