AMERICAN MOVIE

Directed by Chris Smith

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

***

Opens in New York on Nov. 5th


Seeing documentaries in a Manhattan arthouse can be a pretty painful experience, since our local "hipsters" love to show off their supposed superiority by laughing at anyone onscreen - whether fictional or real - they look down on. Mike D'Angelo and Amy Taubin, among others, have accused AMERICAN MOVIE itself of this kind of smug condescension. (If the press kit's description of its website, where one can pursue "the joys of reading the daily rants and inner thoughts of a filmmaking genius {Borchardt, not Smith}" and "win a weekend in Milwaukee with Mark and {his friend} Mike as your guides," is anything to go by, Sony Classics is marketing it towards these smug assholes.) Perhaps it looked better because I saw it a few hours after enfant terrible wanna-be Harmony Korine's puerile JULIEN DONKEY-BOY, but at heart, I think it has more in common with Preston Sturges; CHRISTMAS IN JULY than Korine's adolescent sideshow. While not as artless as recent documentaries like HANDS ON A HARD BODY and SICK, AMERICAN MOVIE is a rather conventional piece of filmmaking, but it captures a protagonist - Wisconsin-based aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who has spent the better part of the 90s trying to complete two films) - as driven and fascinating as Bob Flanagan and the Crumb brothers. He may sometimes look ridiculous, but his passionate struggle for the chance to earn a living doing what he enjoys is a near-universal - and hardly laughable - one.

Even as an adolescent, Borchardt had always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. Inspired by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and George Romero, he made Super-8 gore shorts while still in high school. In 1990, he began a film called NORTHWESTERN, yet he was never able to finish it. Shortly before a planned return to production, he realized that his plans were unfeasible and opted to expand his short COVEN into a 35-minute film that could be released on video. (His goal was to break even by selling 3000 copies at $15 each.) Despite many setbacks, he finally managed to complete COVEN in 1997.

If Mike Schank, a recovering alcoholic/drug addict and musician who's a walking "just say no" ad, or Borchardt's cadaverous uncle Bill, one of COVEN's major investors, were the central focus of AMERICAN MOVIE, charges of exploitation and/or condescension might carry more weight, since both often look rather pathetic. However, Borchardt seems to know exactly what he's doing when in front of Smith's camera, even to the extent of working his drinking problem and perpetual financial ills into a personal mythology. Until Smith incorporates some clips of COVEN at its premiere, one can't tell how talented Borchardt is, but he's got enough of the gift of gab to hustle his way through the role of a director. Filmmaking requires talents beyond an eye for framing or the ability to work well with actors, and Borchardt certainly demonstrates a knack for using other people's talent and good will.

When Smith first met Borchardt while in post-production for his first film, AMERICAN JOB, at the University of Wisconsin, I'm sure he could see the parallels between their dual desires. Of course, AMERICAN JOB - a dark-humored, minimalist account of dead-end minimum-wage labor, made in 1995 - is a far cry from COVEN, but Smith wasn't any more of an industry player than Borchardt at the time. Rather than turning him into the next Tarantino or Kevin Smith, it received only a bare minimum of theatrical distribution - as part of a 1997 touring program of independent films - and still hasn't come out on video. AMERICAN MOVIE may be a funhouse-mirror self-portrait. In fact, Borchardt's motivation to complete COVEN stems from a desire to escape the grind AMERICAN JOB described so well. His self-theorizing may be rather confused - although I liked his description of his philosophy as half-Christian altruism and half-Satanist selfishness - but he talks about the humiliation of menial labor - especially his job as a graveyard janitor - quite eloquently.

AMERICAN MOVIE ends shortly after COVEN's 1997 premiere, but the film itself has become an intervention into Borchardt's fate. Rather than being ignored by distributors the way AMERICAN JOB was, Sony Classics snapped up its rights at Sundance for a reported $750-800,000. Riding its coattails will almost certainly enable Borchardt to make a profit on COVEN and get his next film financed. (According to the press kit, primary shooting on the resurrected NORTHWESTERN will finally begin early next year.) Is this a happy ending for both filmmakers? Probably, but I came away from AMERICAN MOVIE recalling the grueling work and risk-taking that went into COVEN, rather than the excitement of its completion. Unlike most press coverage of Sundance, Smith doesn't glamorize independent filmmaking: he shows all the tedium of making sure an actor's head stays in the frame, having to record 30 takes of dialogue and scrambling to correct last-minute fuck-ups in the editing room. Although Borchardt keeps talking about achieving the American Dream, even the small measure of "success" COVEN will attain - most likely as a novelty item, rather than serious competition for THE SIXTH SENSE or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - can only lead to more struggle. He's such an interesting "character" that I can't help wondering where both he and Smith will be 10 years from now, and I'd like to see him close the circle by turning the camera on Smith.