AMERICAN MOVIE directed by Chris Smith

Film / Video Reviews
AMERICAN MOVIE directed by Chris Smith
May 23, 2000, 06:55

AMERICAN MOVIE directed by Chris Smith; Sony Pictures Classics, 1999

American Movie is brilliant. Every line is quotable and the cast of characters is like nothing you've seen before, all of which guarantees the film's future cult status. It follows the travails of Milwaukee-based filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he attempts to shoot his feature horror film Northwestern. His cast and crew quickly abandon him, realizing before he does that he doesn't have what it takes to pull it off. At first glance (and even after repeated glances), Borchardt is a Midwest waste case. He lives with his folks, is separated from his wife and three kids, the bills are piled high and his film career consists of a handful of abandoned projects save for the films he shot in high school-I Blow Up and The More the Scarier (Parts 1-4). But Borchardt is an impossible dreamer and a hell of a talker. His non-stop, emphatic chatter is the grist of the film. His patter reels from philosophical musings “That's what it's all about...rust and decay. But then, within that is the warmth of the soul and stuff like that. It's a lonely road, but there are warm houses and cars,” to self-criticism “I gotta get [the script] so it's not embarrassing to give out. You know what I mean. There's some corny dialogue that would make the Pope weep and I gotta resurrect that” to pep talks “There are no excuses. No one has ever paid an admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen. I've been to the movies hundreds of times and that's never occurred.” Every time you think he's down for the count, he talks himself back into the film game. With Northwestern on the backburner, Borchardt decides to revisit Coven, a short film he started but didn't complete two years earlier. He plans to finish Coven, sell 3,000 copies via direct market video, and use the profit to finance Northwestern. But nothing's that easy. It takes another two years to finish Coven during which Borchardt's crew whittles down to his mom, his kids, his new girlfriend, and his two best buddies from high school-Ken Keen and the irrepressible Mike Schank. The fact that this motley crew pulls the film off is pretty inspiring. Borchardt also stars in Coven, which means, more often than not, that other people have to shoot the film. It's pretty amazing, because the portions of Coven that we see look really good...and they're shot by housewives and six-year olds. Likewise the film is edited, logged, sound mixed, and negative cut by this same assortment of people. American Movie is truly a weird manifestation of the American Dream. Nothing goes right, almost everyone abandons Borchardt, he has no money and works sweeping floors at a cemetery,  but he manages to persevere thanks to the kindness and hard work of old friends.

More than just a feel good story, American Movie is hilarious. The myriad of problems that occur on the set could fill a textbook about low-budget indignities. They include the highlight of the film, a fight scene during which Borchardt attempts to jam an actor's head through a kitchen cabinet, and Borchardt's 80 year old Uncle Bill role who becomes a major player in the film's production.

The film's secret weapon is old time chum Mike Schank. Schank first befriended Borchardt in high school when they discovered a shared a love for drinking straight vodka. Schank has obviously partaken in the party atmosphere, retelling many weird drug stories over the course of the film. During the making of American Movie, Schank has gone straight-edge, but is now working on a ten dollar-a-day scratch-off habit. Schank is a low-key, spaced-out, giggly foil to the frenetic, in-your-face theatrics of Borchardt. Schank also can play guitar. Though Borchardt accuses him of ripping off Sabbath, Schank's work is the score for American Movie.

The magnetism of Borchardt and Schank is undeniable. Fortunately, this is the day and age when it's not unlikely for two marginal weirdos to become superstars. Borchardt has already had his moment on Letterman and is now writing a guest column for Jane. Hopefully, there's more to come.

-Danny Plotnick

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