Videodrome :: American Movie (1999)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

In the opening of Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie (1999), Mark Borchardt drives the empty streets of northwest Milwaukee, cruising down roads lined with barren trees and used car dealerships, the warm hue of sodium vapor lights glowing against the approaching indigo dusk. “I was a failure, and I’d get very sad and depressed about that because I can’t be that no more,” Borchardt says in a voice-over. “I feel like I 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. And this time, I cannot fail. I won’t fail. It’s not in me…This time, it’s important not to fail. Not to drink and dream but rather to create and complete.”

From the audience’s perspective, Mark Borchardt is a thirty-something aspiring filmmaker. But from Borchardt’s perspective, he’s a multi-hyphenated auteur following in the celluloid footsteps of Kubrick and Truffaut. When discussing his projects, Borchardt quickly draws lofty comparisons to films such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Borchardt may be making nano-budget horror schlock, but he approaches the material with the same tenacity as Orson Welles making Citizen Kane.

When asked about Borchardt’s filmmaking, his brother Alex responds, “I think he’s best suited for work in a factory.” Later, Alex elaborates by saying, “He always said he was going to become a millionaire, and all of us would be jealous of him. It didn’t really make us envious of him. It just made — at least me, anyway — feel kinda sorry for him and pity him that he thought that way.” Alex isn’t the only member of the Borchardt clan who doesn’t believe in his brother’s dream. The rest of the family views Borchardt as a black sheep; he may never become mature and cognitive enough to accept his working-class reality in Milwaukee, a far cry away from his glamorous aspirations as a coveted filmmaker. 

Borchardt is a high school dropout who still lives with his parents, taking janitorial odd-jobs at the local cemetery to slowly chip away at his mountain of debt and child support payments for his three children. Without any financial assets or ties to the film industry, Borchardt relies on his unbridled passion and blind self-confidence to carry him through. This isn’t to say that Borchardt isn’t talented: he’s a self-taught filmmaker who learned his craft from checking out books at the public library and watching George Romero films (1978’s Dawn Of The Dead being his favorite). Throughout American Movie, we watch Borchardt bounce back and forth between typing up screenplays, loading Bolex cameras, and splicing up film in college campus editing suites. He’s as assertive taking light meter readings as he is rehearsing with actors (however excessive his direction may be). But Borchardt’s capability behind the camera hasn’t yet caught up with his grand plans for filmic eminence. Borchardt is a dreamer, dreaming a big American dream that is at odds with his circumstances. And here we have the central conflict of American Movie: the disconnect between Borchardt’s ambition and his resources.

Eleven days out from production, Borchardt pulls the plug on his independent feature-length film, Northwestern, lacking the funds to begin shooting. “I have absolutely no fucking money,” Borchardt tells the camera, sitting at a desk littered with unpaid bills, half-completed screenplays, and books on Hitchcock. “Aesthetically, I’m not ready. The script is not ready. The casting hasn’t even begun. The locations are scant at best.” Rather than succumb to his dire situation, Borchardt decides to do something that many directors more successful and revered than him (Richard Linklater, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Cassavetes, to name a few) have done in the past: Borchardt bets on himself, doubling down on his losing hand. With no clear path forward for Northwestern, Borchardt decides to engineer his fate by returning to Coven, a “thirty-five-minute direct market thriller film shot on sixteen-millimeter black and white reversal” that he began making in May of 1994. To finance Northwestern, Borchardt needs to finish and release Coven and make a minimum of $45,000 (or three thousand VHS copies sold) to cover his costs and set up Northwestern for production. With these stakes established, American Movie follows Borchardt for a few years in the mid-nineties as he attempts to complete Coven and make his dream a reality.

However inflated it may be, Borchardt’s belief in his dream is infectious enough to rally his friends into becoming pro bono cast and crew members. This includes Mike Schank, a musician and recovering alcoholic. Schank has been helping Borchardt with his films since their teenage years when the two friends would spend their free time shooting eight-millimeter slasher films in between partying. From childhood to adulthood, Schank has been a steadfast ally to Borchardt, serving as an editor, actor, line producer, composer, and just about every other set position under the sun for Borchardt’s films. As Borchardt’s right-hand man, Schank provides an interesting counterbalance to Borchardt’s extroverted personality. Schank is a charming space cadet, quiet and reserved, allowing Borchardt to take center stage with his loose cannon of ideas. In his selflessness and generosity, Schank offsets Borchardt’s often erratic ego, which swings from moments of unwavering perseverance to crippling self-doubt. As Borchardt wrestles with his shortcomings and existential queries, Schank is simply content to help his friend. “He asked me to come over and help him out,” Schank plainly states. “He said he needed help, and I’m always helping him with his films.”

