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Nashville Scene Man With a Movie Camera

Reeling in the new American dream in 'American Movie'

MARCH 13, 2000:  "American Movie" may be one of the more uninspired titles of the past year, at least in terms of conveying information or grabbing a potential viewer's attention. But there's something about its invocation of grand archetypes that fits this unpretentious documentary to a tee. For a generation of young citizens--call them Generation X, if you must--filmmaking has become the American dream. Success guarantees access to the beautiful people and an entourage of yes-men. You get to be an artist, an individual, a paragon of self-expression: a nonconformist. And there are no height or weight restrictions. If Kevin Smith can become a star behind the camera, so can every cosmetically challenged kid writing bitter screenplays while everyone else is at the prom.

Most young men (and let's face it, men are the trailblazers on this path) will eventually give in to reality and get that hated desk job, once it becomes clear that they're not among the chosen few. But Mark Borchardt, the protagonist of American Movie, is not most men. His story is inspiring, in a twisted way, because he has nothing but his art to give, and he persists in his efforts to give it despite continuous, overwhelming evidence that nobody wants it. Chris Smith, whose previous film efforts include the documentary-style American Job and cinematography on Michael Moore's The Big One, follows Borchardt and his long-suffering band of actors, crew, and family financiers for two years while Borchardt works on an autobiographical feature called Northwestern.

Or doesn't work on it, as it turns out. While waiting for the stars to align on that project, Borchardt returns to an unfinished horror movie called Coven (idiosyncratically pronounced with a long "o"). It's partly a strategy for financing Northwestern, but more poignantly, it's also the desperate act of a truly driven man, an artist who can't stand not to be working. Most of American Movie, despite its subtitle "The Making of Northwestern," is about the completion of Coven.

Coven is a film aficionado's worst nightmare of a low-budget horror film--exactly like all the post-Night of the Living Dead dreck teenagers staged in their backyards in the '70s. To film, process, edit, and transfer it to tape, Borchardt badgers and bullies everyone he knows for their money and time. The fact that, against all odds, he seems to retain some friends appears to result only from the blissfully drugged-out state of his closest compatriots. As Borchardt's Technicolor visions get boiled down to compromised best-we-could-do scenes, he's revealed as an insufferable idealist, constantly disappointed and disillusioned. His foil in Smith's documentary is his uncle, a crotchety oldster whose cynicism about his investment comes across as level-headed pragmatism. Nevertheless, the would-be auteur persuades him not only to throw money down the black hole of art, but also, in the film's funniest scene, to record some nonsense dialogue for Coven's opening.

Smith's documentary must walk the fine line between seeing the pathos in Borchardt's story--therefore taking him seriously as an artist and a dreamer--and poking fun at his lowbrow view of art. For American Movie, that line is monofilament-thin. A few times, Smith piles incident upon incident until no purpose but humor seems to be served. But for most of the film, Smith allows us to be surprised by Borchardt's drive and skill. He even forces us to reassess our dismissal of Coven; when we see it at the premiere, the scenes that looked so stupid being staged turn out to have a monochromatic, grainy elegance. For those of us whose American dreams appear on a movie screen, Smith's project is irresistible. --Donna Bowman


Space is the place

At least from the late 1950s on--when both the extent and limits of our knowledge about other worlds became clearer--American movies about space have usually been motivated by either xenophobia or colonialism. Either the unexplored universe is rife with danger, as in the Alien movies and their many offspring; or it's prime real estate, as in Outland, Total Recall, etc. What's often missing from both is a sense of wonder about life on other planets and the daunting vastness of the void.

When it comes to childlike wonder about the stars, or about anything, probably the last name that comes to mind is Brian DePalma. As a filmmaker, he's a resolute skeptic with a razzing wit and a delinquent's paranoia about authority. But his curiosity about widescreen space is limitless. That's a good thing for his science-fiction adventure Mission to Mars, which benefits from his brilliant use of the frame to evoke the sensations of space travel.

I don't want to oversell Mission to Mars, a retro space opera about a team of astronauts (led by Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Connie Nielsen) on a mission in the year 2020 to save a buddy (Don Cheadle) stranded by unknown forces on the face of Mars. Its screenplay (by an army of script doctors, not rocket scientists) mixes flat comic-book dialogue with ancient rocket-jockey clichs, and your tolerance for absurd contrivances may give out long before Sinise intuits a perplexing Martian code from a bag-full of scattered M&Ms. Intentionally or not, the movie often plays like a parody of a 1950s sci-fier, from the pseudoscientific gobbledygook to Armin Mueller-Stahl's standard-issue international scientist.

