Friday, April 4, 2008

Film #23: American Movie

It’s hard to make a movie. Really hard. Think of it like building a car engine. You have to get all these parts, big and little, and fit them all together until the thing runs. Movies are machines, as Roger Ebert once said, and they have essential elements that become small when seen as part of the whole. The art direction, the catering, the casting, the loading of the camera…without any of these and many more tiny elements, the machine won’t even begin to whirr.

Often, the only person who’s concerned enough about the contraption's smooth performance is the director. They are the only ones who have their hands in the contribution of each and every behind-the-scenes person, and they are the only ones who see the pieces of the puzzle fitting in with one another. This can be very taxing on the mind, spirit and body. As a director, one has to inspire one’s own enthusiasm as well as that of one’s collaborators. And if the collaborators are not engaged, either by paychecks or passion, then the director has to find a way to do their jobs himself. Directors need superhuman stamina and true believerism, or nothing gets done correctly.

American Movie knows this. Chris Smith and Sarah Price's remarkably humane documentary records resilient Wisconsin filmmaker and movie lover Mark Borchardt's quest to overcome his loser status (32 and divorced with two kids, he works at a cemetery and lives with his parents) by making Northwestern, a stark, black-and-white look at trailer-trash life whose production is halted when the budget fails to show. Along with his cadre of lifelong friends including his best buddy, doughy recovering party guy Mike Schank, an unshaken Borchardt decides to resurrect Coven, a 35-minute horror opus he long ago started but never finished. (Amusingly, he pronounces the title as "CO-ven," which is what you'll be calling it, too). Using funds provided by another of the film's unforgettable characters, his elderly Uncle Bill, Borchardt's plan is to complete Coven and direct-market it on video, thereby giving him the means to finish Northwestern.

It's here that director Smith gives us a harried look at the shooting and editing of a film that no other movie about moviemaking has ever really offered. The making of this 30-minute horror tale about an alcoholic’s entry into a world of witchcraft took a remarkable three years. (This speaks to the one luxury a truly independent filmmaker has: an endless amount of time to fine tune your product.) In its funniest scene -- and American Movie is a platinum mine of laffs -- Borchardt, as Coven's lead, attempts to capture a scene involving himself smashing another actor's head through a pantry door. The effort is hindered by an unbelievably embarrassing display of on-set naivete that leaves his fellow actor dazed and injured.

It’s easy to write Mark Borchardt off as a failed dreamer, but I don’t think he’s a failure at all. He’s just a little unfocused. At least he knows when he’s screwing up as a director. For all his blathery bullshitting, there is also a fair amount of truthfulness. He realizes when he’s not paying attention to the actors, and when he’s failing to give them the proper direction. He knows what he wants to see in the frame, and what he wants to hear on the soundtrack. But his problem is that he sometimes forgets to communicate these things to his collaborators. He needs people around him who are just as passionate about movies as he is, who can see what Mark wants without him having to micromanage them. (I love the scene where Mark is trying to get an opinion about his work from American Movie's directors, steadfastly refusing to answer from behind the camera even as Mark is giving them his best “eat shit” gaze.)

American Movie's greatness hails not just from seeing Borchardt overcoming on-set difficulties and his own taxing personality. The film is incredibly moving in many unexpected ways but particularly in how it portrays Mark's family and friends. The Borchardt clan apparently sometimes consider Mark's cinematic obsession as the sign of a deranged mind; one of his brothers—the one who’s obviously had more of a contentious relationship with Mark--says he can't conceive of the audience that would pay to see Coven and haughtily admits he thinks Mark is best suited for work in a factory. Yet, there's his confused mom, taking time out to run the camera or act as an extra, even though she realistically admits that she doesn’t believe that Mark has the ability to succeed in this venture. And there’s his dad, a guy who’s been beaten down so by his son’s failures that he’s now become pliable, even stolidly supportive of this mad moviemaking scheme.

And then there’s Mike, with his jittery nervous laugh, his droopy facial hair, his love of scratch-off gambling, his litany of acid burn-out stories, and his gentle guitar work (which happily acts as the score for American Movie). He too toils nonstop on Coven, just as a show of undying friendship with Mark. And even though this was a relationship first fomented by a shared love of vodka--or “vot-ka,” as Mike says in his Milwaukee accent—and even though Mike is now vehemently clean, he never rakes his beer-drinking buddy over the embers about his own continued usage (he does draw some boundaries, though). For his part, Mark finds his friend to be an unending source of joy. “Man,” Mark says as the chips are down in one part of the film, “I was feeling all depressed today and this guy came over and put a smile back on my face.” My favorite moment in American Movie comes when Mark is recording the screams of various actors to use on his Coven soundtrack; when Schenk steps up to the microphone, the guy lets out a metal-powered screech that puts smiles of gratitude on the faces of Mark and his crew. How sweet all of this is.

Finally, every scene Mark shares with his once sharp but now feeble, fatalisitic Uncle Bill is a marvelous peer into the unique relationship between a couple of true characters separated by generations. Mark is not just simply using his uncle--he loves him. No, this is much more complicated because, however unfaithful he might be towards Mark's abilities, Bill is still making one last stab at leaving something to a world he feels has forgotten him. Some of Bill’s most cynical remarks are tough to take--these portions of American Movie have a sorrow about them that approaches the levels of the Maysles' Grey Gardens or Ira Wohl’s 1979 documentary Best Boy, both of which also dealt partially with regrets in old age. One thing is for sure, though: Mark hasn’t forsaken Bill; he listens to him, feeds him, bathes him, clips his toenails (“Dude, look at that toenail! It’s, like, three-quarters of an inch thick! That’s a science photo!”), brings him his favorite drink of peppermint schnapps and Sprite, and even gives him the choice honor of having Bill deliver Coven’s first line of dialogue (the amusingly endless recordings of "It's alright, it's okay...there's something to live for--Jesus told me so" should act as a cautionary tale for filmmakers using non-professionals in their movies).

Rarely do movies portray so well an artist's -- particularly a frustrated, even sometimes an inept one's -- hunger for expression and comfort. Directors Smith and Price deftly deliver moments illustrating the determination and heart that go into even the most seemingly insignificant movie produced independent of the Hollywood system. So, by the end of American Movie, when Borchardt is trying desperately to finish the editing of Coven before its first screening, we're so in tune with everyone’s desire to see this project to completion, the payoff is ecstatic, if a little anticlimactic (Mark’s disappointing opening night speech to the audience is obviously delivered in a tired stupor).

I must conclude this loving review, however, with a harsh thought. Upon watching American Movie recently, I returned to a query I’d had long ago: Where is Northwestern, Borchardt’s abandoned tale of “rust and decay?” I wanna see it! Certainly during his time in the limelight, he could have found someone to pony up a few extra thousand for the film's completion. I mean, for all its faults, Coven (included on the American Movie DVD) does offer up a uniquely well-filmed atmosphere. But Northwestern hasn’t happened yet, and it's been eight years since American Movie's release! Why? Well, in searching for an answer, I ultimately have to question Borchardt’s true ambitions. He and Mike Schank became cult celebrities after the success of American Movie. I wonder if, having sampled success--having been a regular on David Letterman's show and cast in other films--I wonder if Mark really just wanted a tad of fame and fortune and maybe doesn’t wanna put in any more heartbreaking hard work towards getting a project done. I hate to think this about a filmmaker I like so much, but what else can I do?

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