The New Cult Canon: American Movie

The New Cult Canon: American Movie

"I was called to the bathroom at the cemetery to take care of something. I walked in the bathroom, and in the middle toilet right there... somebody didn't shit in the toilet, somebody shat on the toilet. They shat on the wall, they shat on the floor. I had to clean it up, man, but before that, for about 10 to 15 seconds, I just stared at somebody's shit. To be totally honest with you, it was a really, really profound moment. Cause I was thinking, 'I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds, I got to start cleaning up somebody's shit, man.'" —Mark Borchardt, American Movie

To me, the monologue above, taken from the closing reel of Chris Smith's great documentary American Movie: The Making Of Northwestern, is in essence what the movie is all about. Yes, it's an oft-hilarious look at the filmmaking process, following a Milwaukee-based independent director of limited means (and perhaps limited ability) as he tries to get a long-gestating personal project off the ground. And to that end, there are countless insights into how difficult it is for creative outsiders to realize their vision without the resources, access, education, and support that give more privileged artists a leg up. But American Movie isn't about filmmaking per se, it's about the dreams and delusions of a man who comes from blue-collar stock, but refuses at his peril to fall in line with what's expected of him. After 10 seconds' reflection, Mark Borchardt had to clean up somebody's shit in the cemetery bathroom, because he needed the paycheck. But damned if anybody's gonna call him a janitor.

For Borchardt, logging time working at a cemetery is apropos, since he began his career at a cemetery drinking and shooting splatter shorts (with titles like "The More The Scarier" and "The More The Scarier III") with his buddies. He'll surely want his tombstone to read, "Mark Borchardt, Filmmaker." He talks—and oh, is Mark Borchardt ever a talker—about how his pragmatic father discouraged his filmmaking dreams when he was just 14, and offered up a host of possible alternate occupations, including truck driver, police officer, electrician, and so on. And let's face it: When you're a high-school dropout from Northwest Milwaukee and your only source of financing is a cheapskate uncle languishing in trailer-park squalor, how many options do you have? Especially when every utility and credit-card company is threatening legal action on unpaid debts, and you have alimony payments past due on three kids? At what point do you give up the dream and start punching the clock?

For Borchardt, that point will never come. In fact, since American Movie came out in 1999, he's continued plugging away at his dream, though his habit of not finishing what he's started has brought only a few acting cameos and an upcoming feature (Scare Me) that's in a state of half-completion. The subtitle of Smith's documentary, "The Making Of Northwestern," says it all, really: Borchardt to this day has never finished his personal opus Northwestern, and Smith's film mostly covers the permanent distraction of wrapping up "Coven" (pronounced COH-ven), a 16mm black-and-white horror short three years in the making. Though he is, in the words of one "Coven" cast member, an "indomitable" figure who won't stop chasing that rainbow, he's also a serious fuck-up who, for whatever reason (his debts, his day jobs, his drinking, his depression), will always be swimming upstream.

American Movie opens with what will become a familiar image of Borchardt cruising the streets of Milwaukee on a paper route, holding court on the Great American Script, the Great American Movie, and his realization that it's important "not to drink and dream, but rather create and complete." Easier said than done. Borchardt's biggest problem is that his dreams are never tempered by the practical realities of bringing them to life. He's ramping up to make a feature-length 16mm film with a script that isn't ready, a cast of amateurs that are butchering his lines, unsecured locations, and worst of all, no money in the coffers. (His sole investor, Uncle Bill, isn't an easy man to separate from his dough, even in his clearly demented state.) The funny thing about the production meetings for Northwestern is that Borchardt seems to believe that just having them will somehow summon the movie into existence. It says something about his collaborators' declining faith that by the fourth meeting, it's only Borchardt and one other dude at the conference table.

As Northwestern collapses, Borchardt turns his attention to "Coven," which he hopes to finish after prying a few grand off Uncle Bill. His unlikely scheme is to sell "Coven" on videotape to horror fans at $14.95 a pop, and if he can find 3,000 buyers, the profits can be poured into Northwestern. (Not surprisingly, the cult success of American Movie turned out to be a boon on that front: According to the American Movie website, "Coven" has sold 5,137 units. Though even with that money and the $50,000 Uncle Bill left his nephew to complete Northwestern, the film remains in indefinite limbo.) It's here that we get a riotous look at what a Borchardt set is like, as in this classic footage of a breakaway cupboard that won't break away:

