Scott: American Movieis subtitled The Making Of Northwestern, but director Chris Smith doesn't construct his documentary around that inevitability—which is good, because Mark Borchardt’s magnum opus falls apart quickly, due to lack of resources and locations, holes in the casting and crew, a script that’s still in rough shape, you name it. In terms of filmmaking, the majority of American Movieis about Coven; (COH-ven), the long-in-the-works short film Borchardt hopes will earn enough in VHS sales to revive Northwestern. For Smith’s purposes, the collapse of Northwestern gives him an ironic title, but it also underscores the film’s primary theme, which is about how dreams and aspirations run aground on cold reality—debt, family obligations, alcoholism, bad choices, etc. In terms of style, the greatness of American Movie lies in its flexibility, in Smith’s trust in Borchardt as a fascinating subject, and in his willingness to allow the film to go wherever Borchardt’s adventures take it.
Now that digital cameras have gotten so good, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that documentary filmmakers can leave the camera running as long as they like without having to worry about burning up film stock. American Movie was shot in 16mm, which means the audience can hear the money burning through the camera just as surely as Borchardt can when he has his mother shoot a pick-up shot for “Coven.” One of the impressive things about American Movie is that Smith gives viewers a sense of Borchardt’s home life without the luxury of endless fly-on-the-wall coverage. Which leads to a second point: Documentaries are often talked about like there’s some great distance between filmmaker and subject, but American Movie is a collaboration between Smith and Borchardt, two independent Milwaukee filmmakers who are trying to break through in different ways. Critics of the film see some mocking distance between the two; all I see is them working together to reveal some truths about filmmaking and Middle American life.
Nathan: One of the things that really struck me while rewatching American Movie is how unobtrusive Smith is, as a filmmaker and an almost-subliminal presence in his own film. He’s behind the camera, and he sometimes asks questions, but he never imposes himself on the narrative; he’s so muted, I forgot he was a presence at all. There are moments throughout American Movie where Smith’s voice can be heard behind the camera, but he has the good taste—and canny judgment—to understand that Borchardt and Mike Schank are his film, and that his presence will only be a distraction. Smith is the antithesis of Morgan Spurlock/Michael Moore types who can never get enough attention.
Matt: It’s fitting that so much of American Movie is about the tedious, painstaking flatbed editing of “Coven” at the University Of Wisconsin, because Smith’s own movie is fabulously edited, with a sharp sense of timing for pathos and comedy. The scene, for example, where Borchardt and Schank repeatedly try and fail to re-record Uncle Bill’s single line of dialogue—“It’s all right! It’s okay! There’s something to live for! Jesus told me so!”—is both hilarious (“Take 16!“ cuts directly to “Let’s go, take 30!“) and devastating. (After Borchardt tells Uncle Bill he has to believe what he’s saying, the old man bitterly replies, “I don’t believe nothing.”) Young viewers raised in an age of Final Cut and iMovie coming to American Movie for the first time today will surely be shocked by just how time-consuming and difficult analog editing was less than 20 years ago. Seeing the endless hours the “Coven” crew put into assembling their short (and frantically searching for a couple of frames that mysteriously vanish) puts Smith’s precision with similar equipment into perspective, and makes his accomplishment seem that much greater.
Tasha: I last saw American Movie when it came out in 1999, and I remembered it as a poignant film about two people without a lot of resources, driven to make art, even though they aren’t particularly good at it. Re-watching it all these years later, I see it differently: It feels much more like a character study, with filmmaking as a significant element of their lives, but often not the most important one. American Movie does spend plenty of time with Borchardt and Schank on shoots and in the editing room, but it skims across a lot of the moviemaking process in order to focus on Borchardt’s relationship with his kids, or Schank playing guitar and talking about drugs or his scratch-off ticket habit, or their interactions with Uncle Bill. The awkward segment where they all hang out at Thanksgiving takes up significantly more time than the auditions for the film, or the unexplained late-stage crisis with “Coven.” The details of Uncle Bill’s bathing regimen are awkwardly funny, but they feel like a bit of a derailment.
