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The Boston Phoenix "Movie" Madness

Framing an American dream

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Any enthusiasm would-be independent filmmakers might have derived from the success of The Blair Witch Project could well be stifled after they've watched the first few minutes of Chris Smith's mordantly hilarious and strangely uplifting documentary American Movie. Mark Borchardt, 30-year-old high-school dropout and part time newspaper deliverer and cemetery groundskeeper, has wanted to be a filmmaker since he and his pals shot Super 8 shorts with titles like "More the Scarier 3" in the local graveyard. A tall, loping, T-shirted presence with long hair, Coke-bottle glasses, halfhearted facial hair, and the sadness of eternal adolescence, Mark talks about his career prospects while driving through his bleak north-side-of-Milwaukee neighborhood. "I'm a failure," he blathers, "I can't fail any more. I'm not going to drink and dream. I'm going to create and complete."

A few scenes later, as he goes through a mailbox full of tax, child-support, and phone bills, recounts his outstanding debts to family members, and crows with triumph when he comes across a new Visa card, and later still, when he expounds on his grandiose vision for his six-years-in-development autobiographical first feature, Northwestern, to a "production meeting" attended by bewildered-looking misfits, the obvious question arises: who does he think he's kidding?

Another, perhaps more germane, question might be: who does American Movie director Chris Smith think he's kidding? Is this supposed to be a satiric look at the delusions of grandeur in the talentless, in the mode of mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman? Or is it a genuine ode to an undiscovered, primitive genius? Borchardt is too savvy for the former, too messed-up for the latter. And Smith's own involvement hardly allows for Olympian irony -- he himself is a desperately aspiring filmmaker, one whose commitment of so much time and effort in profiling an even more desperate filmmaker suggests a bizarre self-reflexivity. In other words, American Movie is as much about Smith's American movie as it is about Borchardt's.

Nonetheless, the absurdities of Borchardt's quest speak for themselves. As it becomes clear that Northwestern is not about to happen -- no script, no money, no cast, and as a sardonic cut during another "production meeting" shows, no backers -- Borchardt resorts to a fallback plan. He decides to finish "Coven" (the correct pronunciation of the word sparks one of the production's milder controversies), a half-hour short about a recovery group with Satanic ambitions. Marketing this directly to video, Borchardt hopes to sell 3000 units at $14.95 and raise enough money to resume his epic.

What follows is like Ed Wood without the angora, as Borchardt is joined by his cast and crew of eccentrics to labor heroically and absurdly with marginal resources to create and complete "Coven." Among those helping out are some of the most fascinating characters in any film this year. Like childhood friend Mike Schank, whose bearded, Goth-like appearance, glazed stare, and nervous giggle conceal a canny innocence forged by years of drug abuse (his scratchy but serene classical-guitar playing provides American Movie's soundtrack). Or Mark's mother, Monica, whose Swedish-accented common sense doesn't stop her from pitching in when her son needs a hooded extra to help drag him repeatedly through an icy swamp for a key scene. Then there's Mark's savior and memento mori, Uncle Bill, an 80-year-old moribund tightwad living in a trailer park, from whom Mark is trying to extract money by promising him fame and riches as "executive producer."

If Mark is a B version of Horatio Alger, Uncle Bill is Samuel Beckett by way of Tobe Hooper. Revenant-like, ranting, utterly negative, he mocks Mark's efforts even as he, with seeming bemusement, underwrites them. One of American Movie's funniest and most moving scenes has Mark trying to loop Uncle Bill's lines for his cameo in "Coven." "It's all right! It's okay! There's something to live for! Jesus told me so!" After 30 or so takes, Uncle Bill gives up.

But not Mark Borchardt. Even after a doctored cabinet door fails to break through when he rams an actor's head repeatedly into it, he persists. As family members, friends, and associates reiterate in interviews, Mark's biggest asset, besides his big mouth, is his stubbornness. Neither, as Smith suggests, is Borchardt without talent. Asked what his influences are, Borchardt notes Dawn of the Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's just another cheap laugh at Borchardt's expense until he points out that it's those films' use of bleak landscape that inspires him. And the shots from the finished "Coven" that follow show that, in fact, Borchardt does have an eye and at least as much cinematic competence as Chris, or even Kevin, Smith.

See for yourself when "Coven" screens at midnight at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Friday and Saturday (December 17 and 18), or do Borchardt a favor and order a copy of the video through his Web site. Whether Northwestern will ever see the screen or be worth the wait is problematic, but the ordeal and the vision behind it, as recorded in Smith's movie, remain a rueful, uproarious version of the American Dream.

Persistence of vision

One question left hanging in American Movie is whether Mark Borchardt, the beleaguered auteur featured in Chris Smith's documentary, ever paid his electric bill.

"Not yet," says Borchardt. "I got it right in my baggage sitting there."

In general, though, things have been looking up for both Borchardt and Smith as American Movie opens in theaters across the country after four years of labor. It started when Smith and his partner and producer, Sarah Price, were looking for another project after the modest success of their first feature, American Job.

"I met Mark and one thing led to another and it's four years later sitting at this table," says Smith. "I thought it was a compelling story and, when I really got to meet his friends and family, a great opportunity to make a film that I could believe in. I couldn't turn it down, but at the same time it wasn't what I wanted to do because of the subject matter -- you tell people you're making a movie about someone making a movie and they say, good luck -- and also because documentaries are so time-intensive."

Borchardt is glad they took on the project. "I really trusted Chris and Sarah. They weren't intrusive or anything like that. They also provided a sense of security and comfort because filmmaking is such a desperate, lonely process. To have Chris and Sarah there also going through the same painful, frustrating experience at the same time we were shooting the film, it was this parallelity from them."

Did Borchardt have any regrets when he saw the finished product, especially with audiences? Did he feel at times people were laughing at, not with him? "I'm completely indifferent to it. If people find it funny, I don't care. Life is short. I'm living it."

Smith thinks the laughter is more of the "with" than "at" kind. "The humor is situational. It's not so much that you're laughing at these people but at these situations that Mark gets himself into by having his mom as a cinematographer, or Mike Schank as his right-hand man, or Uncle Bill as his investor. We showed the film to them before we released it to the public, and as long they were comfortable with it, it was fine for us."

Far from holding Borchardt in disdain, Smith has more respect for him than for some of the opportunists taking advantage of the current hot indie market. "It's important to figure out what you want to say before you jump into making a film, and that should be the motivation rather than going to the Toronto Film Festival and parties. Mark had been making films since he was 12. It's a different type of motivation where there's this passion from people even though they may make crude films."

"Actually, I started drinking when I was 12 and filming when I was 14," notes Borchardt. "I always thought Hollywood movies were dumb and corny. I still do, but when I saw Close Encounters, that was the first time I ever saw a ranch house in a film, the type of house that I live in. So I thought I could put my own life on film. It wasn't because I'd seen Slacker. I was doing this years before that."

And his goal of selling 3000 copies of "Coven"?

"I've sold about 350. But there's wheels that are going to start turning. I will make 3000. You can count on that."

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