March 8, 2001

“American Movie”


       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 he’s 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, it’s 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 Borchardt’s 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, it’s fascinating.  The documentary filmmaker, Chris Smith, does something I like very much in documentaries, which is that it covers several years.  One of film’s greatest abilities, I believe, is compressing time.  That I can get a very clear picture of numerous years in a person’s 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 guy’s life in 60 minutes).
       There is a little-known documentary that’s 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 he’s 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 that’sdedication.  But at least Jackson knows what movie he’s making and why and, if I recall correctly, never once kids himself about fame and fortune.  He’s 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 Borchardt’s 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.  It’s 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, Mark’s 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 I’ll 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 can’t get his shit together because ultimately he’s an irresponsible, alcoholic dimwit that won’t figure out how to do what he seems strangely compelled to do.  At one point Mark’s brother says that he doesn’t see what’s special about Mark’s films or who would actually want to watch them?  I certainly wouldn’t.  “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 don’t have a story to tell, it doesn’t 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.