American Movie (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
Chris Smith’s documentary turns our attention on a unique man with a story to tell. A lifelong fan of the movies, especially the horror genre, his main inspirations including but not limited to George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Mark Borchardt hopes to become a filmmaker. Though he does not always have the proper funding, he forges on through sheer determination and optimism.
In order to finance his film about life in a small town, Mark decides to complete his short horror picture called “Coven”—the pronunciation rhyming with “woven” not “oven”—with the help of his family, friends, and the community. When finished, he hopes that it will sell a minimum of three thousand units in order to earn forty-five thousand dollars, enough to cover his bills long overdue, the equipment, and other necessities to jump start his personal film called “Northwestern.”
I suppose it is easy to look at Mark and be a subject of ridicule. He has long hair, awkwardly tall, quite lanky, and speaks with a southern accent. But the more we get to know him through his passion for filmmaking, the stronger we root for him, to see him come out of the other side with flying colors. I did anyway. I imagine a lot of people who have dealt with a lot of personal roadblocks to get to a good place in their lives will be touched by this charming portrait of a colorful man propelled by even wilder, more variegated dreams.
It has a down-to-earth sense of humor. The most hilarious bits come in the form of Mark depending on non-professional actors and technicians to perform in front or behind the camera. We have all been in situations where we give someone specific instructions to accomplish a job and that person, for some reason, still cannot execute it properly. Mark keeping his cool and remaining sunny despite a frustrating situation is funny. We laugh because of the situation and, perhaps more importantly, deep down we know that, if we were in his shoes, we would have reacted with at least a drop of negativity.
We also get to learn about the individuals who help Mark to complete his short film. Mike Schank is memorable as the independent filmmaker’s friend. He may not always be present mentally but he is the kind of person who is relaxed and good-natured, the kind of guy you want around during hectic times. Bill Borchardt, Mike’s elderly uncle and the executive producer of the short film, steals our attention, too. One of the reasons why I always looked forward to seeing him on the screen is because it is difficult to predict what he is going to do or say next. On some days he is cranky. And then there are times when it is obvious that he just does not want to say anything.
There is layer of sadness, too. Not everyone believes that Mark can be much of anything. Maybe they believed in him when he was younger but a work being delayed for years made them doubt. That tiny seed of doubt has taken root and grown. Mark’s family members are supportive. But when they are asked directly and decide to tell the truth about what they think Mark will accomplish, it stings a little bit.
“American Movie” reminded me of reasons why I review movies given that it is about a person’s passion. I want all moves to be good. I want to praise what I see on the screen and to realize that somehow the experience made my life a little bit better. I may not look forward to a movie at times because an actor I do not particularly care for is in it or the trailer has not done its job to get me excited, but once I am sitting in my chair and the movie is playing, I am open to anything.
A lot of movie critics, reviewers, and bloggers often forget that making a movie is hard work. I am not an exemption. It is easy to be snarky and get carried away with metaphorical jargon designed to devalue a film more than what is deserved. What requires more effort however, is taking the time to really consider what one wishes to communicate about a good or a bad movie, or one that is straight down the line mediocrity.