Scott: I’m grateful that Smith takes an interest in Borchardt’s life beyond his creative ambitions, mainly because those ambitions are complicated by his relationships and personal problems, but also because the film wants to understand the full scope of his world and the odd characters within it. The scene where he bathes Uncle Bill is a great example: It would be easy to accuse Borchardt of taking advantage of his uncle’s feebleness and dementia in order to separate him from his money, and we can see evidence of him doing exactly that. Yet it would be false to say the relationship is entirely exploitative, because Borchardt is willing to mix it up with the cantankerous old man, despite the sometimes cruel things that come out of his mouth, and he gives him that bath, which is an unglamorous duty, to say the least. He takes advantage of Uncle Bill and he cares for him, too, and seeing the fullness of that relationship makes American Movie stronger.
Nathan: Re-watching American Movie, I got the sense that it could be an hour longer and every bit as compelling. Uncle Bill isn’t the only fascinating figure floating around the periphery of the film. The movie is overflowing with them, from Borchardt’s shockingly practical girlfriend to his guilelessly enthusiastic kids to the wonderfully theatrical older actor who strides about like a Victorian dandy. Hell, I would watch an entire movie just about Mark Borchardt’s relationship with Ken Keen. American Movie is about a lot more than a movie: It’s about America, man, and I am only partially joking when I write that.
Matt: All the characters, including the minor ones, are so fascinating to watch, and I’d also throw Borchardt’s family into the group Nathan already mentioned, including his brothers (who display shockingly little affection for him or his films) and particularly his mom, who indulges his dreams, but appears fully aware how little hope Borchardt has of making them into a reality. I’d argue that disconnect between Borchardt’s ambition and his goals is the reason for all the focus on his day-to-day life away from Northwestern and “Coven.” For Borchardt, filmmaking is more than a passion; it’s an escape from a world of dead-end jobs, piles of bills, and bitter exes. Showing us his wider world helps us understand why he’s so consumed with making his mark in movies.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Matt: Chris Smith’s first film, about a guy trying his hand at a number of low-paying jobs, was titled American Job, so it made a certain amount of sense to name his next effort, about a guy making a movie, American Movie. But even removed from Smith’s filmography, that would be the right title, because Mark Borchardt’s fantasies of fame and money are more than dreams; they are the American Dream.
For Borchardt, making films is his life, his liberty, and his pursuit of happiness. He speaks explicitly about wanting to break free from the shackles of dead-end jobs and bill collectors, and to achieve enough financial security to pursue his artistic goals. Smith smartly juxtaposes Borchardt’s yearnings with American iconography, most brilliantly in the scene where Borchardt recounts a disgusting bathroom-cleaning story, while removing hundreds of flags that had been flown in honor of Memorial Day. The men and women buried in that graveyard died so others could pursue their own American Dreams. But while Borchardt aspires to his, he’s still mopping up shit.
Nathan: My favorite ironic juxtaposition in the film is Borchardt discussing the endless debts that will seemingly keep him forever enmeshed in a life of poverty, while wearing a Nike “Just Do It“ T-shirt. Borchardt has clearly mainlined the American Dream and embraced the can-do spirit embodied by both Nike and capitalism as a whole. But as Matt alludes, he needs to extricate himself from a literal world of shit in order to do so.
Tasha: My favorite part of that scene is where it ends: After several minutes of sorting through his massive stack of unpaid bills, Borchardt finds an envelope containing a freshly issued credit card. “Kick fuckin’ ass, I got a MasterCard,” he beams, excited at the chance to further overextend himself financially. That’s the American Dream right there: When you’re deep in debt, get some more credit and comfort yourself by buying some more stuff.
