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Directed by: Chris Smith

Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Monica Borchardt, Bill Borchardt, Tom Schimmels, Robert Richard Jorge

I suspect that the real tragedy of Chris Smith’s American Movie is that it’s not an isolated or singular story. It is a documentary that follows Mark Borchardt on his journey to realize his life-long dream of producing his own film. Mark is from Wisconsin, one of the Midwestern states that just seems to be, or at least is portrayed to be, a swamp of mediocrity and banality. He’s an undereducated washout who is obsessed with films; we know this mostly because his bedroom walls are covered with posters for his favorite films and his bookcase is overflowing with books about Stanley Kubrick and George A. Romero. I doubt it’s a surprise to anyone when we learn that while Mark likes all sorts of movies his favorites are….drum roll… horror movies! Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are among his favorites and he’s set out to make a film called Northwestern, a feature-length about… I have no idea. Employing friends and family Mark tries to make Northwerstern but very quickly learns that his limited talent and limited funds will not produce the film he wants, so instead he opts to make Coven (pronounced “coh-ven”). Coven is a short horror film about Christianity, or the occult, or something, and he’s going to spend the next three years and every cent of money he can find trying to make it.

Mark is smart, he really is. He’s clearly taught himself a lot about filmmaking, and he’s obviously got some grip on the different stages and processes of the technical side of making a movie. Mark is also ambitious.  He knows for certain he can make the films he wants to make, and will not stop until he’s finished. Mark’s problems are elsewhere; he and the people he surrounds himself with are hopeless and problematic. His best buddy Mike is the only person who seem to really, truly believe in what Mark is doing and he sticks by his side faithfully for about the ten years Mark spends working collectively on Northwestern and Coven. The issue is that Mike has severe alcohol and drug dependencies that he attempts to stop by developing a terrible gambling addiction. Mark’s mother is a frail Polish women who enables Mark’s self-destructive behaviour and is a real push-over. Mark finaces the film by ruthlessly bleeding money from his liquor-soaked and possibly senile elderly uncle, who barely has any idea what he’s doing and who is easily persuaded after a bottle or two of rum. By the end of the film, it is clear that Mark, too, has developed full-blown alcoholism, and I realized after the film that booze dominates as much conversation in American Movie as does Coven or anything else. We all know people like Mark; he’s intelligent and capable, motivated and unstoppable, and at his core he really is the remarkable person he wants to be. The problem is that Mark is reliant on losers and enablers that he can’t get away from long enough to accomplish his dreams, no matter how much he wants it to happen. He uses his drinking buddies to fill out most of the cast and crew, while the few “real” actors he does hire are the most absurd people I’ve ever seen. The female leads are only cast because Mark is attracted to them, and a man named Robert Richard Jorge clearly thinks he’s Elizabeth Taylor.

The thing about American Movie is that we can never really despise Mark. We can despise his shitty friends, even Mike, the sweet and gentle idiot, but we can’t ever totally give up on Mark. It’s because we’ve all had moments where we know that if we could just get out of our own way for long enough, we could achieve that thing we want so bad. We know that about Mark as well and watching American Movie, we just hope that there will be that moment of epiphany where Mark gets serious about getting serious and makes his damn movie. But also, this is a hope knowingly based elsewhere, a projected hope because Mark is, despite himself, a fuckup. His descriptions of his films’ plots are senseless, and one scene where he’s meant to put an actor’s head through a cupboard door is ridiculous.

American Movie is directed by Chris Smith, whose Collapse (2009) I really loved and whose Yes Men (2003) I haven’t seen but was very popular. Collapse is also about a man who seems to be on the right track, yet something isn’t adding up. In that film, author Michael Ruppert sits in a chair in an empty room, chain-smoking and describing his theories about peak oil and the CIA, among other things. It’s a gripping and enlightening film, but at times you have to remind yourself that if this man were entirely correct, why is it only surfacing now? Something is misguided or unsound about Ruppert’s theories, and the same goes for Mark Borchardt. Except, in the case of Mark Borchardt, we, the audience, already know there’s something wrong and we’re just screaming at the screen for him to smarten up and realize the same.

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