Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Film Appreciation - Drink and Dream

Jay Burleson writes about his favorite documentary for this week's Film Appreciation as he discusses Chris Smith's American Movie.

American Movie (1999)
Directed by Chris Smith
Starring Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Bill Borchardt, 
Monica Borchardt, and Ken Keen

"I was a failure. I was a failure and I get very sad and depressed about it, and I can't be that no more. 'Cause I really feel like I've betrayed myself. Big time. I know when I was growing up, I had all the potential in the world. Now I'm back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand and is thinking about the great American script and the great American movie. This time I cannot fail-- I won't fail-- it's not in me. You don't get second chances and mess 'em up, you'd be a fool to. It's not just finishing films or in the long run getting some money but it's right now-- I feel like it's 5, 10, 15 years ago and now I've got the same options again and this time I'm not going to fail. This time it's most important not to fail." - Mark Borchardt

With those words, as well as images of a pretty sunset as seen from the highways of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my favorite documentary of all time begins.

American Movie is the story of independent filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he struggles to get a film made. When we first pick up with Mark he is attempting to make a feature length film, a drama called Northwestern. The documentary ends up following Mark as he steps back to complete a previous work that was never finished, a horror short titled Coven. I consider it to be a tour de force in documentary filmmaking.

The characters here are so alive, the story so engaging, that I could watch this over and over. It succeeds at not only capturing a true glimpse of the "American dream" in the mid-'90s, but it also perfectly photographs the simple day-to-day routines of Mark and the locations he inhabits. The fall and winter landscapes of Wisconsin that surround the characters feel so right and perfect to me, as if this could be my neighbor or even myself. Part of this does make me think of my own childhood and early teenage years, and the cold winters of Alabama that witnessed me running around on my own, shooting movie after movie. I'd be lying if I said this film didn't remind me of myself, as I am also a struggling independent filmmaker like Mark. It could be about anything else though, and it would still be just as great. It's the spirit of the characters and the genuine struggles they face that make American Movie so wonderful.

The character of Mark is a little aloof. He has three kids, goes from delivering newspapers to being a cemetery caretaker, and has no real connections in the filmmaking world. He is strictly independent and do-it-yourself, yet always possesses a good spirit about what he is trying to accomplish, even when the odds are firmly against him. The most watchable thing about Mark is that he is a funny guy, maybe even when he's not trying to be. He supplies a stable dose of hilarious one liners throughout the duration of American Movie. In fact, most people in the film are quite humorous from time to time-- be it the situation they end up in or the words they mutter to Mark under their breath. There's Mark's elderly uncle Bill, Mark's number one source for production funds. Bill has about as much faith in Mark's filmmaking as he does in his ability to fly, and is always giving Mark a hard time when Mark tries selling him on the next stage of production. It's funny, a bit sad, and at the end very endearing to watch these two share time together.


Then there's Mark's friend Mike Schank, a guy who used to party a lot, but in his own words, "doesn't anymore." It seems Mike's party lifestyle has left him a little dazed, but he is Mark's most trustworthy assistant. He is a kindhearted friend who always comes through in helping Mark out on set. At the end though, when everything comes down to the last minute, you'll find just about everyone helping Mark out. Even his mother makes her way into the editing room to lend Mark a hand.

Blog runner Cody Hamman was the first person to nudge me in the direction of American Movie, and it was a great inspiration to me during my early teenage years. In fact, by the time I had finished watching it, I was fast at work on a project of my own. The film was titled "The Misery" and was shot the very next day and night by a group of my own closest friends. It very much resembles the way Mark Borchardt would have shot his own films during his teenage years. I was inspired by Mark to get up and do something, but also by some of the great looking black and white exteriors that he shot for his horror film, Coven.

There are so many relatable things here, be it if you are a filmmaker, or anyone who has undertaken a creative endeavor that requires mass participation. Mark has to set off into the snow with his mom dressed as a cult member when no other extras show up, and anyone who has ever tried to make a film on no money can relate to that. There's a sequence late in the film where Mark needs another favor from Uncle Bill. This time he needs Bill to assist him in some ADR work to clean up a line Bill's character delivers in Coven. Uncle Bill, who is anything but a budding thespian, struggles to get the line out without stumbling. Finally, Bill mumbles it to satisfaction, and Mark is happy with the take, minus the fact that he feels he recorded it too high. Onward they go, from take 16 to take 30. There is something very painful to me about this scene and others like it because they force me to look at myself as a director and analyze my own priorities and work as a director. I admire Mark because from the very beginning he honestly assesses himself as a filmmaker, and I share some of the same worries and thoughts that he does on the matter. I think anyone who can honestly look at themselves under a critical light does.


Much could be said about Mark and his character. Is he a good filmmaker? Is he a loser? Will he ever succeed? It seems people either see Mark in two ways: a loser who will never get anything done or a strong-willed man who continues to chase his dreams at any cost. None of that really matters to me though. The film is perfect, even in its sadness, for feeling so completely genuine. Maybe it's the relatable aspects of a struggling independent filmmaker that ring so true to me or maybe it's just the notion of a man never giving up on what he truly loves, no matter the odds.

"It's alright, it's okay, there's something to live for!"

1 comment:

  1. This documentary is one of the greatest things in existence.

    And if you're around me for any amount of time, odds are you'll hear me quote the "failure" line, with my attempt at the accent.