American Movie tracks the cinematic dreams of the ultimate Hollywood outsider

American Movie tracks the cinematic dreams of the ultimate Hollywood outsider

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Room 237 has us thinking about documentaries about movies.

American Movie (1999) 
Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie is about the making of Northwestern, an ambitious personal feature by Mark Borchardt, a filmmaker from the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. But it’s really more about the finishing of “Coven,” a horror short Borchardt abandoned years earlier, but takes up again after Northwestern falls apart. In this case and others, Borchardt’s dreams tend to run ahead of his ability to realize them, but his dogged pursuit of them in the face of personal, financial, and artistic obstacles makes American Movie both troubling and oddly inspiring. With the film-within-a-film hitting the rocks so quickly, Smith seizes on the opportunity to explore the fullness of Borchardt’s life: his dead-end jobs delivering papers and working in a cemetery; his friendship and collaboration with the damaged but optimistic Mike Schank; a home life tarnished by neglected children, unpaid bills, and a serious alcohol problem; and those precious hours when he can put all those things aside and work on his movies. 

Some critics accused American Movie of mocking Borchardt, but anyone who’s ever spent time around a student production can recognize—and laugh about—the mistakes that happen whenever an unseasoned cast and crew try to make a movie together. And while the documentary is extremely funny in spots, Smith takes a much more expansive survey of Borchardt’s life, picking up on a universal theme of how a person’s day-to-day challenges and responsibilities can squelch whatever grand destiny they once had in mind. Borchardt’s refusal to snuff that flame carries enormous consequences for him and for the people around him, but his persistence is nonetheless remarkable. He’s the ultimate Hollywood outsider, lacking the resources, personnel, connections, location—and, okay, perhaps talent—to break into the field, but he remains astonishingly unbowed. 

Availability: Not streaming anywhere, but the special-edition DVD has some great extras, including “Coven” and a wealth of great deleted scenes.