Mortality looms over American Movie, providing a subtle undercurrent of melancholy. Whether it be Borchardt’s part-time job at the local cemetery or the constant deliberations over what to make of one’s life, the concept of death — the death of a dream, a film project, or a loved one — is a constant throughout the documentary. And as the years pass by, little changes for Borchardt. He continues to struggle with his finances and finish Coven, and he reluctantly stays at his cemetery job. His boss tells him that he hopes Borchardt’s position is “the beginning of a long relationship,” and Borchardt reflects on this by confessing, “I tell you what, man, it scared the shit out of me…I don’t see how people can go year after year at these stupid fucking jobs and not want to make something of themselves. I don’t get it, man.” And yet, this is exactly what Borchardt winds up doing. Not because he wants to, of course, but because the job is a means to an end. But for Borchardt, the end won’t be found at the bottom of a bottle or a lifetime’s worth of time-stamp cards, but up on the big silver screen. This is the end that Borchardt is working towards — this is his American dream. Come hell or high water, this is what he wants to make of his life before he winds up in the same mausoleum he vacuums.

Around the mid-section, American Movie detours from covering Borchardt’s progress on Coven to show us a Thanksgiving dinner that includes Bill Borchardt, Mark’s elderly uncle and default executive producer. Upon his request, Borchardt makes Uncle Bill a cocktail of peppermint schnapps and Sprite before bathing him and doing his laundry. Later, Schank arrives in high spirits, a smile plastered across his face: he just won $50 on a scratch-off lottery ticket at the local gas station. Although small and prosaic, these candid moments make American Movie stand out from other documentaries about the filmmaking process. You won’t see these moments in a documentary about Billy Wilder, Peter Bogdanovich, or any other titan of cinema. And that’s because American Movie isn’t about filmmaking as much as it’s about chasing the American dream in the face of adversity. It’s about working shitty jobs, knowing that when you clock out, there’s an unrealized dream waiting for you to pursue. There’s something to live for beyond the maxed-out credit cards, failed marriages, lost friendships, and all the depression and addiction that comes with it. Whether it be making a film or winning a lottery ticket, there is the hope within a dream to keep you going. In this way, American Movie speaks less to the egocentricities of artistry and more to the resilience of the human spirit, as embodied by a blue-collared midwesterner still chasing his lifelong passion, however far out of reach it may be.

American Movie doesn’t end with Borchardt becoming the next Steven Spielberg or winning an Oscar, but rather with a small premiere for Coven at a local Milwaukee theater in the summer of 1997, attended mainly by family and friends. In one of the last scenes, Borchardt visits Uncle Bill to discuss the fame and wealth that Coven will bring them. Uncle Bill’s response to Borchardt’s hype-man talk is rambling yet strangely poetic. In his cryptic speech, Uncle Bill seems to advise Borchardt to focus on spiritual matters and bringing happiness into other people’s lives, not to be so caught up in career pursuits. We later learn this scene was shot right before Uncle Bill’s death on September 13, 1997. Besides leaving Borchardt with his parting wisdom on life, Uncle Bill also left him $50,000 for the completion of Northwestern

American Movie would go on to win the “Grand Jury Prize for Documentary” at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and receive positive reviews from critics, including Glenn Lovell of Variety, who called the film a “madcap tribute to a beer-guzzling Midwestern filmmaker.” While this assessment is certainly one way to watch the film (American Movie is undoubtedly engineered to be a comedy and is going for laughs, utilizing the same documentary editing style of “situational set-up and confessional talking-head punchline” of Christopher Guest films and future television shows such as The Office), Lovell’s review misses the beating heart of the film. Yes, American Movie is funny, and you can watch it as pure surface-level entertainment. But if you probe deeper, American Movie reveals itself as a deconstruction of artistic failure, disguised as a comedic documentary about the blunders of an everyman-underdog trying to make a film.

Over twenty years after its release, American Movie remains a must-see for anyone who has ever tried to make anything, armed only with sheer vision and drive against hardships and setbacks. In its examination of aspirations, complacency, and the fine line between talent and persistence, few documentaries have come close to capturing the pursuit of artistic ambitions with such raw sincerity.

In an early production meeting for Northwestern, Borchardt gives a synopsis of the film he intends to make by exclaiming, “We get to see Americans and American dreams,” which, in an ironic meta twist, is precisely what American Movie is. | e hehr

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