Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #8 --- American Movie (Chris Smith)

Here's what we've covered so far:

The Top 10 Films of 1999:

Introduction: The Best Films of 1999
10 - The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
9 - Affliction (Paul Schrader)

American Movie, the brilliant 1999 documentary, contains a personality that is just as infectious and enthusiastic when talking about film as someone like Scorsese or Tarantino. That person is Mark Borchardt, a Wisconsin native who dreams of making the All-American film someday. However, his struggles to break free from the cycle that slows him down (alcohol, friends, partying) show a person who dreams big, but has always been ankle deep in the mire of small town America. This is a talented individual, you can tell that by listening to him, he’s passionate, too; however, his passion is never enough to break free from the suffocating home life he encounters on a daily basis. He tries to channel that into his filmmaking, but he often fails. What we get in Chris Smith’s documentary is a story about a very specific type of person in a very specific type of town. It’s often a very funny movie (Borchardt is a very entertaining personality), and other times it’s sad and poignant – a movie filled with a lot of truth about how talent gets swallowed up by the deadly combination of alcohol and living in a small town. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the passion one person has to get something done and to get away from the place that bums them out.

I would love to visit this town and meet Mark and talk about horror film with him. His story is an underdog one: the struggle to make the movie you feel you were born to make. Mark isn’t an idiot, though; he knows what it takes (money, location, direction, discipline) to make a movie. This definitely isn’t someone who just woke up one day and thought it would be cool to make a movie…this is a living, a job for Borchardt, and he takes it very seriously. He always is talking about how he can’t be sitting around with a beer in one hand and his dreams in the other, he has to act – he needs to do something about his dream. For him it’s survival so he can get away from the town that drags him down.

This guy knows what he’s talking about when it comes to movies, and not just about horror movies. There is a great scene where he is scouting locations and he talks to the filmmakers about some of the great cinematic backgrounds found in Manhattan and The Seventh Seal where characters are sitting around talking, but they have these fantastic images behind them telling the story, too.

Borchardt’s also a great pitch man. I have a feeling that if this guy ever got a budget, just any kind of budget, to make a small indie horror flick, his enthusiasm could sell it to people and make the film a hit. When he talks the crew or potential investors in his film (usually his parents or his Uncle Bill) they listen intently because he speaks with such authority and passion.

This is evident in one scene where he is having a script reading for one of his films. We see amateur actors painfully getting through a screen test. Then the filmmakers cut outside to Mike and his longtime buddy Mark (who is a highlight of the film, no doubt) and is disgusted by what’s going on inside: “They’re making a mockery out of my words, man. It’s a theatrical mockery…” Again, this is a man who is deadly serious about the work he does.

The movie Borchardt is trying to make is called Northwestern, his masterpiece. The story of a 20-something loser in the Midwest whop tries to battle his demons (alcoholism) and break out of his nothing town. However, he just can’t seem to get any momentum with the film (money is running out and he’s been working on the thing for six years), so he goes to his bread and butter to get him some money and rejuvenate his creative juices: a horror film entitled Coven. Mark has been making horror films ever since he got his first Super 8 when he was a kid. Friends tell stories about the films they made entitled The More the Scarier (there were three sequels, too) and how much fun they had even though the camera’s focus was messed up they could see from the onset that Mark was a passionate filmmaker.

Some of the conversations surrounding Coven are hilarious, especially between Mark and one his actors who is one of those small town thespians who takes his “craft” way too seriously. They discuss the title and how it should be pronounced. Mark wants to call it Coven with a long o, and his acting buddy says that’s not the correct way of pronouncing it and it should be called Coven (like “lovin’”) and Mark says “no way, man. That sounds too much like oven, man.”

It’s great watching him direct a scene where he’s trying to put one of the actors’ head through a cupboard that hasn’t been scored correctly. So upon the first few takes his head bounces off the cupboard. “Oh, I’m sorry I tried to put your head through that, man.”. He’s so passionate about what he does…there’s a great scene where he explains ADR to his daughter, and he’s not condescending in the least bit…he speaks to her like a tutor would trying to educate a pupil who is confused by something. This guy lives every moment of the day thinking about film and the movies he’s trying to make.

