March 8, 2001
As an independent filmmaker,
I may be the least sympathetic person to ever watch American Movie,
a documentary about the making of an independent movie. Although
the portrayed filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, technically understands the
craft of filmmaking, and certainly has his own warped sense of tenacity,
he is obviously clueless and clearly has no interest in really figuring
out what hes doing. The smartest thing Borchardt did was
let Chris Smith make the documentary about him.
A friend of mine once said,
The technicalities of filmmaking can be taught to monkeys, its
all what you do with it. Borchardt has no interest in what
can be done with the form of filmmaking, he simply wants to use it to
get rich and famous, and that to me is the tragedy of the story.
I think filmmaking is a really poor route to fame and fortune -- the
attrition rate is far too high and very few people even succeed at making
a living, let alone making a fortune. If money is your motivation
then you ought to buy lottery tickets, like Borchardts friend
(whom we see win a couple of times, too), or go into real estate, but
movies are the wrong choice.
But because this story is
true, its fascinating. The documentary filmmaker, Chris
Smith, does something I like very much in documentaries, which is that
it covers several years. One of films greatest abilities,
I believe, is compressing time. That I can get a very clear picture
of numerous years
in a persons life over the course of 104 minutes is still amazing
to me. (Another good recent documentary that takes even greater
advantage of this is King Gimp, which covers 12 to 14 years
of this guys life in 60 minutes).
There is a little-known documentary
thats somewhat similar to American Movie, but quite
a bit better, called Demon Lover Diary. A Michigan
filmmaker, Don Jackson, made a horror film called Demon Lover
and a documentary was made about the making of it. Unlike Borchardt,
Jackson has a much clearer idea of what hes doing and why -- although
he too is bordering on clueless -- and actually has a producer who went
so far as to cut off his finger to receive benefits so that he could
finance the movie -- now thats dedication. But at
least Jackson knows what movie hes making and why and, if I recall
correctly, never once kids himself about fame and fortune. Hes
just trying to get a movie made. Don Jackson continued making
independent features, by the way, including the wonderfully titled Hell
Comes to Frogtown with Rowdy Roddy Piper, as well
as a sequel.
In American Movie
the only thing standing in Mark Borchardts way is himself, which
I found completely interesting. However, in Demon Lover
Diary, Don Jackson not only has himself to contend with, and his
painfully low budget, he also has a traitorous saboteur for a cameraman
-- the one making the documentary -- who thinks Jackson is an idiot
and is far more interested in his own film. Its a fascinating,
creepy situation, that culminates with the cameraman and his crew running
away in a fit of crazed paranoia.
In American Movie
I particularly liked the character of Bill, Marks aged uncle,
whom he keeps hitting on for financing. The old guy is obviously
failing, both physically and mentally, but proclaims that he has $280,000
in the bank, so his nephew is his best buddy. Bill lapses into
senile, babbling poetry several times, is forced to loop a line of dialog
31 times, and finally dies during the making of the film. He ultimately
leaves Mark $50,000 to finish his movie, too, so we do get to see this
one plan of his actually pay off.
Of course, 50 grand is shit
in regard to feature-length movies, and Ill bet Borchardt has
already blown it on his seemingly worthless movie, Northwestern.
We see him drop Northwestern mere minutes into the documentary
in favor of his clearly worthless horror short, Coven, which
he and the entire cast and crew (except for one actor) constantly mispronounce.
But Mark Borchardt cant
get his shit together because ultimately hes an irresponsible,
alcoholic dimwit that wont figure out how to do what he seems
strangely compelled to do. At one point Marks brother says
that he doesnt see whats special about Marks films
or who would actually want to watch them? I certainly wouldnt.
Coven looks like a crappy horror film made by an untalented
teenager instead of a thirty year-old.
What this all proves to me
is that far too many people seem compelled to make movies for the wrong
reasons. If you dont have a story to tell, it doesnt
make the slightest difference that you know how to use a hot splicer
or a flatbed editor.
Mark Borchardt, erstwhile
filmmaker, has no story to tell, but Chris Smith, the documentarian,
does. American Movie is a worthwhile entry in the
sub-genre of films-about-filmmaking. And definitely check out
Demon Lover Diary, should you ever get the chance.