American Movie

“Funny-Pathetic” or “Tragic-Pathetic?”
★★★
☆
Released: 
1999
Director: 
Chris Smith
Starring: 
Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Bill Borchardt, Monica Borchardt
The Setup: 
Documentary about this white trash guy from Wisconsin trying to make a horror movie.
Discussion: 

I remember seeing the trailer when this was out—it played at the big art cinema here in New York—and it looked vaguely amusing and got decent reviews. And it sort of looks like the kind of thing where you laugh at the big dope at the center while also wondering at his wild ambition and then you make philosophical ruminations about the state of American life and our national psyche, and then you decide where to go eat. Which, in one way, is exactly what it was.

We’re outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We hear the voice of our narrator talk about how he’s going to make a movie and this one is going to work out, because “I’m not going to be a failure. I can’t be.” This is Mark Borchardt, who is working on his big film, Northwestern, which is going to be his departure from horror, and we are later told is going to focus on his life in the Midwest and be more of a serious, ambitious drama. He soon realizes that he doesn’t have enough money to make Northwestern, so what he’s going to do is finish his horror short, Coven, and sell [I think] 3,000 copies of it on VHS for $14.95 each. Okay, so HOW is this going to happen?

We meet his childhood friend, Mike Schenk [above], who is the more plump guy featured on the cover, looks like a lost original member of Boston, and has the manner of a sleepy opossum. Mark, tall, lanky, with long stringy hair that falls to his shoulders, has read a lot of books about making movies, and that is about the full extent of his filmmaking experience. Yet he talks and talks, rattling off his filmmaking intentions, peppered with noticeably placed technical terms, both trying to fool his listener and apparently psyche himself up with his lunatic confidence. It’s not a surprise a few minutes later, when his brother shows up and says “His main asset is really just his mouth. He has drive, but what I think he’s best suited to is to work in a factory.”

So he starts to get his movie together. He borrows $3,000 from his Uncle Bill, who is this withered and senile old man who lays there like a lump of dirty clothes, is unimpressed by everything, thinks the whole idea is just a giant crock of malarkey—and yet ponies up the money for Mark to pursue his film. Mark recruits people from the neighborhood to be witches/zombies, but in the end, no one shows up and he has to beg his Mom to work the camera—but she HAS to get to the store before it closes. Mark sometimes parks his crappy old boat-car by the airport to write or to use as his office, because that is where he can have time to think, Mark [below] is 30, and, we soon find out, has three kids from a previous girlfriend.

Then his friend Mike. The two of them originally bonded over drinking. Mike also did serious drugs, but is now sober and attending a million meetings to stay so—but is addicted to gambling. He tells a story of being brain-dead from a bad acid trip, and coming back to consciousness—and immediately wanting to take his other four hits of acid. “I have more stories like that I could tell ya,” he says. “All kinds of drug-related stories.” Yet he is always there, ready to help with anything Mark wants to do, at his house for Thanksgiving, and fully integrated into his life.

They make the movie, lots of individual scenes in there I won’t even go into, and whole characters I’m leaving out—not least Mark’s mother, a Polish woman who helps him at times by holding the camera while Mark captures himself rolling in pain on the kitchen floor. We see Mark drive to a subdivision of McMansions and talk about how he drives out here to remind himself of the good life he is going to enjoy once he makes it. That same brother from earlier says “He always said he was going to be a millionaire and it just seemed sad.” This brother later says that he suspected Mark might turn out to be a serial killer. By the way, Mark works as a janitor at a cemetery.

Toward the end, on Thanksgiving night, Mike says he won $200 from one of the scratch-off lottery tickets he’s obsessively playing. Mark says there’s still time to get to the local bar and buy four pitchers of beer. Mike—who doesn’t drink—says “Well I don’t want to drink beer,” and Mark replies “Well if you’re willing to buy it, I’m willing to drink it.” Mike then looks a little hurt and unhappy the rest of the evening. Mark seems a little drunk by later on, says loudly, within earshot of his mother, how he’ll never work in a factory, and never be like his mother. I forgot to mention that almost everything Mark says is peppered with “fuckin’,” said in such a way that makes it seem as though these words are really adding force and intensity to what he’s saying.