Mark spends a lot of time philosophizing to the cameras, but the reality of the situation is that he’s like a lot of these small town personalities who want to break free from the mundane areas that drag them down. They can talk articulately about getting out, and they can dream and speak poetically about the American Dream, but they will never break the cycle. There is a bit of sadness and poignancy to Mark’s story – especially when he relays a story about he got a job working for a cemetery and the owner looked at him and said “I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship”, and you see in Mark’s eyes and the way he says “no way, man” that he has no intentions of dying in Milwaukee vacuuming floors at a cemetery – and that’s what makes American Movie such a special documentary. The quiet moments where the viewer is allowed to get into the mind of Mark and see that he’s not unique, there are many people like this who feel suffocated by the dead-end towns they live in.

Obviously Mark and Bill are made for each other; both looked upon as the outcasts of their family, so it’s natural that they bond. There’s a great moment where Mark is hanging out with Bill on Thanksgiving. His mom is out with his brother having a “very sterile meal, talking about very sterile subjects” according to Mark, and his father is up north away from his immediate family. This tells you a lot about Mark’s home life, and why he probably became so enamored with the movies – it was necessary for his to escape. There’s a great moment where Mark is monitoring Bill’s bath on Thanksgiving night and notices a “wicked ass toe nail” that could be “a science photo”. The interaction between the two in these scenes shows just why Bill is willing to finance Mark’s films. They trust each other because Mark is genuine in how he cares for Bill, and Bill is the only one in the family who doesn’t see Mark as a loser.

Of course Bill’s respect for Mark isn’t always clear as one can see in the now famous scene where Mark tries to get Bill to say the line “It’s alright. It’s okay. There’s something to live for. Jesus told me so!” After 30 takes, though, Bill doesn’t get the line right and claims that the whole exercise is “for the birds”. The scene conveys Mark’s passion for getting things right, but it’s also hilarious in that he is trying to get people like Bill to recite lines from a horror film.

The film ends on a telling moment, perhaps a moment where Mark’s naïveté is clearer than ever before. He and Bill are sitting outside of his trailer and Mark asks what his American Dream is. Bill scoffs it off as if he has no dream, Mark replies with “we’ll film you sitting outside of a trailer, man, but we live where you’re sitting outside of a trailer.” Bill then goes off on an emotional soliloquy about the loss of time and the futility of Mark’s endeavors. Once he’s finished all Bill can do is laugh and shake his head like the kid just doesn’t get that, possibly, his future is right in front of him in the form of Bill. The final punctuation mark to the film is some text stating that Bill died months later and that he has left Mark $50,000 for the completion of Northwestern.

Then director Chris Smith does something interesting by showing old black and white footage of Mark working odd jobs and lots of drinking with his pals from high school; perhaps indicating that nothing has changed. Those final images show that Mark may not know what to do with the money Bill has left him, because he lives a cyclical life of hanging out, getting high, boozing it up, and philosophizing big rather than living big. Maybe Mark will break the cycle (he has acted in numerous B-movies since this documentary, but he still hasn’t completed Northwestern), but all of the obvious signs around him point towards a different outcome.

Like any good documentary American Movie lets you into a world that you never would have been aware of prior to watching the film. It’s about specific people from a specific town that is rarely seen in mainstream film, and that’s why they documentary is such a powerful art form – it shows the audience a slice of America that they are infrequently privy to. Smith’s documentary makes me want to hop on a plane and find Mark so that I can sit down with him, have a few beers and talk movies. Not every movie elicits that kind of response from its viewers. This is a special movie.

Extra Stills:


  1. Couldn't agree with you more, this is a great movie.

    If you didn't know better, one might think that it was a Christopher Guest style mockumentary, due simply to the humor inherent in it and the somewhat unreal characters that are Mark and Tom.

    And although there are plenty of hilarious scenes (the cupboard scene and the "It's alright..." are my two favorites), you point out what makes the movie great is that it's a portrait of real people with real problems. So much so, that you really feel sympathy for them and their inability to move on. It's like a David Gordon Green movie come to life.

    Oh, and for those who want to watch and haven't, you can see the whole movie on YouTube (100% legal, in fact). I'm listening to it as I work today :)

  2. Troy:

    I thought about bringing up the Christopher Guest parallels, but decided against it because I wanted to focus more on the people instead of the director.

    I say that because there are people out there who insist that Smith and Borchardt were in on this thing together and made it a Waiting For Guffman type movie. I haven't been able to find anything on that sicne I first heard it (which was when the movie came out on DVD), which pretty much proves that the theory is false.'s a pretty fascinating movie and some of it almost seems "too good to be true".

    I like the David Gordon Green comparison. He's definitely a filmmaker who invites his viewers into a specific world seldom seen.