Scott: Borchardt dreams of becoming the next outsider-made-good, like George Romero or Tobe Hooper. But that ideal runs up against long-to-impossible odds, whether he’s a raw talent or not. (One thing about “Coven”: Borchardt is more than capable as a Romero imitator, and he has a good eye for converting Wisconsin’s bleak landscape into stark, slate-gray images.) The American Dream posits that we can do whatever we want if we work hard enough, but for people like Borchardt, chasing that dream comes at a devastating personal and financial cost. (The fact that Smith holds off through a lot of bad news before revealing that his subject has three children makes that fact hit like an anvil.) At the same time, the pursuit of long-shot success is what keeps Borchardt going, and there’s something inspiring about that. He won’t settle for vacuuming up the funeral hall or slinging newspapers every morning. He keeps the dream alive.
Nathan: Borchardt reminds me of a wonderful line from Ishtar, where Warren Beatty’s hapless dreamer admiringly tells his partner, “You’d rather have nothing than settle for less.” That’s Borchardt in a nutshell. He would rather clean up shit at a cemetery than compromise, or settle for an everyday life as a union factory worker. He’d arguably have a better chance at feeding his family if he became a factory worker—but we wouldn’t be writing about a documentary centered on a guy who accepted life’s limitations, and settled.
Matt: Another powerful moment along these same lines: the scene where the subjects watch Super Bowl XXXI, which was won, in a lucky bit of kismet, by the local Green Bay Packers. Football bills itself as “America’s Game,” and Smith specifically includes the moment near the end of the Super Bowl when Packers coach Mike Holmgren is carried off the field in glorious celebration. “This is what it’s all about,” Fox’s John Madden says. “Winning a championship.“ For the players, years or decades of hard work have paid off in this singular moment, the culmination of their American Dreams. And at that singular moment, a highly inebriated Borchardt is watching in his mother’s kitchen on a tiny television. “Every bitch-ass motherfucking factory worker is gonna go down like that, too! Bitch motherfucker!” Borchardt yells directly into Smith’s camera as he watches the Packers rejoice. He desperately wants his own Gatorade bath, but for now, he has to settle for another can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Tasha: I’m glad Matt mentioned that moment during the Super Bowl, because it’s a turning point in the movie for me. You guys seem mighty admiring about Borchardt’s refusal to settle for a go-nowhere factory job, but while it’s inspiring that he has artistic dreams and the knowledge and determination to see them through, there’s an ugly underbelly to his dreams as well: the stymied sullenness of a guy who’s never likely to be rich, or a big-time Hollywood director, and who seemed (as of the making of this movie) pretty unlikely to even fulfill his dreams of selling 3,000 copies of “Coven“ at $15 a pop.
Borchardt generally seems like a humble guy who’s aware of his flaws, but the film exposes a deep, hidden vein of entitlement and superiority, starting with his mother’s report that he dropped out of high school because he felt he wasn’t learning anything. It’s particularly keen at the Super Bowl gathering, when Borchardt tries to get Schank to buy him beer at the corner bar, and gets sulky and profane when his mother and Schank both balk. Never mind that Schank is trying to stay sober because of his history of addiction. Borchardt feels entitled to Schank’s scratch-off-ticket windfall, in a blinkered, selfish way that curdles when he’s denied. When his mother won’t drive him to the bar, and Schank won’t meet his eyes, he drinks canned beer and gets belligerent and sulky, and after that “bitch-ass motherfucker” line, when his mother protests his language, he hisses (at the screen? at his mom? at the world?), “I will never be like you, you fucking job-working, 40-hour motherfucker. You can go to fucking hell.” When his mother quietly tells the camera he’ll be fine once he sober up, he sneers at her and promises again that he’ll never be as ineffectual as she is, “wandering around the kitchen.” There’s a core of self-hatred in that moment, but an awful lot of contempt for the world, too, and a disturbingly raw anger at not being given something he hasn’t earned. It isn’t hard to see elements of that attitude toward other things in his life as well, from his relationships to his movies.
