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Mark Borchardt sure does want to make movies. He wants to make them more than you do, I promise.
You know him. He's you when you were a kid; its just that he's thirty. He's who you were before you hung up the pipe-dream and got a job. He believes that he is one of the special people, the ones who are destined to make their (pun kind-of intended) mark. He wants to be something, do something, and he's not going to let little things get in his way, like crippling debt, or a total lack of resources, or the fact that his own family members don't believe in him (his brother suggests that perhaps he is suited best for factory work) or a purported paucity of talent. Not even living in Milwaukee, hardly a film Mecca, dissuades him from his lone track.
Documentation Chris Smith tracks this real-life Quixote's relentless tilt at cinematic windmills. Details trickle in from voice-over and head-shot interviews with Mark's friends and family and from grainy clips of the horror shorts Borchardt has been shooting since he was twelve. (Examples include I Blow Up, which is about exactly what it sounds like it is about, and The More the Scarier, parts I-III). Mostly the details come, fast and furious, from Borchardt himself, whose unique brand of hyper-patter manages to be simultaneously eloquent and ludicrous. Squinting from behind coke-bottle glasses about the size of a Buick's windshield, spider thin, sporting a metalhead mullet and the facial hair of a fourteen-year old, Mark couldn't be further from the Hollywood standard, and that's the way he wants it. The films he has responded to are fellow shoestrings - like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - which eschewed gloss for grainy, you-are-there verisimilitude. He wants to make a film that captures his reality, 'rust and decay.' He wants to make Northwestern, in other words, the story of his life. He's been working on it for ten years.
He also wants to break free of his life. He is sick of the lower-middle-class land of cheap beer from cans, dingy houses lined up like prisoners all striped in dirty white aluminum, hassles from the bills and the bill collectors and the IRS and the credit card people and the rotten jobs that are good enough for everybody else. Mark rejects this fate emphatically; he wants more, he wants out of the very reality that he wants so badly to capture on film - a kind of Oedipal complex of the American financial caste system. It is to Smith's credit that he leaves this primary irony in the subtext.
As American Movie opens, Borschardt is making his latest run at Northwestern, which quickly runs aground, then morphs into more realistic effort - to complete another unfinished project - Coven, a 30-min. horror film about an AA group gone sour.
Every Don needs a Sancho Panza, and Borchardt has his - Mike Schank, an serious acid casualty who has a passing knowledge of twelve-step programs. Completely straight now, he has plenty of stories about how he almost died from various drugs - he suggests at one point that he could go on recounting them all night. He also is as glazed over as a honey ham, and will giggle in a very unsettling way when he's nervous, which is most of the time we see him - the camera clearly makes him uncomfortable. Addiction's thread wends throughout American Movie, which is fitting. It is a dominant theme in the lives of these people, from Schank's current compulsion for scratch-off lottery tickets to Mark's own (suggested) alcoholism to Mark's Uncle Bill's obsessive need to count his quarters. Overriding all these is a greater addiction, which is Mark's obsession with filmmaking. For him, quitting would be like dying. No twelve step program will shake it. No matter how hard the process gets for him, he will never stop. It's not what he does, it's what he is.
It would be difficult to imagine how the process could be more difficult. Most of the laughs (and this is a deeply funny movie, so maybe you should just ignore all this highfalooting jibber-jabber and just watch it) come from pain both mental and physical. Mark is intensely aware that his life has not progressed according to script, but his ambition will not allow him to turn off the old grandiloquence. At one point he stands alone before a location and makes a matter-of-fact remark that he will have to hire a crew member for the specific purpose of warding off the multitudes who will doubtless gather to watch the shooting. Not long after this, we see the third and final crew meeting: Mark and a lone unnamed other sit in silence, and the table they crouch beside seems all the larger for its emptiness.
At times our hero just seems doomed. Later still we see Mark and Mike standing in front of the remains of another location - it burned to the ground the day before they were to shoot. "You know what," Mark announces, thoroughly discouraged, "At some point you've got to ask yourself: Is this what you wanna do with your life? Drink peach schnapps and try to call Morocco all night?"
At one point, a shot of a man's head being bashed through a cabinet door is attempted – through the extremely high-tech process of taking the actor's head and trying - repeatedly - to bash it through a cabinet door. The attempt, painful, unsuccessful, and heroic in a way, could stand as an apt enough metaphor for Borchardt's life.
Much criticism has been directed at the film and at Smith - the primary accusation being that the laughs come at the expense of their subjects, and that the filmmakers are looking down on these pathetic specimens with scorn, but it seems from my vantage that this criticism says as much about the critic - if not more - than it does about the film, insomuch as it takes as a supposition that these people are, in fact, pathetic. It seems that these accusations mask other, subtler prejudices. Perhaps Smith could have played it safer by documenting the travails of a success, or at least somebody who looks slick enough to get some phone numbers at the Toronto Film Festival.
Make no mistake - Borchardt is a flawed individual, and the camera shows this unsparingly. He drinks too much, he is behind on child support, he can be a martinet, he talks too much, he is quite often full of shite. (Good thing there are no legit film directors with similar qualities, huh?) But the reason we see all this is the amazing access that Borchardt gives to Smith, and Smith's ability to sculpt that footage to show us real human relationships huddling in the glow.
Sure, Borchardt schemes to pry money from his miserly uncle Bill, sweet talking him with head shots of pretty girls who 'want to be in your movie, Bill.' But just when we think we have the parasitic relationship figured, Smith's camera goes deeper. In a scene of startling intimacy, we see Mark bathing his uncle, then washing his clothes, and it becomes clear that Mark is all that stands between his uncle and assisted living. He is the old guy's best friend.
Sure, Mark's best friend is a giggling ex-acidhead scratch-off junkie, but before we can get our condescending grins completely dusted off, Mike Schank reveals his true nature, and we know that we should all be so lucky. It is clear that you could have no amigo more loyal, no compeer so true-blue. "I didn't even want to get up in the morning," Borchardt says at one point. "I'm thankful that Mike Schank came and put a smile on my face." "Mark makes movies," shrugs Schank, "so I guess I make movies, too."
Sure, Mark seems talent-poor, doomed to failure, but suddenly principal shooting is done. As Borchardt moves to the editing room, we think: wait a minute, this guy seems to know a thing or two. As the local premiere draws nigh, we wince for the grand embarrassment, the capper, the finishing move. The film will be a disaster, we are sure. After all, this guy looks funny, he talks funny, his friends . . . well, look at them. But by the end we have seen the portrait of an artist as a flawed man, and a documentary that shows the real sacrifice that comes along with commitment , the price of an attempt at greatness.
We see Borchardt huddled in the glow - sitting on the floor before the tube like a five-year-old, watching Northwestern footage shot a decade before and wondering where the years have gone. He won't forget his childhood dreams - they're always before him.