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American Movie

Released: 1999

Genre: Documentary

Runtime: 1 hr 49 min

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Chris Smith

Starring: Mark Borchardt, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Alex Borchardt, Chris Borchardt, Ken Keen, Mike Schank, Matt Weisman

Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt feverishly works to finish his independent horror film Coven, but with poor financing and lack of planning finds it nearly impossible to complete.

Mark, a likable guy with a scraggy beard and long unkempt hair.

Review by: SteveRhodes

Added: 8 years ago

"We're in America today, and we're ready to roll," says the indefatigable filmmaker, Mark Borchardt. Chris Smith's hilarious documentary, AMERICAN MOVIE, chronicles the innumerable trials and tribulations of Mark as he sets off to make his magnum opus, NORTHWESTERN. (Most of the film, however, has Mark sidetracked as he attempts to finish COVEN, one of his many cheap horror flicks, so that he can raise enough cash to complete NORTHWESTERN.)

After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, AMERICAN MOVIE was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for a nationwide theatrical release. The only recent movie quite like AMERICAN MOVIE was the much better HANDS ON A HARDBODY, which should be required viewing for anyone who likes either documentaries or comedies. What the two films share is a respectful but honest view of the poor part of America either ignored by Hollywood or excessively romanticized. Both take place in the cinematically unpopular middle of the country.

Actually, AMERICAN MOVIE isn't about making a movie, that's just the context within which to tell the story of someone in search of the American dream. "The American dream starts with me each and everyday," Mark proudly tells us. And for the 30ish Mark, the day starts off with his paper route so that he can earn some of the money he needs to stoke the fires of his ambitions.

In the Silicon Valley, young adults dream of striking gold with the next Internet IPO. In Milwaukee, in the bleak, cold heartland of the country, Mark sees film as his ticket to success. Driving out of his poor neighborhood of tiny houses and mobile homes, he goes to an upscale community to show us where he wants to live. Were it not for the fabulous success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, we might write-off Mark's cheesy, slasher flicks as being forever destined to be financial disasters. But if another indie filmmaker can ride to fame and fortune on something that looks like a bad home video, why not Mark, who even shoots with real film rather than videotape?

Mark, a likable guy with a scraggy beard and long unkempt hair, talks a mile a minute about his aspirations. He figures that when NORTHWESTERN is in production, he'll need a bunch of assistant directors just to hold the crowds back. Still, Mark, who comes from the Ed Wood school of filmmaking, readily admits his deficiencies. "There's such corny dialog," he says of his third draft of NORTHWESTERN's script, "that it'd make the Pope weep."

Although you'll find Mark charming and funny, not everyone has a charitable view of Mark's potential. "His main asset is his mouth," his own brother tells us in candor. "He's best suited for just working in a factory."

His buddy and fellow filmmaker, Mike Schank, who looks straight out of Central casting, acts like his brain was fried years ago. The rotund Mike, with his tie-dyed shirt and his wild hair and beard, relates stories of his abuse of drugs and alcohol, which he has finally given up. He steals every scene in which he appears with his sweet, out-of-it demeanor. Sent with careful instructions on how to put up flyers for the world premier of COVEN, Mike walks off without taking the flyers. When reminded by Mark, Mike just gives him a puppy-dog grin as if to say that if you didn't place the flyers directly into my hands, it can't be my fault.

As delightfully inviting as the documentary is, it makes you yearn for a fast-forward button. After a fast-paced, promising beginning, Chris allows his film to lose focus in the middle. Including too much footage of Mark's semi-senile, elderly grandfather, Smith lets the picture get sidetracked. Footage of Mark bathing his grandfather might work in some other film, but here it just bogs down the narrative. His grandfather, as one of his financial backers, deserves a place in the documentary, but perhaps not so prominent a one.

Although the documentary is about Mark's films and whether they would ever get distributed, Chris Smith and Sarah Price, the two filmmakers on AMERICAN MOVIE, maxed out their nine credit cards buying film stock for two years, as they followed Mark around. They eventually did attract some investors and, after their success at Sundance, a distributor. The American dream appears to have come to them quicker than it did to Mark and Mike, but in America there is plenty of dream to go around. And Mark, certainly, isn't one who is likely to ever quit.

AMERICAN MOVIE runs too long at 1:49. It is rated R for fake-looking gore and frequent profanity and would be fine for teenagers.