Nathan: I concede I have a soft spot for dreamers and the ferociously impractical, but let’s have a hand for the unsung heroes of American Movie: everyone who puts up with Mark Borchardt, particularly Mike Schank, whom I was ready to nominate for sainthood by the time I was done rewatching the movie. Sure, we can sneer at the coldness and insensitivity when Borchardt’s brother says maybe he’d be better off working in a factory, but we didn’t have to grow up listening to Borchardt drunkenly talk about what a big shot he’s going to be, and how sorry everyone will be that they rejected him. Borchardt definitely has a lot of anger, and it sometimes spills out in ugly ways. His false dichotomy between being a great artist or a soulless wage slave is patently unfair to the vast majority of the people in his life, reducing them to losers blindly following the herd, instead of everyday folks trying to make the best of the hands they were dealt. There’s definitely an ugly side to Borchardt’s show-business dreams, and I think American Movie makes the right move in acknowledging that dark side without dwelling on it. Because with a different edit and a different tone, American Movie could very well be unbearably bleak.
Tasha: At the same time, without comment, the movie has Schank there as a counter-narrative: Here’s someone from the same background as Borchardt, and with some of the same artistic drive, but he’s given up partying and moved into a Buddha-like stoner calm. It’s his music we hear on the soundtrack; Smith’s camera periodically observes him just quietly playing his guitar, seemingly content in himself. The emotional storms Borchardt is dealing with, Schank has already gotten through. He, and all the other people enthused and driven by Borchardt’s determination, help keep the movie from ever looking as bleak as it might.
MOVIES ABOUT MOVIEMAKING
Nathan: American Movie belongs in the canon of great movies about moviemaking, and from the vantage point of 2014, it already feels like a period piece. It’s a chronicle of a lost era when making movies was prohibitively expensive and much more difficult for upstarts, before YouTube made it a lot easier for newcomers to get their work seen. Finishing “Coven” represents a triumph in large part because Borchardt and his long-suffering collaborators have to work so hard for every usable frame.
Tasha: There’s terrific drama in the film’s exploration of why these guys feel so driven to make these movies, but there’s also plenty of archival interest in just watching the low-fi details of making a shoestring-budget movie in the 1990s: the endless takes with a non-cooperative Bill, the physical cutting and splicing of film stock, the cameraman awkwardly folded atop a sink, trying to get a shot of the sloppy combat going on below. But one of the most telling, interesting parts for me is the documentation of Borchardt finishing a long-stagnant movie by scrambling to get sound recorded for footage he’s already shot. Early in the film, we see footage of his character being bodily dragged through the mud by violent cultists. Late in the film, without unnecessary explanation, we see uncostumed people (including an eager young girl) dragging another person through the mud, with Borchardt chasing behind, recording the sound. It’s a great illustration of movie magic—the two events happened months apart, but they’ll be married for the final film—but it’s also a pretty hilarious illustration of the literalness of Borchardt’s filmmaking. There’s no attempt at making squelchy, dragging foley noises for the mics at home: He wants a noise like someone being dragged through the mud, so he finds a volunteer who’s willing to be dragged through the mud.
Scott: For anyone who has spent any time on student films or other DIY productions, the mishaps that take place during the filming of “Coven“—the variable performances from inexperienced locals, the attempted stunt work, the insert shots with mom serving as cinematographer—are entirely familiar territory, however much the specifics evince gales of laughter. (As many times as I’ve seen American Movie, the repeated attempts to ram an actor’s head through a cabinet door continue to bring tears to my eyes.) Point being, these scenes are often held up as examples of Smith laughing at Borchardt’s ineptitude, but these are common follies when working with the scant resources Borchardt and company have their disposal. They have to improvise, and sometimes those improvisations backfire. It isn’t cruel to laugh about it.
Nathan: One of the things that makes “Coven” such a strange proposition is that it’s intended to be commercial enough to raise funds for the ostensibly less commercial, less genre-based Northwestern, yet it’s an almost perversely uncommercial project in its own right. It’s a short film, made in black and white, with no stars or explicit sex, which are strikes one through four against the film’s commercial prospects. Yet Borchardt plunges ahead as if “Coven” is a surefire hit, which is the definition of delusion. And yet, thanks to American Movie, “Coven” made a profit, and Borchardt became a famous filmmaker (of sorts) after all, which proves that miracles really do come true, albeit not necessarily in the way the dreamer might expect.
Matt: …but he still hasn't made Northwestern.