The movie ends with the local premiere of the film. We see snatches of the film, and soon after the documentary ends. We never find out how many—if any—of the film Mark sold, but there is a title at the end saying that Uncle Bill died, leaving Mark $50,000, enough to finish Northwestern.

Also on the DVD is the complete [30 min] film of Coven! This is a real bonus, as throughout the whole doc you’re wondering what it was like and how it turned out. The movie concerns a writer of some kind, who at the beginning is given an assignment that has to be done by that Friday. He pops a great deal of pills, ODs, and is taken to a hospital. He goes to an AA meeting that is filmed in such a way as to make the people there threatening. He goes out into the woods and is attacked by these hooded figures. His friend keeps pushing him toward the AA group. He goes out to an empty drive-in to think, and is once more attacked by the hooded figures. The next meeting, the AA people offer to help him kill himself. Finally he is attacked by his friend and a woman in a kitchen. He kills the friend, then the woman, yelling “You stupid Bitch! You stupid fucking bitch!” The end.

His short film doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, it barely has a coherent plot, but it does seem that Mark has a decent eye for some intriguing compositions. One can interpret some strange subtext in relation to the documentary: Mark is out of control with drinking and pills, yet the people who want to “help” him are actually evil emissaries who really want to help him kill himself. Mark’s dialogue in the movie is also peppered with copious F-bombs, again, presented as though they actually do amplify the intensity of the dialogue. Which, uh, they don’t.

The documentary itself was very interesting, but ultimately kind of shapeless. Details emerge, but they aren’t shaped into a coherent case study, the way Crumb or The Devil and Daniel Johnston were. This leads to one getting a little bored in the second half, as it just seems to be continuing without much purpose. It’s also a big problem that after all these characters go through, we never find out how the movie sold or even what the reception was. We don’t find out if Mark is going to at least start on Northwestern, and we never find out what he thinks about the whole experience in retrospect. Then, Mark’s finished film Coven is such an essential part of the film, it seems like it would be a real disappointment to watch just the documentary without it—which is how it was released in theaters. And since the movie is so shapeless, one feels like 30 minutes could easily be trimmed from the running time to include the finished short film. We also never find out how the documentarians knew Mark, how they arranged to make this documentary, and what role they played in the proceedings.

So ultimately there is a lot of really interesting source material, but it is just put out there and not shaped into a compelling narrative that would help its viewers draw larger conclusions and resonances from the story. You just kind of are amazed at how delusional yet crazily ambitious these people are—and of course, laugh at them for being such white trash.

And here’s where I had a personal reaction that definitely tempered my ability to just sit back and laugh at the hicks. I grew up around the lake from Wisconsin in Michigan, and the houses here looked exactly like those of certain people in Michigan, the people looked the same, the clothes looked the same, and the attitudes and crazy confidence of some of the characters were very much like some people in the rural and lower-class areas in Michigan. And although I wasn’t among those groups growing up, I felt I really KNEW the milieu of this movie, and it isn’t really that funny. When Mark would talk about how his dream is to live in one of those shitty McMansions, or Mike talks about winning a few dollars from a scratch-off ticket, rather than laugh, I would breathe a little sigh of “My God, I can’t believe how bleak this movie is.” This is just my personal reaction based on my experience, and one can read from the IMDb what a hoot this movie is for others who can have a good laugh at Mark and his insane schemes, but I couldn’t really.

But aside from all that, much of what the filmmakers capture is effective, and raises many issues about the American belief anyone can succeed at anything if they just work at it and are really, really sincere, and the need to “make” something of oneself, which inevitably means gaining some form of fame and recognition. This is played against the intense although unarticulated loyalty and devotion that the characters show to each other. Only the film raises more issues than it takes time to deal with amply, and in some ways is little more than a shapeless collage of footage. What’s there is interesting, but I would have preferred it to have been shaped and molded quite a bit more.

Should you watch it: 

If you like. It’s interesting for about half of it, then just meanders. If you do watch it on DVD, be sure to budget time [30 min] to watch the completed film.