Along the way, we also get to know Borchardt's best friend Mike Schank, an amiable burnout whose misadventures with drugs and alcohol have clearly left some permanent wreckage in their wake. Schank mumbles on about how he and Borchardt became friends because Borchardt was the only guy he knew who was willing to come over and share a fifth of vodka. As the film opens, Schank has finally gotten control of his drug and alcohol addiction—he enthusiastically brandishes a can of Surge, a then-new Coke product—and found another, slightly less punishing addiction in scratch-and-win lottery tickets. The two make quite a pair: Borchardt the philosopher and soliloquist, laying every thought out on the table, and Schank his amiable sounding board, occasionally letting loose an odd, mirthless giggle. The one time we hear Schank talk at length about anything, he gives a casual yet harrowing account of a blackout that nearly killed him:

Audiences have a good time watching American Movie, and why shouldn't they? It's loaded with funny moments: The endless follies of low-budget filmmaking (the cupboard incident is only the tip of that iceberg), the misfiring synapses in Schank's brain, the colorful hyperbole in Borchardt's monologues and sales pitches, and the indelible character of Uncle Bill, who gets browbeaten against his considerable will into supporting his nephew. (A scene where Borchardt attempts to get one line of ADR from his uncle is a major comic highlight.) Yet the main knock against the movie is that Smith is condescending to his subjects and carting them out exclusively so we can laugh at their ineptitude. Even the word that many of the film's champions use to describe it, "affectionate," whiffs faintly of snobbery, as if Borchardt and friends were three-legged orphan puppies getting a pat.

At the risk of passing the blame, I'd say that any condescension brought to American Movie comes mostly from the viewer, not the filmmakers. Anyone who's spent any time on no-budget student productions—and I think it's fair to call Borchardt's work amateurish in a similar way—knows that the Ed Wood goofs Smith shows behind the scenes are common. Seasoned actors and professional crewmembers don't work for free, as Borchardt's do, and filmmaking on the cheap requires some jury-rigged solutions that are bound to look silly. Besides, based on the clips of "Coven" and Northwestern, Borchardt has an eye for the stark, high-contrast black-and-white images that reflects one of his stated influences, George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. The actual content of Borchardt's horror films looks senselessly gory and over-the-top, but to my mind, that doesn't necessarily make him a laughingstock.

Another thing critics don't acknowledge is the extent to which American Movie—and all documentaries like it, for that matter—is a collaboration between filmmaker and subject. There's no such thing as fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, especially when someone whose entire life is movies is put in front of the camera. Borchardt is exceptionally generous in revealing himself to Smith's camera, and Smith in turn does a thorough job mapping the terrain—his passion and delusions, his generosity and narcissism, his fractious family life and abiding friendship with Schank, and his complicated relationship with Uncle Bill, which is both exploitative and (here's that word again) affectionate. One could probably argue that too much fun comes at Schank's expense, like that Beavis And Butt-Head laugh, which is no doubt pushed through a fog of ruptured brain cells. And yet Smith finds him getting a handle on his addictions, too, and there are a few points where Schank and camera share some sly, conspiratorial laughs. (Schank also composed the score on his acoustic guitar.)

To my mind, American Movie is far richer than the fine but slightly overrated Tim Burton biopic Ed Wood, because it isn't content to merely celebrate the indomitable spirit of an outsider and an amateur. For one, Smith ultimately treats Borchardt the filmmaker as more a fellow traveler from Milwaukee than strictly a figure of fun, in spite of the production mishaps on display. But more than that, Smith doesn't flinch from Borchardt's very real flaws: His irresponsibility, his drinking problem, his negligence as a father, and his eagerness to pursue his dreams on the backs of his family and friends. At the same time, he sees in Borchardt the embodiment of creative drive and ambition, someone willing to press on when life keeps boxing him in.

In a recent interview promoting the 10th anniversary of "Coven," which appeared in the Milwaukee edition of The Onion, Borchardt had this to say when our own Steve Hyden asked if the process of filmmaking was more important than the end result: "Oh my God, eureka. That's what it is, man. If you're always concerned with what the end of the rainbow is like, and never even take a look down at the dirt on the path, you've missed out, man." And with that, I think, Borchardt has both a good excuse for not finishing his films and a fine reason to keep tilting at windmills.

Next week: Hiatus (Toronto Film Festival) with special fill-in feature

Sept. 18: Fight Club

Sept. 25: Songs From The Second Floor

Oct. 2: Oldboy

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