As Scott mentioned, there’s sometimes a tendency to look down on Borchardt as an “amateur” filmmaker, and to laugh at his blunders or missteps. But rewatching the movie in 2014, it’s sort of mind-boggling how much stuff he and his crew do know, and how incredibly difficult indie filmmaking was in the days before digital technology was widely available. I would wager that a lot of young “professional” filmmakers working today wouldn't have any idea how to edit on a Steenbeck, or to check a celluloid print by hand. It seems to me that the “Coven” crew were actually a bit more skilled than they're given credit for.
Tasha: There are points in the film where Borchardt looks ineffectual or goofy or clownish, but whenever he talks about filmmaking, it’s tremendously clear that he’s well-versed in the technological aspects of what he’s doing. I really wish he had gotten around to making Northwestern, in part because it seems like a more interesting project than “Coven”—from the descriptions I’ve read, it sounds like an extremely American Movie-esque feature, with Borchardt as a small-town alcoholic struggling with family issues, and looking back on his dropout friends, who all wound up dead, in jail, or in other dire straits. American Movie makes Borchardt look like a small-time success at absolute best, but one reason Northwestern sounds fascinating is because it might have conclusively showed how, given his background, environment, and education, he rose to an impressive height compared to his peers, who lacked his driving ambition and know-how.
Scott: A list of favorite moments from American Movie would be quite long for me, but there’s a monologue that’s one of the movie’s biggest laughs, and it affirms Borchardt as a compelling, likable subject. Borchardt goes on about a regrettable night of drinking that took him away from putting the finishing touches on “Coven,” which had been languishing in a state of incompletion for years. Basically, he drunk-dialed the Hotel Hilton at Tangiers in Casablanca: “That’s pathetic, man! Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at 2 in the morning?” If he gives up his filmmaking dream, there’s a sense that he’d have more nights just like that.
Nathan: One of my favorite moments involves Schank as well: Borchardt is recording screams, and Schank—who has been the very picture of Zen-like tranquility throughout the film—unleashes an absolutely blood-curdling shriek that seems to emanate from deep within his soul. It’s almost as if Schank is exorcising some internal demon left over from the bad days. He isn’t just howling to help out a friend’s movie—he’s conjuring spirits.
Another favorite running joke we haven’t touched upon: Borchardt’s use of borderline incomprehensible technical jargon to make his homemade production seem a whole lot slicker and more professional than it actually is. This techno-jargon has a percussive rhythm all its own, and Borchardt seems to be reciting it as much for his own benefit as for the benefit of people he knows damn well have no idea what he’s talking about.
Tasha: Borchardt has such a colorful way of expressing himself. One of his major saving graces is the way he’ll casually say a previous version of his screenplay had “corny dialogue that would make the Pope weep,” or that he has to finish his film because “No one has ever paid admission to see an excuse.” But my favorite moments in the film all involve Schank: His amiably blank expression is funny all on its own, and his awkward laugh never fails to crack me up. The most memorable sequence in the film for me (apart from the attempt to put an actor’s head through a cabinet) is Schank’s story about how he overdosed on what was supposed to be LSD, but turned out to be PCP, and he woke up in the hospital after a short period of brain death… and immediately started checking his pockets “for the acid, because I was gonna drop my other three hits in the hospital, you know?” I’m glad Smith spends so much time just watching Schank play guitar, without comment, to emphasize that he has his own life, and his own artistic ambitions, entirely separate from Borchardt’s—and possibly more successful as well. Even the comic sidekick who makes unwise life choices can be an artist in his own right.
Matt: His score for the film is a good one, capturing the many moods of Midwestern life: I particularly like the frenetic heavy-metal-style portions that play over the montages of the frantic final editing of “Coven.” In general, Borchardt and Schank’s relationship is very touching, and a lovely testament to the power of a good friendship. The way they support each other is heart-warming; there may be disappointments in the world of cinema, but a good friend will never let you down.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote about American Movie and the power of dreaming. And tomorrow, Tasha Robinson talks to director Chris Smith about how the film looks to him 15 years later, and how it affected his career.