Wednesday, December 30, 2009

American Movie (1999)

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern
Director: Chris Smith
USA 1999
107 min
Starring: Mark BorchardtMike SchankTom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Alex Borchardt, Chris Borchardt and "Uncle" Bill Borchardt, among others.

A much loved documentary about the struggle of film making.

Director/writer/producer/etc Mark and childhood friend/actor/musician Mike.

This documentary was a very agonizing film experience - in a good way. But I wish I never will have to struggle this much to reach my dreams.

On the northwest side of Milwaukee, in a seemingly regular American vicinity of white trash citizens living in trailers, we find a man named Mark Borchardt. He is 30 years old, lives with his mother, an ex-wife and kids he has trouble raising. He dreams of becoming a successful director - his life is making movies. So he does with lent money from family members and friends, using his funders and local theater talents as actors and keep himself alive with several random part-time jobs. Just until he makes his big break.

The really sad thing about this documentary is the combination of Mark's endless struggles to retrieve his dreams, the 15 years he has already spent trying to make it come true and the fact that neither his family nor most of his friends really believes in him.

Luckily he has his peculiar childhood friend Mike to support him (although he doesn't want to share his modest lottery wins in case he needs to lend them to Mark). It is this friendship that delivers most of the humor and warm feelings in this documentary - something that is much needed in order not to explode of anxiety and frustration as a viewer. But it is impossible not to love watching the odd friends together: Mark all fired up and passionate about filming, starting poetic, inspiring sentences without having a clue how to end them, and Mike just... being, I guess. Total opposites, in other words.

The cheap uncle Bill is a lovely, unconventional character too - that is lovable in being almost totally unlovable. Although he lends Mark money (and he has lots of it) and volunteer as actor in his films, he never supports him and feels no need to try pretending. And why should he? The guy's 80 years old, and at that age you should do whatever the hell you want in my opinion.

Since the budget isn't enough to finish the initially planned feature length "The Northwestern", Mark is forced to instead go back to another unfinished project of his: the 35 minute long horror film Coven (2000). After not only unbelievable amounts of trouble during production, but also depression and unflattering self analysis, Mark finally gets to see the opening of his work at an independent movie theater on Milwaukee's west side.

From my description of American Movie it may not sound very entertaining, but believe me - it's wonderful. I just want to trick anyone into thinking this is a comedy, which a lot of fans misleadingly calls it. Sure, I laughed a whole lot, but mostly a kind of panicky, desperate laughter. In producing that kind of a laughter from a viewer in a documentary, I believe director Chris Smith has succeeded with his work.

American Movie might also be one of the most quotable movies I've seen: every other line is epic. Probably because no one has put words into anyone's mouths, which is the truest quality of - exactly - a documentary.

Let me make an exception and re-introduce the "quote section" for this one post:

Mark: "Coven," man, we gotta get this sucker done, though. Seriously. Last night, man, I was so drunk, I was calling Morocco, man. Calling, trying to get to the Hotel Hilton at Tangiers in Casablanca, man. That's, I mean, that's, that's pathetic, man! Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That's senseless! But that's what happens, man.

Mike: [pointing to a makeshift crucifix] This is definitely a sign of voodoo.
Mark: Why is it a sign of voodoo?
Mike: It's an unnatural cross, Mark!
Mark: What, you think when Jesus was hanging there, he thought it was natural?

Mark: They're making a mockery of my words, man. This whole thing is turning out to be a theatrical mockery. You understand that, Mike?
Mike: No,
Mark: Well, you will.

Mark: Do you think this is a little bit cathartic for you?
Mike: Uh, very cathartic, Mark.
Mark: Do you know what cathartic means?
Mike: No.

Mark: Would you buy this movie for $14.95?
Mike: Yeah, hell yeah, man.
Mark: If I can find 3,000 people like you across this country, man, I'm in business.
Mike: Of course, man, I mean... Shit, that's what "Rush" tickets were.

Mark: 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 man, I just stared at somebody's shit, man. To be totally honest with you, man, it was a really, really profound moment. Cuz I was thinkin', "I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleaning up somebody's shit, man."

Uncle Bill: Do they smoke and have cigarettes up in Heaven? I don't think so... I don't think so.

Mark: And you get your name on the credits as a producer, man.
Uncle Bill: [Deadpan] Yay.

Mark: [to cast with covered faces] You guys gotta look menacing! Can you be more menacing?

Mark: It's pronounced "COE-ven", man. What else could it be pronounced?
Actor: "CUH-ven". That's the proper pronunciation.
Mark: No, no, no. No, no...”CUH-ven" sounds like "oven", man. And that's just... it doesn't work.

Uncle Bill Borchardt (1914-1997)


getsbis said...

oh my god this movie is wonderful yet a bit painful to watch. how did you decide to see it?

now i want to do it myself, again. beautiful, smart, nostalgic expierence. oh, and all those quotes! everybody, go watch it.

Lolita of the Classics said...

It sure is!
I actually got to know about this film from the Angry Video Game Nerd at He made a special on "5 movies about making movies", listing this as the number one. That's also where I got the idea of watching "Be Kind Rewind". You should always get film tips from other film nerds!

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Unknown said...

Lolita ... love the love for this little ol' gem which, as I imperfectly recall, says more than one beautiful thing about artistic aspirations, hopes, dreams, etc ... my recollection is "imperfect" simply because I'm the fellow (pictured above) whose head went through the cabinet ... repeatedly ... making full recollection dicey ... all the very best from here ... Tom ;)