But DePalma has made a much more interesting and engaging movie from this material than he'll ever get credit for. He tempers the script's jingoism with a string of subversive sight gags that suggest the future is ruled by brand names, not government: The Stars and Stripes may fly on Mars, but so does the Pennzoil logo. Yet all human resources are properly dwarfed by the enormity of space and the desolate Martian landscape. With his cinematographer, Stephen H. Burum, DePalma plays tricks with our sense of scale from the ingenious first shot, which reveals a massive rocketship as a toy. That's indicative of the way he regards our size--and status--in the universe.

He also expands upon the playful sequences in 2001 demonstrating the allure of zero gravity. In one dazzling set piece, he confounds the viewer's sense of perspective by rotating the camera from one Escher-esque level to the next aboard a revolving space station. In a sense, outer space is the ideal DePalma world: There's no such thing as right side up.

As someone who values a silly movie with two or three amazing scenes over a work of steady and unexceptional competence, I'm inclined to cut Brian DePalma a lot of slack. DePalma treats scripts the way a rocket treats a launching pad, and the more unsteady a platform he takes off from, the more likely he is to crash and burn. In the attempt, though, he's always willing to stretch his talents and try something remarkable. Even though it gets more ridiculous as it goes along, I would still trade the high points of Mission to Mars for at least two-fifths of this year's dully conventional Best Picture nominees. It's worth falling on your face if for a few moments you can soar beyond the stars. --Jim Ridley


A boy and his dog

When beloved Southern author Willie Morris died last year, obituaries named three books as his lasting legacy--New York Days, North Toward Home, and My Dog Skip. The first one on the list is a memoir of Morris' days as the youngest editor in Harper's magazine history, forwarding the cause of "new journalism" and spreading Southern hospitality to Yankee country. The latter two are memoirs about Morris' youth in Mississippi--North Toward Home being a serious, lyrical examination of the post-World War II South, and My Dog Skip being a Mark Twain-style adventure story based around actual events in young Willie's life. All three Morris classics are pleasingly aimless, dropping recollections in a string that gets more meaningful as it grows ever longer.

The film version of My Dog Skip, directed by Arkansan Jay Russell from a script by Texan Gail Gilchrist, is first and foremost a family film, following a family film formula. The wonderful young actor Frankie Muniz (from TV's Malcolm in the Middle) plays the 10-year-old Willie, who is friendless and lonely until his parents get him a dog. The outgoing pup, dubbed Skipper, makes friends all over Yazoo City and encourages Willie to be more daring and have more fun. Later, of course, there are complications. Mean bootleggers, alcoholic neighbors, and a shocking act of violence conspire to separate boy from dog, at least until the film's tearful ending.

If this sounds sappy and obvious, well, some of the film is just that. But My Dog Skip also has a plainness that develops into poignancy. Morris' spirit--combined with Gilchrist's past as a newspaper columnist and Russell's work as a documentary filmmaker--keeps the film from lapsing too far into bullish sentimentality or stale melodrama. The story is more about what lingers in the mind from childhood, including the pain of learning that your boyhood hero isn't a man of steel, the surprise of discovering that your imposing father has a soft heart, and the joy of wasting an afternoon with your new friends and your dog. Even the inherent racism of '40s Mississippi is handled matter-of-factly, with a nod to the unfairness of the times but a hesitancy to demonize. There's a good chance that parents will appreciate the subtle aspects of the film more than their kids.

But kids should see My Dog Skip--at least if they're over 7 and can handle a few profanities and some scary moments. Speaking of what lingers in the mind from childhood, for me it tends to be movies, and the movies I remember most are the ones with a greater purpose than an afternoon's entertainment--the ones my folks dragged me to, rather than the ones I begged to see. These days, good live-action family films tend to die at the box office, overshadowed by the clothes-wearing mice and farting animated goo that youngsters find immediately attractive. More than anything, though, children enjoy being at the movies with their parents, and they'll enjoy just about whatever's put in front of them, so long as they're old enough to understand it. And if it's the right kind of movie, maybe they'll even recollect it, long after they've grown up and moved away. --Noel Murray


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