****/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A
directed by Chris Smith
by Bill Chambers You can imagine, as a virgin does sex, what it's like to make a movie, but until you do it, you'll never really know. In film school, I directed a couple of shorts--nothing you've seen, but that's beside the point: American Movie reminded me of why I hate making movies and why I miss it all the same. For me, watching this picture was a religious experience: Our (debatable) class differences notwithstanding, I don't know that I've ever identified with a screen character more than I did real-life struggling hyphenate Mark Borchardt. For non-directors, American Movie offers plenty of Fargo-style behavioral laughs, and it may kick-start the realization of your own elusive goals. This precious ode to fringe filmmaking pulls off the amazing feat of being accessible and specialized at once.
It should be noted that the onscreen title is American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, in reference to the feature Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin native Borchardt intends to realize at the start of Chris Smith's documentary, before he decides to polish off an abandoned short film instead. Due to a staggered shooting schedule, the 35-minute Coven (rhymes with "woven," not "oven") takes three years to complete, with Smith's camera following Borchardt for the duration of that time and then some. We meet and learn to love Mark's inner circle: slow-witted 'gofer' Mike Schank (whose music scores American Movie); Coven's troupe of eccentric local actors; and the Borchardt clan, most memorably rich and frail uncle Bill, discussing production financing with whom becomes something of a parlour game for Mark. "Bill is quite close to his money, but if anyone can pry it away from him, it's Mark," offers Mark's pious father, Cliff. Uncle Bill's closing monologue, in which he restores some virtue to the American Dream, is the emotional climax of the piece.
Chris and Alex Borchardt agree that their brother is a talented negotiator; they also generally believe that Mark's passion is frivolous. One or both recommend he seek a steady job, possibly factory work. (Mark supplements his income by deliveringTHE WALL STREET JOURNAL--David Lynch was an adult paperboy, too-- and caretaking a mausoleum.) Dad shares this opinion, while Mom's actions bespeak encouragement (on occasion, she fills in as director of photography) even though she's clearly conflicted when it comes to determining what's best for her son. Evidently, Menomonee Falls is no place for a dreamer--few towns are for a fledgling DeMille (or, in Borchardt's case, Romero). I don't think outsiders realize the greatest challenge any filmmaker faces is ignoring the surrounding chorus of dissenting voices, the loudest of them internal. Fortunately, for the most part, disapproval rolls off Mark like water from a duck's back. His passion is invincible, and almost embarrassingly inspiring.
Smith reminds us that poverty breeds addiction--any means of mental escape. When Mark's friends reminisce, it's usually about substance abuse; the obviously drug-ravaged Mike recounts the night he dropped toxic LSD that landed him in a hospital and how he tried to take the remaining hits regardless. The story serves to underline the necessity of ambition: For too long, Mike accepted his fate as a dead-end kid. The way Mike delivers it, the anecdote is both funny and touchingly pathetic, and the same goes for the behind-the-scenes footage of Coven. Smith has captured the elusive aura of a low-budget set--or any set, for that matter. There's an invisible current that keeps this cast and crew running past exhaustion to help Mark, the frustrated "purveyor of accidents" (as Orson Welles would say), articulate his not-always-coherent ideas. A sequence in which Mark is forced to ram a co-star's head into a cupboard multiple times (due to improperly cut breakaway wood) will probably send casual viewers into a laughing fit. I giggled, myself, in sympathetic recognition.
Upon actually seeing Coven, the tale of an alcoholic writer's descent into madness, it's tempting to dismiss Borchardt as the Ed Wood of his generation, especially as he does double-duty as the film's star. Get out the microscope and you'll notice a keen visual sense and skill as an editor. Tonally, the film is an admirable reminder of Herk Harvey's disquieting Carnival of Souls, and Coven's subtext is not lost on viewers of American Movie: Its plot, consisting of the unwilling writer's induction into a cultish--and possibly violent--support group, parallels Borchardt's own life of a habitual filmmaker trying to manage his inclinations without getting brainwashed into 'normal life' by pragmatic naysayers. In any case, the reference books popular and obscure that line Mark's shelves (Eleanor Coppola's Notes (popular) and Bruce Bahrenburg's Filming the Candidate (?) among them) are certainly no fluke, though his real-life tendency to call everyone "man" grates during Coven, where it shatters the ever-so-fragile illusion that Borchardt is attempting to portray a character. If I have one beef with American Movie, it's the lack of on-screen reaction to the fine cut of Coven, which may have been an intentional evasion. Let's hope the audience response wasn't too negative.
Columbia TriStar releases American Movie in a top-notch Special Edition DVD. The 16mm print has been transferred full-gate at 1.33:1. Grain, glorious grain is in abundance, yet the compression is flawless. Colour and contrast couldn't look better if you were there. Audio is 2.0 mono, and while the track is neither harsh nor flat, I did detect a mysterious surge in amplitude at the 74-minute mark. All of a sudden, I found myself turning down the volume to compensate.
Seven deleted scenes are presented as extras, all of them gems to us Borchardt converts. (Incidentally, they're letterboxed.) The first and foremost of these shows Mark trying to make headway with financiers at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival (my own first TIFF). In a much shorter clip, Mike laments not being a member of AC/DC. Smith, Borchardt, Mike, and producer Sarah Price contribute a feature-length commentary that isn't nearly as redundant as a yak-track for a documentary may sound. Anything to spend more time with these people...
The black-and-white Coven (**½/****) is also included in its entirety. The transfer doesn't appear as clean as excerpts from it do within American Movie proper--shadow detail is poor and contrast is wanting. The short was shot on affordable 16mm reversal stock, which means that no actual negative exists, necessitating the creation of an internegative from the original print. Dupes will therefore boast grain the size of cockroaches, and lots of it. (Still, the addition of Coven alone renders this disc a must-own.) Two trailers for American Movie plus DVD-ROM accessible web links round out a wonderful package. Originally published: May 22, 2000.