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American Movie

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank

Directed by Chris Smith

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

For the longest time, before I actually saw it, I assumed that American Movie: The Making of Northwestern was a hoax. While all the nation's kids were calling up bookstores in search of The Blair Witch Cult, the mythical, supposedly aged text that explained the ghost's history, I was scrutinizing and re-reading reviews from Toronto and elsewhere trying to discern if American Movie, the documentary account of one young man's two year efforts to finish a 40-minute horror short called Coven, was some kind of elaborate trick. This guy with the heavy metal t-shirts and the effusive personality couldn't possibly be for real. And if by chance he were for real, filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price must be making fun of him.

He was, and they weren't. This all becomes evident while listening to the audio commentary track on the DVD version of the movie. Smith and Price, along with the subjects of the documentary, Mark Borchardt and and his factotum Mike Schank, chat amiably among themselves, indicating just how much the film was a collaboration among friends. Borchardt is, as they say in German, echt himself — bossy, self-obsessed, desperate, cajoling, and even at times legitimately embarrassed at his old behavior — and Schank comes across much as he does in the movie, a form of Silent Bob who remembers little of the filming, much less anything else. Mark and Mike have the barest glimmer of a spat over the possibility that Mike plagiarized one of his songs, a momentary outbreak of an ongoing, friendship-threatening difference of opinion. But for the most part their relationship is consistent with their on-screen dynamic. However, this is the first time that most people will have heard the director and the producer, and they come across thoughtful, considerate, and truly affectionate toward Borchardt and Schank.

This is important because it is easy to get the impression that the film is mocking its subjects. In the movie itself, Borchardt often times comes across so extreme he becomes a parody of himself, as he exaggerates his success to his Uncle Bill (one of his financiers), or browbeats and pleads with his mother to hop in as an extra or as cinematographer. And in attempting to capture the humor inherent in almost any filmmaking situation, Smith and Price were not always successful in avoiding the impression that they were deliberately focusing on the bad luck of the set, rather then just sharing in the humor of the moment.

Like most all the documentaries of recent vintage that are any good, such as Crumb, Hoop Dreams, the work of Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, this film is made by people who really come to know their subjects. As Price and Smith explain in the commentary, they shot the film over the course of two years, not even developing the footage, and then spent another two years editing. Their intimacy with Borchardt and his family is usually evident, especially from the commentary, but there is a risk that viewers will assume that the duo are profiling a second-rate John Waters, a low budget filmmaker deliberately trying to make bad films that can be advertised in the back of Draculina magazine. In fact, one of the unusual aspects of the film is that as you watch it you come to know the characters as you would real people, learning their secrets and life stories seriatim. And by the end, when Smith shows us black and white footage of Borchardt's work-in-progress Northwestern, which seems to be a closely observed tale of working class desperation and alcoholism, and which in Borchardt's complicated scheme is the film he hopes to finance by finishing and selling Coven, you realize that this American moviemaker has real talent hidden behind the bravado and despair.

American Movie won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Festival and made its theatrical debut in November 1999, thereafter released slowly across the country where it has grossed about $1.1 million dollars, according to the IMDB. The standard Academy ratio transfer (1.33:1) is fine and clean, and the disc also comes with the completed Coven, which proves to be a horrific Poe-like tale of an alcoholic who sees his AA group as an evil cult, and with 22 extra scenes, some deleted from the finished film and others longer versions of kept scenes. Altogether these additions and commentary greatly augment a great a film about the dreams and ambitions buried deep in the American heartland and struggling for expression and recognition.

— D.K. Holm

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